The threat of Islamophobia is not only directed at Muslims but at the very idea of humanity itself, which is much more plural and heterogeneous, according to Salman Sayyid, an expert on the issue of Islamophobia.
In an interview with Anadolu’s Strategic Analysis Department, Sayyid spoke about the UK’s controversial plan to house asylum seekers on the “Bibby Stockholm” barge, as well as the increasing levels of xenophobia in Europe against Muslim minorities.
What does this incident tell us about Britain’s refugee policies?
Sayyid: This incident reveals some critical aspects of Britain’s refugee policies. On the one hand, the government is attempting to project a tough stance on immigration, while also presenting itself as humane by promoting a ship with seemingly excellent facilities for refugees.
However, the discovery of Legionnaire’s disease on the ship raises serious concerns about the safety and health standards provided to refugees. Housing refugees on this ship was another version of the British government’s plans to outsource refugees by forcing them to settle in Rwanda.
The British government has stoked xenophobia in the country and claimed it will stop refugees from coming to Britain.
Therefore, its failure to reduce the flow of refugees raises questions about its competence. Instead of addressing the policies that contribute to creating refugees, such as military involvement in destabilising countries, the government is following a strategy similar to Australia.
This strategy aims to physically prevent refugees from reaching the country’s shores and assumes that treating them harshly will deter them from seeking refuge.
In essence, the government seems more focused on deterring refugees from coming, than addressing the root causes of the refugee crisis.
How does this incident fit in with Britain’s liberal cosmopolitan image?
Sayyid: It is important to recognise that this image of a liberal cosmopolitan Britain is based on an active forgetting of the role of racism in Britain.
Britain and other Western countries like to present themselves as cosmopolitan societies that are tolerant and compassionate.
But even during the height of German persecution of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, Britain continued heavily restricting Jewish migration to the country.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Britain invited people from its former colonies in the Caribbean and South Asia to help with post-war reconstruction.
Still, these post-colonial migrants experienced racism in housing, employment, social services and the criminal justice system.
The anti-racist struggles of these post-colonial people turned Britain from a monochrome island to a multicultural society and helped create a cosmopolitan Britain.
This cosmopolitanism has always been contested. And, right now, it has been taken over by an attempt to create a much more xenophobic “little England” than a multicultural world island.
Unfortunately, many individuals who have recently expressed strong xenophobic opinions in Britain are descendants of people who may have come to the country as refugees or migrants.
These individuals, who are now advocating for discriminatory and prejudiced views against foreigners, are endorsing policies that, had they been in place during their ancestors’ time, would have prevented their parents or grandparents from immigrating to Britain.
Not only are they validating these discriminatory policies, but they are also trying to justify racism by arguing that, because they belong to racial or ethnic minority groups and support these policies, the policies cannot be considered racist.
What about other Western countries?
Sayyid: There is a similar pattern across the West. There is a rising tide of xenophobia, as many of these societies are influenced by white supremacy.
Western countries continue to proclaim their Enlightenment values of liberalism and tolerance, but they are all carrying out anti-refugee and Islamophobic policies.
Their liberalism is restricted to complaining that governments that do not agree with them are authoritarian, as their treatment of minorities, especially Muslims, becomes increasingly authoritarian.
It appears authoritarianism is only bad when “foreigners” do it.
Are there double standards?
Sayyid: In 2023, we should no longer need to ask if there are double standards.
Of course, there are double standards: everybody outside the West knows there are double standards.
Only politicians, opinion-makers and those in the Western establishment cannot see double standards.
You can see the double standards if you compare how the UK and the European Union treated refugees from Ukraine with how refugees from Africa or Asia are treated.
Ukrainian refugees were given tremendous assistance.
But how is their condition different from the refugees created in wars provoked by the Western powers, or attempts to overthrow governments or support oppressive regimes, all of which contribute to refugee crises also instigated by Western powers?
Where do you see the root of the problem?
Sayyid: The root of the problem is that we are entering an age of Islamophobia, from the Americas to Asia.
Islamophobia affects Muslims and targets Muslimness – values and practices that are considered part of Muslim identity.
These include the idea that Muslims cannot be contained in a nation-state. The existence of Muslim minorities and the concept of Muslimness raises questions about the viability of nation-states.
Muslimness is seen as being antagonistic to ethno-nationalism. The threat of Islamophobia is not only directed at Muslims but at the very idea of humanity itself, which is much more plural and heterogeneous.
Unfortunately, it seems that very few governments around the world are actively speaking for a heterogeneous humanity or seriously tackling Islamophobia.
The treatment of refugees is a symptom of enclosing our empathy along ethno-nationalist lines.
At the same time, our ability to study and understand history is being diminished. We continue to accept the stories that the West presents about itself as unquestionable truths.
We are taught to forget, for example, that Europe historically has been less culturally diverse and cosmopolitan compared to many Muslim societies prior to colonialism.
Do you expect to see any positive steps?
Sayyid: I don’t expect any positive steps from this British government.
Nor do I anticipate a significant improvement in the treatment of refugees if the main opposition party, the Labour Party, comes into power.
The Labour Party and many social-democratic parties in Europe have become indistinguishable from their right-wing counterparts and, in their political and moral cowardice, have embraced Islamophobia and xenophobia.
There is no doubt that there are problems in Britain due to a faltering welfare state, growing social inequities and failing infrastructure, but refugees are not the cause of these problems, but they get blamed for them.
The lack of decent housing is due to government policies of austerity for almost 13 years, not the arrival of refugees.
Unless action is taken against this narrative of austerity and xenophobia, positive steps are difficult to imagine.
Sometimes, even politicians have to do something because it is the right thing to do. They cannot be silent in the face of intolerance and injustice because their advisers and opinion-shapers tell them it is an expedient thing to do.
Taking such a stance means going against the spirit of the age, and it requires courage. I am not sure you can find this type of political courage in Britain or the European Union today.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.