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Recognising And Tackling Islamophobia In The Workplace

7 months ago by Rose Hunt

Recognising And Tackling Islamophobia In The Workplace


Islamophobia remains disturbingly common in the UK. In a survey carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2018, 70% Muslims said they had experienced religious prejudice in the preceding year, and separate research revealed that an incredible 69% had even experienced this in the workplace. These unfortunate statistics reflect the fact that Muslim adults in the UK are far less likely to be in full-time work, less likely to be selected for promotions and pay-rises, and more likely to be discriminated against in the recruitment process compared to their non-Muslim peers. 

What Do We Mean By ‘Islamophobia’?

Although Muslims come from many different parts of the world, the Muslim Council of Great Britain still defines Islamophobia as a set of behaviours rooted in racism, that ‘targets Muslimness or perceived Muslimness’, and ‘causes, calls for, aids or justifies acts of aggression against Muslims.’ Criticism of Islam itself is not inherently Islamophobic, unless a person is relying on unfair stereotypes and prejudices and using offensive language. 

Recognising Islamophobia At Work

Prejudice in the workplace is rarely expressed overtly. Rather, it’s mostly insidious, and often disguised as microaggressions, jokes or ‘banter’. For example, attempts to gauge a Muslim colleague’s views on Isis or the Palestine conflict, or seemingly ‘light-hearted’ questions about a female employee’s choice to wear a hijab. Microaggressions might take the form of unwelcome questioning about a person’s decision not to drink alcohol or eat bacon, or asking whether a person is ‘forced’ to fast during Ramadan. In cases such as these, Islamic team members will often be made to feel that they’re ‘making a fuss’ if they complain about the treatment they receive, and all too often will be told that their colleague’s intentions are innocent.  Alternatively, Islamophobia in the workplace may take the form of senior leaders and management depriving Muslim employees of the same opportunities given to their non-Muslim peers due to unfounded stereotypes or prejudice. For example, Muslim team members may miss out on taking part in key projects due to fears they will be unable to concentrate during Ramadan, and a female who wears a hijab may be passed over for a promotion because her manager feels her appearance would be off-putting to clients. In most cases, of course, an excuse will be given, depriving Muslim team members of the opportunity to call out unfair treatment. 

Taking A Stand: Overcoming Islamophobia At Work

Islamophobia often lurks beneath the surface of even the most seemingly tolerant organisations, so it’s therefore vital that organisations make a firm commitment to tackling all forms of religious prejudice. Plenty can also be done on an individual level by colleagues who wish to show their support as allies to Muslim team members. 

1. Show solidarity with Muslim colleagues

Muslims often report that they feel as though they are left to fend for themselves when facing any sort of harassment. It’s therefore important that tolerance and inclusion for religious minorities is a prominent part of organisational culture, and that clear lines are drawn concerning behaviours that are and are not acceptable. This might include sections that deal with Islamophobia within the employee handbook, taking a firm stance during events such as Islamophobia Awareness Month, or holding dedicated sessions to explore what Islamophobia in the workplace looks like and how employees can become better allies. 

2. Make it easy for Muslim colleagues to report concerns, and be vigilant

Clear protocols should be in place to enable Muslim staff members to raise concerns confidentially, safe in the knowledge that discreet appropriate action will be taken. HR departments should be thoroughly educated on the ways in which Islamophobia often manifests in the workplace, so that they’re able to be proactive when they spot it, without placing the onus on Muslim colleagues to act. 

3. Invest in understanding

Recent research demonstrated that despite one in four people holding negative views of Muslims and Islam, British people are also ‘extremely unlikely’ to have any real knowledge of the religion or what it stands for. Educating staff members about the real values of Islam – taking care of those in need, compassion and respect, patience and gratitude – can therefore go a long way to dispelling misplaced prejudices. Because of this, it’s a great idea for organisations to provide educational resources about Islam, or even to hold internal workshops with Muslim community leaders to explore the topic in more depth.

4. Be an everyday ally

There’s plenty that individuals can do to make a real difference to the lives of Muslim colleagues, and you may well inspire others to do the same. For example, wish a Muslim co-worker a happy Eid, or ask if there’s anything you can do to help support them during Ramadan. If you already know a colleague well, you might ask respectful questions about their faith to deepen your own understanding, and look for similarities that you can bond over. Most importantly, if you witness harmful banter or microaggressions, speak up. 

5. Design inclusive networking opportunities

Career opportunities frequently arise from interactions outside the office, which often involve meeting for drinks or dinner, and do not allow for religious restrictions surrounding food or alcohol. This can amplify feelings of exclusion, leaving people feeling anxious about their “unusual” choices and opting to avoid outings altogether. When devising social and networking events, employers should therefore consider choosing venues that serve an assortment of foods catering to all nutritional requirements, and pick activities that don’t revolve around consuming alcohol. This can help Muslim team members to feel valued and included, and able to experience all the same career and team-building benefits of their non-Muslim peers. 

Although Islamophobia is still depressingly prevalent in the UK, research has revealed some reason for optimism; over half of British Muslims feel that society is more accepting today than it was five years ago, and that opportunities for young Muslims to be successful in the UK are improving. While the overall picture is gradually getting better, however, it’s clear that much work remains to be done. Creating a sense of belonging and support for Muslims in the workplace is not difficult, and yet is rarely considered outside of vague and general ED&I measures. However, to make a real difference, employers should ensure that the Muslim experience at work is never an afterthought, and that working cultures create safe spaces for individual differences to be expressed and embraced. 

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