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Britain’s Islamophobia Comes From the Top

Commentators often present prejudice as a working-class problem, but a new report shows that Islamophobic views are far more common among elites – who have the power to make racism structural.

Makkah Masjid mosque in Leeds, England.

The idea that racism and bigotry is solely a ‘working-class problem’, a problem of the ‘uneducated masses’, is one that I’ve never quite bought into. It’s not the working classes who own our newspapers, or run the criminal justice system, or dominate our politics—areas in which we see so much prejudice and bigotry aimed towards minority groups.

If you’re a British Muslim like me, you’re no stranger to Islamophobia passing the ‘dinner table test’ or seeing it become the ‘acceptable prejudice’. What’s helped normalise Islamophobia and make it a more palatable form of bigotry? Those at the top.

This is not, of course, to say that Islamophobia and prejudice against Muslims isn’t to be found among sections of working-class communities. But the idea that the ‘better educated chattering classes’ or those from middle- and upper-class backgrounds are more understanding of British Muslims simply by virtue of their privilege and wealth just isn’t borne out by the evidence.

A recent report published by researchers at the University of Birmingham found that the middle and upper classes are more likely to hold prejudiced views about Islam than working-class groups. In a detailed survey conducted on Islamophobia and other forms of racism in modern Britain, data showed 23.2 percent of people from upper and lower middle-class social groups harbour prejudiced views about Islamic beliefs, compared with 18.4 percent of people questioned from working-class groups.

Did the findings come as a surprise to me? Not really. The media, which prints inaccurate and bigoted stories about Muslims—from false claims that one in five Muslims support ISIS to inaccurate stories in the Times saying Muslims are forcibly adopting white Christian children—isn’t exactly an industry dominated by the working classes.

In fact, journalists from working-class backgrounds account for just 11 percent of those in the profession, and just three billionaire families control nearly 70 percent of the national newspaper industry. A recent study from the Centre for Media Monitoring found that one in 10 online articles misrepresent Muslims, and 82 percent of misrepresentation came from news reporting. Almost 60 percent of articles across all publications were identified as associating negative aspects and behaviour with Muslims or Islam.

Our prime minister Boris Johnson is a product of Eton and Oxford. His bigoted and racist remarks about Muslim women looking like letterboxes and bank robbers led to a 375 percent rise in hate crimes. Nor is it just in Britain where those from well-off backgrounds harbour Islamophobic views. In France, former investment banker Emmanuel Macron’s party banned a Muslim woman from running for office simply because she wore a hijab in a poster.

The ‘war on terror’ which demonised Muslims across the globe and treated entire communities as ‘suspect’, a ‘threat within’, and a ‘fifth column’ wasn’t driven by ordinary working-class communities up and down the country, but by those at top of our political system. The Prevent scheme which disproportionately impacts Muslim communities, with parents warning young Muslim children dare not discuss politics in school in case legitimate criticisms of the government were misconstrued as signs of extremism, emanated from the corridors of power.

I’ve seen the EDL and Britain First up close on the streets of Luton as they intimidated the local Muslim community with demonstrations that so often involved threats of violence. Yet what always struck me was that while some of the same journalists who poked fun at the EDL and Britain First for their views on Islam and Muslims had no problem working for publications that pushed the same rhetoric, or in some cases pushed the same narrative themselves, under the guise of ‘liberalism’ and ‘anxieties over immigration’.

We must also guard against the trap that views the working class exclusively as white.  Almost half of the British Muslim population resides in the bottom 10 percent local authority districts for deprivation. British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who make up a significant proportion of the Muslim community in the UK are more likely to experience child poverty than any other groups. The working-class experience is also the lived experience of so many British Muslims up and down the country, like my own father, who spent his entire working life in a factory.

It didn’t surprise me either that the research showed the working class as a whole is less likely to have prejudiced views of Muslims, given how ordinary working-class folk from a range of different backgrounds are more likely to rub shoulders with one another in factories, as part of low-paid jobs, and on picket lines. As John Stuart Mill once said, ‘It is hardly possible to overrate the value… of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar… Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.’

Integration is a two-way street. What many of those from middle- and upper-class backgrounds have managed to do is use their wealth and privilege to insulate themselves from the ‘other’, moving in circles where many will not come across a British Muslim.

Islamophobia and bigotry towards Muslims has never solely been a problem among working-class communities; it cuts across society. The truth is that those at the top would rather have us think that it is only to be found among certain section of society, because it means their role in the bigotry and prejudice they helped to manufacture goes unchecked.