With the launch of the report of the first ever inquiry into Islamophobia in Scotland, Peter Hopkins discusses the key findings and what should change.
In 2018, a new Cross Party Group (CPG) on Tackling Islamophobia was established in the Scottish Parliament, chaired by Anas Sarwar MSP, the recently elected Scottish Labour leader. The first ever inquiry into Islamophobia in Scotland was led through the CPG and the final report was published in late June 2021. 447 respondents submitted evidence to the inquiry and 15 written submissions were received from organisations and agencies in Scotland.
The dominant discourse in Scotland is that it is a tolerant, welcoming and open place; however, the inquiry findings found the opposite to be the case. 75 per cent of Muslims say that Islamophobia is a regular or everyday issue in Scottish society and 83 per cent of Muslim respondents had experienced Islamophobia directly. The street is the location most commonly referred to, after which it is public spaces such as shops or restaurants and public transport, then at work and places of education. It was also noted that Islamophobia in Scotland has a negative and disproportionate impact on women and that Islamophobia is experienced by Muslims as well as others who are mistaken for being Muslim. Of all respondents, 31 per cent have experienced Islamophobia at work, 18 per cent at school and 13 per cent at college or university. Labour leader Anas Sarwar said that these findings ‘should shame us all’.
Of all those with direct experience of Islamophobia, only 22 per cent had reported the incidents to the police. Evidence submitted to the inquiry noted a lack of confidence in the police and the justice system, concerns about institutional racism and the police, coupled with a sense that there was a lack of evidence to support the victim’s claim that they had experienced Islamophobia.
The inquiry found a diverse set of factors that work to enable and promote Islamophobia in Scotland. Some pointed to issues with Scottish politics, politicians and elections or concerns about Brexit and far-right politics. Others expressed concerns about military intervention, problematic counter-terrorism policies and also terrorist incidents, with others still observing the damaging effects of poverty and austerity. For all of these, evidence often pointed to the media as the key route through which Islamophobia was enabled. 93 per cent of Muslim respondents to the inquiry believe that print media promote Islamophobia with 89 per cent saying the same with respect to broadcast media. Social media was also a concern with 84 per cent noting that social media increases Islamophobia.
Just over half of inquiry respondents say that they have altered their behaviour as a result of either experiencing Islamophobia or fearing it. Common responses included attempts to conceal their Islamic identities, hypervigilance in everyday spaces, withdrawing from social interactions, and attempting to educate others about what it means to be Muslim in order to challenge stereotypes and promote understanding.
The inquiry found that many barriers were created as a result of the prevalence of Islamophobia in Scottish society. 88 per cent of participants state that in Scotland Islamophobia has an impact on Muslims’ employment opportunities. Many feel that because of their Muslim faith they are less likely to be shortlisted for jobs or considered for promotion. Others say that they have experienced both overt discrimination and microaggressions at work.
Around three quarters of respondents said that Islamophobia has an impact on the educational outcomes of Muslims in Scotland with concerns expressed about its increase in schools, both for teachers and for pupils. Such concerns also extend to the domains of health, housing and politics. Just over half of all the Muslim respondents to the inquiry think that Islamophobia has an impact on Muslims’ ability to access Scotland’s public services and institutions. Participants report that Islamophobia creates barriers to health and housing, including access to healthcare, fitness activities and social housing. Some also mentioned Islamophobia as a reason why they do not engage in formal politics.
So, what can be done to address this? The inquiry report outlines 45 recommendations to tackle the shame of Scotland’s Islamophobia. There is much work to be done. It is recommended that all political parties and Council leaders should be proactive in taking a public stance against Islamophobia advocating a ‘no tolerance’ approach, rather than being silent about the matter. The Scottish government is urged to start an independent review into the problem, to integrate the issue into its Race Equality Framework and to appoint more Muslims to public boards and senior positions. Specific attention should always be paid to the gendered nature of Islamophobia.
Many recommendations point to the need for change in Scottish education. The report advocates the introduction of initiatives to educate the people of Scotland about the damage that Islamophobia does to Scottish society, with specific attention paid to the need to demonstrate the positive contributions of Muslims to Scottish society, politics, culture and history. Some want to see improved reporting and recording of Islamophobia incidents in schools, and there was a strong sense that all lecturers, teachers and educationalists should regularly engage in training about Islamophobia. Such training was also recommended for medical and health professionals, local authorities, police officers and journalists, including the use of media guidelines produced by the CPG.
Respondents to the inquiry wanted to see the Scottish government adopt a formal definition of Islamophobia to help promote understanding and to indicate their commitment to addressing it. Furthermore, many wanted to see more funded projects and initiatives about Islamophobia, the collection of robust data and the in-depth and intersectional analysis of this.
The findings of this inquiry outline the concerning extent of Islamophobia in Scottish society; the recommendations also point to the need for real change across many domains of Scottish society. Only when all of the recommendations of this inquiry are actioned and embedded within Scotland’s institutions and across Scottish society and culture will we be able to claim that the problem of Scotland’s Islamophobia has started to be addressed.
Peter Hopkins is Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University and authored the inquiry report into Islamophobia in Scotland.
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