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Title Tackling Islamophobia
Author Shahid Ashrif
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Racism



According to the Runnymede Trust’s report on Islamophobia, non-Muslims in Britain manifest fear and prejudice towards British Muslims. Such attitudes on the part of NF/BNP have resulted in violence against British Muslims, their homes and places of worship. Writers and academics also voiced publicly criticisms of Muslims and Islam. This is not altogether surprising. International politics and diplomacy, as well as race/ethnic policies are infused with ideological and cultural frameworks supplied by academics and writers (Lauren, 1988; S. Ryan, 1990 in Van Dijk 1993). US foreign policy and attitudes towards Muslim countries has been influenced by the anti-Muslim prejudices of foreign policy advisers (Said 1981) and there is little reason to believe that the same has not happened in British foreign policy. The Rushdie affair and the Gulf War received widespread media coverage. Given that the media remains the major source of information regarding Muslims in Britain and abroad, its continually negative and stereotypical portrayal of Islam and Muslims has had serious consequences for British Muslims. The distorting mirror of racism still caricatures Islam in terms of polygamy, purdah, religious zealotry - and more recently, a militant fundamentalism that threatens the economic and political domination of the West (Ashrif 2001). While it is easy to blame the media, one ought not to forget that the media essentially reproduces and reaffirms the stance of the ruling elite (Hall 1978). Interestingly enough, Muslim saints and Sufis like al-Hallaj (858-922 CE)), Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti (1142-1236 CE), Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-73 CE), and Sidi Lahsen Lyusi (1631-91CE) have repeatedly collided with the governments of their day (Ashrif 2001), suggesting a heterogeneity in belief as well as asserting their Islamic duty to challenge excesses of authority (Syed 1987 in Ashrif 2001).

Islamophobia in present times is neither an aberration nor a new phenomenon. It is the continuation of an attitude that was first manifested and articulated by Christians who saw the emergence of Islam as a threat to Christianity’s growing hegemony (Said 1993). This threat was not only ideological but also physical in that Muslim incursion reached as far as Tours in France. The Crusades were not only a manoeuvre by the Pope to unite warring Christian factions but were also an attempt to remove Muslims from the ‘Holy Land’ which Christians claimed as their own. The Crusades had an economic dimension too since the Muslim controlled the trade routes to the East and Far East.1 Further events like the colonisation of Muslim countries by European powers reinforced the idea of Islam being a hindrance and threat to European/Christian hegemony. Colonial powers interfered with and re-interpreted Muslim customs and practices (Parsons 1999). The supposed threat of the Arab slave trade2 in Africa was a pretext for the European scramble for Africa during the late 1800s when large parts of Africa were arbitrarily carved up and allocated to various European nations (Mazrui 1986). The emergence of the Ottoman Empire, which at one stage threatened Vienna and had already occupied parts of the Balkans, reinforced further the idea of Islam as a threat to the physical and mental well being of Europeans. The fierce and bitter anti-colonial struggles in the Middle East, Egypt and North Africa further fuelled Islamophobia. It ought to be remembered also that Britain presided over the setting up of Palestine and it needs to accept some of the responsibility for the present conflict between Muslims and Israelis. The British involvement with Muslims is a long one since Britain’s empire ruled over many Muslim populations. In the early 1960s and 1970s significant numbers of Muslims from the former British colonies (mostly from the Indian subcontinent) migrated to Britain, initially temporarily but eventually to stay permanently. The population of British Muslims increased in the wake of wars and oppression in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans.

The manner in which the media orchestrated the debate over the Satanic Verses into a simple two-cornered affair, failed to reflect the uncertainties and differences of opinion within the Muslim community itself. This in turn, led to an escalation of anti-Muslim feeling among the public and alienation of Muslims who disagreed with the fatwa (Cottle, 1991). During the Rushdie affair, white people often articulated racism in anti-Muslim terms. This raised difficulties for British Muslims who were considered Muslim (rather than both British and Muslim), and denied the opportunity to have a say in British foreign policy. As with the Rushdie affair, there were divided loyalties among British Muslims during the Gulf War. Again, hostilities were directed at British Muslims. Muslims were made the enemy within and right wing groups, politicians, academics and writers during the Rushdie affair targeted them.

There also needs to be a consideration of other lines of attack on Muslims. Those claiming to be either concerned about the status of women in particular, or human rights in general, have not been slow in criticising Muslims and Islam. While infringements or denial of human rights is to be condemned, the disingenuousness of the white feminist movement and Western governments also needs to be noted. It is a matter of record that white feminists often did not relate to the oppression experienced by black women. When mothers were being separated from their children by racist immigration laws, white feminists were conspicuous by their absence. When black women at Grunwick took on the racism and sexism of the management by going on strike, white feminists ignored the gender dimension of the strike (Ashrif 2001). It was black men and communities that supported the strikers. How many white women’s voices were heard to protest when the British government was pathologising black women? It is important to remember that race and gender are social constructs, not constructed in isolation. They often intertwine with other categories of identity. Black feminists, ranging from Carby, Hooks, Brah, to Parmar have criticised single-axis theories which attempt to separate race and gender. Not only have feminist in Muslim countries made clear they do not accept that Islam is the major element in oppressing women, they have also pointed to the diversity of views and politics among Muslim countries (Sadaawi 1980). Western white feminists (- post modernists or otherwise-) need to be wary of presuming to speak on behalf of all women and imposing their agendas on black women.

There remains a marked inconsistency in how reporters and politicians have labelled Muslims, while largely remaining silent about similar trends in other faith groups. To give one example, few Western commentators on Islam’s alleged medieval attitudes were prepared to recognise that in Israel, successive regimes were willing to justify their actions through very conservative theological authority or that former terrorists like Menachen Begin was prime minister in Israel. Even fewer commentators criticising the rise in religious fervour among Muslim communities could sufficiently overcome their prejudices to see it similar to trends in the US – as in the upsurge in television Christianity or the rise of Christian fundamentalism (Ashrif 2001). Any reputable research would have shown Western commentators that Islam has a history of reformist thinkers like Shah Walliullah (1703-62 CE), Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-98 CE), Jamal-ud-Din Afghani (1839-97 CE), Muhammed Iqbal (1876-1938 CE) and Ali Shariati (1933-77 CE) – all have been critical of Muslim clerics and their conservative interpretations of Islam (Irfani, 1985).

Furthermore, the historical record of how both white and black citizens in the West have been treated by government agencies demonstrates that Western governments have violated human rights when it suited the needs of the state (Ashrif 2001). When it suited their political or economic interests, the West has been prepared to support, condone and perpetrate violations of human rights in other parts of the world. To use a biblical expression, the West ought first to ‘remove the mote from its eye’.

Education & Ideology

Teachers have often argued that education is and should remain neutral. This naive stance was prevalent during the mid-1980s when Black communities and others argued for an antiracist approach to education. Education has never been neutral in that the dominant ideology has a bearing upon the composition of the taught curriculum (Apple 1979). This aspect came into sharp relief when the Thatcher government imposed the national curriculum, and the fierce arguments that ensued, particularly about the contents of the history curriculum. The notion of ‘British’ history is problematic. The history of Britain is intimately linked to its former colonies (Fryer 1988) whose courses of development Britain fundamentally altered. The Lawrence Inquiry Report made recommendations about mainstream education suggesting that education has a role in combating racism – a point argued for by antiracists some fifteen years earlier! Education and school curricula have and continue to be seen as methods of social engineering. Indeed some have argued that education’s primary goal has always been about social engineering rather than schooling. The pastoral system in our schools developed from a Christian base, and was very much concerned with the control of the working classes when universal schooling became prevalent towards the end of the 1800s. The curriculum at one time incorporated ideas of racial superiority and the paternalistic British mission of guiding and developing the colonies. The government’s propaganda about empire continued to influence the curriculum content well into the 1960s (MacKenzie 1984). The curriculum has also covered issues of health and lifestyles, covering the issues of eating habits, drug and alcohol education, and sexual behaviour. The national curriculum incorporated teaching about the environment – often in a simplistic manner that conveniently failed to address the relationship between the West’s demand for natural resources in the Third World, the debt problem and environmental despoliation.  The latest government intervention has been the compulsory teaching of citizenship. Citizenship implies all individuals having equal rights and equal treatment. Those who argue naively that all Britons receive equal treatment need only to examine the evidence of how Black people fare in the criminal justice system and every other major institution in Britain, to be disabused of that notion. Critics like me, see the current approach to teaching about citizenship and civic responsibilities as a form of social control, emphasizing responsibilities more than rights.

One other aspect that has a bearing upon this discussion, is the prominence given to Christianity in education. The disproportionate representation of the Church in the House of Lords, in alliance with right wing ideology during the Thatcher years, brought about ERA 1988 that promoted Christian hegemony in schools. Despite the strong reservations among many headteachers and non-Christian faith groups, acts of worship in schools were expected to be wholly or essentially of a Christian nature, despite the significant non-Christian populations in many of our schools. It is also worth mentioning that until the Blair government came into office, Christian and Jewish denominational schools were acceptable and could gain grant-aided funded status, but Hindu, Sikh and Muslim schools could not.

Having established that school curricula have never been neutral and that social engineering has always been an aspect of compulsory education, it is appropriate to argue that school curricula and pedagogies need to be amended to tackle the prevalence of a serious and divisive social problem called Islamophobia. My only reservations are that there are limits to what education can achieve in changing deeply entrenched attitudes, particularly when the media and the ruling elite continue to reproduce and reaffirm Islamophobia.

Education & Islamophobia

Before considering the curriculum content to tackle Islamophobia, it is necessary to identify which institutions and groups need to be targeted to bring about the desired outcome. If teachers are to address Islamophobia, the following needs to occur:

  1. The National Curriculum needs to be amended to incorporate the suggested changes to give the reforms credibility in the eyes of teachers. 

  2. Initial Teacher Training (ITT) institutions needs to incorporate these curriculum amendments in their training of teachers.

  3. In-service training of teachers needs to address the issue of Islamophobia through familiarising teachers with the amended curriculum contents and pedagogies.

  4. The training of lecturers involved in ITT need to be addressed if they are to train teachers.

  5. The Teacher Training Agency (TTA) needs to take on board these issues and support such educational reforms. The TTA has already laid out what it considers to be essential teacher competencies. The organisation needs to face up to the need for teachers to be competent in dealing with Islamophobia and other oppressions like racism, sexism etc

Given the history of the National Curriculum (NC) and the accompanying wrangles over the subject contents and format, the QCA (and its forerunner,) has not shown itself to be innovative as its likes to claim. The multicultural dimension to the NC was swiftly abandoned before the committee set up by the government to advise on this aspect, could complete its deliberations. The arguments over the history curriculum were mentioned earlier. The reforms of the NC in 2000 were timid. The NC remains a diluted GCSE for younger learners. The contents still do not clearly lay out specific teaching objectives or rank them in terms of importance or conceptual difficulty. In the light of this, it is unlikely that the QCA will countenance the kinds of changes needed to combat Islamophobia – unless pressured by the government.

A Curriculum for Tackling Islamophobia

It is indefensible to make students aware of European influences upon world cultures without acknowledging the profound impact of Islamic civilisation upon world cultures, particularly the impact upon European cultures. It ought to be remembered also that Muslim scholars not only translated Greek knowledge (which in due course found its way to Europe,) but also added considerably to it. The modern hospital system, modern universities, chivalry and notion of romantic love - all owe their debt to Muslim ideas. Morris Dancing, always considered a quaint English custom is actually a corruption of Moorish dancing, performed with a hobby horse and bells in the manner of Arab minstrels. The Arabic influence upon European languages has been substantial, particularly with reference to Spanish and Portuguese. After Latin, Arabic is the main contributor to the Spanish language. Even English is not without its Arabic influences as seen in words like zenith, algebra, monsoon, cotton, mattress, syrup, alcohol, sofa, admiral etc. Traditional fruit-mince pies served on Christmas have their origin among the Muslims in the Middle East during the Crusades period. Many new foods and ideas came to the West through the Crusades (Semaan 1980).

Eurocentricism has been at the heart of the overt and hidden curriculum in Britain and has been criticised by antiracist since the mid-1970s (Ashrif 1986). This criticism is not altogether surprising, given that British racism has for a long time refused to acknowledge contributions from supposedly ‘primitive’ cultures and communities. Appropriation of discoveries made outside the West range from the denial of African influences upon the Greeks (Bernal 1987) to Indian influences upon early Christianity (Singhal 1993).

Scientific discoveries made by Muslims during the Islamic Empire were many and varied3. Although Islamic contributions to science, medicine and mathematics are documented in the academic literature, they are still not widely known or acknowledged in the West, and rarely do school or university curricula teach about these Islamic influences. The omission of such information only serves to confirm the prevalent racism that assumes all discoveries of importance arose in the West. These non-European discoveries, generally kept hidden from students and the public, could assist in challenging common-sense ideas of Muslims or Arabs being uncultured and backward. It is worth pointing out that the suppression of Islamic influences upon Western learning dates from around the late 1700s when pseudo-scientific racism came to the fore. Prior to this, Arabic textbooks were widely used in European universities including Cambridge and Oxford.

Curriculum formulation needs to consider the crucial and far reaching Islamic influence upon the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France. New foods (- now commonplace in Britain -) like lemons, sugar, tea, coffee, aubergines etc. were introduced during the Islamic domination of the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslims effected an agricultural revolution in terms of irrigation and new crops in the region. The cultural legacy to Spain is considerably more than flamenco and the Alhambra (Watt & Cachie 1965). The tolerance of the Spanish Moors4, and the Islamic zeal for knowledge permitted Spain to become the intellectual centre of Europe. The cross fertilisation of ideas in Islamic Spain and Sicily was crucial to the subsequent development of the Renaissance period (Carew 1992).

In the West, 1492 is celebrated as the dawning of a new age marked by the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. Not only is the celebration of rape pillage, genocide and colonial exploitation inappropriate, but following the Reconquista in Spain, 1492 marked the mass expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain. This despite the fact that Muslims had a presence in the Iberian Peninsula for far longer than the European presence in the Americas. Ironically enough the three pilots guiding Columbus, the Pinzon brothers, were Moors (- both Black and Muslim.)

Through these sorts of omissions and misappropriations in current school and university curricula, and television series like Triumph of the West, common-sense racist ideas of Western superiority and originality are perpetuated.

Given the above, it is clear that a curriculum to counter Islamophobia would have an impact upon history, science, mathematics and religious education. School and university texts purporting to teach about Islam generally fail to address the diversity of beliefs and practices among Muslim communities and across Muslim countries. I suggest a curriculum to tackle Islamophobia would cover the following broad areas of study:

  • Heterogeneity in Islamic beliefs, practices and legislation throughout the Muslim world

  • Islamic influences upon natural sciences and mathematics

  • Impact of Muslim traders upon cultural and economic exchange

  • The Crusades and the Islamic world

  • Islam's role in the Renaissance of Europe

  • Islamic countries' relations with the West in terms of trade and politics

  • The portrayal of Islam in the West

While such moves could influence the extent of Islamophobia in Britain, it would be overly optimistic to expect such educational reforms to eliminate it.  After all, despite the Race Relations Act and the general condemnation of overt racism by some politicians, the prevalence of racism has not been affected significantly5. Of course, it can be argued that education has not sufficiently addressed the issue of racism and successive governments have sent inconsistent messages through their words and actions. Until academics, writers and the media give a lead, and politicians are consistent in what they say and do (with respect to Muslims), the educational reforms suggested above will not have a significant impact upon entrenched Islamophobia.

© Student Youth Work Online 1999-2001 Please reference author of this page.

References & Recommended Reading


  1. It could be argued that if it were not for the Muslim control of these trade routes, Europeans would never have had reason to discover sea routes to the East, and consequently would not have stumbled across America.

  2. Note that the European slave trades were finally abolished just before this period, with Britain outlawing slavery in 1833. Some nations outlawed slavery later than this date.

  3. Ibn Hayyam al-Kufi (700 CE) invented sulphuric acid, nitric acid, aqua regia, sodium hydroxide and mercury iodide - very important reagents for chemists. Ibn Yunis discovered the pendulum (600 years before Galileo). Al-Razi (850-923 CE) gave the first precise and clear description of smallpox and measles.  Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), known in the West as Avicenna, in addition to describing the coronary circulation, and alveoli, was the first to describe anthrax, hemiplegia and identify acute meningitis.  Al-Zahrawi (1000 CE) wrote a manual of surgery, which was still in use by Oxford medics during the 18th century.  Ibn Al-Haytham (1039 CE) known as Alhazen, not only produced a compendium on optics that was translated for use in Europe in 1572, but he also explained refraction by the Earth's atmosphere, gave a scientific explanation of reflection, refraction, focusing with lenses, and was the first to use a magnifying glass (- long before Lee van Hoek.).

  4. It is important to indicate that the Moors cannot be simply regarded as Muslims, but they must also be acknowledged as Africans. Significant contributions to world knowledge therefore were simultaneously African and Muslim in origin!

  5. The British Crime Survey 1995 estimated that racist attacks were running at 300,000 a year.

Apple, M.W. (1979) Ideology & Curriculum; Routledge

Ashrif, S. (1986) Eurocentrism and myopia in teaching; Multicultural Teaching, Autumn; Trentham Press

Ashrif, S (2001) Beyond Islamophobia; Multicultural Teaching, spring 2001; Trentham Press

Bernal, M Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization; Free Association Books

Carew, J (1992) The end of Moorish enlightenment and the beginning of the Columbian era; Race & Class Vol. 33 (3) 1992; Institute of Race Relations

Cottle, S (1991) Reporting the Rushdie affair: a case study in the orchestration of public opinion; Race & Class Vol. 32 (2), 1991; Institute of Race Relations

El Sadaawi, N (1980) Arab women and western feminism: an interview with Nawal El Sadaawi;Race & Class Vol. 22 (2) 1980; Institute of Race Relations

Fryer, P (1988) Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction; Pluto Press

Hall, S et al. (1978) The Social Production of News in Policing The Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order; Macmillan Press

Irfani, S (1985) ‘The Progressive Islamic Movement Islam’ in Islam, Politics and the State: the Pakistan experience; Zed Books

MacKenzie, J.M (1984) Propaganda and Empire: the manipulation of British public Opinion 1880-1960; Manchester University Press

Mazrui, A (1986) The Africans: a triple heritage; BBC Publications

Parson, T. H (1999) The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914; A world history perspective; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.;

Said E.W. (1993) Culture and Imperialism; Chatto & Windus

Semaan, K.I. (1980) Islam and the Medieval West: aspects of intercultural relations; NY State University of New York Press

Syed, A. H (1987) Revitalising the Muslim community; Race & Class Vol. 28 (3), 1987; Institute of Race Relations

Van Dijk, T.A. (1993) Elite Discourse and Racism; Sage Publications

Watt W.M. & Cachie, P.(1965) A History of Islamic Spain; Edinburgh University Press

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