The sixth annual IHRC/SACC Islamophobia Conference took place on 14 December 2019 with concurrent events in London and Glasgow. This year's conferences focussed on the relationship between Islamophobia and the widely-noted shrinkage of civil society space.
In January 2018, a report by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) hit out at governments for creating a hostile environment for civil society organisations (CSOs). A briefing by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) a year later built on the report from a Muslim perspective, highlighting some of the ways that governments and those opposed to Muslim participation have marginalised authentic CSOs rooted in the Muslim community.
The conferences came just two days after the Tory victory in the UK general election. For many people attending the Glasgow conference this represented a defeat, or at the very least a serious setback, for the anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics that brought us together. The smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn was referred to repeatedly by the speakers and by contributors from the floor.
The Glasgow conference began with workshops where conference participants discussed, off the record, their experiences and views. Participants in the workshop led by Moazzam Begg included an off-duty police officer, a teacher, an academic of Serb origin and a former councillor.
After the workshops the conference came together for two live-streamed plenary sessions.
First Plenary - Palestine and Other Taboos
The first plenary was on Palestine and other taboos - How Islamophobia, accusations of extremism and accusations of bad faith (including anti-semitism) limit discussion of Palestine and other issues. The speakers on this panel were Mick Napier (Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign), Ibtihal Ramadan (researcher at the University of Edinburgh and former tertiary teacher in the Palestinian occupied territories), Nargess Moballeghi (journalist) and Omar Afzal (Muslim Council of Scotland). The discussion was chaired by Richard Haley (SACC).
Mick Napier (Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign) spoke first. Summing up his contribution, he said [from 17m 27s in the video above]:
A successful attack is something we need to learn from
"This is a discussion about closing down public space and I think the anti-semitism [witch-hunt] – that madness – is an example of a successful effort to shut down public space. Edinburgh churches refused a black Jewish woman the right to speak because she’s an ‘anti-semite’1. The most prestigious pro-Palestine speaker you’ll probably find on the planet, a UN rapporteur, came to speak in Edinburgh on the search for a just solution in Palestine and he was banned because he was too controversial2.
Friends, a successful attack is something we need to learn from: how you stand your ground firmly and don’t get wrong-footed. I fear that this successful attack by the state, by the government, will give them heart and they’ll be looking at parallel attacks in the area of Islamophobia to make certain thoughts unthinkable and certain thoughts criminalised."
Ibtihal Ramadan (researcher at the University of Edinburgh) spoke next, saying [from 21m 09s in the video above]:
"I follow the focus of Salman Sayyid and his definition of Islamophobia… It’s a global issue about Muslims' political normalisation beyond the West as well as the West. It is about silencing Muslim autonomy across the globe. And this is very important in terms of how we look at Islamophobia and how Islamophobia is linked to silencing any discussion about Palestine. Because Palestinian people and the cause of Palestine is not located in the UK. Geographically it’s not affected by local police here but has to do with the UK and western international policies.…."
We need to think about Islamophobia as an ideology
"It [Islamophobia] is triggered by a Western fear. There is this common idea of Islamophobia as a phobia, an irrational fear. It’s a rational fear actually. This has been distracting the whole discussion about Islamophobia, the idea of phobia. It’s a western fear of the constructive effect Islam can have on trans-cultural processes in a multi-cultural society in the UK or outside the UK but also through the rise of Muslim political mobilisation and agency in the West and beyond the West. This fear has an ideology so we need to think about Islamophobia as an ideology. It’s not just targeting a lady with a hijab or shouting at someone in the street. It’s not about popular racism. No, it’s beyond that.
This fear has revived an ideology which has been latent during the time that Muslims showed complete submission and subservience to the global western order that controls the patterns of thoughts and meanings … that informs a global consensus of Muslims and Islam as the ultimate enemy."
She went on to talk about the impact of Islamophobia on discourse about Palestine and the Islamophobic character of the Sisi regime in Egypt.
Nargess Moballeghi (journalist) began by highlighting the diversification of the media in the period after she started as a student journalist in 2003. She said [38m 40s in the video]:
"The 2009 [Gaza] war was a pivotal moment. Aljazeera and Press TV were both on Skybox at that time, so literally for the first time people who were flicking through the news stations at the end of the evening over dinner or after work, they probably tuned in to the BBC, they probably saw a small snippet about what was happening, usually with an Israeli official, anf if they just went back two channels they suddenly saw something else. Aljazeera and Press TV were both doing 24-hour coverage. They were using local journalists on the ground inside Gaza and viewers saw two different stories that didn’t add up and they started questioning the coverage.
In 2009 social media was popular but it was still note news-centric. Even twitter at that stage was not news-centric. That changed by the time by the we got to the 2014 Gaza war…. Social media had almost become the news-cycle. A lot of the time the mainstream media were either playing catchup or reluctantly, very reluctantly, being forced to concede at least some space on the issue. So it felt at that time that the unbalanced editorial that used to dictate what we think had been flipped...
"This journey, this new journalistic eco-system has been positive for the Palestinian cause and it has been positive to exponentially grow support for Palestinians in countries like Britain. That is exactly why there has been such a vicious fight back.
The future is bright but we need to be very, very careful about what is happening right now because the future is not going to come easily and many people are going to suffer. It’s very difficult to be hopeful when we’ve just had what feels like a bad dream. But we need to understand that this is not a resurgence, it’s a last desperate attempt [by the right]. We need to place the moment we’re in now along a trajectory and recognise that that trajectory is going in a positive direction."
Omar Afzal (Muslim Council of Scotland) began by talking about the de-legitimisation that Jeremy Corbyn had faced. He said [53m 50s in the video]:
"That process is similar to what some civil society organisations are going through when we are vocal on issues such as Palestine, Kashmir, Prevent, Schedule 7. There are four broad areas that I wanted to talk about. The first is to understand Islamophobia as an industry…
The other thing that’s interesting to note is the link of the Islamophobia industry with the weapons industry… To be able to bomb people on the other side of the world that you’ve got no connection with you’ve got to dehumanise them.
The second part is Muslim organisations being displaced by gatekeepers… Up here in Scotland an organisation like MCS – which is almost like a mirror of the MCB – would have their voices drowned out by members of the Third Sector and specifically by organisations that have had some kind of CVE or Prevent funding and would attempt to be more agreeable with the official line as opposed to something like MCS that would be more vocal in opposition."
Islamophobia is a global industry
Summing up, Omar said:
"All this - the political environment, gatekeeping, the use of the interfaith platform, the media environment, Islamophobia being not just a phenomenon that lives in the streets but actually a global industry - all this leads to the inability of some representative organisations to effectively represent the community on a number of different platforms and for voices to be drowned out and for ones [to come to the fore] that agree mostly with the narrative that the authorities would want to be agreed with."
During the discussion that followed Jonathan Shafi (co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign) said from the floor:
"Islamophobia plays a central role, not just in one political party – whether in the Conservative Party or the parties of the far right – but in the state itself, and this is absolutely fundamental to understanding this…. There’s a deeply embedded strategic imperative behind the British state. Why? Because it’s tightly knitted into its foreign policy. The biggest danger Jeremy Corbyn posed wasn’t because he wanted to nationalise trains, wasn’t because he wanted to redistribute wealth, it was because he was going to oppose and had a track record of opposing UK foreign policy. I think one thing we have to do after this election result is that we have to maintain opposition to UK foreign policy and it means as well – and I think it’s really important that we say this – we have to put Palestine at the very core of that agenda…
I think we need forms of organisation that are going to allow us to develop these to develop these ideas, and also allow us to defend ourselves and allow all kinds of communities to come together to have this conversation. The thing they are trying to break the backbone of – and in England I’m afraid it looks like in some place like they have managed to do it – is solidarity. I Scotland they are going to try to stoke up resentment in the same way they have in England. I’d put forward a discussion point for folk to think about: what’s the best way we can organise ourselves to beat these challenges."
Second Plenary - Our Movement or Theirs?
The second plenary was on Our Movement or Theirs? - how counter-extremism policies and state racism and Islamophobia shape the way we organise and our access to decision-making bodies and the rest of civil society. The speakers on this panel were Ahmed Uddin (Islamic Human Rights Commission), Malia Bouattia (former NUS President), Tasneem Ali (Muslim Women's Association of Edinburgh) and Moazzam Begg (Cage).
Ahmed Uddin (IHRC) opened the session, saying:
"Our space – Muslims’ space – in civil society is shut to the point that we can’t say anything anymore, to the point that a single tweet leads to the shutting down of space. Our colleagues from Cage and MEND and others are with us on this journey where they’ve been pushed to the edges on a daily basis. I can presumably say, Cage has been operating for many years now without a functioning bank account. With IHRC they [political opponents] have tried on a number of occasions to shut us down."
Malia Bouattia (former NUS president) spoke next. Speaking about Jeremy Corbyn, she said [13m 08 s in the video]:
"I guess we’ve never been here before – believed a politician, let alone believed in one. We’ve never had as much faith in the possibilities of a political party, given the many limits of the system in which it functions. And that has shown the importance of the political project that so many across the UK, in their hundreds, thousands, even millions wanted to take part in.
This is of course not to ignore its many shortcomings, especially when it came to the question of counter-terrorism. As it became increasingly clear that Corbyn wasn’t going anywhere, choices were being made round him that matters relating to securitisation would be deprioritised to those relating to the economy.
At best, MPs and voices to the left of the party would call for a review of the Prevent strategy, but by the time the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill arrived on our doorstep there was practically no opposition from the party…
Mostly what the lack of considerable opposition that should have been carried since the Counter Terrorism and Security Act has meant is the battering of activists, campaigners and movements on the ground. If we’re to look at state of the Palestine solidarity movement across education, trade unions and councils it doesn’t give us much hope. Activists, politicians, even models and youtubers it seems have been relentlessly publicly attacked for their anti-colonialist views on the occupation. Try speaking at a students union even these days aside from the mountain of bureaucracy, students on the left fighting racism, opposing colonialism, [campaigning for] climate justice all have to tiptoe as they face a considerable risk that their speakers will be denied, often by those who have absolutely no idea what is an actual threat to open, fair and free speech.
The only way to defeat unjust laws is to make them impossible to implement
The anger, the effort, the coalitions developed, should have been developed to mount a stronger opposition because ultimately the demands that the counter terrorism apparatus be dismantled, that civil liberties should be protected and improved, are core aims of the political project. To see the need to maintain power, or at least to be in with a strong chance to reach Number 10, by sidelining these rights and freedoms showed shortsightedness...
The question now is what to do next. There is a golden rule, which is that the only way to defeat unjust laws is to make them impossible to implement. And the only way to defeat unjust governments is to become ungovernable. The resistance that is necessary is one of mass civil disobedience."
Tasneem Ali (Muslim Women's Association of Edinburgh) said:
"What do we do now? Well, we have to be ready to be the louder voice. Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh is a small grassroots organisation. I’m going to talk a little bit about what we do at grounds level in our community.
Public sector workers are expected to be informers for the police
MWAE have taken part in Islamophobia conferences in Scotland since 20133. During that time we’ve seen anti-terror legislation that’s brought the Prevent duty into workspaces so that educators, GPs, public sector workers are expected to be informers for the police.
As MWAE members participated in mandatory training for Prevent it became obvious how unsound the science behind identifying those likely to become radicalised was. For a start, all the training heavily leaned towards a presumption that Islam as a religion and Muslims as individuals are inherently inclined towards violence. So we in MWAE work hard to build community relations to debunk these toxic myths built up by racist government policies, which are currently perpetuated by media at all levels.
In May 2016 MWAE had an opportunity to take part in an Edinburgh Council Hate Crime training pilot scheme. Wendy Henderson, health improvement and diversity manager worked with Zareen Taj to put together a dual presentation on what constitutes a hate crime and the nature of Islamophobic hate crime. Wendy covered what constitutes hate crime and all the protected characteristics such as age, disability, gender etc. Zareen took the opportunity to debunk myths about Muslims and Islam and in particular the Islamophobic nature of the Prevent strategy which all public sector workers have to undertake. She was able to use slides outlining SACC’s objection to Prevent and also to explain normal practices of our racially diverse Muslim people in Edinburgh to illustrate that a person practising their faith is not a person becoming radicalised and in need of reporting to police. Zareen’s talk included recognising and avoiding Islamophobia and taking questions on aspects of the faith and practices that people did not understand.
The session was well-attended and well-received and this led to three further sessions. MWAE will be looking to have similar partnerships with the council to combat Islamophobia as long as we have the right to challenge Prevent."
The final speaker on the panel was Moazzam Begg (Cage). He reminded the conference that organisations represented on the panel - IHRC and SACC - had campaigned with his father for his freedom when he was held in Guantanamo Bay. He then said [35m 30s in the video]:
"The war on terror wasn’t launched by the Tories. The war on terror and its architects in Britain were Labour. Tony Blair and Jack Straw. These were the architects. They knew what was going on. They were involved. They gave the green light. They were part of the torture programme They were complicit in and party to the war on terror and the rendition programme.
Watching them right back
In 2016/17 I met with Dominic Grieve who was the head of the Intelligence and Security Committee and I gave him evidence that we, Cage, had produced, that included a dossier of an individual who had been tortured, with British complicity, before 9/11, in 2000. I handed this dossier over and sad: look, here’s a person who says he was tortured in Dubai and he says the main torturers were acting directly on the instructions of British intelligence agents.
I gave evidence, not just from the Guantanamo prisoners but from prisoners around the world, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh, in Morocco, in Egypt, in Jordan - British citizens who had been detained in these countries and tortured with questions that came from Britain, about Britain and that British intelligence services were fully informed of.
I know from my own experience that they were there every leg of my torturous journey.
The Intelligence and Security Committee concluded in the end that Britain had been involved in torture, meaning that Britain had been involved in war crimes. Yet to date, not a soul has been held to account…
Jeremy Corbyn is what I’d call an anomaly in what I’ve known Labour to be. His whole persona, his belief system was totally different from anything they’d ever experienced…
Islamophobia is clearly at a structural level. It’s been worked into law and the politicians that pushed it out felt it’s OK. That’s why Boris Johnson can say that the problem is Islam.
We in Cage think that the fight is going to get bigger. Some of the things we’ve done at Cage are: we’ve given evidence at the International Criminal Court for Britain’s and America’s role in torture in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. We’ve given evidence to the police detailing MI5 agents and what they did as part of the torture programme. There’s been investigations carried out which led to nothing, which is what we expected, but at least we had MI5 on the back foot. We’ve given evidence at civil proceedings and won an out-of-court settlement against the government. We’ve given evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
One of the things that we say is that yes, we do understand that we live in a surveillance state and they are watching us. The last thing they expect from any Muslim-led organisation is to say this: we are watching them right back."
- 1. In March 2017 Edinburgh churches cancelled or blocked bookings for meeting at which Jackie Walker, a black Jewish woman, was scheduled to speak
- 2. Earlier in March 2017, Edinburgh City Council refused to allow a meeting featuring Richard Falk to be held in the City Chambers. Richard Falk is a former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Palestine and is co-author of a 2017 report on "Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid", commissioned and published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. The meeting ws held successfully elsewhere in the city.
- 3. This includes the Islamophobia Awareness Conference held in March 2013 by Edinburgh Stop the War Coalition, Radio Ramadan, MWAE, SACC and Unite Against Fascism, as well as the annual Islamophobia Conferences held in Scotland since 2015 by IHRC, SACC and others.