The Rise of Islamophobia in Higher Education

By Sofia Akel

About the report

Institutionalised: The Rise of Islamophobia in Higher Education is a comprehensive report that examines the complexities and manifestations of Islamophobia throughout the higher education sector. It seeks to examine the experiences of both Muslim students and staff. The report draws on seminal sector data that allows, for the first time, intersectional analysis across both race and religion. Additionally, shared lived experience forms the heart of the research, centring the voices of Muslims in the sector.

Furthermore, Institutionalised also comprises original primary research that specifically examines Islamophobia at London Metropolitan University, mapping the ways in which religious and racial discrimination can impact key junctures of the staff and student lifecycle. A series of non-exhaustive recommendations are presented, enabling the University to directly act upon the findings.

The report has been written with accessibility in mind, therefore Institutionalised offers in-depth background into Islamophobia, catering to those who may know little about this form of discrimination, to those who may be well versed.

Executive summary

Islamophobia is not a new or recent phenomenon, it is the methodical and campaigned targeting of one of Britain’s most diverse religious groups, permeating all corners of our institutions – including universities. There has been a growing national discourse amongst Muslim student interest groups into higher education’s failure to acknowledge the prevalence of Islamophobia on campuses.

In November 2020, London Metropolitan University became the first UK university to adopt the working definition of Islamophobia as offered by the 2018 All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. This report marks the beginning of London Met’s commitment to improve institutional understanding of the manifestations of Islamophobia, both overt and covert in order to take actions which improve university culture and practices.

The study seeks to examine the question:

To what extent does institutional Islamophobia shape the experiences of Muslim students and staff at London Metropolitan University?

The research question was disaggregated into four key sub-questions explored through thematic areas, tailored to student and staff specific environments:

1. Observing religion on campus

What are the experiences of Muslim staff and students in relation to practising Islam on campus?

2. Academic success, inclusion and attainment

What are the experiences of Muslim staff and students within academic settings?

3. Institutional Islamophobia

What are the experiences of Muslim staff and students in relation to institutional Islamophobia and the intersections of race and religion?

4. Microaggressions, safety and reporting Islamophobia

How does Islamophobia on campus impact the safety of Muslim students and staff, and their confidence in reporting it?

Read the full report

The main findings of the report are published below but we would encourage you to read Institutionalised - The Rise of Islamophobia in Higher Education in full. Each section has been written with flexibility in mind, therefore you can choose to read specific sections in isolation, but to gain a holistic understanding you are encouraged to read this report in chronological order, in its entirety.

London Met findings

According to student records and HESA returns – at the time of writing – there are 1644 fully-enrolled Muslim students studying at London Met across all modes of study1. This research studied the experiences of almost 100 Muslim students who completed an online survey.

Observing religion on campus

To practise religion, or to attend class? This is the constant state of negotiation that has come to characterise a number of Muslim students’ experiences at London Met. Almost 50% have been forced to make a decision between attending a lecture or attending a religious event or prayers.2 One student in particular described having no choice but to attend lectures due to the class attendance requirements associated with their student visa. 9% of students indicated that their lecturers had made allowances for religious observance during class, eg scheduling breaks at times of prayer. 66% of students did not feel comfortable asking academic staff to make adjustments. A student noted the flexibility afforded by online recorded lectures in enabling them to observe prayer and study.

Examinations

During periods of extended religious observance, 30% of students felt that fasting during Ramadan has a negative impact on their exam performance whilst 17% of students felt that this had a positive impact on their performance. London Met must take this into consideration when setting and scheduling examinations.

Utilising prayer spaces

Both campuses have designated prayer rooms segregated by ‘gender’, with wash room facilities. A quarter of respondents did not feel comfortable utilising on-campus prayer spaces. Most preferred prayer at home, or across locations including on campus, local mosques and at home.

Halal provisions

Whilst the majority of respondents felt comfortable eating Halal food offered by University catering, 19% did not, citing concerns such as cross-contamination of Halal and non-Halal food items and queries on the certification status of Halal food served. A number of examples were given where catering staff had not been confident in their understanding of Halal meat, nor could they answer confidently if they were serving it.

Academic success, inclusion and attainment

An inhospitable environment

Respondents detailed how their academic spaces can become forums for ridicule, injustice and discrimination. Recalling lectures, whereby their beliefs, and by extension their identities, have been branded “medieval,” incompatible with “today’s world,” by their lecturers under the guise of ‘academic discussion.’

"A lecturer made a remark ‘I bet you get searched everywhere you go with a name like that’ to a student in a large gathering. The student was lost for words and clearly upset."

5.4% of students felt that their contributions to academic discussions were disproportionately scrutinised by peers or lecturers due to prejudices against Islam. As a result, students are deterred from engaging with course material to the fullest extent, with 10% feeling unable to research topics of interest for fear of being considered “somehow dangerous, or radical”.

Institutional Islamophobia

Preventing Prevent

In regards to the Prevent Duty, there were largely positive findings which did not suggest a campaign of Prevent-led treatment of Muslim students at London Met. Some respondents had recalled instances either directly, or indirectly relating to surveillance suggesting undertones of fear amongst the student body.

"I wear [a] long dress, I have a hat and I have beard. I may look a bit different and easily identifiable. I understand that some of the security guards know me by my name and I am not sure how."

A percentage of 4.3%, believed their interactions with staff and students to be shaped by the Prevent Duty – 3.2% of students have been called upon by either university staff or student peers to condemn acts of terrorist extremism. These requests are premised on a presumption of guilt within a framework of imaged responsibility that Muslims are pressured to take. The broader societal culture of heightened surveillance and criminalisation of Muslims as a ‘suspect community’, has led students to self-police in the pursuit of self-preservation.

"I’m cautious because I feel that any student or staff member can coerce me to say something. I heard lots of scary stories about prevent."

Inclusion

Intersectionality

Different elements of students’ identities may determine which situations and spaces they feel most comfortable or are welcomed into. The majority of Muslim respondents had not experienced exclusion from participating in elements of university life, such as events, socials, etc due to religious discrimination or faith-based prejudice. 7% of respondents felt excluded from Muslim student groups and societies because of their ethnicity. Discrimination on racial lines, such as anti-Blackness can be prevalent amongst communities of colour.3 A student also reported that they were discriminated against due to following a different denomination of Islam.

Student Democracy

Whilst many students hadn’t experienced Islamophobia, respondents did reveal how they must take steps to protect themselves from the possibility. 26% of students would not nominate themselves for student elections, or take up leadership positions (such as course representatives) due to fear of religious discrimination. Leadership roles can be pivotal in changing representational structures, and the broader socio-political context within which a university operates.

Pressure to ‘Conform’

Although drinking culture on campuses has decreased in recent years, events which do involve alcohol can indirectly exclude Muslim students.

"At one of the student fresher events alcohol was being consumed so I decided to leave but was laughed at and peer pressured to stay."

Some respondents felt pressured to alter their religious practices in order to fit prevailing western social norms. A number of students had also considered or had modified their appearance in relation to their religious identities in order to avoid Islamophobic treatment.

Microaggressions and safety

Gendered Islamophobia

The weaponisation and politicisation of religious garments such as the Niqab or Hijab has entered students’ university spaces. Over 25% of students report having had to defend the wearing of religious garments whilst on campus, describing this as having impacted their sense of safety on campus - 16% feel unsafe wearing identifiably Islamic garments.

Hidden Islamophobia

Of those asked, 7.5% of respondents had either personally experienced or witnessed Islamophobic microaggressions at London Met. However, 17.2% were not sure, which may, in part, relate to their degree of understanding of the term ‘microaggressions’. Students cited being asked to reveal their hair from under their Hijab, being questioned about ‘Islamic oppression’ or have hostile interactions – some of which are not microaggressions but overt Islamophobia. One student shared how they have reluctantly accepted that they will face discrimination, as a result, they refrain from discussing or reporting discriminatory incidents, choosing to “keep it in".

Self-preservation strategies

16% of students describe hiding their religious beliefs from their peers to avoid prejudice, physical assault, discriminatory treatment and mischaracterisation. 45% of students say they have no safe space to discuss the experiences and issues that they face at London Met.

Complaints procedures at London Met

61% of respondents felt comfortable lodging complaints of Islamophobia to the University, and a lower number (49%) felt comfortable reporting to the Students’ Union. There are many reasons why students from a minoritised group may choose not to report discrimination. Reasons for this ranged from fear of victimisation and retribution, to a lack of confidence in the Institution’s ability to handle these complaints seriously. Importantly, a student highlighted the difficultly of evidencing microaggressions which are often expressed subtly.

"I feel like it wouldn’t be taken seriously as there wouldn’t be any proof except my word."

Recommendations

All UK higher education institutions must recognise that Islamophobia exists within the sector. Furthermore, universities must examine its impact on staff and students, taking decisive action to eradicate Islamophobia from campuses.

The recommendations in this report address key concerns raised by students, such as updating complaints procedures, educating staff on Islamophobia and supporting religious observance on campus. 

1. All London Metropolitan University data on students and staff are provided by student records, staff records and HESA returns
2. All statistics have been rounded.
3 Janice Gassam Asare, “How Communities Of Color Perpetuate Anti-Blackness,” Forbes, July 19, 2020.

At the time of writing, London Metropolitan University did not routinely collect data on staff religion and belief, therefore there was limited existing data based on voluntarily disclosures. Of those who did share their religion upon commencement of employment and are still working at London Met, 6% were Muslim.4 Survey respondents represented 11% of the London Met’s Muslim staff population.5

Observing religion on campus

Utilising prayer spaces

Having access to a prayer spaces on campus is an important part of supporting religious staff, almost 50% of respondents utilised these. 23% did not feel comfortable praying on campus citing conflicts with work schedules or expectations. One individual said they was made to feel disruptive if they chose to pray during work hours, resulting in them finding ways to do so discreetly.

Religious holidays

During Ramadan, half of respondents were able to adjust their work schedule, working flexibly where possible. However, some roles do not allow for such flexibility, such as academic positions. 31% did not feel comfortable asking their line-managers for flexible working around religious holidays or events.

Halal provisions

Just over half of respondents felt comfortable eating Halal food offered by University catering; however around 40% did not, citing concerns such as crosscontamination of Halal and non-Halal food items and queries on the source of meat served. An example was given where a respondent had witnessed catering staff cross-contaminate their utensils and food surfaces, on multiple occasions which created a distrust in the services offered.

Workplace culture, inclusion and progression

Intersectionality

Various elements of staff members’ identities may determine which situations and spaces they feel most comfortable or are welcomed into. Some respondents felt that their interactions were filtered through the prism of race, whereby they were viewed in relation to their ethnicity. However, some felt viewed predominately though perceptions of their religion. Within on-campus Muslim communities themselves, 18% of respondents felt that their ethnicity excluded them from joining and participating in certain Muslim communities, for example anti-Blackness can be prevalent amongst communities of colour.6

Inclusion

Access to workplace events or staff socials can be influential in building relationships with colleagues, work collaborations and impact career progression and development. 54% of respondents have never felt excluded from participating in staff events or socials but 31% felt excluded because of the presence of alcohol. Lack of diversity, inclusivity and conflicts with religious principles were also cited as causes of exclusion.

Progression

23% of staff believe exclusion from staff-related socials can negatively impact their career progression.

"I have seen members of staff in [redacted] side lined and marginalised due to not ‘fitting in’, so they may have 10 to 20 years’ experience but when an opportunity comes up it will always be the non-Muslim colleague with less experience that gets considered."

This can lead to pressure to conform or alter your identity – 23% had either modified or considered modifying their identity to this end. Whilst 15% felt pressured to adapt their religious practices to fit prevailing western societal norms.

Normalisation of Islamophobia

39% believe that Islamophobia is normalised at London Met, in so much that staff may freely espouse Islamophobic rhetoric in the workplace. In some instances this has been directed at students by members of staff, including a staff member boasting about their involvement in persuading a Muslim student to convert away from Islam.

"[A male colleague] made a comment how he wouldn’t be surprised if he heard that a particular student were to ‘get in a truck’. This was mentioned in front of 3 other members of staff one of whom was the acting head of school who made light of the situation after I asked for clarification of what he meant from the offending colleague."

Discrimination such as this can negatively impact how Muslim staff are received in these spaces – 23% of respondents had been disproportionately scrutinised or invalidated due to prejudices their peers may have against Islam.

Academic environment

Academic settings can become hostile places, whereby offensive or discriminatory discourse can be disguised as ‘academic discussion’. Within these settings 17% of academic staff have been discriminated against or targeted by a student in relation to their religious identity.

"It was a combination of racist and Islamophobic behaviour. Disruptive behaviour in class, comments being made about my professional integrity and comments made on Facebook about me. Students made complaints against me also."

17% of respondents avoided topics of “religion and politics” with their students.

Institutional Islamophobia: Prevent

In regards to the Prevent Duty, there were largely positive findings which did not suggest a campaign of Prevent-led treatment of Muslim students at London Met – 54% had not experienced this. Though some respondents had disclosed that they had felt under surveillance (8%) suggesting some awareness of Prevent or institutional Islamophobia. 23% of staff have been called upon by either their colleagues or students to condemn acts of terrorist extremism. These requests are premised on a presumption of guilt within a framework of imaged responsibility that Muslims take.

Microaggressions and safety

The weaponisation and politicisation of religious garments such as the Niqab or Hijab has entered staff university spaces. 8% of staff report having had to defend the wearing of religious garments whilst on campus; however this had not impacted safety on campus – respondents unanimously feel safe wearing identifiably Islamic garments.

Self-preservation

Whilst most respondents had felt safe in expressing their religiosity, 15% have hidden their religious beliefs from University colleagues and students to avoid Islamophobic treatment. Some staff exercise caution, guided by awareness of the ways their religion can be used against them by those who harbour prejudicial and discriminatory views on Islam.

Complaints procedures

At London Met, 77% of respondents felt comfortable lodging complaints of Islamophobia to the University, although almost a quarter did not. There are many reasons why staff from a minoritised group may choose not to report discrimination ranging from fear of victimisation and retribution, to a lack of confidence in the Institution’s ability to handle these complaints seriously. Staff noted the relatively new journey that the University is on, in terms of understanding and tackling Islamophobia.

"This has just been acknowledged at London Met as being recognised. Now the battle will be taking it seriously. Need more awareness and educating training for staff.”

Furthermore, over 50% of respondents feared missing out on promotions and opportunities related to career progression and personal development if they were to challenge discrimination in the workplace. A quarter of respondents were discouraged by colleagues from lodging a complaint.

Recommendations

All UK higher education institutions must recognise that Islamophobia exists within the sector. Furthermore, universities must examine its impact on staff and students, taking decisive action to eradicate Islamophobia from campuses.

The recommendations in this report address key concerns raised by staff, such as the normalisation of Islamophobia, Halal provisions on campus, codes of conduct and career progression.

4. All London Metropolitan University data on students and staff are provided by student records, staff records and HESA returns.
5. All statistics have been rounded.
6. Janice Gassam Asare, “How Communities Of Color Perpetuate Anti-Blackness”.