Reconfiguring Islamophobia and the Radical Right: a decade in retrospect

My new book, “Reconfiguring Islamophobia: a radical rethinking of a contested concept” (Palgrave Macmillan) marks a decade since the publication of my first book on the topic (“Islamophobia”, Ashgate). Through the lens afforded by the phenomenon of Islamophobia, it is an understatement to suggest that much has changed in that decade.

For instance, it was a decade ago under the auspices of a newly-elected government that not only did Baroness Sayeeda Warsi claim that Islamophobia had passed the ‘dinner-table test’ but so too that her party – the UK Conservatives – not only ‘got it’ as regards the danger of Islamophobia but so too needed to tackle it. Ten years on and we are again under the auspices of another newly-elected government – with Conservative-majority instead of a Conservative-led government, few would argue that today’s government ‘gets’ the scale and issue of the problem posed by anti-Muslim prejudice. Among other more structural reasons, today’s government has a Prime Minister who has been personally accused of being Islamophobic.

Through the lens of Islamophobia however, one of the most striking differences can be seen in the UK radical right. Back in 2010, the English Defence League (EDL) was in its infancy having organised a mere handful of demonstrations at the time. To this extent, the EDL did not even feature in my first book…! Today in 2020, while the EDL may be little more than a zombie movement that lumbers on – only six people turned up at a recent demonstration in Essex – what cannot be underestimated is its legacy. Shaping and informing as much the organisation and strategy as it does the discourse and ideology, it is highly unlikely that – without the EDL having forged its path – those, such as PEGIDA UK, Britain First, the Football Lads Alliance and Democratic Football Lads Alliance among various others, would have come into existence.

As regards to its legacy, one might argue that two of the EDL’s greatest successes was its mainstreaming of Islamophobic discourses and its mobilisation of significant numbers on the basis of those same discourses. Looking back over the past decade, it is staggering to think that – at its height – the EDL was able to mobilise thousands of people to protest against the building of Mosques in different towns and cities on almost a weekly basis. As I wrote in the New Statesman in the intervening years, the EDL and Britain First have been integral in problematising Mosques and what many believe they have come to symbolise.

For this reason, I focus on attacks on mosques in my new book. What became apparent from doing so was that the names, slogans and symbols of the radical right were a staple feature of the damage and desecration of Mosques across the country. Some of those would merely comprise the name or initials of a radical right movement. Interestingly, the initials ‘NF’ (National Front) was disproportionately common given the movement has a much lesser contemporary profile than others in the radical right. Names and initials were also regularly accompanied with a symbol or slogan. While the swastika was a regularly used symbol, others includes numbers such as ‘18’, ‘88’ or ‘666’; in the first two instances, numerical representations of the first letters of ‘Adolf Hitler’ and ‘Heil Hitler’ while in the latter, the ‘number’ of Satan. At times, short slogans were added to the names and initials of the radical right. While one in particular – ‘Islam out of this country’ –reminded me of the campaigns run by the British National Party in the mid-2000s, there was no evidence to substantiate this.

While the EDL went into near terminal decline once Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll resigned as leader and deputy in October 2013, the movement had seen an upsurge in support following the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby. Like other terror-related atrocities, the ‘backlash’ against Muslims was readily in the research undertaken for the new book. Engaging with more than 100 victims of street-level Islamophobia, some male victims remember being referred to ‘soldier killer’ around the time of Lee Rigby’s death. For many of the victims engaged, such attacks were understood to be ‘revenge’. As they went on to explain, in the eyes of the perpetrators of Islamophobic hate crime, not only are all Muslims seen to be one and the same but so too are all seen to be to blame and be responsible for; thereby justifying – in the minds of the perpetrators at least – the abuse and violence duly directed at them.

One of the most significant findings from my new book is not only the fluid and transitory nature of this blaming and homogenising, but how influential the radical right has been in feeding into this process. One particularly worrying trend identified was how those such as the EDL, Britain First and regional Infidels groups had been successful in conveying the message that child sexual exploitation (CSE) – using the moniker ‘grooming gangs’ – was endemic among Muslim communities. Not only did my research show that in some locations this was accepted without question, but, more importantly, that the matter of CSE had trickled into and found form in the experience of Islamophobia. To this extent, it was striking to find that ‘paedo’ and ‘Muslim paedo’ were now the most common insults directed at Muslim men.

When looking back over the past decade to when my first book on Islamophobia was published, Warsi’s ‘dinner-table test’ speech felt like something of a watershed moment. With the publication of my new book imminent, one must be extremely concerned by reports claiming that Robinson has joined the same political party that Warsi claimed had ‘got it’. Even more so that up to 5,000 members of Britain First have also joined. It does not take much to argue that today’s government neither ‘gets it’ nor wants to ‘get it’ when it comes to Islamophobia. In support of this, it is almost two years since the Muslim Council of Britain’s first published its dossier of near weekly instances of Islamophobia among Conservative party members. Prompting calls for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia, while some senior figures at the time paid the merest of lip service to the issue, others dismissed it out-of-hand. Now that an inquiry has been announced, the importance of Islamophobia has again been dismissed: focusing only on how the party handles complaints about discrimination and the more general phenomena of ‘prejudice’.

One of the aims of my new book therefore is to investigate why Islamophobia continues to be contested, exploring this through the dichotomous relationship that exists between Islamophobia as a political concept and Islamophobia as a ‘real’ and tangible discriminatory phenomenon. As part of this, I argue – in the book – that this dichotomous contestation serves a number of functions. One of those is that it affords opportunities that can – and indeed are – exploited by the radical right. While the book challenges us to rethink and reconfigure our understandings and approaches to Islamophobia, that message is mostly directed at those in the political spaces in the current climate. As my personal and professional experience has shown over the past decade, engaging politicians in any meaningful way about Islamophobia is far from easy. Doing so in the current climate is going to be far more difficult. In spite of this, the past decade has shown us that no matter how hard things get we need to keep pushing for a response to Islamophobia.

Dr Chris Allen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Associate Professor in the Centre for Hate Studies at the University of Leicester. You can pre-order his new book, ‘Reconfiguring Islamophobia: A Radical Rethinking of a Contested Concept’, here:

© Chris Allen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).