Last Monday, Tell MAMA (the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks Project) released the first year of results, to broad acclaim by stakeholders and media commentators. Surveying 632 cases reported into the helpline, Tell MAMA found that women were victims in 54% of incidents (an unusually high statistic – in most other hate crimes, male victims are a significant majority), and these crimes were perpetrated by men (mostly 21-30) in 75% of the total cases. Victims ranged from a 5-year-old child to an 89-year-old pensioner. Further details and statistics can be found here.

That same morning, prominent atheist writer Richard Dawkins – pursuing a theme on Islam that seems to have occupied his mind of late – stated that:

‘Decent, nice, liberal people must stop being so terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stand up for decent, nice, liberal values’.

This does not seem like a very controversial statement. Generally, people don’t want to align themselves with indecent, mean, and oppressive people, and so the statement already seems fairly reasonable. Dawkins is not alone in making these sorts of claims, and many in the ‘New Atheist’ movement and beyond subscribe to similar conflicts between a decent, Western, liberalism and the Islamic ‘other’. Indeed, standing up for what you believe in, in the face of social opposition, is widely regarded as a social and moral virtue.

Nonetheless, when we look at the sorts of sentiments, statements, and harassment being reported in to Tell MAMA as incidences of ‘Islamophobia’ or ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’, we can see that these are far from the actions of ‘decent, nice, liberal people’. Although there are many examples of individual harassment and hate incidents directed against Muslims, we will restrict ourselves here to Twitter and other social media settings, since that was where Dawkin’s comment was raised.

A significant proportion of hate incidents (74%) take place online, via email or social media sites, and take place extremely regularly. Anyone who raises their head above the digital parapet to discuss issues of politics and religion (and more than a few who just mind their own business) is at risk of quickly becoming the subject of extraordinarily vile rhetoric. Here is a typical sample of twitter abuse that is daily reported to our caseworkers, often by non-Muslim twitter users who are concerned and offended by this sort of language:

‘Fucking bastards time we killed 2 or 3 of the cunts kids just to let them feel the pain burn the koran’

‘Go down there and kick the shit out of this cunt then burn the koran after you have wiped your dogs arse with it’

‘All Muslims dont only fuck allah but goats & donkeys too!’

‘I forgot they luv to rape camels & babies too! So report me for that too fuckheads!!’

‘Maybe the OB don’t but everyone else in the country knows, “Where there’s a Muslim there’s a child rape” EDL’

‘and your a threat to my country and my culture, and we’ll fight you to the last bullet, street by street if we have to.’

One particularly offensive image disseminated online shows a woman wearing a ‘chastity belt’ made of bacon, over the heading ‘Stop Mohammed from raping little girls’ (one rehosting of this image received a staggering 277,000 views worldwide).  These sorts of images and words can cause deep-seated trauma, and are weapons to be deployed in an ongoing cultural dispute against ‘Mohammed’ and Muslims in general, clothed in the same sort of ‘internet meme’ format used to share jokes about TV shows and funny cat pictures. The combination of rape culture, paedophilic language, anti-Muslim prejudice, and ‘banter’ combines to form a toxic online environment that is very far removed from the ‘decent, nice, liberal values’ that many prominent critics of Islam espouse.

In many cases, these are hate crimes, attempts to use language and extremist rhetoric to stir up hatred against another person, or even call for violence against them. Under British law, any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a personal characteristic – disability, gender identity, race, religion (or lack of it) and sexual orientation are hate crimes – and these would certainly count as hate crimes. In logging them and reporting them to the police, Tell MAMA is merely following current legal directives on hate crime. (We must add that there is a distinction between hate crimes and hate incidents which are listed below and TELL MAMA works just like other third party hate crime monitoring projects.)

Some of these cases, however, aren’t hate crimes under British law, but instead represent ‘hate incidents’ – incidents’ – attacks and harassment that might not be classified as hate crime, but still contribute to a broader climate of hate and stigmatise vulnerable minorities.  Such a distinction is drawn by several UK Police forces, by Tell MAMA, and by the organisation primarily responsible for reporting on anti-Semitic hate crime, the Community Security Trust. These are still logged and reported on to the police, but are often marked ‘intelligence only’, meaning that no direct action will be taken on them – they help to give both Tell MAMA and the Police a sense of general anti-Muslim trends in British society, and the ability to map their development, which is extremely helpful in preventive and community cohesion work. We don’t just submit anything that comes along, either – our team of case-workers carefully handles each report as it comes in, to determine whether or not it can be verified and justified as an anti-Muslim incident (or whether, for example, it is more properly filed as a racially motivated incident or hate crime). They communicate with victims, not only helping to clarify the attacks, but also referring them onto any appropriate support groups, such as Victim Support and the Neighbourhood Watch.

As such, it’s unhelpful at best, and disingenuous at worst, to consider Tell MAMA an organisation obsessed with restricting free speech and terrorising prominent public figures into silence whenever they dare criticise Islam. Instead, it operates using careful procedures to determine the credibility of reports of already criminal speech that tries to stir up religious hatred and violence, and in other cases maps and catalogues existing non-criminal but still hate-filled material, in order to provide a useful portrait of this kind of prejudice in Britain. People may (unfortunately) still spread hateful speech online and offline, and exercise their freedom of expression to do so, but this doesn’t mean that what they say can’t be catalogued and analysed, and used to highlight the need for increased religious literacy and cultural cohesion. Free speech – subject to hate crime laws designed to protect other human rights is essential in our society, but people shouldn’t expect it to insulate them from the comments and critique that follow it.

Naturally, Dawkins, his supporters, and the broader movement of self-identified ‘liberal, nice, decent people’ may yet defend themselves as critics of Islam who do not adopt the violent extremist attitudes of EDL members. Many of them may well be decent people though it is important that they realise that their actions may feed into the rhetoric of hate organisations like the EDL. Sometimes, the language and comments used may well be perceived by Muslims as being identical to groups like the EDL and whilst they are coming from different places, the impact and perceptions on Muslim individuals may be the same – whether from the liberal or political left or whether from the Far Right. Any form of speech that lumps groups of individuals together and abuses them collectively is unacceptable in a tolerant, diverse, and equal society. Furthermore, these ‘decent, nice and liberal people’ need to understand that some in society attack Islam to undermine and dehumanise Muslims. Some genuinely believe that by attacking Islam, they are having no impact on the perception of Muslims by others. It is therefore not a simple issue and saying that hating and attacking Islam does not impact or affect Muslims in our communities is naive. Whilst we defend their right to speak, we also raise the fact that their comments and actions may have impacts which can be perceived as hate speech, as well as direct impacts on community tensions. In the end such community tensions can and do impact on the lives of decent, law-abiding Muslims going about their everyday business. Here are some examples.

Tell MAMA is therefore not an overarching group plotting to steal away the freedom of speech of British people, but an organisation devoted to mapping and reporting hate crime and incidents, and supporting a particularly marginalised community in Britain.

Tell MAMA and other groups – beyond anti-Muslim attacks

Another related criticism that has often been raised is that projects like Tell MAMA are exclusive, only focusing on Muslim concerns and operating with a callous disregard for non-Muslim concerns, an accusation that reinforces the sense of otherness and distinctness that the ‘nice, decent, liberal people vs. Muslims’ division relies on. It’s important to answer this complaint – Does Tell MAMA focus on Muslim issues to the exclusion of other instances of oppression and prejudice?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Tell MAMA is just one of a number of initiatives run by Faith Matters, an interfaith and conflict resolution organisation founded in 2005. Other projects run by the organisation include a ‘Faith Ambassadors’ project, aiming to bring young people from all faiths together, and give them leadership skills and interfaith training to encourage mutual trust and understanding between communities; and a conflict resolution project between Sikh and Muslim communities in West London, as well as a number of workshops and conferences on countering extremism of all stripes. These, and a range of other projects, reflect a deep concern with community cohesion, youth, and inter-faith relations. Faith Matters’ Pakistan branch is currently engaged in a project using a unique technological approach to reach out to young people from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds to promote interfaith harmony in an increasingly volatile region. Our project managers work towards peace and tolerance between faith communities and speak out against all kinds of faith violence. Tuesday’s blog condemned the recent violence against Christian communities in Lahore.

In addition, Tell MAMA does not stand alone in the anti-hate field, but works in solidarity with other organisations opposing violent prejudice throughout British sociey. During the planning phases of Tell MAMA, we sought advice from the Community Security Trust, a similar organisation with decades of experience monitoring and reporting hate crime against Britain’s Jewish community, a connection that continues into the present day. The project has an ongoing relationship with the Christian Muslim Forum, and one of the organisation’s patrons – the Revd. Mark Oakley – is also the Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral. (Tell MAMA shares information with Stonewall, and Imaan, an organisation for LGBT Muslims). They face a particularly difficult situation, with discrimination and harassment from both within and outside the Muslim community, and we welcome reports dealing with this. Tell MAMA may log and focus on hate incidents and crimes directed against Muslims – that is its job, and over-stretching itself would hurt its effective operation – but it will report any hate crime or incident on to the police, be it intra-community or inter-community.

While writers like Dawkins may object that all this work focuses on religious concerns, and does not address atheism, there’s a clue in the name ‘Faith Matters’ that might explain why. Whatever one’s opinions on religious faith are, it’s difficult to deny that it plays an enormous part of people’s identity, and that in order to engage in peacebuilding and community cohesion, it’s necessary to engage with it and build these bridges between faith communities.