Of course Muslims are staying home this Ramadan, so spare us the extra scrutiny

Of course Muslims are staying home this Ramadan, so spare us the extra scrutiny
Comment: The run up to Ramadan has seen a slew of Islamophobic smear campaigns suggesting Muslims are not following the rules. The truth couldn't be more different, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
20 Apr, 2020
Muslims around the world prepare for a month of fasting and online prayer [AFP]
As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approaches, public scrutiny and media attention towards Muslims is also growing. 

Last week, Andrew Pierce of the right wing Daily Mail tweeted that, "if families gather for the holy month of Ramadan there will be a huge spike in Covid-19 cases. Doctors are very worried".  

It is incredible that at a time when so many Muslims and people of colour are dying of coronavirus - many of them NHS staff on the frontline - ramping up Islamophobia is still top of the agenda. As the first doctor who lost his life to the disease in the UK, a Muslim, has barely been laid to rest, racists are already on the move to tarnish their name. 

Pierce's words - echoed also by numerous far-right groups that increasingly seem to set on pinning the outbreak on Muslims - are dangerous because they reinforce the idea that the entire community is unable to comprehend the scale of the pandemic, and is somehow willing to put others at risk.

The tired trope of the uncivilised and unwashed Muslim masses who are carrying diseases serves to exacerbate social division. It is as though the religious community is not suffering from the virus, mourning the death of loved ones and worrying over its future, just like everyone else around the world. 

As the rate of infections and the death toll grew in the UK, and more and more public spaces were forced to close, Islamophobic smear campaigns started spreading. A video was circulating on far-right networks of a mass prayer in Wembley, London, in order to provoke suspicion that Muslims were not abiding by self-isolation measures.

The tired trope of the uncivilised and unwashed Muslim masses who are carrying diseases only serves to exacerbate social division

It was later uncovered that this was old footage, and that the mosque had been closed since February. Far-right leader Tommy Robinson, also shared a video on Telegram which was viewed by thousands, of Muslim men exiting a supposedly "secret mosque" in Birmingham - a claim which was similarly refuted by West Midlands Police. The narrative, however, was already out there. 

In reality, the only exceptional thing about Muslims in the UK, is that they are more likely to be poor. For example, in 2015 the Muslim Council of Britain found, based on the 2011 census, that "19.8 percent of the Muslim population is in full-time employment, compared to 34.9 percent in the overall population. 7.2 percent of Muslims are unemployed compared to 4.0 percent in the overall population."

It also found that "46 percent of the Muslim population resides in the 10 percent most deprived local authority districts in England." Many work in blue collar - and therefore vulnerable - jobs in transport, food services, healthcare, or facility services which sustain the NHS; jobs which tend to come with harsher working conditions, poorer pay and often precarious contracts.

All of these factors not only put the community at risk and force many - just like their working class counterparts across the world - to choose between a paycheck and their health. Collectively, Muslims are therefore likely to be spending an incredibly difficult Ramadan, which is highly likely to be filled with disproportionate levels of loss, ill-health and trauma. 

Read more: 
Far-right groups circulate 'fake' video of Muslims breaking UK coronavirus lockdown

More shocking than the usual racist right-wing punditry, was hearing a doctor in the West Midlands publicly raising similar concerns about Muslims gathering and causing a "big spike in infections" during Ramadan.

Not only were his comments flippant and not focussed on ensuring the safety of the community, but they were filled with problematic assumptions. Stating that Muslims "traditionally gather to open and close prayers and breakfast at sundown with friends and neighbours," is deeply unhelpful.

Sure, normally they do. But this is not just another Ramadan during which people will be fasting and praying like any other year in the UK. This Ramadan is unavoidably different, and without even factoring in the daily actions of each Muslim, there are literal barriers to them being able to experience the month like before. 

For all the right-wing pundits and 'activists' spreading hysteria over the mass huddling of Muslims, while it is true we are perceived as extra-ordinary, and we have mountains of policies and special state powers, we are not magically above the law. Muslims will still be harassed by the police - probably more so in fact - for leaving their homes, are forbidden from mass gatherings, restricted in travel, and not to mention, all mosques (like every other religious space) are closed and won't reopen until government guidance permits it.  

Furthermore, countless Muslim leaders, representative groups, and religious institutions have stressed their commitment to self-isolation. In addition, alternative provisions have already been announced by various groups, organisations and public figures. The yearly Open Iftar project, for example, which provides free meals every night of Ramadan alongside educational speeches or performances, will be taking place virtually and is sending all those who wish to take part a #MyOpenIftar pack. 

Even more than that, Muslim communities are offering solidarity through volunteering and the use of mosque spaces in the efforts to save lives. In fact, Birmingham's Green Lane Mosque, just down the road from our concerned doctor, converted its building into a centre where food distribution for the most vulnerable has been set up, as well as spaces and provisions for the deceased. They also joined forces with a furniture company and have 350 volunteers making Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  

Countless Muslim leaders, representative groups, and religious institutions have stressed their commitment to self-isolation

Last Thursday - usually a day when millions "Clap for Our Carers" - Muslims also organised a mass prayer. The #PrayforHeroes campaign was launched with thousands of Muslims across the UK taking part. Charities like Helping Households Under Great Stress (HHUGS), which works with some of the most vulnerable in our society, have set up a Covid-19 emergency appeal.  

Others have also moved the more political aspects of Ramadan online, in order to respect government guidelines while continuing to work to organise the community against rising racism and Islamophobia. The beginning of Ramadan will mark seven years since the murder of Mohammed Saleem, who was stabbed by a neo-Nazi seven years ago as he left night prayers in Small Heath, Birmingham.

His daughter, a long-standing anti-racist activist,
Maz Saleem, is honouring his memory by organising a public event which will be streamed online to address the rise of racism in Europe, the need to mobilise against Islamophobia, as well as offer initiatives to resist the wave of hate during this crisis. 

Far from right-wing talking points and elitist snobbery, Muslims are responding to the crisis in their droves, providing help, support and assistance. The community is made up of individuals who, just like everybody else, is dealing with job losses, health issues, and deaths. Just like everybody else they are working out new ways of being connected to their loved ones, and spreading support.

May the month of mercy bring ease upon us all, may the pandemic come to a rapid end, may frontline workers be protected, may those who fall victim to the virus heal quickly, and may we draw strength from each other by recognising that solidarity in all its forms is the only way that we will get through this difficult chapter in our collective history.

And of course, may we remember those who worked towards that goal alongside us, and those who used it to stoke the flames of hatred and division.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.