The West and global Islamophobia: Oppressors at home and saviours overseas

Boris Johnson Credit: Michael Tubi /

Western governments, namely the UK and the US, seem to ignore their own institutional Islamophobia while hypocritically opposing China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, writes Taj Ali.

As we hear of the horrors of the Uyghur Muslims suffering in concentration camps, we are reminded of the very real consequences of Islamophobic rhetoric. Islamophobia, is of course, not unique to China. Across the world, from Britain to Burma, the US to India, there has been a significant rise in Islamophobia. As a British Muslim from Luton, I’ve witnessed first-hand, the consequences of dangerous hysteria whipped up about Muslim communities from politicians.

Far-right organisations like Britain First and the English Defence League have plagued towns like mine for many years. As we continue to witness a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime in Britain, our politicians have done nowhere near enough to challenge it.

Indeed, many politicians, including our own Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have been actively complicit in Islamophobia themselves. It is, therefore, striking to see politicians calling out Islamophobia overseas but reluctant to challenge the same rhetoric at home.

Oppressors at home and saviours overseas

Take for example, Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for the upcoming London Mayoral Election. In July, this year, Bailey tweeted, “What kind of signal are we sending when we continue a relationship with a government that is seeking to curtail human rights”, referencing the cruel persecution of Uighur Muslims in China.

On the 8th August, Bailey doubled down on his remarks, calling for London to be de-twinned from Beijing, highlighting how “China is trying to wipe out Uyghur Muslims” and ending the tweet by saying ‘London won’t tolerate human rights abuse.’

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The effort to depict the oppression of Muslims as something that only occurs overseas seeks to absolve the UK of its own complicity in Islamophobia.

Whether it is Muslim women having their hijabs ripped off from passers-by on the streets or Muslims being disproportionately stopped and searched and subjected to harassment through the Islamophobic prevent program, the UK has tolerated human rights abuses against Muslims for years. Shaun Bailey, himself, has his own history of Islamophobia.

In a 2005 pamphlet, Shaun Bailey wrote that accommodating Muslim and Hindu cultures “robs Britain of its community”. Individuals who have been cheerleaders for bigotry and hatred at home, seem to think we will suddenly see them as saviours for Muslims overseas.

The U.S. and India 

Over the pond, in America, the Trump administration have also highlighted the case of the Uyghur Muslims. However, a former aide, Jon Bolton has alleged that Trump had previously given Chinese President Xi Jinping the green light on building the concentration camps with the US leader saying it was “exactly the right thing to do”.

This should not surprise us, it was Trump, after all, who proposed the Muslim travel ban. Are we to be surprised that someone who retweets Britain First and Katie Hopkins does not have the best interests of Muslims at heart?

In the midst of an economic trade-war with China, it is abundantly clear that the US and its Western allies are only now beginning to highlight the persecution of Uyghur Muslims because it is politically convenient for them to do so.

When it comes to relationships with governments seeking to curtail human rights, our government seems to have no quarrels extending its relationship with the US which is two years into a Muslim ban and countries like India, with Modi being welcomed with open arms.

If British foreign policy was motivated by concern for human rights rather than economic self-interest, why has our government been silent when Muslims have been persecuted in India?

Under Modi’s watch, Muslims have suffered lynching and religious hate crimes against Muslims have surged.

Just recently, Modi’s government revoked the citizenship of 2 million, mostly Muslim Indians in Assam. Such a policy has been considered the biggest act of disenfranchisement in human history. Not to mention, the oppression of the predominantly Muslim population in Kashmir, where the Kashmiri people have been subjected to draconian laws and a lockdown since August. The double standards speak volumes and highlights how the suffering of Muslims is only spoken about when it suits a geopolitical agenda.

Islamophobia: A convenient tool for Western governments

Whilst it is convenient for some in the government and media to pretend that Islamophobia is restricted to fringe bigots from the far-right, our government and media have not only been passive bystanders but also active enablers in creating a climate of hatred and whipping up fear of Muslims.

Islamophobia, like other forms of racism, manifests itself overtly through individual acts of prejudice as well institutionally through draconian legislation which disproportionately targets the Muslim community. Islamophobia is more than just attacks on Muslims, it is a political tool used to achieve both domestic and foreign policy objectives by scapegoating Muslims for society’s problems.

Bush and Blair relied heavily on the construction of a foreign threat and fear mongering in order to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq. By using Essentialist discourse and relying on the ‘othering’ of the Iraqi people, they portrayed the Iraq War as a civilizational mission which in many ways mirrored colonial rhetoric.

Much of the rhetoric mirrored Rudyard Kipling’s notion of the white man’s burden whereby colonialism was justified in terms of civilizing people seen as backwards and helpless. Such orientalist framing was indeed evident in the ideas perpetuated by the Bush administration who claimed Iraq was in need of foreign intervention in order to bring freedom and democracy. Ultimately, the invasion would lead to the deaths of nearly half a million Iraqis.

A transnational endeavour

When the New Labour government invaded Iraq and undermined the civil liberties of Muslims through draconian laws such as detention without trial, it did so under the guise of fighting terrorism. China’s justification for its concentration camps is no different from our own governments who also attempt to justify Islamophobic policies through the language of national security and the portrayal of Muslims as terrorists. Whether it is at home or abroad, it is Muslims who are constructed as a suspect community and it is therefore Muslims who suffer.

The transnationally reinforcing nature of Islamophobia is evident. You hear the reports of Uyghur Muslims being tortured by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang and you are reminded of the torture which has occurred at the hands of Western authorities at Guantanamo Bay and Al Ghraib prison in Iraq. The threat-based narrative historically used to justify authoritarian policies targeted towards Muslims is neither unique to the West nor to China.

Many of our politicians have contributed to the very phenomena they seek to highlight elsewhere. This leaves us with only one conclusion, their faux concern about Uyghur Muslims in China is motivated more by anti-China sentiment than genuine concerns about the welfare of Muslims. Global attention on the oppression of the Uyghurs is a step in the right direction but our politicians and media need to be consistent in their opposition to Islamophobia.

Taj Ali is the outgoing ethnic minorities’ officer at the University of Warwick. He recently graduated from Warwick University with a BA in History and Politics. You can follow him on Twitter @taj_ali1

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