Anxiety, fantasy and ideology in the social construction of a ‘Muslim problem’

‘I’ve been warning my party of its “Muslim problem” for far too long’, wrote Baroness Warsi in July 2018, calling for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the UK’s ruling Conservative Party. Warsi subverted a term coined a year earlier when Trevor Kavanagh, former political editor of the Sun, published a column in that paper posing the question: ‘What will we do about The Muslim Problem then?’. Kavanagh’s article triggered an inquiry by the UK media regulator (of which Kavanagh was a board member), whose ruling concurred with the Muslim Council of Britain and the Board of Deputies of British Jews that his words ‘could be interpreted as a reference to the rhetoric preceding the Holocaust’ but nevertheless failed to uphold the complaint.

Meanwhile, another sometime Sun columnist and radio presenter, Katie Hopkins, known for anti-Muslim hate speech called for a ‘final solution’ after the 2017 Manchester bombing, a term repeated by an Australian senator in his August 2018 maiden speech, in which he declared Muslims ‘a problem’ for Australia. Alongside these uses of Nazi terminology, ‘mainstream’ politicians offer succour to the Islamophobic far right with tirades against aspects of perceived Muslim-ness. Former Mayor of London and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, also in August 2018, wrote about feeling ‘perfectly entitled’ to ask that Muslim women constituents remove items of their clothing in his office, ridiculing burqa-wearers as ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ (terms used in street abuse[1] of Muslim women). And all of these cases follow the government’s (2016) Casey Review; commissioned as a general ‘review into integration and opportunity’, the final report was obsessively preoccupied with the lives of Muslim others.

This widespread and multi-faceted problematisation of British Muslims exceeds post-9/11 ‘securitisation’ framings, and is taking place against a backdrop of rising Islamophobic hate crime and an international context that includes President Donald Turmp’s ban on people from certain majority-Muslim countries from even entering the United States.

So does the UK have a ‘Muslim problem’ and if so, what is it? Our new Security Dialogue article, explores the ideological functions served by media scandals around British Muslims relating to ‘grooming gangs’; the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham schools; and halal food scandals epitomised by the Sun’s ‘Halal secret of Pizza Express’ headline.

What does it mean to say that these scandals serve ‘ideological’ functions? Our article draws upon the Lacanian, psychoanalysis-infused concept of ideology developed by Slavoj Zizek, to argue that the ideological functions of a media scandal are the powerful ways that it structures social fantasies. Wherever we find anxiety-inducing social tensions and contradictions – such as those around systematic sexual abuse, deregulated education, or the industrialised production of meat – we find fantasy narratives displacing or managing these anxieties.

The UK’s real ‘Muslim problem’ is that political and media elites fixate upon British Muslims, while publics voraciously consume Muslim ‘plot’ narratives as a means of displacing ethical responsibility for social antagonisms onto a minority ‘other’. As our article shows, this has created a ‘conceptual Muslim’ like the Nazi ‘conceptual Jew’ – a monstrous figure that can be blamed for our lack of cohesive national selfhood at times of economic and political crises: the Great Recession, austerity and Brexit. Such ideological fantasies of ‘problems’ are of course extremely dangerous since they can sustain violently racist policy ‘solutions’.

[1] Following the research for this article, we are currently engaged in a research project on the ‘intersectional politics of austerity and Islamophobia’, supported by the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University. In a research interview with a victim of Islamophobic abuse, just weeks before Johnson’s article was published, a participant outlining his family’s experiences of street abuse told us: ‘a guy called my wife a letterbox, because she wears the Niqab’.

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