State racism and rising Islamophobia: Remembering Mohammed Saleem

State racism and rising Islamophobia: Remembering Mohammed Saleem
Comment: Tragically, the brutal murder of Mohammed Saleem five years ago was not an isolated incident of Islamophobic hate crime in the UK, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
11 May, 2018
Mr Saleem's murderer was found in possession of white supremacist materials [Getty]
It has been five years since the tragic, racist murder of Mohammed Saleem. 

The eighty-two-year-old was stabbed three times in the back, by neo-Nazi Pavlo Lapshyn, as he left his local mosque in Small Heath, Birmingham late one evening in April 2013.

On arrival in the UK as a refugee at the age of seven, my own childhood days were also spent in Birmingham, and the horrific death of Mr Saleem was a stark reminder to me - as I'm sure it was to so many others who thought 'things are getting better' - that people of colour and Muslims remain under attack in this country.

The poor response by the state to the far-right attack only reinforced this feeling, as the weeks, months, and years that followed appeared to be more a scramble by institutions to suppress the whole story, rather than an attempt to deliver justice.

One of Mr Saleem's daughters, Maz, is a staunch ant-racist activist who continues to fight for justice for her father, as well as opposing the very system that created and sustains the Islamophobic hate that killed him.

In light of her father's case, Ms Saleem spoke to me about the failure of the police, who, within minutes of her father's murder, said "this is not a racist attack", and refused to investigate it as such.

It was later uncovered that Pavlov Lapshyn had planted bombs outside three different mosques in Walsall, Tipton and Wolverhampton, and was in possession of white supremacist materials, including a video game entitled 'Ethnic Cleansing'.

At interview he admitted that he murdered Mohammed Saleem because he hated "non-whites".

One of the many photographs implicating him included a picture of the murder weapon accompanied by the words "Mohammed Saleem was killed by". He also took a picture with the knife for a white supremacist website.

Following Lapshyn's sentencing to at least 40 years in prison, Assistant Chief Constable Marcus Beale from West Midlands Police stated that he was "very definitely driven by an extreme right-wing ideology and white supremacist ideology".

Maz Saleem recalls the levels of institutional racism in the aftermath of the haunting incident, when her family were suspected and investigated for the killing as the police wrongly thought the perpetrator was likely to be from the Muslim community.

"The state mismanaged, misdirected and ultimately underplayed the significance of my father's terrorist murder," explained his youngest daughter.

Following one of Lapshyn's attempted bombings, Saleem remembers the wrongful arrest of an eighty-two year old Muslim man, who had actually removed the bomb to a safe place away from worshippers; a sad reminder of how counter-terrorism policies and police forces racially profile Muslims and people of colour, assuming guilt until proven innocent.

Read more: Muslim group blames Trump for surge in Islamophobic attacks

The anti-racist and anti-war activist said that she wasn't surprised by the actions of the police and other officials given that "the Muslim community is treated as a suspect community, basic human rights can be stripped off them at will through PREVENT and Schedule 7. They can be spirited to secret locations and tortured in Guantanamo. This is the extent to which we are turned into the problem".

The levels of racism were also clear to see in the wider public response to Mr Saleem's death, or rather the lack thereof. Ms Saleem remarked that the response would have probably been a lot different had the attacker been called 'Abdul'.

Just weeks after the fateful night in April 2013, the world was in shock over the brutal murder of Lee Rigby, with global media outrage and an outpouring of support from the public.

The Saleem family watched as the government responded immediately by calling an emergency Cobra meeting - a cross-departmental crisis committee that responds to national emergencies.

Maz Saleem highlighted that, "In stark contrast, my father's case was met with a deafening silence and an attempt to cover up the implications of the narrative peddled by the state, media and senior politicians that contributed to the incident that my father fell victim to."

'The Muslim community is treated as a suspect community' - Maz Saleem

The loss of Mohammed Saleem did not only leave a gaping hole in his family's life, but also that of the local community that he had served and supported for 30 years.

It also left many Muslims worried for their own safety, particularly upon the now familiar realisation that the British state "was not on their side", as Maz Saleem sums up.

With a great sigh, she states that in reality, "I feel no lessons have been learned" listing some of the Islamophobic attacks since that of her father's.

These included the attempted murder of Zaynab Husssein, and a twelve-year-old Muslim girl at the hands of Paul Moore who ran them over, the death of Muhsin Ahmed who was fatally assaulted by four white male EDL supporters in Rotherham, and the killing of Makram Ali who was deliberately hit by a van outside Finsbury Park Mosque by Darren Osborne.

All of this, she explains, is the consequence of "a hostile environment, imperialist wars and vicious right-wing media depictions of Muslims and migrants".

She also points out that this racist climate is created to "justify the continued so-called War on Terror, neo-colonialist and imperialist endeavours abroad and as a distraction from domestic policies which are privatising all welfare services, education and stripping everyone of their democratic freedoms".

People of colour and Muslims remain under attack in this country

Saleem's plea goes out to all communities to unite against rising racism and xenophobia, and for Muslim public figures - within and outside of faith spaces - to speak out against the injustices they see.

Her inspiring passion for social justice - one that many have witnessed at Palestine solidarity demonstrations and anti-Trump rallies - leads her to the conclusion that, "We must march as civil rights activists marched. Only by visible unity and education can we build a society where racist murders simply don't happen."

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.