Transformation: Opinion

The limits of inclusivity: Islamophobia in higher education

Can universities be part of the solution to racism instead of part of the problem?

Mathew Guest
14 July 2020
Flickr/Felton Davis. CC BY 2.0.

The confrontation with racism inspired by Black Lives Matter is to be welcomed. At the same time it’s a cause for despair that society remains blighted by so much bigotry and prejudice.

Bewilderment at the endurance of racism has inspired concerted attempts to understand the social structures that sustain it. How is racism enabled, reinforced and legitimated? And how might our institutions - from politics to education, healthcare and the arts - be transformed so that they are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem?

Along with my colleagues Alison Scott-Baumann, Shuruq Naguib, Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor and Aisha Phoenix, I’ve spent the last five years wrestling with these questions with a focus on the experience of Muslims in UK universities. Based on a national survey of over 2,000 students and conversations with over 250 staff and students on six campuses, our conclusions are published today.

Universities have long been viewed as hallowed halls of progressive thinking and cultural inclusivity. However, this myth has been challenged repeatedly over recent years. As more research has investigated cases of misogyny, sexual harassment, class-based snobbery and racism, it has become less and less tenable to treat these cases as isolated incidents. Muslims have been subjected to significant recent hostility. The ways in which Islam is perceived on campuses - and how those perceptions are reinforced or challenged - says a great deal about the capacity of universities as promoters of cultural inclusion and racial justice.

Over the past 20 years, the racism experienced by British Muslims has been complicated and reinforced by a narrative of suspicion, rooted in a presumed alignment between Islam and violent extremism or other criminal behaviour. The public imagination has been shaped in this respect by right-wing journalism and mainstream politicians keen to present Islam as a social problem and a risk to be managed.

When systemic child sexual abuse was exposed in the northern English towns of Rotherham and Rochdale, many of the convicted gang members involved were of Pakistani heritage, fuelling a portrayal of Muslim men as sexual predators. The abhorrent acts of a few individuals were cast as a problem inherent to the Muslim community, an alarmist form of demonisation that has been exploited by the far right and echoed by more mainstream politicians.

Muslims have become the principal ‘cultural other’ in the British context, and Islamophobia a distinct and arguably acceptable form of racism. Baroness Warsi, a Conservative peer and prominent campaigner against anti-Muslim prejudice, put it well when she said that Islamophobia has now “passed the dinner table test.”

This strain of racism has become especially powerful for three reasons. First, fear has been heightened because of the association of Islam with terrorism. The cultural memory of the 7/7 London bombings and subsequent attacks has been exploited by those wishing to find the roots of violence in Islam itself, despite the small numbers of perpetrators, and despite their actions provoking widespread condemnation across the Muslim community.

Second, Islamophobia is legitimised via the claim that it opposes an ideology, not a community. Those who view Islam as a malign force can convince themselves that Muslims need take no offence, so long as they are politically moderate, keep themselves to themselves, and audibly denounce their faith tradition whenever called upon to do so by the white majority.

Third, those with the power to shape the conversation about security have reinforced existing prejudices. While this is most blatant among elements of the right-wing tabloid press, it’s more insidiously present in government policy and its implementation in public bodies.

For example, the UK Government’s counter-terrorism “Prevent Strategy” is part of the legacy of the 7/7 bombings in 2005. Introduced by the Labour government as a means of intervening in potential cases of ‘radicalisation,’ this strategy explicitly targeted Muslim communities and aimed to replace their perceived alienation with more social cohesion. In 2011, it was revised by the coalition government, who removed its social cohesion focus and much of its funding and changed the focus to widespread surveillance.

In 2015, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act made it obligatory for all public bodies including schools, prisons, hospitals and universities to have ‘due regard’ to the risks of individuals in their care or employment being drawn into terrorism. The Prevent Strategy became the means by which the new Act was implemented.

Prevent has arguably been most visibly applied in the higher education sector, where punitive attempts to monitor and control the content of teaching and research have clashed with the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of enquiry, which are considered core to university life.

In 2018, politics undergraduates at the University of Reading were issued with ‘essential’ reading that came with a warning about its content. The university encouraged students to read an essay entitled ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution,’ in a ‘secure environment,’ away from those ‘not prepared to view it.’ Citing their duties under the Prevent Strategy, university managers described the text as ‘security sensitive.’

Such incidents have provoked understandable outrage among students, academics and free speech campaigners, though their criticisms have largely been on matters of principle. Our findings provide a specific, evidence-based evaluation of the impact of Prevent that is informed by the experiences of students.

We found that perceptions of Muslims in British universities are strongly bound to a securitisation agenda. Muslim students experience this most acutely, with many feeling they are subject to a heightened surveillance that presumes them to be suspicious on account of their faith. As one male Muslim student commented:

“under Prevent, the fact is, if you’re a Muslim, and you start taking your religion seriously, you start practising, you start reading, you start growing a beard, you’re really going to be under the spotlight, more than if you’re a Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Jew…religiosity is becoming…really heavily interrogated.”

A related pattern of self-censorship was revealed by non-Muslim peers, with one saying that “a lot of Muslims…feel that they can’t air their views, they can’t voice their opinion, because they’ll be labelled extreme.”

One of the most striking findings is the alignment between the narrative about Muslim radicalisation and risk that is embedded in the government’s Prevent Strategy, and support for a series of negative stereotypes about Islam in more general terms. The government has long maintained that radicalisation is a problem in UK universities and that Prevent is an essential means of tackling it. Students who agreed with this were especially likely to express negative views about Muslims in our survey.

For example, when we compared the views of students on whether radicalisation is a problem on UK campuses, those who agreed were four times more likely to say that Muslims have not made a valuable contribution to British life. Those who support Prevent are almost three times more likely to see Islam as intolerant towards non-Muslims when compared to those who believe the Strategy damages university life.

Put another way, it appears that Prevent has become strongly associated with the presumed dangers of radical Islam and with a perception that Muslims are dogmatic, intolerant and prone to violence. Moreover, students who are most supportive of government policy have internalised this perception most strongly.

To be sure, prejudice and wariness towards Muslims remains evident among a limited but significant proportion of the British population: 17% described their perspective as ‘very’ or ‘somewhat negative’ according to the 2018 British Social Attitudes survey. That number drops to 13% among young adults, and our research suggests that university students are even less suspicious, with only around 6.5% affirming a comprehensively negative view.

But this general trend masks some important subtleties. Responding to differently worded statements, students are much more positive about Muslims as people than they are about Islam as a religious tradition. Over 70% agreed that Muslims have made a valuable contribution to British life, for example, while 43% agreed that Islam is a religion that discriminates against women. This finding reflects other research that confirms that the most resilient prejudices about Islam focus on gender. More alarming is that this figure rises to 58% among those supportive of Prevent.

Hence, the uncritical affirmation of government policy on counter-terrorism appears to reinforce stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, an especially worrying pattern within universities which have traditionally prided themselves on instilling habits of critical thinking capable of dismantling narrow stereotypes. Are prejudices about Muslims especially resilient in a post-7/7 world, and how should we judge the UK government’s policy on counter-terrorism when it appears to reinforce these prejudices, even in higher education?

Universities may pride themselves on fostering attitudes towards religious and cultural diversity that are more inclusive, but they are not immune to the institutional racism that’s observed in other parts of society. Our research suggests that universities could do much more to tackle the roots of Islamophobia and ensure that they are not complicit in maintaining racism. It is not enough that they are less Islamophobic in relative terms: as centres of critical thinking, universities have the capacity and the moral obligation to take a lead in addressing our latest ‘acceptable’ prejudice.

“Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: Perceptions and Challenges” is published today. Click here to download.

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