Islamophobia Awareness Month

Canvassing for Labour: image Chartist ––––– Zarah Sultana MP: image © David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

JVL Introduction

We are – though you may not know it – nearing the end of Islamophobia Awareness Month.

Sienna Rodgers interviewed Zarah Sultana MP for LabourList to mark the occasion afer she had spoken recently in parliament and online about the abuse she receives as a young Muslim woman

And about the failure of Labour’s current leadership to offer “a single word of solidarity”.

Or to accept her offer of help in the Batley & Spen byelection where she felt she could reach out to younger members and to the Muslim community generally.

On the Party’s policy on Islamophobia vs its actions she says:” “Right now, it just feels like it is posting a tweet on Eid and saying the right things about the Tories not adopting the definition of Islamophobia. But then, when it comes to actual examples of where people are being treated differently because of their religion and their race, you’re not going to get a peep.”

Two months earlier Chartist carried an article by Shaista Aziz, reproduced below, on rising Islamophobia, on how “The words ‘Muslim’, ‘terrorist’, ‘ISIS’, ‘Taliban’, ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ have become interchangeable and mainstreamed in so much of our political and public discourse, fuelling racism.”

If we are serious about racism and equality, we need to face up to the reality of Islamophobia and understand the range and diversity of British Muslims.

She believes we have a long way to go – in the Party and on the left.

Zarah Sultana: “You expect support and solidarity from people in your party”


Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, was elected to parliament for the first time in 2019 aged just 26. It has been a “whiplash experience”, she tells me. That description seems especially true of an incident in the chamber last week, when Sultana was given a big telling off. After describing ministers as “dodgy”, she was asked by the Deputy Speaker to rephrase her question. She refused. Again, she was asked to “moderate her language”, and refused. And a third time. On the fourth occasion, she was interrupted mid-sentence and a Bercow-esque bellow of “order!” came her way, followed by a particularly stern rebuke. Although Hansard initially recorded that she had withdrawn the remark, Sultana never did.

“I’d never felt anything like that before,” Sultana tells me. “I just was really not sure what I had done wrong.” She had declared in parliament the day before that “this is a corrupt government, led by a dodgy Prime Minister”, and got no scolding for her choice of language then. “This convention where you just have to be respectful, it’s like beyond respect – it’s like you are complicit, to some extent, in them getting away with it, because you can’t even call them out,” she says. “We’re calling them honourable – these people are not honourable. They’re not honourable at all. They are completely self-interested. And dodgy, I think, is the mildest term that I could have used.”

Sultana is not only frustrated by rules about unparliamentary language. When she repeatedly refused to withdraw her comment, the Labour frontbencher sitting in front of the despatch box at the time, Thangam Debbonaire, visibly cringed, apparently expressing embarrassment about her colleague’s handling of the situation. “I didn’t see it at the time, I had only seen it after people were posting the video online. And quite honestly, it was really hurtful to see that,” Sultana says of the reaction. She compares it to when Labour backbencher Kevan Jones heckled her, as well as Apsana Begum, during a House of Commons debate. “It’s just really hurtful when you see those things, because you expect support and solidarity from people in your party.”

I am interviewing Sultana chiefly to mark Islamophobia Awareness Month. The MP has spoken in parliament and online about the abuse she receives as a young Muslim woman. “I wasn’t naive coming into the job,” she says. “I knew that when… you’re visible in public life, there will be scrutiny and there will be criticism. And I expected that.” But, she adds, “I guess I was taken aback by the sheer volume of it”. She says the abuse is often racist, “so ‘you’re a foreign invader’, or ‘you Muslims’”, and “usually a combination of all of the above – the gender, the race, and then the politics”. She strongly disagrees with MPs who think banning online anonymity is the answer, though, as those sending her abuse are quite happy to put their names to it.

Coming back from bereavement leave earlier this month, Sultana tweeted an example of the abuse she receives. “I haven’t had a single word of solidarity from the current leadership,” she says. “Angela Rayner, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Louise Haigh, Kim Leadbeater, all of those guys got in touch – and I didn’t get anything from the leadership at all.” In fact, she adds: “I’ve never spoken to Keir.” Asking questions at parliamentary party meetings is the closest they have had to a conversation, the Labour MP says.

Would she like a one-to-one meeting with him? “I would be up for that. 100%. Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of things that we can work together on! And it’s not just a complaint list. When it came to the Batley and Spen election, I reached out to the party, saying, ‘hey, if there’s anything that I can do with young members, or the Muslim community, please let me know because I’m really keen to help out’, given what was happening and the dynamics of what was happening. That offer wasn’t taken up.”

Sultana believes that, as a young Muslim woman, she is treated differently not only by those who send abusive emails and letters, but also by her colleagues. “I learnt this lesson very early on,” she says. Sultana points out that her maiden speech referring to “40 years of Thatcherism” caused uproar, yet nobody blinked an eye when Lisa Nandy talked about “40 years of economic decline” during the leadership election and said “the consensus that Thatcher built lasted all the way through the New Labour years”. Sultana was told that senior MPs were advising other 2019 newcomers: “you don’t want to do what Zarah did with her maiden speech”.

It is not only double standards she complains of, but also being patronised. “When I didn’t want to vote for a Tory in a select committee, because I didn’t want to vote for a Tory, it was misconstrued as me not understanding how select committees work, because I have to vote for a Tory, because it’s a Tory-only position. Because why would I understand that, right? Because I’m just young and stupid.”

Then there are the dynamics within the Labour Party. Only a handful of Labour MPs have been reported as being particularly under threat of deselection, yet two of this small number are Muslim women. “To me, if we’re just talking about optics – and it shouldn’t just be about the optics, it should be about the people who are affected – that just doesn’t look very good,” Sultana observes. Asked about the chances of her being triggered, she says: “I have no sense that I’m more under threat than anyone else… I’m really hopeful that I will have [members’] support.”

But she is concerned by the briefings against her. “The people providing those quotes [for articles about her potential deselection] were citing things like Prevent, and they were citing things like Palestine… as though it’s not a normal concern to have,” she says. “I was really shocked because someone’s obviously given a green light to this. And then the fact that it’s getting picked up by not just random accounts, but by the BBC and others. Adding to all the other stuff that’s going on, it’s just quite a nasty mix of things.”

Labour adopting a new code of conduct on Islamophobia including the all-party parliamentary group definition was a “really good first step”, Sultana says. Yet she believes there is much more work to be done: from looking at how Muslim MPs are treated to whether the party still backs policies such as reviewing Prevent. “Right now, it just feels like it is posting a tweet on Eid and saying the right things about the Tories not adopting the definition of Islamophobia. But then, when it comes to actual examples of where people are being treated differently because of their religion and their race, you’re not going to get a peep.”

If people see “what happens when you don’t fit the mould of what a politician should be”, there will be a “huge loss” of potential MPs, councillors and others, Sultana says. “That’s why I hope the party do take this a bit more seriously. A lot more seriously.”

Islamophobia is racism

On rising Islamophobia and why Labour needs to step up

Shaista Aziz, Chartist, 30th September 2021

The horrifying and devastating images from Afghanistan, showing the desperation of Afghans trying to escape their country to seek sanctuary in the West following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, will be archived forever and juxtapositioned alongside images of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, twenty years ago.

The launch of George W Bush’s and Tony Blair’s catastrophic “war on terror”, and the subsequent wars, political instability and upheaval they’ve created across the Middle East and North Africa, has accelerated and entrenched Islamophobia, anti-Muslim racism and bigotry in the UK and the West, alongside anti-refugee and migrant hate.

The words ‘Muslim’, ‘terrorist’, ‘ISIS’, ‘Taliban’, ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ have become interchangeable and mainstreamed in so much of our political and public discourse, fuelling racism.

The UK’s Muslim population numbers around 3.4 million people, or 5% of the population. This number is likely to increase when the census data is published, which is likely to reflect how diversity has grown amongst British Muslims and how young the Muslim population is. There is documented evidence of Muslims having a presence in Britain since the 16th century. The UK’s first Muslims are documented to have arrived in Liverpool and were of Yemeni background. Britain’s Muslim communities are incredibly diverse, practice many strands of Islam, speak a number of languages and follow a diversity of cultural practices. Yet this plurality and diversity is very rarely seen or understood in the public, political or media representation of Muslims in the UK.

Overwhelmingly, Muslims are viewed as outsiders and as ‘other’. We are viewed as separate from mainstream society and are suspect until we prove otherwise. Over the last few years, and especially since the Brexit campaign and referendum, the UK has seen a reported rise in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate.

The ‘phenomenon’ of Islamophobia isn’t new, however, and the alarm has been sounded numerous times over decades about the pernicious nature of this form of bigotry and its impact on British people and communities.

Muslim women are disproportionately affected by Islamophobia. We suffer from the intersection of racism, Islamophobia, sexism and misogyny. We are viewed as foreign, alien, a threat to the West. Shamima Begum, the British teenager who left her home in East London and joined Isis in Syria, is just one case in point. Begum has had her British nationality stripped.

One of the UK’s highest profile Muslim politicians, former chair of the Conservative Party Sayeeda Warsi, has since 2011 consistently raised her voice against racism in her own party, government and society. In 2011, Warsi declared: “Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test”. The Tories have been accused of turning a blind eye to Islamophobia and continue to do so. The current prime minister, Boris Johnson, wrote about Muslim women in one of his newspaper columns, referring to us as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ for wearing the niqab, the face veil. The Muslim Council of Britain cited 300 allegations of Islamophobia against the prime minister and members of the Conservative Party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The group called on the commission to formally investigate the governing party over Islamophobia. It’s the second time that the Muslim Council of Britain has called for an inquiry to be launched, with no action taken.

The Labour Muslim Network has been investigating Islamophobia in the Labour Party and has called on the party to root out Islamophobia, create Islamophobia awareness across the party’s structures, and to hold Islamophobes to account.

Islamophobia is not recognised along the same lines as other forms of racism; it’s even debated if Islamophobia is in fact real or exists at all. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims in 2019 adopted the following definition of Islamophobia: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

Drawing on analysis published since 2019, the Muslim of Council of Britain’s report sets out core conceptual components in accessible terms, establishing a framework of reference that helps determine what does – and does not – constitute Islamophobia. Types of intervention that would be Islamophobic include: “causing, calling for, aiding or justifying acts of aggression against Muslims”; “dehumanising, demonising or making stereotypical allegations about Muslims”; and “prescribing to/propagating conspiracy theories about Muslims”.

If we on the left are serious about creating and actioning equalities and anti-racism, Islamophobia has to be tackled head-on and rooted out. This means challenging all forms of Islamophobia, including structural racism, as part of creating a diverse and representative anti-racism movement and anti-racist politics and policies. There needs to be a far more sophisticated understanding of who British Muslims are in all our plurality and diversity, and the impact of social, domestic and foreign policy on our lives and life chances. We Muslims’ lived realities and stories need to be told as part of the wider narrative and stories of what this country was, what this country is, and what it could yet become if we enact the vision we have for creating a fair society that values everyone.

Shaista Aziz is a journalist, writer, and a national anti-racism and equalities campaigner. She is an Oxford Labour Councillor and Cabinet Member for Inclusive Communities.


Comments (8)

  • Neil G says:

    The gradation of racism by the Party Leadersip is symptomatic of their utter contempt for ordinary people. They are complicit in fueling racism by not even acknowledging that it effects all BAME communities and people of colour. They have nailed their racist colours to the mast by isolating dissenting voices and principled anti-racist Socialists like Sultana. Disgusting.

  • John Bowley says:

    Sir Keir Starmer is a stiff who is a bad leader, indeed of no good at all, in my observation of wretched performance coupled with disingenuous nastiness.

    However, aside from Keir’s other quality of emptiness, it is past time that a better descriptive word was formulated for prejudice toward Muslims.

  • John W says:

    Zara Sultana is inspirational because she is right in what she fights for.

  • John Bowley says:

    Zarah Sultana is thought very highly of by the women in my CLP. So do I.

    Conservative Sayeeda Warsi has been an outspoken battler for the truth.

    We need more brave young Socialist women like the few we have.

  • Teresa Grover says:

    Zarah Sultana has my greatest respect, she is truly inspirational & coherent, her speeches glow with truth & sincerity.
    We had that with Mr.Corbyn who was also abused & attacked, but Zarah gets the full treatment of moronic abuse, racial, islamophobic abuse!
    She isn’t saying anything untruthful or what most of us feel.
    As for the silent Zionist Labour Leader, well where is he, why hasn’t he supported the ladies, the non white ladies! He would prefer to wine & dine Hovotely on her British visit to spread her virus of racism, islamophobia, antisemitism. Why does Starmer support Israeli Hovotely but not the British Labour MPs in front of him???.
    Zarah Sultana, you continue being that sincere young woman, you continue on that path of Socialism & your integrity will shine through all that crap that is thrown at you. YOU GET MY VOTE EVERY TIME. ❤

  • Bernard Grant says:

    I agree with Teresa Grover. So I’ll just say this, followed by a Zarah speech.

    I wonder if this is why Starmer wants her gone.

  • Nick Pile says:

    She is young, Muslim, female, articulate, perceptive, non-conformist and not afraid to speak the truth, however inconvenient that truth may be to those now leading the UK’s supposed “opposition”. Who would you rather have as your MP? Zara, or a superannuated “Blair’s Babe”?

  • Liz says:

    Didn’t Dennis Skinner get thrown out of the house for using the same word on a memorable occasion?
    Another MP not afraid to speak out.

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