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How to Identify & Tackle Islamophobia in the Workplace


If you are in a leadership, management, HR or DEI role and would like to understand Islamophobia and its potential impact on your Muslim employees, then this guide is for you.

Anti-Muslim bias, discrimination against Muslims and fear, hatred of, or prejudice towards Muslims - i.e. Islamophobia  - is a social problem.

It exists within our schools, media, politics and workplaces.

This guide to Islamophobia is broken down into two sections.

In the first section, we will equip you with an understanding of important topics which underlie Islamophobia before presenting you with practical tips to address its influence in the workplace in the second section.

Understanding and Identifying Islamophobia in the Workplace

1. Islamophobia in the UK

Before we start, it’s important to stress that you will find Islamophobia expressed differently around the world.

This is due to many factors such as history, culture, modern-day immigration policies and politics. Islamophobia in the USA looks slightly different to that in France, which again is different to China, and so on.

For this reason, the guide has been written with a specific focus on the UK. The author is British and he has drawn upon UK-based research, news and links.

Readers from other countries are encouraged to find examples from their own countries.


2. How do we define Islamophobia?

You might be surprised to learn that there is no commonly accepted definition of Islamophobia.

Although there have been many attempts to define it, there has been considerable contention about how this is done. We’ll explore why this is the case shortly.

Let’s take a look at a few of the definitions most commonly used:

“A fear, prejudice and hatred of Muslims or non-Muslim individuals that leads to provocation, hostility and intolerance by means of threatening, harassment, abuse, incitement and intimidation of Muslims and non- Muslims, both in the online and offline world. Motivated by institutional, ideological, political and religious hostility that transcends into structural and cultural racism which targets the symbols and markers of a being a Muslim.” [Proposed definition of UN Human Rights]

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.” [All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims - UK]

“Islamophobia refers to unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs.” [Runnymede Trust - UK]

You may have noticed that, although there’s no universal definition of Islamophobia, these definitions do indeed share a common thread.

They allude to Islamophobia as a type of racism which discriminates against Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) simply for being Muslim.

So, why the contention around a definition of Islamophobia? Well, there are some arguments against the wording and its implications.

We’ve outlined a couple of the more prevalent arguments below:

‘It’s not a ‘phobia’; it’s rational.’

• ‘It is not a phobia to call out values or behaviours that conflict with our own, especially in a secular democracy.’
• ‘By branding anyone who disagrees with Islam ‘phobic’ you’re calling them irrational and shutting down free speech.’

‘Muslims are not a race, so it’s not racism, is it?’

• ‘Muslims come from lots of different continents and countries which undermines any truth to it being “racism”’
• ‘People who disagree with the Shariah and Islam are being called racists for just trying to speak the truth.’

Let’s take a look at counterpoints to these assertions:

‘It’s not a ‘phobia’; it’s rational.’

It is important to understand the difference between criticism of Islam (which is valid) and the expression of Islamophobic views (which is invalid). The victims of Islamophobia can also be non-Muslims (see the case of Jean Charles de Menezes), which points to irrationality being baked into Islamophobia.

‘Muslims are not a race, so it’s not racism, is it?’

If perceived ‘Muslimness’ leads to othering, racialisation and racist actions by people or institutions, it is racist. It doesn’t matter if Muslims aren’t a ‘race’ – what matters is they are being othered into one monolith and discriminated against for their perceived association.

Muslim man holding small quran

Understanding more about Islam, its beliefs, practices and icons, is crucial in combatting Islamophobia. To learn more about the religion try our quick guide to Islam.

Image by Fadkhera Official

3. What is Islamophobia and what isn’t Islamophobia?

If you find yourself in the position of having to navigate your way through the debate, you’ll find it useful to understand the line between what is Islamophobic and what is not Islamophobic.

For many, it’s difficult to work out where the line is and what it looks like. Take for example the following statements. Do you consider them Islamophobic or not?

Being critical of Islam“I don’t believe the Quran can be the word of God.”
Citing facts about Islam“Islam allows men to marry more than one wife, but not vice versa.”
Disagreeing with Islamic practices“Halal slaughter is cruel. It should be banned.”

It’s fair to say, that none of these statements is intrinsically Islamophobic. However, what would make them Islamophobic is if the speaker started treating anyone they assumed was Muslim unfairly because of these opinions.

For example:

Disagreeing with the hijab (women’s hair covering) is not intrinsically Islamophobic. However, it would be Islamophobic if anyone wearing a hijab was discriminated against or experienced prejudice due to negative opinions of the hijab.

This might be demonstrated, for example, in the following ways:

  • Introduction of a law or policy which targets hijab wearers for their choice of clothing
  • Use of dehumanising language to describe that person such as “slave” or “Jihadi Jane”
  • Physical harm that is directed at a hijab wearer


4. How to Identify Islamophobia in the Workplace

So now we know what Islamophobia is and isn’t, how might we recognise it in the workplace?

Depending on where in the world you live, Islamophobia can take shape in many ways. The four most common expressions of Islamophobia are listed below:

a. Stereotyping
b. Denial of equality
c. Islamophobic tropes
d. Harm & violence

Let's explore them in more detail.


a. Stereotyping

The most common stereotypes of Muslims suggest they are ‘intolerant, anti-Western, anti-Semitic, misogynistic or terrorists’.

In the workplace, Muslims often find themselves on the receiving end of such stereotypes. For example, they might find that colleagues make assumptions about their likes or dislikes or their loyalty to the group.

Stereotyping is biased and, as we all know, bias tends to lead to all bad decisions and poor outcomes including workplace discrimination.


b. Denial of Equality

Denial of equality is the result of a ‘Muslims can’t be like us’ mentality. In the workplace, this sentiment can be both conscious and unconscious.

It has been well researched and proven that employment opportunities are more limited for Muslims due to discrimination. For example, the BBC conducted an experiment in which they showed that Muslim names on CVs are less likely to be successful. (see BBC experiment with CVs).

More recent research has shown that employers are likely to cover up their denial of equality by pitching Muslims as being culturally uncomfortable with the modern British workplace.


c. Islamophobic Tropes

As well as stereotyping and discrimination, Muslims can also suffer aggression at work in the form of Islamophobic tropes.

An example of a trope is the Great Replacement Theory which advocates that Muslims plan to take over the West by flooding it with Muslim offspring. It’s these tropes, informed by stereotypes and fanned by certain elements of the media that feed into the workplace and can result in Islamophobic behaviours.

Being on the receiving end of these thinly disguised attacks is unfortunately commonplace for many British Muslims in employment.


d. Harm & Violence

In 2021, in the UK, 50% of reported hate crimes were against Muslims.

Although physical harm or violence against Muslims in the workplace is rare it can happen in more subtle ways. For example, bias, discrimination and being denied an appropriate place to perform prayers can all impact stress and mental health.

A staggering 43% of Muslims working in the NHS said they would consider leaving due to Islamophobia. One said she had stopped wearing the hijab as it was “like wearing a sign saying ‘kick me’.”

young professional muslim woman hijab

Ramadan is a special time of year for Muslims and a month in which they may need support. To learn more, read Ramadan at Work: HR Best Practice

Image by Good Faces.

Tackling Islamophobia at Work

Islamophobia is clearly an issue in the UK, both outside and inside the workplace. To combat its perniciousness, there is value to be had in tackling it from both angles.

If you are in leadership, management, HR, DEI or a stakeholder, then the suggestions below may help you tackle potential issues within your work areas.


1. Include Islamophobia in DEI education

If you have a DEI policy and provide training around diversity or racism, then it will be of value to include Islamophobia in the conversation. Until Islamophobia is properly recognised as a form of racism, then it can’t be treated as such.

2. Address biases and stereotypes

Using initiatives such as training, workshops and mentoring programs, can help people reflect on their biases and how they’ve been formed. Exploring how Islamophobia is often founded on second or third-hand knowledge can go a long way to helping people confront and break down their stereotypes.

3. Get your facts straight

Encourage staff to reach out to Muslim colleagues to discuss any questions they might have.  Spending time with Muslims, sharing questions, observing, and reading are all excellent ways of improving awareness around what is fact and what is fiction.

4. Include Muslims in the conversation

Research tells us, that Muslim representation in many organisations is low, particularly at more senior levels. If Muslims are simply the topic of conversation and not part of the conversation, change will be extremely slow. As such, invite Muslim employees to engage in conversations as appropriate.

5. Show solidarity with Muslims

Muslims often report that they feel as though they are left to fend for themselves when facing any sort of harassment. Creating a workplace culture in which employees show solidarity through words and action to minority colleagues is essential in not only demonstrating support, but also in drawing clear red lines concerning what is acceptable, or not, in the workplace.

6. Ensure Muslim employees can report concerns

It’s important to establish clear protocols for Muslim staff to raise potential concerns safely and confidentially.  Taking complaints or concerns seriously is essential to validating this system and to reassuring Muslim staff that their concerns aren’t ‘tick sheet’ exercises only.

Islamophobia Workshops and Training

NeilPayne Islamophobia speaker trainerAs someone who has experienced Islamophobia in the workplace, Neil Payne helps organisations understand the phenomenon and how to manage it.

His work includes the police, NHS, schools and the military, as well as several organisations and businesses in security, manufacturing, tourism, training and luxury fashion.

If you would like to learn more about how Neil can help you, please contact us for more information.

 Main blog image by Edmond Dantès


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