A five-year old girl sent flying from the bonnet of a car, left unconscious in the road by a hit-and-run driver. A pregnant woman watching her husband being beaten up by her neighbour’s boyfriend, her children terrorised by constant abuse. A family forced from their home in Nottinghamshire, a cross wrapped in ham on their doorstep the last straw. Or the young woman who had faeces thrust onto her Hijab as she was walking in a south London street, only to be embarrased and emotionally scarred for life for wearing a headscarf.
All these and more are just some of the 632 (and rising) cases reported during the first year of ‘Tell MAMA’, the UK’s national anti-Muslim hate crime project. We suspect that these are just a fraction of the total number of anti-Muslim incidents affecting ordinary Muslims up and down the country.
Our work within TELL MAMA reveals a disturbing picture of low-level anti-Muslim harassment: incidents in the workplace, in the street, between neighbours and particularly online, which may not always hit the headlines but can have a devastating effect on peoples’ lives. From the internet, to the workplace, the street and even houses of worship, too often Muslim women and men are becoming the target of vicious, sometimes violent, abuse.
With rising racial and Islamophobic attitudes recorded time-and-again by surveys – the latest being results released last week by Matthew Goodwin and YouGov – we are calling in particular, on the police to do more to tackle this shameful wave of fear and prejudice which has direct implications for peace and security within all communities. Whilst we acknowledge the resource cuts that have taken place within the police forces, we also understand that cuts do not necessarily mean that the quality of service provision to victims in general should decrease. Indeed, this has been something that the Home Secretary has re-iterated and we call on local forces to ensure that victims of hate crimes are kept informed on cases and that hate crime become a central plank for Police and Crime Commissioners over the next few days as they set their policing plans into action. What is also likely is that as we move into a period of unprecedented resource deficits, those who seek to foment extreme and hateful views in our communities may well try and gain traction as people feel the financial pressures blowing across Europe.
Our project reveals some disturbing findings. The majority of Muslims being physically attacked, harassed or intimidated because of their faith are women, according to MAMA’s figures – and those doing it are white men increasingly likely to be linked to far-right groups.
Three-quarters (74%) of incidents reported to MAMA took place over social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc), but there have also been attacks on mosque buildings, against pregnant women and ‘visible’ hijab (veil) wearers, even children and pensioners in their 80s.
In one incident recorded in Nottinghamshire, a family was forced from its home; in another, a five-year-old girl was run over. High-profile figures such as journalist Jemima Khan have also been subject to online threats picked up and reported to the police by MAMA. Extreme violence featured in 23 of the cases.
The majority of those physically attacked on the street were Muslim women, wearing either the hijab (covering their head out of religious beliefs) or niqab (full face covering). Over half (58%) of cases involved female victims. These street based incidents seemed mostly ‘random’ in nature, according to victims, and often took place where interactions with others were common: at schools, using a taxi service, etc.
In one case reported to us, a pregnant woman and her husband were assaulted, leaving their children in terror. In south London, a Somali lady had dog faeces placed on her head by a white youth, which she only noticed after entering a local shop. Even when challenged, the male perpetrators tended to justify their actions by claiming that the women (their victims) were “oppressed, ignorant and abused”. Such vile attacks leave their victims feeling vulnerable and with a lasting sense of fear. These awful incidents must stop, and they must stop now.
Visibly-identified far-right British National Party (BNP) or English Defence League (EDL) members were linked to over half (54%) of all incidents. Our work has led to the arrests of 21 far-right EDL supporters, with over 40 incidents reported against EDL leader ‘Tommy Robinson’ alone. Eighteen prosecutions have taken place, although we would like the police and CPS to do much more in this area, (only two police forces – the Metropolitan Police and City of London Police – record Islamophobia as part of their crime statistics).
So what is going on? More and more research is appearing which suggests we’ve underestimated the scale of Islamophobia. As academic Matthew Goodwin and YouGov revealed a few days ago (in research about the English Defence League and the ‘counter-jihad’ movement), just 23% of people said that Islam was NOT a threat to Western civilisation. A mere 24% thought Muslims were compatible with the British way of life (with nearly half of people disagreeing that Muslims were compatible). Perhaps most disturbingly, nearly half of people polled thought there would be a clash of civilisations between Muslims and other Britons.
In a powerful indictment in October 2010, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, posted a blog about how European Muslims are stigmatised by populist rhetoric. “European countries appear to face another crisis beyond budget deficits – the disintegration of human value. One symptom is the increasing expression of intolerance towards Muslims. Opinion polls in several European countries reflect fear, suspicion and negative opinions of Muslims and Islamic culture,” he wrote.
Amnesty International has shared this concern. In its April 2012 report “Choice and prejudice: discrimination against Muslims in Europe”, it exposed the impact of discrimination on Muslims. Marco Perolini, Amnesty’s expert on discrimination, said: “Muslim women are being denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress, such as the headscarf. Men can be dismissed for wearing beards associated with Islam. Rather than countering these prejudices, political parties and public officials are all too often pandering to them in their quest for votes.”
Now here in the UK the Association of Chief Police Officers has, for the first time, started to disaggregate the hate crimes reported to police in 2011. And early indications are that 50 to 60% of reported religious hate crimes were anti-Muslim, according to a speech Baroness Warsi the Communities and Faith minister gave at MAMA’s inaugural dinner in January.
“That’s why,” she said, “last year, Eric Pickles and I wrote to every mosque registered with the Charity Commission asking them to help to record anti-Muslim incidents.”
Wider Myth busting
There is no conflict between being ‘British’ and being ‘Muslim’. A full 83% of Muslims said they were proud to be British, compared to 79% of Britons overall. But recent history shows us what happens if we allow our fears to run unchecked. Demonisation of ‘the Other’, misguided beliefs that Muslims are somehow a monolithic block, unchecked lies that Islam is a violent religion or that British Muslims wish to abuse white girls, must be challenged.
Speaking more specifically, the issue of far-right activism and ‘broadband extremism’ needs to be brought into the domain of the Home Office rather than the Department for Communities and Local Government, which works on the ‘softer’ end of issues affecting communities. A major policy shift is needed here.
And the police need to change, too. All-too-frequently they fail to take victim statements from the cases we’ve seen; fail to appreciate the terrifying effects of these incidents upon women and vulnerable children. Few police forces even bother to record Islamophobia as part of their reporting systems. More training is needed at a time when police are facing budget cuts; we need more leadership too from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) which, unhelpfully, has talked about fewer rather than more social media prosecutions.
The Muslim community must show some leadership here as well, of course, and make sure it is engaging through its leaders with wider society. Muslims must not tolerate those who call for intolerance or hatred towards secular Britons or other faiths. But this is something we all of us bear responsibility for, and we all of us must take our lead before the situation escalates out of control.