Tackling Islamophobia

Time for a proper debate on anti-Muslim violence and intimidation.

The new all-party parliamentary group investigating Islamophobia will need to encourage the coalition government to tackle anti-Muslim violence and intimidation as a matter of urgency. Too many victims have suffered in silence and without remedy since the phenomenon became widespread after the 11 September 2001 attacks to allow even a day's delay.

For the best part of a decade, the violence – ranging from murder, grievous bodily harm, petrol bombings and political violence through to death threats and vandalism – has remained largely hidden and unremarked outside of the communities where it occurs.

What motivates the violence? Just as a minority of journalists feel licensed to denigrate Muslims in a way they would not dream of doing to any other faith or any ethnic-minority community, so too a minority of gangs and individuals commit violence against Muslims and their places of worship and congregation, in the mistaken but often honestly held belief that they are attacking "Muslim terrorists" or "extremists". Invariably this motivation can be traced back to influential media commentators and politicians – not solely to the British National Party and the English Defence League.

Street violence once known to attackers and victims as "Paki-bashing" has given way to "Muslim-bashing". From the late 1960s until the early 1990s, "Paki-bashing", motivated and sanctioned by widespread racism, was widespread and under-reported in towns and suburbs in the UK. In contrast, since 9/11, "Muslim-bashing" has been motivated and sanctioned by a popularist narrative that links Muslims with the terrorism of al-Qaeda.

In addition, Muslims are also the victims of ongoing racist and anti-immigrant street violence. As research by the Institute of Race Relations makes plain, Muslim taxi drivers, restaurant workers and other low-paid workers often face violence in public that is aimed equally at other minority targets.

However, as new research by the European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC) at the University of Exeter demonstrates, since 9/11 Muslims have also been singled out for violence that is aimed specifically at them and not at others. For instance, as a member of the EMRC research team, I have noted several violent attacks on Muslims carried out by members of ethnic-minority communities. Often in these cases, the assailants' abuse that accompanies the violent assaults is no different – variations on the "Muslim terrorist" theme – from those cases where the attackers are described as being white British.

Pigs' heads

We recommend that the all-party parliamentary group pay particular attention to two kinds of anti-Muslim hate crime that have harmed innumerable citizens and eroded community safety and confidence in several towns and suburbs in the UK: street violence against Muslim men and women of distinctively Muslim appearance; and violence and intimidation targeted against mosques, Islamic institutions and Muslim organisations.

How widespread has the problem become since 9/11? In respect of anti-Muslim street violence, we will probably never know for certain, owing to a high level of attacks that have gone unreported to police or which have been recorded as racist crimes or random attacks with no recognition of an anti-Muslim motivation. To illustrate, we have so far collected preliminary data on more than 100 anti-Muslim hate crimes that have either not been reported to police or not been investigated as having an anti-Muslim motivation during the period 2001-2010. Every reasonable indication suggests this is the tip of the iceberg.

In contrast, in respect of violence and intimidation targeted against mosques, Islamic institutions and Muslim organisations, it will be possible to gain a clearer picture of the extent of the phenomenon. By compiling and analysing data arising from completed questionnaires we sent to mosques, Islamic institutions and Muslim organisations and interviews with their officials and congregations, we are steadily building a comprehensive research picture. At present we can offer only a preliminary guide, because many mosque officials are as reluctant to report violence to researchers as they are to police.

How many out of approximately 1,600 mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim organisations in the UK have been attacked since 9/11? So far, we have collated partial details on more than 250 hate crimes at over 150 venues (mainly mosques, but also Islamic centres and Muslim organisations) since 9/11. Attacks include petrol bombs thrown into mosques, serious physical assaults on imams and staff, bricks thrown through mosque windows, pigs' heads being fixed prominently to mosque entrances and minarets, death threats, other threatening and abusive messages – sometimes verbal, sometimes written – and vandalism.

Although much painstaking research lies ahead before we can provide an accurate picture, every early indication suggests that between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim organisations in the UK have suffered at least one attack that has or could have been reported to police as a hate crime since 9/11.

Interestingly, while a significant number of mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim organisations have suffered no violence since 9/11, it is already perfectly clear that an equally significant number have suffered repeated attacks and ongoing vandalism and antisocial behaviour that amounts to intimidation.

Slow mo

In the past two years, a number of mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim organisations have also been subjected to intimidatory demonstrations and campaigns by violent protesters belonging to or associated with the English Defence League and other Islamophobic groups.

Attacks and violent demonstrations against mosques, Islamic centres and Muslim organisations are just one part of an established and widespread, decade-long phenomenon in which many Muslims have come to feel under siege in their own country. Yet, to date, the government and police chiefs have been slow to assess the extent and nature of the problem.

Several imams and officials at mosques in the UK have expressed deep sorrow when asked to recount the circumstances in which their own place of worship had been attacked and damaged. One imam spoke movingly about the tangible hurt Muslims felt when the "House of Allah" they attended every day was attacked by a petrol bomb or desecrated by a pig's head or in some other way.

Over and above the damage, disruption and fear is a profound sense of violation and religious sacrilege, which devout members of other faiths will readily comprehend but which may require an effort of empathy from non-believers.

Robert Lambert is co-drector of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter. Together with Jonathan Githens-Mazer, he is co-author of "Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK Case Studies".

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.