By Alicia Buller
Iman Atta, head of hate crime monitoring charity Tell Mama, reveals how far-right factions have used the virus to sow racial and religious division
Rising coronavirus levels in Britain are being falsely attributed to the Muslim community, say leading UK activists.
Since the onset of COVID-19, far-right factions have used the virus to sow racial and religious division within society by blaming ethnic minorities for its spread, according to Iman Atta, head of hate crime monitoring charity Tell Mama.
Examples include blaming the Muslim community for spreading the disease without proof and sharing falsehoods such as mislabelled videos of Muslims not observing social distancing rules.
“The suggestion is that Muslims are purposely spreading the virus to attack the non-believers,” Atta told Arabian Business.
In the UK, these factors stoked a 40 percent rise in online Islamophobia during the lockdown months of March to June compared to the same period last year, she said.
With much of the country in lockdown, Muslim hate crimes such as death threats, verbal abuse and bullying behavior have mainly taken place on social media.
‘Given that the day-to-day interaction in public spaces was limited, the shift to online hate and abuse rose significantly during lockdown,” said Atta.
In recent weeks, tensions have been particularly fraught in northern England.
Just ahead of Eid Al Adha, heavily populated Muslim areas, such as Leicester in the east Midlands, were put under local government lockdown.
The timing of the announcement led to accusations that the government was attempting to curtail the Muslim celebration – these concerns were stoked further when Conservative MP Craig Whittaker told LBC radio that there were "sections of the community that are not taking the pandemic seriously".
When asked if he was talking about Muslims, he replied: "Of course."
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Britain's largest umbrella body for Muslims, has directly condemned Whittaker.
“There are MPs and conspiracy theorists who are blaming Muslims for COVID-19, yet there is no evidence to show that Muslims are not taking the pandemic seriously,” Zainab Gulamali, public affairs manager, MCB told Arabian Business.
“Not only is it irresponsible and shameful for a public figure like a MP to attack minorities in this way but it’s offensive when you consider that Muslims have the highest mortality rate from COVID-19,” said Gulamali, referring to recently published government data that evidenced higher BAME coronavirus death rates.
According to Gulamali, the lack of a senior government rebuttal of Whittaker’s statement only ‘legitimises’ hateful sentiment.
“It’s offensive that no one supports Muslims,” she said. “It’s dangerous if you have people who blame Muslims and then you don’t have anyone from any senior public health position condemning it.”
According to Shaista Aziz, journalist and national anti-racism and equalities campaigner, blaming '”foreign- looking bodies of colour” for carrying and spreading disease is "nothing new”.
“This has been going on since colonial times. Islamophobia is rife across society and sections of mainstream media and a number of politicians are propagating dangerous racism and myths about the spread of COVID-19,” Aziz told Arabian Business.
“All of this is happening at a time when black and minority ethnic people and communities are being disproportionately impacted by this pandemic – dying in huge numbers. It’s devastating.”
Tell Mama’s Atta said social media companies were not doing enough to clamp down on false stories about Muslims or Islamic hate crime.
“Social media companies do not understand the constant changing language of anti-Muslim hate and the imagery which bypasses algorithms,” Atta said.
“This issue of anti-Muslim hate is way down the agenda of social media companies who just want more conversations on their platforms, and the more ‘hate’ is spread on such platforms the more business and money they make.
“Social media companies are slowly moving to address this while at the same time turning a blind eye,” she added.
The Tell Mama director called for the British government to allow members of the public to take social media companies to court for damages.
Atta also urged the government to implement a ‘heavy fine’ system for social media-enabled hate crime incidents.
“The government must hold social media companies accountable where no action has been taken to address hate and extremism,” she said.
A Twitter spokesperson told Arabian Business that the company has challenged 4.5 million accounts for “spammy or manipulated behaviour” since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ll continue to prioritise removing content when it has a clear call to action that could directly pose a risk to people’s health or well-being, but we want to make it clear that we will not be able to take enforcement action on every Tweet that contains incomplete or disputed information about COVID-19,” the statement said.
“We are committed to protect and serve the public conversation as we navigate this unprecedented global public healthcare crisis. As outlined in our Hateful Conduct Policy, we do not tolerate the abuse or harassment of people on the basis of religion. If we identify accounts that violate these rules, we’ll take enforcement action,” the spokesperson added.
Anti-racism campaigner Aziz called on the British government to radically and immediately shake up public policy.
“Islamophobia is racism and for society to dismantle and eradicate racism the first step is to acknowledge the problem and the extent of it,” Aziz said.
“The second step is to tackle the root causes of the problem through education and through the creation of public policy focused on tackling inequalities which are structured in racism and class inequities.”