MEND on pushing back against anti-Muslim narratives

Would you get involved in politics and media organisations, when they do not look like you and stereotypes your community? Definitely no, especially when both of these sectors see a real lack of representation by both Muslims and other minority communities, yet are also known to perpetuate negative stereotypes, especially when it comes to rhetoric towards the Muslim community.

At MEND – Muslim Engagement and Development, we are trying hard in a range of ways to increase Muslim participation in British media and politics, while we are working through an extensive programme to tackle Islamophobia in the UK.

Islamophobia passes what Baroness Sayeeda Warsi calls the ‘dinner table test’, meaning it is still treated as a socially acceptable form of prejudice. More often than not, this rhetoric emanates from the centres of right-wing media and political power.

As a result, Muslims of all ages, but particularly young Muslims who make up 50% of the Muslim population, find themselves feeling disenfranchised and disengaging with politics. This is where MEND seeks to push back against divisive and often racist narratives propagated against Muslims, whilst also working to ensure we have a seat at the table in the halls of power.

Looking specifically at the media, we can see that only 0.4% of journalists in the UK come from a Muslim background. This is worrying given that Muslims make up around 6.5% of the total population in the UK.

What this shows us it that under-representation is a huge problem within the industry but is this any surprise given that British media reports on Muslims from right-wing tabloids are known to have contributed to the rise of Islamophobia in the UK.

It is important for media outlets to engage proportionately and appropriately with the Muslim community, but also acknowledge that we are not one homogeneous group as we are often portrayed.

As a woman, I saw the prejudicial treatment was further compounded for Muslim women who often face further structural inequalities due to their gender. As a Muslim, you are 3 times less likely to be called for a job interview simply for having a Muslim sounding name.

However, as a woman you are more likely to be asked about your family situation and childcare responsibilities at an interview than a white, non-Muslim counterpart. It is worth trying to imagine a white non-Muslim man being asked the same question.

Surely, the response would evoke feelings of annoyance, frustration and being unable to understand how the question is relevant at all. Sadly, for Muslim women, this line of questioning during an interview has come to be expected. Knowing that this behaviour is often inevitable, Muslim women are prepared to respond to it and are less likely to speak up in the workplace about their rights and needs.

This means that women who are already facing institutionalised Islamophobia have little voice to counter it. Even if Muslim women are able to get their foot in the door, we find that the journey can be short-lived as few Muslim women are being promoted to higher positions.

However, it is not just in the workplace that women face Islamophobia. Studies have shown that Muslim women, especially visibly Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab, are more likely to face an Islamophobic attack on the street than their male counterparts, where their attackers are likely to be non-Muslim and male. The presumption can only be that such men view Muslim women as an easy target, and these attacks have led many women to be fearful of leaving their own homes and feeling like they are not a part of wider society.

This is why I do the work that I do. Do I claim to speak for all Muslim women? No, as I have said Muslims are not one large monolithic group. We are diverse and we are all individuals, but in the work that I do I seek to give those who need it a voice. I look to encourage other Muslim women to take up roles that will empower both them and their communities, helping to tackle discrimination and inequality in our society.

However, this is not an easy role. One of the major reasons for this is that in various political and community spaces where issues such as Islamophobia, racism or inter-faith work are discussed, it is a real struggle to get proper Muslim grassroots opinions heard.

Muslim grassroots organisations are often not invited or overlooked, either by design, thinking that they have nothing meaningful to contribute, or by accident, reflecting how they are viewed by the establishment. Encouragingly however, it is often non-Muslim faith groups that notice this absence and campaign for us to be included.

Such gatekeeping that actively excludes Muslim voices needs to be stopped, everyone must be able to be part of the conversations in a democratic society.

Of course, once Muslim groups are at the table this has a positive knock-on effect for other Muslim organisations to be invited. Inter-group working is thus vital to ensure we all work together to ensure that every organisation who needs it has a seat at the table.

There will only be positive change when minority communities such as Muslims have a voice and space to speak on issues that matter to them in civic and political society.

This will help lead to positive change where the media, politicians and other places of power, start to see Muslims, especially Muslim women, as individuals with agency, and stop viewing them through the clouded lens of Islamophobia.

The differential treatment that Muslims face can have a catastrophic effect on society. We can already see this with 50% of the Muslim community in the UK living beneath the poverty line as opposed to 18% of wider society.

It is time we start joining the dots and seeing the real cost of Islamophobia to the Muslim community. It is time we start to look at people as individuals and see the reality of what individuals have to bear in their everyday lives, simply for being Muslim. Then we can begin to build a fairer society for all.

Islamophobia passes what Baroness Sayeeda Warsi calls the ‘dinner table test’, meaning it is still treated as a socially acceptable form of prejudice. More often than not, this rhetoric emanates from the centres of right-wing media and political power.

This article is reproduced courtesy of Muslim Charities Forum: The Forum 06 Inspiring Stories: The Blessings Of The Sisters – Muslim Charities Forum

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