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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.