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Thu 4 Apr 2019 10:28 AM

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Special investigation: One year after 'Punish A Muslim Day' and Islamophobia is still rife in Britain

Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in the UK, even since the aftermath of the New Zealand terror attacks

Special investigation: One year after 'Punish A Muslim Day' and Islamophobia is still rife in Britain
Members of the London New Zealand community and wellwishers attend a vigil at Trafalgar Square in central London on March 21 2019 in honour of the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand. In a sign that Islamophobic sentiment continues to rise in Britain, anti-Muslim hate crimes soared across the country in the aftermath of the New Zealand terror attacks on March 15, a monitoring group found. Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJIAFPGetty Images

In a dark day for Britain last year, a lone man was charged with terrorising the nation through violent letters promoting ‘Punish A Muslim Day’.

The UK recoiled in horror and joined in solidarity against the distribution of letters on April 3 2018, which suggested people could win ‘points’ for a range of activities aimed at Muslims, including removing a headscarf from a woman or beating a person up.

While a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police in London said no credible information had been received to suggest any attacks were planned or carried out, one year on, a climate of fear hangs over Britain’s 4.1 million-strong Muslim community.

Shaista Aziz, a prominent Oxford-based equalities campaigner, who works on countering hate crime, says: “Punish a Muslim Day caused terror within an entire community. When single incidents happen, it doesn’t just affect an individual, it affects the collective – and that’s what it’s meant to do. This open racism is very frightening for a lot of people.”

In a sign that Islamophobic sentiment continues to rise in Britain, anti-Muslim hate crimes soared across the country in the aftermath of the New Zealand terror attacks on March 15, a monitoring group found.

Tell Mama, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that documents Islamophobic incidences in the UK, reported that anti-Muslim hate crime increased by 593 percent in the week after the Christchurch shooting in which 50 Muslim worshippers were murdered by a right-wing terrorist.

Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama, told Arabian Business he has received ‘170 to 180’ hate crime reports from the within the UK since March 15, which have a direct relevance to the recent New Zealand attack.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Muslims in north London, Southampton and Oxford have reported verbal abuse being directed towards them, including intimidating gestures that include gun gestures and bullet noises. In other incidences of verbal abuse, Muslims were told that “you need to be shot” and that “Muslims must die”.

Mughal says: “What is concerning is that there is an underbelly of people in Britain who have no sense of sympathy, who still want to victimise Muslims after the attacks.

“This small but hardcore group of people have radicalised opinions –they truly believe that Muslims are evil. We need a long-term approach to change their opinions because this thinking, if left unchecked, can move towards violence.”

Prior to the New Zealand attacks, British police recorded a general surge in hate crime directed at people in England and Wales because of their religious beliefs.


Banners are left on the steps of Islington Town Hall following a commemoration on the anniversary of the Finsbury park attack in London on June 19, 2018. (Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Incidents rose by 40 percent, from 5,949 in 2016-17 to 8,336 in 2017-18, according to Home Office data. Most religious hate crimes – 52 percent of all offences – were aimed at Muslims.

Police figures also show that hate crimes towards Muslims rose sharply in the immediate aftermath of localised Islamic terrorism incidents, such as the Manchester bombings and the London Bridge attacks.

Mughal says: “People are killed in Islamist attacks and then sections of wider society look at Muslims in a negative way.

“In the end, innocent Muslims have to foot the bill for this nonsense. It is getting worse and it’s getting to a point where many Muslims are thinking about leaving Britain.”

‘A perfect storm’

According to Mughal, there is a ‘perfect storm’ of factors driving Islamophobia in Britain.

He says: “The online world, negative stories about Muslims in the mainstream media, Islamophobia in politics, and Islamic terrorism incidents are all driving hate crime towards Muslims.”

He reserves particular opprobrium for senior British politicians who green light anti-Islamic sentiment from the top.

Referencing British Conservative Prime Minister frontrunner Jacob Rees-Mogg retweeting content from the German far-right party AfB this week, Mughal fears "it normalises the extreme right into the mainstream".

British Muslim campaigner Aziz says: “The fact that two weeks ago 50 Muslims were killed in an Islamophobic massacre in New Zealand and now you have a future leader of the UK retweeting content from an anti-Muslim party at one of the most divisive times in the country’s history is despicable.

“It’s beyond words and it has implications. Everything that comes out of politician’s mouths has a direct impact on Muslim lives. We are going backwards [in terms of Islamophobia], not forwards.

“We are reaching new lows every day in this country – immigrants are everyone’s punching bag; refugees are everyone’s punching bag.”

Kickboxing classes for women

In her home base of Oxford, Aziz says she has set up a support groups for women who have been victims of name-calling, racial slurs and physical attacks since the Christchurch attacks.

“Some women are too scared to leave their homes,” says Aziz. “These women are feeling vulnerable because of the rhetoric that’s coming from our politicians, it’s created a very toxic environment.

“These are not fringe characters – these are people seeking the highest position in the country. There needs to be some accountability.”


Members of the London New Zealand community and well-wishers attend a vigil at Trafalgar Square in central London on March 21, 2019 in honour of the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand. (Photo: DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)

As a response to the New Zealand terror aftermath, Aziz has organised free defence classes for women to learn kick boxing from a female Muslim instructor.

“This was a direct response to increased anxiety surrounding hate crime. We had a good response. The climate of fear around the world now definitely increased interest.”

Chris Doyle, director, Centre for British and Arab Understanding (Caabu) says the rise in Muslim hate crime is part of a ‘really raw’ backdrop of a climate of increased hate.

“The direction is definitely getting worse – in terms of the number of hate crimes, the way Muslims are portrayed in the media and harassment of Muslims in the street – particularly women,” Doyle tells Arabian Business. “We have seen it not just in the UK, of course, but in Europe and the US. This new trope of Islamophobia and racism is really disturbing.”

Doyle says: “The government may be distracted by Brexit, but it has not done enough specifically to tackle the issue of Islamophobia, and is not doing enough to get to the root causes of it.

“All too often we see senior ministers who should know better stoke things up, like former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, using dog whistle language such as ‘letter boxes’ to describe women wearing burkas. This is not responsible behaviour from people who should be playing a leadership role in British society. We should be trying to understand the other, not demonise the other.”

Islamophobia needs a definition

Doyle says the establishment of an agreed official definition of Islamophobia is long overdue.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims has announced a definition, but only some of Britain’s parties have since adopted it.

The definition is: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, on March 22 announced that City Hall has adopted the APPG definition and called on the government to do the same to show its commitment to tackling hate crime and the spread of far-right messaging by signing up to the wording.

Doyle says: “An agreed definition is needed because we are looking at hatred against groups of people who are collectively slurred and maligned. It has real impact on those communities. There is an awful lot of denial about Islamophobia.”

The Caabu director adds: “The growth of the far right is concerning, we have seen a serving MP, Jo Cox, killed in broad daylight and many others have suffered direct threats to their lives. This is the very sorry state of Britain in 2019.”


People view damage to Witton Muslim Centre after a hammer attack on March 21, 2019 in Birmingham, England. Anti-terror police were called in to investigate the hammer attacks on five mosques in Birmingham on the same night. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

According to Tell Mama’s Mughal, the British government and police have accelerated efforts to quash Islamophobia since last year’s shocking Punish A Muslim Day events.

He says: “One year on, we have better strategies for dealing with things like this. We are working with the government to look at what kind of messaging we are putting out about hate crimes and Muslims. We are working to make sure Muslims feel more confident about reporting hate crime.

“Since last year, a lot of planning and enormous amounts of coordination have gone into how we manage the situation and how we can help produce hate crime evidence.”

But while Mughal says CCTV can be used to prosecute street hate crimes, the murky world of online abuse represents a far bigger problem.

Mughal takes aim at blasé social media companies who host hate crime content. He says more needs to be done to ensure 100 percent immediate removal of incendiary Islamophobic material.

“Social media companies are not providing evidence quickly enough. What’s more, the police are seriously under-resourced to tackle online hate crime.”

He suggests the UK should create an online arbitrator, similar to the country’s media watchdog Ofcom, which would have legal powers to fine social media companies for hosting hate crime material.

“There should be no bar on fines – they should go from one pound to tens of millions of pounds. We need to put the pressure on social media companies.”

Mughal says the government ‘waxes and wanes’ on the issue of online hate crime, but it needs to keep the resources consistent because this is a ‘standing issue’.

On a more positive note, Doyle says the celebration of outstanding role models is key to changing perceptions of Muslims in Britain.

“We have come a long way since 1997, when there were no Muslims in office,” he says.

“Today we have a Muslim mayor of London and a Muslim home secretary. We are now seeing the arrival of second and third generation Muslims… beating Islamophobia is a battle but we will win it.”

In a statement to Arabian Business, Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on Hate Crime, said: “Police monitor and respond robustly to all reports of hate crime, including against those in Muslim communities. We work closely with charities to share safety materials and reassure concerned individuals that the police are there to listen and help.

"Police authorities urged any Muslims living or travelling in the UK who feel threatened or at risk to report all hate crimes to the police by calling 101 or through True Vision (www.report-it.org.uk) or alternatively to Tell MAMA (www.tellmamauk.org). In an emergency, police should be contacted via 999.”