‘Children as young as 10 are among those racially abusing Muslims in Britain’, shouted the Daily Mail last week; ‘Women targeted in rising tide of attacks on Muslims’, asserted the Observer; ‘Action needed to tackle “rampant” Islamophobia on social media’, urged the Metro. It is apt, perhaps, that on the ninth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, the spectre of Islamophobia has once again been looming large in the UK media. After all, the assumption that in Britain, and in the West in general, anti-Muslim sentiment is on the Mosque-burning, veil-ripping march has been one of the most persistent political and cultural narratives over the past decade or so.
Here’s Massoud Sahdjareh of the Islamic Human Rights Commission speaking in 2000: ‘Muslims in Britain face the same fate this century as Jews in Europe in the last.’ Here’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a commentator for the Independent, writing a few days after 9/11: ‘We brace ourselves again for a period of bile and beatings and hate mail… Islamophobia will once more erupt worldwide and be legitimised by some political leaders. It is okay to hate a Muslim again.’ Here’s former Birmingham City councillor Salma Yaqoob writing in the Guardian in 2006: ‘[Muslims in Britain] are subject to attacks reminiscent of the gathering storm of anti-Semitism in the first decades of the last century.’
Again and again, the idea of a seething, popular mass of anti-Muslim sentiment is invoked by politicos and pundits (some Muslim, some not). And again and again, this seething, popular mass of anti-Muslim sentiment never actually shows its face. The not-very-racist reality has consistently failed to live up to the burning-and-bigoted hype.
Just look back: after every terrorist attack carried out by assorted jihad-espousing, al-Qaeda fanboys, there has been no shortage of politicians, commentators and so-called community leaders warning of an imminent surge in anti-Muslim attacks. And yet each time, the surge never came. A few months after 9/11, for instance, a spokesman for London’s Metropolitan Police told spiked: ‘There isn’t really evidence of an increase [in assaults against Muslims].’ Again, in the year after the 7/7 bombings, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that, out of the 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime, just 18 of them were against Muslims (or ‘perceived’ Muslims) – a decline from 23 anti-Muslim crimes in 2004-2005.
Even the recent headlines about a rise in Islamophobia following the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two wannabe jihadists are largely based on a rather dubious source called Tell Mama (an acronym for ‘measuring anti-Muslim attacks’). For those who don’t know, Tell Mama first made the news last summer when it claimed that there had been over 200 ‘Islamophobic incidents’ in the weeks following the Woolwich killing. ‘The scale of the backlash is astounding’, Tell Mama’s founder, Fiyaz Mughal, told the BBC at the time. Yet, what Tell Mama didn’t reveal was that several reports were unverified, the vast majority of ‘Islamphobic incidents’ consisted of postings on social media (some of which didn’t even originate in the UK), and no one who was involved in a real-world attack had required medical attention. The whole operation, from the conflation of rude tweets with attempts to set fire to mosques to the willingness to take reports at face value, looked like a desperate attempt to create the problem of Islamophobia out of resentment-thin air. Which is largely what it was.