Yes, we have a Muslim problem

by Shenaz Bunglawala (2017)

Image Copyright: Getty

The Sun‘s assistant editor, Trevor Kavanagh, thinks Britain has a ‘Muslim Problem’. One that he fears will be more acutely felt when we leave the EU because then we’re on our own with our ‘Muslim Problem’ and no amount of border control will help us against those already living among us that are ‘The Problem’.

To be fair, reading his column in Sunday’s Sun, it’s perhaps more reasonable to interpret his argument as suggesting the whole of the Europe has a ‘Muslim Problem’. So ours is not a unique dilemma but a shared one for as long as we’re part of the EU and then, our ‘problem’ and how we deal with it is up to ‘us’.

The common denominator in the ‘identity crisis’ facing Sweden, the ‘wave of rape and other sex crimes’ engulfing Germany, and the ‘tide of immigration’ that has ‘swamped’ Greece, Italy and Spain, is, Kavanagh contends, Islam.

I expect the irony of his outlandish claims in an opinion piece railing against ‘irresponsible scare stories’ in the run up to the EU referendum is entirely lost on him. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time Mr Kavanagh has been called out for spewing an ‘evidence-free, stereotype-laden assault on the British Muslim community’.

Nor indeed is it the first time that Kavanagh’s taken aim at the political Left for immigration and those pesky ‘migrants who refuse to assimilate’. Them with their ‘primitive tribal customs’ which span a gamut of ‘Muslim sex crimes’ from ‘female genital mutilation and “honour” killings’ to more recent exposure of child sexual exploitation (CSE) offences in Newcastle.

Kavanagh argues that the all-encompassing hurdle, ‘political correctness’, has constrained our ability to talk in unfettered terms about ‘The Muslim Problem’ and lauds another Trevor (Phillips) for paving the way for a debate about Muslims as a ‘specific problem’, without fearing or incurring the charge of Islamophobia.

I marvel at any editor, not least one working at the best-selling British national daily, who thinks the press have tip-toed around Islam and Muslims when it comes to putting stories about either into print.

Kavanagh argues that the all-encompassing hurdle, ‘political correctness’, has constrained our ability to talk in unfettered terms about ‘The Muslim Problem’

The evidence of one newspaper editor to the Leveson Inquiry in this regard was revealing and indicative of the chasm between the rather elevated view some journalists and editors hold of themselves, and what the rest of us see in the print media’s unstinting demonisation of Islam and Muslims.

Even a cursory look at empirical research into representations of Islam and Muslims in the British print media would uncover the extent of the problem. Though for an assistant editor who also enjoys a seat on the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s board, and who will happily criticise the audacity of those Muslims who complain to the regulator about biased coverage, the empirical evidence remains largely immaterial.

In his study of discursive patterns in political and media discourses about high-profile criminal investigations and prosecution of child sexual exploitation offences, Shamim Miah draws attention to the interpretative frameworks and repertoires of meaning which lend themselves to the racialisation of the discourse.

In the case of ‘Asian sex gangs’ Miah refers to the dominance of a ‘cultural repertoire’ in the discourse privileging cultural essentialism in explanatory and contributing factors while in cases involving the white majority group, such as the Jay Inquiry into CSE, the discourse defers to a ‘criminal repertoire’.

In the case of the latter, the language and framing of the issue is contained within a discourse that focuses on ‘criminal intent, not race nor culture, for the motivation behind the sexual exploitation’.

When it comes to ‘Asian sex gangs’, explanatory and enabling factors are sought within cultural frames which focus on the perpetrator’s racial and religious identity and background. Cue the usual arguments about misogyny in Islamic culture, or ‘loveless’, ‘arranged’ and ‘forced’ marriages being at the root of the problem.

Miah’s analysis reinforces the work of Ella Cockbain whose co-authored work with Helen Brayley was used by right-wing tabloids in 2011 to propagate the ‘cultural repertoire’ on CSE, prompting a correction from the author herself.

Cockbain argues that the framing of a ‘Muslim Problem’ in the context of CSE dovetails with a wider prejudicial media and political discourse about ‘foreigners’ and ‘natives’ in which the racialisation of CSE reflects a ‘broader preoccupation with the idea of irreconcilable culture clash theories’.

Our `Muslim Problem` was identified in a seminal report by the Commission on British Muslims and Integration in 1997

As Miah puts it, the ‘invisibility’ of whiteness in the criminal repertoire employed in the discussion of CSE offences involving the political class or entertainment industry contrasts sharply with the emphasis on race and religion in the cultural repertoire employed to purposefully amplify sex crimes committed by some Asian-Pakistani men.

The role of the media here is instrumental as cause and effect.

The repertoires of meaning used to filter news stories about CSE is correlated to the volume of media output pushing racialised depictions, and draws into its mire a basket of associations necessary to fuel culture clash theories.

So, ‘honour’ killings is a term almost invariably used when the victim is a Muslim, forced marriages are referred to in the context of ‘Islamic cultures’ and female genital mutilation is ascribed to ‘Islamic practices’.

What purpose does this serve other than the obvious whipping up of hostility towards Muslim communities?

It is not only on issues of gender based violence that a cultural repertoire is evident. A preoccupation with religion as ideology as the primary explanatory factor for terrorism is constitutive of this paradigm in which ‘irreconcilable culture clash theories’ proliferate to the exclusion of evidence-based analysis and empirically tested causal relationships that demote the primacy of religion as an explanatory variable.

What purpose does this serve other than the obvious whipping up of hostility towards Muslim communities?

Among arguments advanced to explain the persistent distorting effects of media coverage on minority communities and migrants is the likely palatability of more restrictive and draconian legislation and policy towards Muslim communities. It is no accident that Kavanagh’s column closes with an open-ended question about what we’re to do about our ‘Muslim Problem’.

Taken this way, Kavanagh is right. The UK does have a ‘Muslim Problem’. But it’s not of the type envisaged by those whose racialised navel-gazing has distorted outlooks and intellects alike.

Our ‘Muslim Problem’ was identified in a seminal report by the Commission on British Muslims and Integration in 1997. It’s when the term Islamophobia dropped into our lexicon to describe the ‘unfounded hostility’ that breeds a ‘fear or dislike of all or most Muslims’ and which validates their exclusion from mainstream society.

That is the essence of our ‘Muslim Problem’ and twenty years on from the Runnymede report, we’re no closer to overcoming it.