Anti-Muslim discrimination is rife in UK plc. Even firms that think they’re unprejudiced may display unconscious bias. Inclusivity experts explain how to tackle this pervasive form of racism
In January, Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani alleged that she had been sacked from her job as a junior minister at the Department for Transport in 2020 because of her faith.
Ghani, the first Muslim woman to address the House of Commons from the dispatch box, told The Times that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” during her dismissal. She claimed that she’d been informed by a senior party official that her status as a female Muslim minister had been “making colleagues feel uncomfortable”.
Islamophobia – a type of racism that targets Muslims and people perceived as Muslim – has become a widespread problem in UK society. More than 45% of religious hate crimes recorded by police nationwide in 2020-21 were Islamophobic in nature, according to research for the House of Commons.
It’s a daily reality in the workplace for many Muslims. Tahmina (not her real name) was working as a waitress in a restaurant when she heard a colleague describing her to a customer as a “terrorist”. When she informed the owner about this, visibly distressed by the slur, he failed to handle the situation to her satisfaction.
The day after the incident, when Tahmina asked the restaurateur whether he’d spoken to her colleague about his Islamophobic remark, “he said that he had”, she recalls. “He’d told him that ‘women are more sensitive about these things’ and warned him to be more careful with his ‘banter’.”
He took no further action.
Islamophobia at work can take several forms that, while they may not be as brazen as the above example, are just as pernicious. Zeinab (another pseudonym) was working as a manager in an office where two employees joining the company immediately assumed that she was there to clean it.
“It took them a while to wrap their heads around the fact that I was their manager,” she says.
There was worse to come: a senior manager went out of her way to make her job as difficult as possible. She would issue instructions to Zeinab, who followed them to the letter, yet would regularly be told that she’d got things wrong.
The constant questioning of her suitability for the job wore Zeinab down. She grew tired of her boss’s prejudice-driven campaign and quit the company.
There are numerous steps that employers can take to tackle Islamophobia in its many guises, according to inclusivity specialists.
Rethink the hiring process
Anti-Muslim bias by employers can have an impact on its victims before they’ve even set foot in the workplace, notes Khyati Sundaram, CEO of recruitment platform Applied.
“It’s not uncommon for Muslim candidates to lose out on jobs simply because of their identities,” she says, citing a 2017 study by BBC TV programme Inside Out London that tested whether recruiters discriminated against applicants with Muslim-sounding names.
The researchers found that ‘Adam’ was three times more likely than ‘Mohamed’ to be invited for a job interview, despite having otherwise identical CVs. This kind of bias is reflected in the fact that a study published by the Office for National Statistics in 2020 found that Muslims had the lowest employment rate of any major religious group in England and Wales.
Traditional recruitment procedures in the UK are riddled with prejudice, according to Sundaram, who adds: “Fostering inclusive cultures and creating equal opportunities for all groups means overhauling the entire hiring process.”
Employers first need to widen the pool from which they’re recruiting, which could entail actively seeking talent from marginalised groups, she says.
When applications come in, they should be anonymised before the recruiting managers see them. A candidate’s name will say nothing about their ability to do the job, but it could cause bias among selectors, unconscious or otherwise.
This approach, which Sundaram calls “skills-based hiring”, helps to make recruitment choices more objective by preventing “biases about religion or ‘cultural fit’ from clouding hiring decisions”.
It’s crucial to give employees the knowledge and tools that will enable them to detect Islamophobia. So says Sonya Barlow a diversity coach and the founder of Like Minded Females, a global community dedicated to reducing inequality at work.
She adds that “allyship training” will also enable colleagues to provide “supportive, safe and inclusive environments where all employees – no matter how they choose to express their faith – feel like they belong”.
The provision of some basic religious awareness training is an important way of “combating harmful prejudices, unconscious biases and discriminatory practices”, according to Barlow.
She cites the example of the hijab (headscarf). Some people may not know why a Muslim woman might choose to cover her hair in public. Such a lack of awareness can lead them to make ignorant comments and/or assumptions about her ability to do her job. Explaining to them why the hijab is part of some Muslim women’s identities can prevent these sorts of responses, which can in turn prove important in enabling Muslims to feel more comfortable in the workplace.
Set an example at the highest level
Barlow stresses that the education process should not stop at one awareness course. If people are to become genuine allies of their Muslim colleagues, a well-considered training programme, properly embedded in the company’s culture, will be needed.
Business leaders, she adds, also need to “set an example for everyone about what constitutes appropriate behaviour – and call out any member of the team who displays a discriminatory attitude. They need to be advocates for diversity and true allies.”
Such interventions could give colleagues further down the hierarchy the knowledge and confidence to tackle Islamophobia themselves – and also help more Muslim people feel a much-needed sense of belonging at work in the UK.