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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".