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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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