Education or Enforcement? The Challenge of Islamophobia in 2021

I attended the online launch on 29th June 2021 of the Report of the work of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Islamophobia chaired by Anas Sarwar MSP, now Labour Party Leader in Scotland. I would recommend SEAS members and supporters obtain a copy of at least the Executive Summary, which was received by SEA Scotland. It is a report that is based on evidence presentations and a widespread survey and shines a light deep into the bruised heart of our fellow Scots who come from the Muslim community. It should concern all who seek fairness and equality in all aspects of Scottish society. It did however also raise some concerns in parts, which I will attempt to address.

In his opening remarks Anas outlined his aspirations for tackling the increasing problem, leading with a statement I suggest would resonate with SEAS members and supporters.

  1. The solution needs to start in school – Education is the key
  2. The need for Equality in Police and the State bureaucracy in Scotland
  3. Workplaces need to be welcoming and protective environments
  4. Any approach must look at the Gender factor as more women are victims of Islamophobia

The three official Rapporteurs from the Muslim community stressed various aspects of the report. One who identified as a Primary School Teacher stressed the very real Anti Muslim prejudice in the Scottish Educational environment where Teacher Training does not make a serious attempt to train teachers to deal with the evidence of prejudice or instances of Islamophobia in schools. Also a lack of members of school leadership teams from Muslim, or indeed non-white ethnicities. A second speaker was critical of the increased tension caused by the UK Government’s PREVENT programme and identified bureaucratic racism in the areas of Housing and Health services, requiring new rules and protocols. A third speaker related an incident of direct anti-Muslim abuse where a non Muslim woman intervened to protect the victim. She posed the question ‘Where Do People Get Prejudice?’ and suggested a lack of contact with the Muslim community made it difficult to get people to move beyond the ‘Scottish Exception’ myth that Scots are not racist or prejudiced. Evidence shows that prejudice and Islamophobia are prevalent institutionally.

During comments from online attendees, one well known and respected Trainer felt strongly that many acts were clearly racist in intent and that there were people in Scotland who held Anti Muslim racist views. She still agreed to support the use of the term Islamophobia, but also stressed the need to focus on the inter-sex impact and for the perpetrators of racist behaviours to be faced up to in ‘that uncomfortable space’. There was strong overall support for the recommendations contained in the Executive Summary.

As the SEAS representative I attended the evidence sessions of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Islamophobia and heard evidence of the full gamut of behaviour, from unacceptable to racist, in the presence of, or actually aimed at, members of the Muslim community in Scotland. The evidence was that 75% of Muslim respondents, and 82% in Glasgow thought that Islamophobia is getting worse. A worrying fact is that 45% of Muslims under 29 years of age had suffered from or seen incidents of Islamophobia in Scottish schools, during the time of a devolved Government in Scotland.

During those evidence sessions I had also heard details of ongoing initiatives by educators aimed at overcoming the ignorance and social apartheid that has created the environment for prejudiced and openly racist behaviour against Muslims and others who are designated ‘not like us’ in Scotland. The SEAS views Education as route to enlightenment and positive behavioural change so failure to mention examples from those initiatives in the Executive Summary causes it to appear imbalanced.

The level of justified grievance of members of the Muslim faith and culture in Scotland obviously set the tone of the Executive Summary that opened with the definition of Islamophobia adopted by the APPG in 2017, with the key statement ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism’. I would argue that each act or vocalising of an anti Muslim nature, however slight, is unacceptable and must be challenged. However, I worry that the implication overall is that each incident should be treated as being derived from the same motivation as a deliberate violent act or openly anti-Muslim racist activity.

It is disappointing that in the section on Education and Schools the 12 recommendations were referred to as Educational but the tone of at least 50% of the recommendations are for ‘social enforcement’ rather than educational initiatives. It was confusing to read recommendations for ‘integrating an understanding of Islamophobia’ and ‘compulsory training to counter Islamophobia’ without any recommendations that educators at all institutions should learn and teach an understanding of Islam and Muslim communities.

The dictionary definition of a ‘phobia’ is ‘An extreme fear of, or an aversion to’ a presence or situation. The eradication of a phobia relies on positive interventions. There is scope for Education to offer those positive interventions that would succeed for all but the truly vile racist group in Scottish society. Educational efforts may not be assisted by defining behaviour by those who are ‘unaware’ that their behaviour is incorrect in such hard terms that it may cause them to refuse to engage.

It is to be hoped that the finalised report by Peter Hopkins of Newcastle University will reconnect all the aspects of both the unacceptable and racist behaviour to the positive initiatives and programmes, so giving hope to those who still hold firm to the view that Education has a great deal to contribute to building a society based on Fairness and Equality.

NOTE: The facts in this blog are taken from the Executive summary of the report and my notes from the online meeting. Any personal assessments and opinions are entirely mine.

Michael Connarty