The Sun Ramadan front page
The Sun's front page on 2 July 2013

A claim I've never been able to agree with – and it's one you often hear from atheists – is that there's no such thing as "Islamophobia".

I do understand where the claim comes from – essentially it's a defensive reaction, stemming from a sense that accusations of Islamophobia are designed to silence criticism of Islam and limit free speech. It's a legitimate concern (one that I covered last year when I wrote about censorship in the wake of the "Innocence of Muslims" film controversy). But does it follow that there's no such thing as Islamophobia?

I found myself considering this question again this week as I read about Channel 4's announcement that it will be broadcasting the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, on a daily basis during the forthcoming month of Ramadan.

At first, this struck me as a fairly innocuous piece of news. A TV channel planning some religious broadcasting – nothing new there. On further reflection, I can see that the decision does raise some interesting questions, particularly regarding Channel 4's motivations. Are the broadcasts intended as a genuine service to Muslims ( and do they even want that service), or a sincere effort to raise awareness among non-Muslims about Ramadan, or are they a cynical attempt by the channel to generate a bit of publicity?

But none of this justifies the coverage of the news in the press. On seeing the Daily Mail's story about it yesterday, I scrolled down and browsed through the "best rated" comments, and was drawn into reading what felt like an endless succession of readers declaring that they would never again be watching Channel 4 and suggesting that this marks the end of Britain as we know it.

Of course you'd be justified in pointing out that by reading the comments I've simply broken that wise internet rule of never going "below the line", but in this case I think there's more to it than that. When I saw the story on the Daily Mail site it had been positioned as one of the main news headlines, while the Sun opted to run it as the front page story in yesterday's print edition, under the headline "Ramadan A Ding-Dong".

What possible justification can there be for the news that a TV channel plans to broadcast a 3-minute call to prayer (at 3am, it should be noted) occupying a place so far up those newspaper's news agendas? To me, the answer seems fairly clear – the editors knew it had the potential to provoke outrage among a significant proportion of their readers, and they to exactly what they wanted with the torrent of frothing web comments.

As I wrote in New Humanist a couple of years ago, this is a common tactic. Britain's right-leaning papers love scare-stories about Muslims, and that's because they know that there is significant appetite for such stories among their audiences.

I really don't know how to refer to this other than as "Islamophobia". Some would argue that it should simply be labelled racism but, while I'd agree that it certainly is, I think there's a specific and significant strand of bigotry in Britain that focuses on Muslims and their place in British society. It can be observed in every day form in the media scare stories and reactions to things like the Channel 4 prayer calls, and manifests in its most extreme form in English Defence League demonstrations and the attacks on mosques that have followed the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May.

Perhaps "Islamophobia" is an inappropriate word for it, but I don't see why a debate over semantics should distract from what is a genuine and possibly growing problem. There's absolutely no reason to shy away from rational criticism of Islam and practices associated with it, but we should also be willing to confront the anti-Muslim prejudice that is a very real feature of British society.