In this post, Dr Ben Whitham (De Montfort University) and Dr Nadya Ali (University of Sussex) discuss their article ‘Racial Capitalism, Islamophobia, and Austerity’, recently published in International Political Sociology (available in online early-view here). The primary research underpinning the article was funded by CURA grants from 2017-2019.
“A guy called my wife a letterbox, because she wears the Niqab”
Research participant, May 2018
“[I]t is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like
letter boxes … If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with her face obscured I
should feel fully entitled … to ask her to remove it”
Former UK Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London (now Prime Minister) Boris Johnson,
“And a bunch of drunks came by and start shouting at my wife, calling her a ninja,
calling her the “n”-word, calling her—they’re both “n”-words, but the other “n”-word”
Research participant, May 2018
Person A: “Look at all the little ninjas, getting it at the minute!” Person B: “That’s
what happens when they don’t pay their rent!” All: [laughter]
Unidentified men narrating the video of a Grenfell Tower effigy-burning, November
Over the last few years, we have been engaged in a research project exploring ‘The Intersectional Politics of Austerity and Islamophobia’ in London, with generous support from the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) at DMU. We had previously collaborated on an analysis of media and political discourse involved in the construction of a so-called ‘Muslim Problem’ in the UK, highlighting the role of ‘ideological fantasies’ in the multi-faceted demonisation of British Muslims, and how this has exceeded the narrower framings of ‘securitisation’ and ‘suspect communities’ theses. In that research, we touched upon the political-economic dimensions of contemporary Islamophobia – a subject CURA’s funding allowed us to explore more fully. In this blog we present an outline of our approach and findings.
Aims and approach of the project
The aim of our CURA project was to further explore and understand how Islamophobia might be understood through the lens of political economy. Our primary research consisted of interviews and a focus group with Muslim participants resident in and around East London. The three boroughs that we initially focused on to recruit participants – Newham, Tower Hamlets, and Waltham Forest – had some of the highest proportions of Muslim residents at the last census, but also high levels of poverty. Research suggests that cities in general, and deprived London boroughs like these in particular, were subject to some of the deepest impacts from the austerity policies that followed the global financial crisis. Drastic cuts to local public services tend to have more severe effects on racially minoritised and lower-income individuals and families, since they are more likely to rely on these services and infrastructures in everyday life. Our aim was to understand the relationship between two dominant trends of the 2010s – the political economy of austerity, and the rising tide of Islamophobia – in the urban context of East London.
We also stated at the outset of the project that the purpose and ethics of exploring lived experiences of Islamophobia and austerity must be not only to increase academic knowledge or understanding of intersectional inequalities, but also to ‘give more of a voice’ to the socially marginalised survivors of abuse and discrimination who would be sharing their (often traumatic) stories with us. During the course of the research, we were able to address this in part by feeding into the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims’ inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia. Like most of the academic submissions to the inquiry, ours pressed especially hard for any definition to state that Islamophobia is a form of racism, rather than simply ‘religious discrimination’, discussed here. The inquiry’s final report defined Islamophobia as ‘a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness’, and cited the evidence we had submitted based on findings from our primary and secondary research. The definition was subsequently voted on and adopted by a wide range of public institutions and organisations, from all major political parties in Westminster and the devolved assemblies of Scotland and Wales (with the notable exception of the governing Westminster Conservatives, though their Scottish counterparts did adopt the definition), to local authorities from London to Manchester, and universities, to name but a few.
Racial capitalism and the disentitlements of austerity
In our recently published article, ‘Racial Capitalism, Islamophobia, and Austerity’, we situate the findings from our primary research in a theoretical and historical field structured by the concepts of intersectionality and racial capitalism. Influenced by the pioneering work of scholars including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cedric J. Robinson, Robbie Shilliam, Gargi Bhattacharya, Salman Sayyid, and others, we sought to explore lived experiences of Islamophobia in terms of the ways in which they intersect with the policies and politics of austerity, and post-crash Western capitalism. Specifically, the work of these scholars allowed us to understand recent trends in Islamophobia in the UK, and the wider ‘West’, as rooted in much older historical practices of racialisation and racialised ‘disentitlement’ that are central to the development of capitalism. We argue that the rising tide of Islamophobia is not merely a consequence or epiphenomenon of the political economy of austerity, but rather is constitutive of it, with the violent targeting and disentitlement of British Muslims being a central feature of austerity in practice.
Our findings: everyday Islamophobia, austerity gentrification, and gendered racist violence
The key findings from our primary research are presented in the article as tripartite. First, we note that Islamophobia is often experienced and articulated through the same ‘everyday’ social planes as austerity. Participants spoke of harassment on public transport, of profiling by agents of the state, and of everyday journeys through urban political economy that are marred by Islamophobic racism, in both structural and direct forms. One participant spoke about the pervasive nature of Islamophobia, “Now … it’s like a part of life, you know, as sad as it sounds. It’s just, OK, I’m going to anticipate it in my journey. It’s not like a conscious thing, it’s just, OK, it might happen today.”
Second, we found that the process of ‘austerity gentrification’ has affected Muslims in particular ways, with our London-based participants noting that the trend for house prices and rents to rise in highly diverse boroughs in East London was pushing Muslims to the outskirts of the city, and beyond, where they felt an intensification of Islamophobic violence. As one participant noted, “We moved out because we couldn’t afford to live in that borough anymore. We were priced out, you know, rents were unaffordable. So since I’ve moved into this new borough I’ve, like I said, on the street I’ve been spat at, I’ve been called a fucking terrorist, a man and a woman barged me in the shopping centre when I was with my kids and called me a terrorist.” The ‘whitening’ (and increasingly middle-class make-up) of formerly diverse inner-London boroughs through austerity gentrification made for experiences of increased exclusion and marginalisation.
Third, and finally, we explored the anti-Black and gendered nature of Islamophobic abuse our participants experienced, and the specific targeting of Muslim women who were with their children. Dehumanising colonial and postcolonial discourses that urban colonised / diasporic populations were / are responsible for ‘breeding’ feeds into a narrative that Muslim families take more than their ‘fair share’ of national resources, at the expense of more ‘deserving’ white Britons. As one participant said, “Because we sisters, it’s the women that get the flak for it … the sister that’s going to school or going to the shopping center with a couple of kids, and mothers…You’ve got young children that could possibly—and do, and have—suffered mental health issues, as a result of watching their mothers being abused, whether it’s verbal, children pick up—they have a sixth sense.” The type of Islamophobic abuse experienced by participants was coextensive with whether they were racialised as Black and Muslim, Brown and Muslim, or White and Muslim.
In addition to these three core findings, our research participants also highlighted the ways in which elite political discourse emanating from Westminster and from the UK’s media was directly implicated in their everyday experiences of anti-Muslim racism, and including the austerity framing of Islamophobia as an economic imperative.
We hope to be able to further develop this research through an exploration of the connections between the political economy of Islamophobia and the ‘libidinal economies’ of the same. That is to say, through future research we want to better understand, and challenge, the range of narratives that have centred Muslims, ‘Muslimness’, and Islam in explanations of social antagonisms, and have mobilised the psychosocial forces of desire, fantasy, and enjoyment, to do so.
The full article ‘Racial Capitalism, Islamophobia, and Austerity’ is available here.