Open Letter to Tony Parsons of the Daily Mirror

Dear Tony,

Thanks for your opinion piece in the Daily Mirror and the positive outlook that you provide about a modern Britain at ease with itself and which is also at ease with diverse communities. Indeed, this is something that we have always promoted, whether through recent interviews in the press and through the project work of Faith Matters which has actively worked on promoting mutual understanding, dialogue and conflict resolution projects. We have also stressed that Britain is one of the safest nations in the world and that people should carry on with their lives and not let fear affect the lives of us all. This has been stated over and over again post Woolwich.

Now let us come onto some of the points that you raise and which have been recycled  previously. Before we do that, we would humbly suggest that describing women in your article in the Abaya (or Islamic covering) with the Hijab (head-covering) and Niqab (the face veil), as ‘batman and batman,’ is not helpful. Many women who chose to religiously wear such clothing items are abused and called derogatory terms and re-enforcing them in your article which talks about tolerance in Britain, runs contrary to what you promote in your article. Britain is indeed a tolerant nation and we should be proud of our ability to live with diversity. Using terms like ‘batman’ to  describe the choice of clothing of some women simply negates that argument. Furthermore, interviews and academic work with women who wear the Abaya and the Niqab, show that many suffer repeated and aggressive incidents and attacks. This is also corroborated by feedback to the TELL MAMA project and making a judgement on such issues by looking at two women in Oxford Street, respectfully, does not constitute evidence that such women do not suffer prejudice. Tony, we suggest that we arrange an opportunity for you to meet with some women who have been abused and to listen to their perspectives. How does this sound?

Now, let us get back onto the issue of a range of anti-Muslim incidents post Woolwich. What is clear is that to date, we have received reports of 12 mosques being attacked, (13 if it turns out that the Muswell Hill mosque was the target of the English Defence League). 212 incidents which ranged from street based targeted abuse, on-line abuse, damage to property and mosque attacks were recorded by TELL MAMA as they were reported in by members of the public post Woolwich. Full verification of the cases took place and we have listed the verification process in this article. The recording process is also listed in the article and what is clear is that a spike in reporting in of anti-Muslim incidents took place. Such a phenomenon is nothing new and the well respected and groundbreaking organisation, the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitic crimes also have reported spikes in anti-Semitic reporting when for example, the invasion of Gaza took place in Operation Cast Lead. So major national or international incidents, do lead to a spike in reporting in of hate incidents. The level of the spike may well reflect the nature of the incident and the murder of drummer Lee Rigby was a nation stopping event that rocked the sensibilities of every man and women in our nation. So it was a major incident that caused revulsion in all communities.

Tony, one of the other suggestions that you make is that the actions of interfaith organisations to come together after the Muswell Hill attack demonstrates that the social space for a backlash was squeezed down; that in fact, Britain once again showed its tolerant side. This position has some merit, though it also does not reflect on the fact that many of these interfaith postures are meant to show solidarity and to also reduce any possible tensions in communities. They do not automatically show that there is a wider tolerance in society and there are numerous reasons why faith organisations chose to turn up and stand in solidarity with others. Furthermore, one of the most glaringly obvious elements missing in your piece is an assessment of community impacts and perceptions. Targeting an individual for anti-Muslim prejudice is bad enough and this includes targeting through on-line and off-line methods. Whilst street based incidents may frighten the victim through the face to face interaction which takes place, we must not under-estimate the impact that social media hate, for example, has. Here is an example of some of the anti-Muslim prejudice that is readily available on-line. We also must not under-estimate the community wide impacts that affect hundreds if not thousands of worshippers when a mosque is attacked. For many, an attack on a mosque is a personal attack on their faith, which develops feelings of anger, anxiety, humiliation and the desire for retribution. However, according to Tony, these wide community impacts simply do not exist.

On a separate note Tony, a grant to run a national project which covers England & Wales and which employs 7 people to cover such a wide area does not mean that data figures are exaggerated or made up. Making such suggestions without seeing or understanding the data is not helpful in our opinion and we hope that after reading the release of our first annual review at the end of July, you may get a better grasp of our work, rather than the narrow view that our data and reports are based on trying to get more funding. This is simply not true and there are easier ways in life to make a living without being at the brunt end of daily threats, cyber-attacks against our servers, scurrilous articles about our work, being accused of playing to a ‘victim mentality’ and in working with a community that is suspicious of reporting in hate incidents and crimes. (Muslim communities have developed a fear that data may be collected as part of a wider data trawl for Prevent). The latter, we can assure the general public, is not the case given that this project is not Prevent funded, nor will we release the data of victims to third parties, unless to the Police and with the express authorisation of the victim. So Tony, given the range of issues that we work through, a grant that barely covers our basic costs is hardly access to a ‘gravy train.’ The aim of this project is to support victims of anti-Muslim prejudice or Islamophobia and support for the victim is the primary focus of this project. Please let us all try and remember that.

Lastly Tony, thankfully we live by the rule of law and through democratic process in our country. Unlike you, we believe that democracy and state institutions are more fragile than many of us think they are. We should not assume that democracy can sustain itself. Democracy and what it means to us all, is always changing, always in flux and open and prone to those who may seek to suppress and manipulate it to suit their material and sometimes, power needs. So, democracy is more fragile than we think and needs to be protected. This means that countering hate groups and hate speech is one spoke in the wheel in the protection of democratic rights since some who purport to protect democracy, also seek to defend hate speech which is couched as free speech. The two can’t go together. Either we defend democratic rights and the right for every community to live free from fear or harassment, or we simply defend a hollow tribute to democracy whilst communities feel that their social space to live free from fear is under threat.  So, whether Anjum Choudhary at one end or to on-line keyboard warriors who promote sustained hate on a daily basis, we need to act to inform and educate communities through clear, succinct and well documented data. That is what we seek to do whilst supporting those who suffer from prejudicial hate. So, Tony, less of the ‘business’ and more of the ‘support for victims.’