UK Universities Are Not Taking Action on Islamophobia – London Report

Universities are failing to recognise and take decisive action on Islamophobia, a report by London Metropolitan’s Centre for Equity and Inclusion finds.

UK universities are falling short of acknowledging the spread of Islamophobia on their campuses and have done little in their efforts to tackle discrimination against Muslim students, according to a report released this month by the London Metropolitan University’s (London Met) Centre for Equity and Inclusion.

In November 2020, London Met became the first UK university to adopt the working definition of Islamophobia as developed by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims in 2018 following two years of consultation.

The APPG defines Islamophobia as a form of prejudice that is “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

“Islamophobia is pervasive in British society, its institutions and higher education is no different,” Sofia Akel, the Race Equity Lead at the Centre of Equity and Inclusion, and author of the report, told TRT World in an email statement.

“My research looks at the experiences of Muslim students and staff and builds on existing scholarship which reveals the barriers that Muslims in higher education face, from the point at which they apply to university/or are hired through to degree-awarding, career progression and so on.”

“We hope the report will shed light on the insidious nature of Islamophobia in UK higher education – including how it operates and manifests, as well as its impact on the psycho-social environment. We encourage university leaders to make decisive changes which tackle racism in all forms, including Islamophobia,” Akel added.

Dr Zainab Khan, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Director at the Centre for Equity and Inclusion, said the report can be “used as a springboard by institutions to begin their own internal discussions and work on Islamophobia.”

Khan mentioned the reluctance of the UK higher education sector in acknowledging the problem of Islamophobia and there was a “considerable distance left to travel” in recognising the complexities of contemporary racism in Britain.

The report notes that while adopting the definition does not solve the problem of Islamophobia itself, having it as a part of an “institutional vocabulary” would allow universities to begin “to collectively embed anti-oppressive practices.”

More importantly, it creates a useful foundation from which “Muslim students and staff can discuss, lodge complaints and expect to have their experiences understood,” the report said, adding that institutions must move beyond a superficial understanding of Islamophobia that includes its impact on recruitment processes to the psycho-social environment.

Report findings

The study, titled ‘Institutionalised: The Growth of Islamophobia in Higher Education’, examined the question: To what extent does Institutional Islamophobia shape the experiences of Muslim students and staff at London Metropolitan University?

Further sub-questions were then explored through four thematic areas: observing religion on campus; academic success, inclusion and attainment; institutional Islamophobia; Microaggressions, safety and reporting Islamophobia.

The research methods consisted of two surveys that were used to collect responses from 93 students and 13 staffers during November 2020. Black Africans represented 17 percent of respondents, while Bangladeshis and Pakistanis were 15 and 14 percent respectively. 68 percent of student respondents were women, which even higher (77 percent) among staff respondents.

When it comes to inclusion, 26 percent stated they would not nominate themselves for student elections or take up leadership positions out of fear of religious discrimination.

The pervasiveness of alcohol at social events also has exclusionary effect on some students, and 15 percent felt pressured to alter their religious practices to fit prevailing Western social norms.

Anxiety over appearance in relation to religious identity in order to avoid potential prejudicial treatment was also common.

At an institutional level, Prevent Duty plays into a culture of heightened surveillance and criminalisation of Muslims as a “suspect community”, leading many students to self-police and censor views or conversations that could risk being misinterpreted under the lens of counter-extremism.

From the perspective of gender, 29 percent at London Met stated they had to defend their right to wear religious garments like the hijab against those who harbour prejudicial views. As a result of this 15.7 percent said they felt unsafe wearing religious attire, some of whom were physically or verbally assaulted.

Invisibilising of these issues is the fact that there is no tangible outlet available for Muslim students to report or confront discriminatory incidents. 45 percent disclosed that they have no safe space to discuss their experiences in relation to Islamophobia.

This has led to self-preservation strategies, with 16 percent going as far as to hide their religious beliefs from their peers.

Among staff respondents, the report mentions how a number feel disempowered in terms of career progression optimism due to Islamophobia, leading to a culture of fear where they do not speak up due to concerns of victimisation or reprisal.

Such concerns have also led to instances where staff attempt to avoid certain topics in their lectures such as religion and politics.

Recommendations

The report forwarded some key recommendations for eradicating Islamophobia within higher education.

One is to widen participation by offering students the ability to open Shariah-compliant bank accounts and to give them the option to take out compliant loans in order to attend university.

A problem was that half of student respondents felt they had to choose between attending lectures or religious events and practices. The report discusses steps that could help minimise this issue is to make the university calendar accommodate key religious holidays like Eid and look to consult with students during periods like Ramadan to ensure examinations are held when students are less fatigued.

Additionally on campus, is to make sure Halal food options which are offered are clearly marked and not mixed or cross-contaminated with non-Halal food.

Centralising complaints procedures to reflect various forms of racial and religious discrimination is another important point, as is assuring that HR and hiring managers assess recruitment practices of Muslim staff in order to implement equitable practices to mitigate the impact of Islamophobia on career pipeline inequalities.

Apart from the Centre for Equity and Inclusion, London Met itself has taken a number of steps to tackle prejudice such as creating a Decolonising Met Group that seeks to de-centre the European and colonial lens within the staff syllabi, and personalised counselling circles for Black and minority students.

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