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Reflections on the Counter-Islamophobia Kit

A few weeks ago, I attended the Scottish launch of the Islamic Human Rights Commission’s Counter-Islamophobia Kit, hosted by Scotland Against Criminalising Communities.

Funded by the European Commission, the two-year project examines dominant narratives and counter-narratives of Islamophobia, as well as the main legal and policy interventions across eight different European countries: Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Portugal and the United Kingdom. The toolkit can be found here and it is complemented by an extensive blog.

Adopting a European approach is valuable as it reminds us that Islamophobia is not an isolated problem and a collective, international movement against Islamophobia is needed. At the Scottish launch, the panel discussed the drawbacks of the term “Islamophobia” and acknowledged that it is much more than an expression of fear and hate as the word suggests. Rather, it is a particular type of racism that targets perceived “Muslimness.” While the term “anti-Muslim racism” is perhaps more accurate and critical of systems of oppression (i.e. white supremacy), “Islamophobia” is understood more widely and so, for the purpose of this toolkit and this blog post, we will make do with that word.

I found it particularly useful to hear and read about the project’s deconstruction and reconstruction of ten dominant narratives of Islamophobia. As a strong advocate of Critical Race Theory, I was glad to see that the project highlights the value of counter-narratives in challenging racism. According to Critical Race Theory, counter-narratives to dominant narratives that place white people, and in this case non-Muslims, at the centre have the potential to empower marginalised people and inform political action. I was also pleased to see that the project emphasises that it is not just up to Muslim communities to humanise themselves for the mainstream. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure counter-narratives are present across all public sectors. While the project documents several fascinating European grassroots movements that create counter-narratives in the eight countries, it is clear that governments are falling far behind in that respect.

Another benefit of this toolkit is that it breaks Islamophobia down into narratives and thus it moves away from people's intentions and away from the binary of "bad" racist people and "good" progressive people. Instead of focusing on the individual and their racist or non-racist beliefs, the Counter-Islamophobia Kit presents dominant narratives that each one of us may have internalised without really being aware of it. I am sure that many non-Muslim, well-intentioned people who believe they are not racist are influenced by the sixth narrative (Islam promotes gender inequality). It is a narrative that I myself have had to unlearn, having been influenced by white feminism and dominant media. Therefore, I would encourage anti-racist activists to examine all the narratives more closely to enhance their anti-racist education.

In a secondary school setting, some parts of this toolkit could be explored further with pupils in a Modern Studies, PSE, RMPS, History, Arts and English. Regardless of sector and subject, every educator would benefit from reflecting on their own practice using this toolkit. The set of different strategies are meant to provide options to consider depending on the situation. After all, there will never be a single silver bullet against racism. As with any toolkit, the success of each strategy depends on the critical reflection of the practitioner. As a non-Muslim ally, I do my best to facilitate this reflection by breaking down the counter-narratives identified in the toolkit, the equivalent dominant narratives and suggested strategies.

1. Challenging and contextualising constructions of “Muslim threat”

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims represent a threat to security.

Strategies: problematising securisation narratives via NGOs, media and academic discourse.

As an educator that has been trained to adhere to the Prevent extremism strategy in Scotland, I can confirm that the whole premise of the counter-terrorism policy reinforces the myth that Muslims represent a threat to security. While the facilitator of the training was quick to suggest that Prevent could also be used to refer young people who display sectarian tendencies, the only video that was shown presented a young, brown Muslim boy being drawn to Islamic extremism (the type of story that would already be in everybody’s mind considering the amount of Islamophobic media that is force-fed every day). Individual educators need to think more critically about their judgement and treatment of Muslim pupils, especially if they are subjected to the Prevent duties. The Prevent strategy’s dangerous impacts on Muslim families are so extensive that there is an organisation - Prevent Watch - dedicated to documenting their stories and supporting families. From a toddler being reported by their teacher for mispronouncing cucumber ("cooker bomb"), to a S5 pupil being penalised for writing a persuasive essay about the conflict in Syria, it is clear that Prevent is doing more harm than good.

At the panel discussion for the toolkit, Khadija Mohammed called upon non-Muslim educators to reflect on the implications of the dominant "Muslim threat" narrative and how it might be affecting their own pupils' mental health and confidence in schools. A friend of mine was surprised when a pupil wrote in a pen pal letter that terrorism had nothing to do with religion and Islam does not promote violence. My friend thought this comment was odd and out of the blue since it had nothing to do with the usual "getting to know you" comments S1 pupils tend to write to their pen pals. However, such comments reveal some of the insecurities and constant self-justification Muslim pupils deal with in their daily interactions as they navigate dominant narratives about their identity. In his poem See Something Say Something, spoken word artist Usaama Minhas expresses his experiences of having to navigate racist surveillance policies and the "Muslims as threat" narrative etched in the public psyche.

2. Building an inclusive nation: exclusive and discriminatory national projects

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims cannot assimilate into the imagined nation.

Strategies: challenging normative Islamophobic attitudes via re-education. Challenging the media reproduction of Islamophobic narratives.

Educators need to question what it means to be Scottish and British. What are Scottish and British values? Are they fixed, exclusive identities or do they have room for re-invention and evolution? Many people of colour and Muslims in Britain constantly grapple with these questions and the answer is never straight-forward. Afua Hirsch’s recent book Brit-ish comes to my mind as she explores her own struggles with her identity as a black British woman. Riz Ahmed's music video Englistan asserts brown Muslim Britishness while providing a powerful critique of racist narratives that position Britishness as fixed, white and non-Muslim.

It is worth considering how the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence attempts to focus on local, Scottish texts and heritage. There is a danger of reproducing a discriminatory, exclusive imagined Scottishness which leaves little room for a Scotland that was complicit in British colonisation and a Scotland that is always evolving as waves of migration wash onto its shores over the centuries. Surely, Scotland’s complicity in British colonisation would mean that a lot of Common Wealth stories should be included as part of the Curriculum for Excellence. So many Scottish heritage and historical monuments are stained by colonisation. For example, the paisley is an Iranian/Islamic/South Asain design and the eponymous town's history is intricately connected to Muslim history. Even the life of Robert Burns, the National Bard, was closely tied to the British colonies; the on-going project Jamaica Sings Burns rekindles this connection. And so, we should remind ourselves that national histories are intimately intertwined with many Islamic cultures. I would suggest using the Runnymede Trust’s valuable teaching resource, Our Migration Story, to challenge narrow and restrictive perceptions of Scottish and British identity in the curriculum.

3. Emphasising cultural compatibility and conviviality: challenging the narrative of separation and ethnic groups

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims constitute a demographic threat and pose the risk of proseltysation of the native population.

Strategies: championing inter-community work, such as the Salam-Shalom initiative in Germany.

In her essay on the Counter-Islamophobia blog, The Wrong Side of Britishness, Merali argues that there is no winning for Muslims navigating dominant racist narratives as Britishness is almost unattainable for them. On the one hand, they are accused of not "integrating," as Tony Blair recently suggested about migrants and failed multiculturalism. On the other hand, when they do assimilate, they are accused of "taking over," and posing a demographic threat.

Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai

As educators, we need to be wary of these contradictory narratives and challenge them as much as possible. The toolkit suggests emphasising the cultural compatibility of Islam with European citizenship and democracy and acknowledgement of the contribution of Islam to European civilisation. This could be done by increasing Muslim representation in the curriculum and ensuring that pupils are exposed to all the positive contributions to humanity made by Muslims. This can be as simple as learning about talented mathematicians, English words with Arabic roots and Muslim human rights activists. The key is to ensure that these representations are regular in your teaching and not mere tokens to tick the diversity box. As anti-racist educators, we need to make the effort to regularly research, learn, update and share our teaching materials.

4. Elaborating plurality: challenging narratives of Muslim singularity

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam is based on theocracy and Muslims follow this blindly and seek to install this in the given context.

Strategies: normalising Muslim political engagement via specific examples and highlighting diversity between Muslims.

Anti-racist educators need to learn about and acknowledge Muslim plurality and heterogeneity. This involves highlighting that there are endless ways of “being” Muslim, by seeking out multiple Muslim voices and interpretations of Islam. With simple Google searches just at the tip of our fingers, there is no reason for not being able to find Muslim plurality to inspire your lessons. Reading literature that allows Muslims to express themselves can also be transformational in one's understanding of Muslim plurality. From Sufi poetry to modern Muslim rap, there is plenty to learn from. The following words challenge many Islamophobic narratives and they are taken from Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan's essay 'When They Find You Unpalatable and Abrasive, that is When You're Doing It Right' in A Fly Girl's Guide to University:

British poet and activist, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan

"When I called myself a feminist, I was looking for a specific form of feminism and a specific notion of liberation which is inherent in my submission to Allah (Islam). To me, Islam makes resistance to oppression of every kind incumbent upon a worshipper. In that sense it is the most holistic approach to liberation I am aware of. Its potential is a vision of fundamental justice beginning with the prioritisation of emancipation from all forms of oppression. Whether others agree or not, my own understanding of the Quran, shari'ah and the sunnah, and my ongoing learning about fiqh (interpretation), and the works of previous scholars, lead me to this conclusion. On this basis, Islam is innately feminist in that worshipping Allah entails the pursuit of justice and liberation."

5. Building inclusive futures

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims pose a threat to the imagined national identity.

Strategies: challenging exclusion of Muslims from education.

Again, educators need to challenge the exclusion of Muslim pupils from education caused by Prevent. In Scotland, it is every teacher's duty to Get It Right For Every Child and this needs to be considered through a racial lens. Muslim pupils should not have to be held to account and defend their humanity whenever there is an Islamic terrorist attack. As highlighted earlier, the curriculum should include varied and positive representations of Islam and Muslim people. Muslim pupils need to see themselves in their curriculum. And even if you don't teach any Muslim pupils, non-Muslim pupils need be exposed to such representations to counteract negative preconceptions they will inevitably learn from the abundant Islamophobic media. In class, think about the texts you choose, the displays in your classroom: are any of these excluding Muslims or reinforcing negative stereotypes? How accommodating is your education provision for pupils fasting during Ramadan? Such questions should ideally be proactive reflections rather than reactive after-thoughts after parental complaints.

6. Challenging narratives of sexism

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims promote and practise gender inequality.

Strategies: championing Muslim feminist initiatives.

This dominant narrative of sexism is one that is often reinforced by white feminist movements that focus on "saving" Muslim women from dangerous practices of Islam (usually abroad) while ignoring the voices of Muslim women in Britain. By all means, there are many Muslim women who face oppression in some Islamic countries, but it needs to be acknowledged that these are not problems inherent to Islam. These are problems caused by patriarchy, a world-wide problem. British Muslim feminist, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan eloquently defends this perspective in her Ted Talk, I'm Bored of Talking about Muslim Women. Moreover, the collection of essays, It's Not About the Burqa, creates a powerful counter-narrative of multiple female Muslim voices in modern Britain.

7. Deracialising the state: challenging institutional narratives

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims are essentially inherently different to the national norm – ontological diversity

Strategies: normalising Muslims as part of society and pursuing legal measures to counter institutionalised Islamophobia.

This counter-narrative ties in closely to the previous counter-narratives and my reflections on Prevent. As individual anti-racist teachers, it is important to be critical of racist policies and of state racism. This is where the work of NGOs, trade unions and anti-racist grassroots organisations (such as CRER, WSREC, SAMEE and Stand Up to Racism) is vital. British rapper and activist Kareem Dennis (aka Lowkey) provides insightful critiques of institutionalised Islamophobia in Britain and he laments the racism children experience in Britain due to inadequate policies in his new song, Islamophobic Lullabies.

8. Emphasising the humanity and normalisation of Muslims: challenging narratives of division

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims are inherently violent

Strategies: highlighting Muslim non-violence

At the Scottish launch of the toolkit, Merali explained that the national conversation and the national story need to recognise Muslims’ humanity and independent agency. Muslims should be included regardless and without conditions. After Islamic terrorist attacks, Muslims are always expected to prove their humanity. Too often, Muslims are expected to prove themselves as aspiring model minorities, by blending in, becoming more liberal and assimilating (i.e. ditching the hijab, shaving the beard, eating bacon and drinking beer). And if they don't, they are at risk of public shaming and national neglect, as was the case with Shamima Begum's revoked citizenship and the unnecessary death of her baby. In her famous poem, This Is Not a Humanising Poem, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan strongly rejects the narrative that Muslims need to humanise themselves for others to accept them. Muslim humanity should not be at stake in the first place. But unfortunately it often is, so it is imperative that non-Muslim allies and governments react. Procedures should be put in place to hold the media and politicians accountable for spreading Islamophobic narratives. Educators should do everything they can to teach pupils that humanity is never conditional. After all, when one group's humanity is at stake, we all risk losing our humanity.

9. Creating Muslim spaces

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims are incomplete citizens – religious identity precedes national belonging.

Strategies: normalising Muslim spaces in the local and national community.

Building safe spaces in which Muslims can unapologetically exist is essential for the production of more counter-narratives and for their livelihood. Safe spaces should be created for Muslims to take control of their stories, gain strength and develop autonomy. In schools, this can work through affinity groups, religious assemblies, as well as the classroom spaces created by educators who ensure that every pupil is nurtured. In creating these safe spaces, it is equally important that non-Muslim people do not fall into the "white saviour" mind-set. We should not merely be acting out of benevolence, but rather out of a sense of social justice and responsibility. Furthermore, Muslim spaces are not for non-Muslim to culturally appropriate and fetishise, as it tends to happen when white non-Muslim people decide to wear a hijab for a day - a naive mistake that I could easily picture happening in many schools. Instead, we should hope to see more Muslim safe spaces like Amina, the Muslim Women's Resource Centre, that thrive and autonomously begin to reach out to non-Muslims by supporting women of other faiths.

10. Challenging distorted representations: verity and voice

Challenging the dominant narrative: Islam and Muslims are inherently homophobic/illiberal.

Strategies: promoting arts-based counter-Islamophobic work by Muslims.

Just like the sixth dominant narrative of sexism, this dominant narrative of homophobia can be challenged by emphasising Muslim plurality and magnifying queer Muslim voices. The Counter-Islamophobia Kit suggests promoting arts-based work, such as Samra Habib's photography. Samra Habib travels through North America and Europe to take portraits of LGBT+ Muslims willing to share their stories and make their presence known. For many of these queer Muslims, simply existing is a brave act of resistance and a powerful counter-narrative to both queerphobic and Islamophobic narratives. Her photography project led to the publication of her memoir, We Have Always Been Here, which documents her life as a queer Ahmadi Muslim growing up in Pakistan and moving to Canada as a refugee with her family. Sharing such humanising stories through art with pupils can be incredibly liberating for those who identify as LGBT+ and/or Muslim. Voices like Samra Habib's can truly transform one's perception and understanding of what it means to be Muslim.



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