Islamophobia Awareness Month calls for change on UK anti-Muslim hate

Islamophobia Awareness Month calls for change on UK anti-Muslim hate
8 min read
20 November, 2021
With 45% of religious hate crimes in England and Wales being aimed at Muslims, Islamophobia Awareness Month seeks to stem the tide of hate this November.
Women are common targets of Islamophobic hate [JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images-file photo]

Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM) is aiming to combat the deepening crisis of anti-Muslim hate in the UK this November. The annual campaign, which the NGO Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) cofounded nine years ago, has made Time for Change its 2021 theme, seeking concrete improvements.

Events this year include reading groups, talks and exhibitions hosted by Muslim organisations, plus companies, local councils, university students' unions and more.

It comes amid serious racism and Islamophobia allegations made in Parliament on Tuesday by former Yorkshire County Cricket Club spin bowler Azeem Rafiq, 30, rocking the game and the nation.

"So, I'm coming back from school. I must be about 11," said East London Mosque (ELM) programmes chief Sufia Alam, now 49, recounting a violent Islamophobic attack from her Yorkshire childhood.

"One of my fellow students, he was from a couple of years above us… He called me the P-word… and spat on my face," said Alam, who also leads the Maryam Centre – the women's wing at ELM, which is Britain's largest mosque.

"And he kicked me. And all I remember was looking down at the ground and at Doc Marten boots."

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To this day, Doc Martens have a "bad emotional attachment" for Alam, whose family background is not even Pakistani, but Bengali.

The UK's Home Office last month found 45 percent of religious hate crime in England and Wales was aimed at Muslims during the year ending March 2021.

MEND CEO Azhar Qayum said: "Close to 50 percent of… religiously motivated hate crime directed at, you know, 4.8 percent of the population is quite a serious thing."

He raised the 2013 Birmingham stabbing murder of Mohammed Saleem, 82, by a man who subsequently placed bombs close to three mosques.

There was also the 2017 terror attack in Finsbury Park, London, where far-right extremist Darren Osborne used a van to "mow down worshippers" outside the Muslim Welfare House Mosque, killing one and wounding nine others, Qayum noted.

This violence is not unique, and MEND's CEO said Islamophobia has increased in scale and gravity over time.

However, devastating attacks are not the only concern.

Qayum explained discrimination is key, citing a 2017 BBC experiment that found a prospective employee called "Mohamed" was three times less likely to secure a job interview than one named "Adam".

"It really reduces the life chances of Muslims."

He said employers are being asked to consider "name-blind applications" and ways of creating a more "Muslim-friendly environment", for example, through flexible hours during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

"You might have a white woman who becomes Muslim... donning that hijab will remove so much of that privilege that she will be treated very similarly to any other Muslim woman and will then start receiving similar types of prejudice in a very racialised way"

Defining Islamophobia as a form of racism is also crucial, according to Imran Awan, 39, a Birmingham City University criminology professor and authority on anti-Muslim hate.

"I think it's really important because if we look at even the research I've done, you can see there's a[n] intersectionality between ethnicity, race," he said.

"I did some research with people who were not Muslim, they were perceived to be Muslim – Sikhs, Hindus, even Jewish people… they all suffered Islamophobic hate crimes because of who they were perceived to be. So, this idea that race and ethnicity can't be linked is kind of a misnomer."

Awan mentioned Sarandev Singh Bhambra – a Sikh dentist severely wounded by a machete and claw hammer in 2015.

His attacker said this was retaliation for the Islamist slaying of UK serviceman Lee Rigby more than a year and a half earlier.

Qayum said Muslims should be protected by race relations law – as Sikhs and Jews are – and demonstrated how Muslims are treated as a racial group.

"You might have a white woman who becomes Muslim. And the day before she becomes Muslim, or starts wearing her hijab, she will have all of the privileges that come with being white.

"But donning that hijab will remove so much of that privilege that she will be treated very similarly to any other Muslim woman and will then start receiving similar types of prejudice in a very racialised way."

He continued: "She's no longer seen as white, but [is] now seen as part of the Other by [the]… minority of people who perpetrate this type of… prejudice."

Despite the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims putting the principle of Islamophobia being a type of racism forward in its 2018 definition, the UK Government has so far failed to either adopt this or set out an official understanding of its own.

The Government maintains it is "working to agree on a robust definition" and requires "the time to get this right".

A view of the outside of East London Mosque
East London Mosque hosted IAM's London launch earlier this month [Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Getty]

The absence of a universally accepted definition of Islamophobia causes issues with police's recording practices. Some instances are registered as being motivated by religion and others by race, Awan explained.

The justice system also suffers from a lack of confidence, and many feel the process must improve.

"What is the aftercare? How long does the process take? Is the victim constantly contacted? And what happens to the perpetrator, you know, in… terms of the sentencing?" Awan asked.

He noted the punishments given for Islamophobia appear lenient, and said conspiracy theories – especially given coronavirus – plus false media stereotypes, for instance of Muslims as terror supporters, are key drivers of anti-Muslim bigotry.

Joining these is the victim's visible Muslimness, something impacting women most significantly, Awan added.

ELM's Alam said Islam became a target for bigots following the 11 September terror attacks in 2001. She also raised visibility as a concern.

"When I say visible – we wear the hijab, the headscarf, our attire – we probably wear long robes."

This makes women more susceptible to abuse, for instance when hijabs are pulled down. Anxious this may happen to them, some university students involved in a 2017 community listening effort reported wearing additional pins on their hijabs, Alam said.

She sees Muslim women as experiencing "double penalties".

"You're a woman – you get discriminated [against] in that way. And then you're a Muslim, and you're a visible Muslim, and you're brown or Black or Asian or [a] migrant," Alam explained, describing this perspective as "intersectionality".

However, like Qayum, Alam noted white Muslim women also face bigotry.

"You're not a jihadi bride, are you?" a journalist attending the mosque once asked a white woman convert to Islam, making her cry, Alam said.

The Maryam Centre leader explained: "Now, she's a white woman with a hijab on and she's… getting that as well. So, it is the fear of Islam isn't it, as well? It's not just the colour of the skin."

The pressures visibly Muslim women face cause some to stop wearing their hijabs or even leave the faith, according to Alam.

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Many women won't report the bigotry they face, she said. The barriers they face include fear surrounding the media's reaction, not wanting to endure the legal process and sexist victim blaming from other Muslims.

While IAM provides a vital platform to discuss these issues, anti-Muslim hatred is not just an individual problem.

"I think there's definitely what I would call structural or institutional Islamophobia," Professor Awan said.

"Muslims are not just demonised, but [there are] policies that are openly quite racist and quite openly targeting them, for example. Whether it's at airports and ports, whether it's in schools and [the] education system. And I think, again, the trigger to all of this is quite often linking people's ethnicity and their faith to terrorism."

He said policies including the UK Government's Prevent Strategy, a widely criticised counterextremism effort, "haven't helped because they've demonised, scapegoated and stigmatised, alienated a whole community".

As well as abuses in the physical world, Muslims face online hate.

There are "trigger events", like terrorism and grooming scandals that some attempt to link with Islam. These cause upticks in online prejudice, Awan said, which in turn seeps into offline reality.

"It's almost like [cricketer Azeem Rafiq] was talking on our behalf. It was really, really important. And we felt his pain"

The social media space also sees people discussing issues like the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, who are suffering a genocide in Myanmar, assumed to be Muslim and therefore targeted, the criminologist explained.

Despite all British Muslims face, popular figures speaking out makes a real difference.

Cricket's Azeem Rafiq testified about the Islamophobia and other racism he says he's experienced in the sport to the House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee this month.

He said he'd been "pinned down" and "red wine got poured down [his] throat" at his local club when he was 15. Consuming alcohol is forbidden in Islam.

Rafiq, who debuted for Yorkshire's men's team aged 17 in 2008, also alleged: "Pretty early on, me and other people from [an] Asian background… [had] comments such as, 'You lot sit over there, near the toilets', 'elephant washers'".

He continued: "The word P*** was used constantly… and no one ever stamped it out."

"It was so great seeing that the select committee asked those questions, had those reactions, and it was like, it's almost validating the pain that we went through as well," Alam explained.

"It's almost like [Rafiq] was talking on our behalf. It was really, really important. And we felt his pain."

MEND's Qayum said: "People are talking about it as a watershed moment, and I hope it is.

"And I think it will be for cricket. But it should be for society in general, where people really… stand up and say, you know, this is completely unacceptable."

Nick McAlpin is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin