The War on Terror & Islamophobia in Britain
When we talk about terrorism, we refer to the use or the threat of action intended to influence or intimidate a government, organisation or the public. An individual or group may hope to advance political, religious, or ideological motives. Traditionally, a power struggle occurs between a weaker group fighting against a nation. However, state sponsored terrorism is conducted to protect a state’s own national interests.eg., the US funded the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
Much of today’s terrorism begins online, where groups spread false narratives aiming to both affect the public or induce fear and gain supporters. Whilst terrorism connotes violence, not all terrorist groups are violent. Take Extinction Rebellion who, in 2020, were recorded by counter-terrorism police as being a ‘non-violent extremist ideology’ at risk of committing atrocities.
Read on to find out how the discussion and authoritative actions around terrorism and the strategies to prevent it have influenced the Muslim community in Britain and the biases held against them.
What is 'the war on terror'?
Declared by former US President George Bush, the ‘War on Terror’ was the strategic response to the 9/11 attacks. The strategy aimed to protect US citizens both at home and abroad by identifying and defeating individuals and groups associated with terrorist attacks and ending state sponsored terrorism.
The US first targeted Afghanistan, the home-base of the Taliban led by Osama bin Laden, who had claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attack. Bush’s hard-line declaration ‘you’re either with us or against us’ left no middle ground in the approach towards the Middle East. Despite declaring this to be a war against ‘radical Islamists’, many Muslims actually felt it was a war against Islam and Muslims in general.
The War on Terror failed in multiple facets. The emphasis on military action and hard democratic reform minimised attention on eliminating the original threat of terrorist actors. The invasion of Afghanistan scattered the al-Qaeda network, the 2003 Iraq invasion was a catalyst for terrorist groups to form in the country and other regions, and both actions increased anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. This provided common ground for more terrorist groups to form.
Britain supported America’s anti-terror strategy from the start, launching airstrikes, deploying British troops to Afghanistan, and invading Iraq in 2003 - a move the Chilcot report later deemed unnecessary given that not all peaceful options had been exhausted and no clear strategy determined. In 2018, the Intelligence and Security Committee found that the UK had tolerated US mistreatment of those held captive, and failed to encouraged the US to change its strategy.
British Muslims critical of Britain’s involvement were questioned about their patriotism, and those who remained silent were forced to declare that they didn’t support terrorism. In the years following 9/11, many believed the government’s ‘kneejerk’ response of forming anti-terrorist laws created a ‘climate of fear’. These laws resulted in greater scrutiny of British Muslim communities and increased Islamophobia. The war additionally fuelled xenophobia in Europe, and created an atmosphere of suspicion and animosity towards Muslims and refugees from Muslim countries.
What are the assumptions about terrorism and Islam?
The notion that radical Islam is against democracy gained traction from 2000 and was perpetuated by America’s War on Terror. In his address after the 9/11 attacks, Bush asked, ‘‘Why do they hate us?... They hate our freedoms…’’, hinting at the stereotypical Islamic/Eastern dislike of democracy, seen as innately Western.
Linking Islam with the act of terrorism, and the term itself supposes a unity between Islam and terrorism. The Runnymede report on Islamophobia noted that Islam is seen as ‘inferior to the West’, aggressive, supportive of terrorism and that ‘hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims’. Perpetuation of the stereotype that Islam supports terrorism fosters acceptance of Islamophobia.
Seeing violence as inherent to Muslim societies can pre-determine how people view Muslims. Figures show that anyone worried about the rise of Islamic extremism is 18% more likely to view Muslims unfavourably and 27% more likely to view them as violent.
Muslims support terrorist organisations
This is a much-seen Islamophobic view reinforced by the impact of 9/11 and the War on Terror. The same study as mentioned above showed that those worried about Islamic extremism were 13% more likely to associate Muslims with al-Qaeda. Notable is the ‘Bin Laden Effect’ following 9/11, which made Muslims into a western ‘public enemy’. These attitudes push people to engage in Islamophobia, as they feel the supposed threat justifies such behaviour.
Muslims are all one and the same
Media coverage of terrorism can trigger or magnify Islamophobic attacks. Where a terrorist attack is carried out by a Muslim, media coverage is 4.5 times higher compared to reporting of attacks by non-Muslim perpetrators. Consequently, Muslims are projected as one homogeneous group. In reality, Muslims ascribe to many different identities, the same as most of us.
All Muslims look the same
Media coverage has caused people to claim all Muslims look the same, resulting in them hiding their identity, or non-Muslims being mistaken as Muslims.
How have terrorist events impacted the British Muslim population?
The cause of Islamophobia in Britain following terrorist events is multifaceted. A major player is the British media, and how they shape public opinion. After analysing 11,000 UK media articles (2019), the Muslim Council of Britain found that coverage of Muslims was predominately negative, with 59% of Muslim-focused stories containing negative themes. For the Mail on Sunday, this figure stood at 78%.
"There is an undeniable link between Islamophobia and negative media coverage"
Research by Cambridge University found that mainstream media reporting of Muslims contributed to increasing hostility. Views such as Islam being a ‘threat to Western democracy’ and Muslims ‘taking over Britain’ makes it unsurprising that data published by the Home Office showed just under 50% of the UK’s religious hate crimes (2019) targeted Muslims. There is an undeniable link between Islamophobia and negative media coverage. More specifically, after a terrorist attack linked to Islamic extremism, there is a noticeable spike in Islamophobic hate crimes for up to three weeks after.
The supposed homogeneity of British Muslims has also had a negative impact. Muslim students face higher rates of abuse. In 2017, Childline reported an increase in reports of bullying and racial abuse following the Manchester and London terror attacks.
Muslims are often forced to apologise for terrorist activity. Whilst it is assumed that Muslims do nothing to criticise terrorism, it should be noted that many Muslims and Muslim organisations regularly speak out against terrorism. Muslims are engaged, but the question is, are they being heard? The community is being forced to apologise for the behaviour of the minority and their lack of condemnation seems to imply that they sympathise with radical terrorists. As a result, Muslims are witnessing important aspects of Islam be questioned and abused, such as Qur’an burning and depictions of Prophets.
Usually, unsuspecting British Muslims fall victim to Islamophobic attacks (such as assault, attempted murder, mosque attacks etc), leaving many traumatised and terrified. 92% of hate crime victims (including Islamophobic attacks) report feeling ‘emotionally affected’, fearful and anxious.
In some cases, mistaking race for religion means someone who ‘looks’ Muslim can be attacked. For instance, Sikhs experienced an increase in hate crimes after 9/11. This threat of violence has resulted in some people feeling the need to ‘hide’ their religiosity, for example, Muslim women who remove their headscarves in public spaces out of fear of being attacked.
How have attempts to combat terrorism impacted the British Muslim population?
The British government’s most prominent response has been the Prevent plan, part of the wider CONTEST: counter-terrorism strategy. Despite aiming to tackle radicalisation and terrorism in the UK, the strategy has normalised Islamophobia. The policy deals with Islamic terrorism, only briefly referring to other forms. This is evidenced by a 2007 government guidance document which held that the ‘key measure of success will be demonstrable changes in attitudes among Muslims, and wider communities they are part of’. A more accurate report should have noted the target group as ‘individuals and groups suspected of criminal activity’. This shows the focus of counter-terrorism practices are moulded to view Muslims as potential threats.
This supposition is further proven by the funding distributed among local authorities which was found to be directly proportional to the number of Muslims in the area.
The strategy has also introduced the practice of surveillance, inferring that Muslims need to be observed and their ‘Britishness’ checked to prevent their radicalisation. The idea that every Muslim is susceptible to being radicalised is widespread. Young British Muslims feel restricted in expressing their beliefs, fearing they’ll be labelled ‘extremists’.
The Conservative government itself has a damaging relationship with Islamophobia. Despite promising to conduct internal investigations into both Islamophobia in the party and the PREVENT scheme, the former has been watered down into a general enquiry, and the latter is being headed by a man who has previously shared Islamophobic sentiments.
British Muslims have been left feeling dismayed and ignored. The PREVENT inquiry has been met with severe backlash from Human Rights groups, who will be boycotting the review. Whether any feasible attempts manifest to combat Islamophobia in the coming government term is yet to be seen.
For more information about Islamophobia, check out our Guide. Remember to check yourself, your biases, remain informed and call out other people’s biases in a way that is helpful, not hostile and unthreatening.