Why would anyone believe in the "Islamophobia industry"?

Two years ago, Sayeeda Warsi warned that anti-Muslim prejudice had “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable. Yet we still debate whether Islamophobia exists at all.

The Harlow Islamic Centre in Essex is an unassuming building. A former community centre, set back from the main road, it has seen various incidents of vandalism over the years; youngsters misbehaving, nothing out of the ordinary. That all changed on Sunday 25 August, when three young men visited the mosque in the middle of the night, prised open the shuttered doors and windows to spray insulation foam underneath, and set it alight. Only minor damage was caused, but there were no two ways about it: this was pre-meditated.

“It was a racist attack,” says Ajaib Hussain, chair of the centre. “They came to target the mosque.” Three young men have since been charged. The damage was reparable, but the impact of the incident can still be felt. Extra security cameras have been installed at the centre, and regular police patrols started. “Our community was shocked, sad, and afraid that it would happen again,” says Hussein. “But we are resilient. The support from Muslims and non-Muslims in Harlow after the attack has been overwhelming.”

What happened in Harlow was by no means unique. On 5 June, a mosque and Somali community centre in Muswell Hill, north London, was burnt to the ground by arsonists. On 18 June, the Masjid-e-Noor in Gloucester was set alight. On 23 May, the windows at Maidenhead’s mosque were broken. The list goes on.

Since the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich on 22 May, 30 mosques in the UK have been attacked. In the five weeks immediately following the attack, the monitoring organisation Tell Mama reported a further 250 anti-Muslim incidents against individuals.

This spike in incidents, coupled with the on-going political controversy over the niqab (face veil), has meant that the term “Islamophobia” has been hotly debated. High profile names such as the atheist Richard Dawkins have said that racism against a religion cannot exist (“It is not a race… Islam is a religion and you can choose to leave it or join it”). In June, journalist Andrew Gilligan wrote an article claiming that anti-Muslim hate crime was being exaggerated by “the Islamophobia industry”.

So what exactly is Islamophobia, and how useful is the term? The Runnymede Trust’s Commission on British Muslims gives eight components. These include seeing Islam as a monolithic bloc that is static and unresponsive to change; seeing it as the “other”, with no values in common with other cultures and inferior to the west; seeing Islam and Muslims as violent, primitive, and supportive of terrorism; seeing it as a political ideology; using hostility to Islam to justify discrimination against and exclusion of Muslims; and seeing such hostility towards individual Muslims as natural or normal. The definition was written back in 1997, and remains broadly in use today, used by organisations such as the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. 

The Commission on British Muslims was set up in the mould of a similar group focusing on British Jews, formed in 1992. The aim was to take anti-Muslim prejudice as seriously as anti-Semitism, and to establish active policy steps to tackle it. Against this backdrop, arguing that one can’t be racist against a religion seems irrelevant.

Fiyaz Mughal is the director of Faith Matters, an organisation set up to promote inter-faith dialogue that also runs the Tell Mama project. Launched 18 months ago with funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, this project is mapping and reporting incidents of anti-Muslim hate crime.

When we speak on the phone, he tells me that it is difficult to say whether there has been a general rise in Islamophobic incidents over the last few years because monitoring started relatively recently. The Metropolitan police force is currently the only one in the UK to keep a separate record of anti-Muslim crimes. Tell Mama receives about eight reports every single day (compared with around two or three when they launched in 2011).

“It’s very clear that a high number of incidents are taking place against Muslims in general,” says Mughal. “National or international incidents – like Woolwich – really spike the number of instances that get reported. This effect is cumulative over time. Post-Woolwich, the base line of incidents has not gone back down to what it was. Base line has reset itself to another level. That’s the concerning bit.”

The range of incidents recorded by Tell Mama and other monitoring groups range widely: from attacks on mosques, to violence against individuals, to verbal abuse, to online hatred. When Gilligan took issue with reports that anti-Muslim hate is on the rise, his main points were that many of the incidents were online only, and that others – such as hijab snatching – were “non-serious”.

“The police response to the online world is simply unacceptable,” says Mughal. “We are not talking about minor cases. In one incident, a man had knives on his Twitter picture, and suggested he wanted to go out and ‘slash Muslims’. The police did nothing. There is a laissez-faire approach to online abuse. The Crown Prosecution Service does not enforce and review the law consistently, due to the changing nature of what is happening. Not is there the political momentum behind fighting anti-Muslim prejudice.” It is worth noting that concerns about how online abuse is policed are not unique to anti-Muslim hate.

While arson attacks and petrol bombs at mosques are at the most extreme end of the spectrum, smaller incidents still create an atmosphere of fear and distress. “When I speak to people up north, they say that if there is something negative in their local press about Muslims, in the next few weeks there’ll be an attack or something happening in the street,” says Akeela Ahmed, a member of the government’s working group on Islamophobia. “Sometimes these things are at a low level – flour thrown at the mosque, or graffiti. I don’t think it was until Woolwich that people at a national level took notice.”

Around 70 per cent of incidents reported to Tell Mama involve women wearing headscarves: a visual marker of their religion. Equivalent monitoring groups in France and other European countries note the same trend.

Amina Malik is a 20 year old medical student who lives in London. She has worn a headscarf since she was 13, but has never experienced many problems – until mid-September. On 16 September, a judge ruled that a woman had to remove her niqab (full face veil) in court. This restarted a heated debate about whether such coverings have a place in a liberal society and whether a more far-reaching ban should be introduced. “I don’t cover my face, only my hair, but I felt uncomfortable seeing negative headlines about Muslims and Muslim women on the front pages every single day for a week,” says Malik.

On 20 September, as she was travelling to her home in west London, she sat in front of two men on the bus. “They were having a loud conversation about how Muslims shouldn’t be in this country if they wouldn’t live by British values. I felt edgy but I didn’t say anything and tried not to draw attention to myself.” The two men got off the bus at the same stop as her. “I didn’t think anything of it and tried to walk faster. One of them shouted ‘fucking Paki’ and I realised he was talking to me. They caught up with me and pulled off my headscarf from the back. I was so shaken that I just ran all the way home. I didn’t even stop to look at them.”

She did not report the crime. “There is a massive loss of confidence among Muslim communities,” says Mughal. Campaigners say that the police response to incidents against individuals falls far short, although at the most extreme end of the spectrum – where acts of terrorism are carried out against Muslims – it is far more efficient.

On 23 June, a group of worshippers arrived at the Aisha Mosque in Walsall to attend Friday prayers. They heard a loud bang, and thought that someone’s car engine may have exploded. One of the men looked underneath his car but didn’t see anything; they thought nothing of it. It was the next day that one of the men, back at the mosque, noticed a rucksack, and next to it, a device with wires attached to it. The imam called the police, who confirmed that it was an improvised bomb.

Pavlo Lapshyn, a 25 year old Ukrainian man, has subsequently been charged with planting the bomb at the Walsall mosque, as well as placing similar devices in Tipton and Wolverhampton. He was also charged with the murder of Mohamed Saleem, a 75 year old grandfather who was stabbed in Birmingham just weeks before the Woolwich attack

Zia ul-Haq, a representative of the mosque, is philosophical. “There was no damage, no people were hurt. This sort of thing has never happened before in our mosque. The community was concerned there could be a repeat, but we told them to be calm, vigilant, and watchful. Don’t overreact, and don’t point the finger towards any group or party. We don’t want to look at everyone suspiciously and have kept our open door policy at the mosque.”

However, just like the mosque at Harlow, extra security measures – such as an upgrade in the CCTV system – have been introduced.

“These incidents can cause polarisation,” says Ahmed. “At a local level – which is where these things play out – communities can be divided.”

The Walsall mosque chose not to point fingers, but the incident was not without repercussions. “After the attacks in Tipton and Walsall, there were people in Birmingham talking about the need for Muslims to defend themselves, to ‘man up’, to learn self-defence,” says Ahmed. “In addition to this very obvious, divisive impact of such attacks, there is a psychological impact on Muslim communities. Anxiety is increased. Every time there is an attack at a national level, like Woolwich, people automatically think ‘I hope it’s not a Muslim’. When you find out it is someone who calls themselves a Muslim, people – especially women – are wary about the repercussions. It does affect people’s confidence.”

Sunny Hasan is a 41 year old civil servant from Sheffield. She contrasts the simple racism of her childhood, when the refrain “Paki go home” was commonly heard, to more insidious forms today. “After 9/11 happened, people began to say ‘it’s you Muslims who are fundamentally responsible for the ills in society right now’.”

Like many British Muslims, she resents being held responsible for incidents of Islamic terrorism. “It becomes boring. You become this repeat mantra of formulaic responses. There is this nonsensical approach – ‘forgive us, it’s our fault, all Muslims apologise’. Actually, I don’t apologise for the acts of people who I don’t identify as Muslims, who have said very inappropriately that they are doing this in the name of Allah.”

It is difficult to say whether a rise in reported anti-Muslim incidents is because of increased awareness of the crime, or because of an actual increase in attacks. Campaigners point to the influence of far-right groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) in worsening anti-Muslim sentiment. A recent study by Teeside University found that EDL supporters were involved in 70 per cent of cases of online Islamophobic incidents. Certainly, the group provides a ready-made, if misinformed, narrative about Islam, with cherry-picked quotes and factoids for supporters to repeat.

But perhaps the most worrying fact is how mainstream some of these views have become. Back in January, former Conservative Party co-chair Sayeeda Warsi warned that there was a "misinformed suspicion of people who follow Islam … perpetuated by certain sections of the media.” Two years before that, she warned that anti-Muslim prejudice had “passed the dinner table test” and become socially acceptable.

Ahmed echoes this view: “There are things you can say about Muslims and Islam which you would not say about other communities, and other faiths.” A look at a selection of headlines and quotes bears evidence to this. “A quarter of young British people ‘do not trust Muslims’” (BBC News); “The real Islamist threat to Britain comes from mass immigration and multiculturalism” (Daily Mail). Many statements such as these, routinely seen in the media, would fall foul of the Runnymede Trust’s eight-point definition of Islamophobia.

It is not just the media that is at fault. “Politicians play political football,” says Mughal. “It is quite easy to turn to xenophobia in a time of austerity. Politicians say that the problem with cohesion is that the Muslims are not doing it right, and deflect from the very tough questions raised by the economic crisis, like a lack of investment in housing stock and jobs.”

According to the latest figures, there are more than 2.7 million Muslims in the UK, making up around 4.6 per cent of the overall population. The majority are settled, integrated, and proud to be British. Attacks on mosques or individuals may be relatively rare, but this is by no means a fringe issue. “My question is, where does the state actually want Muslim communities to go with these matters?” says Mughal. “Tell Mama was set up with funding from DCLG – if the police are not responding to us, what the heck! Who are they going to respond to?” When an entire community is routinely scapegoated in a supposedly tolerant society, it should be a concern for everyone.

Graffiti depicting the British National Party beside The Central Mosque in Luton. Image: Getty

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Ukip needs Nigel Farage to stand in the Stoke by-election

Despite becoming a global political celebrity, the party's former leader has been waiting 25 years for this moment to win a Commons seat. 

When Ukip's 20 MEPs - back at school today in Strasbourg to elect a new EU President - wave (no fists please) at each other today at lunch across the various dining rooms of the EU Parliament, their main subject of interest will not be the eight candidates they will be voting for by secret ballot to replace bearded German socialist Martin Schulz.

For the record, these eight MEPs include four Italians (the favourite is centre-right 63-year-old Antonio Tajani, a former Italian air force pilot and EU insider regularly seen at the best tables of VIP watering holes like the Stanhope Hotel in Brussels), two Belgians, a Romanian and, yes, a Brit. Thats's 66-year-old Jean Lambert of the Green Party. But nobody in Ukip really cares. The party has the worst attendance and voting record of any political party in the EU - ranked 76 out 76.

Electing a new EU president today in Strasbourg is not nearly of so much concern to Ukip MEPs as the upcoming by-election in Stoke - not the least as quite a few of them (especially representing the Midlands) will be thinking of standing. The central Midlands seat of Stoke Central is a dream seat to have come up for Ukip just as Theresa May is setting out her 12-point "clean Brexit" plan stall.

Ladbrokes still have Labour 4/5 favourite with Ukip 9/4. It's worth a bet as the stakes are so much higher for Ukip if they lose. If they do, many will ask whether Ukip really can supplant Labour in 2020? 

With the prime minister making it clear today in her Lancaster House speech that her government want a hard Brexit, this presents a potential dilemma for Ukip. If the Tories deliver a clean Brexit with no membership of the single market, or EEA, then does the purpose of Ukip "holding the Tories' feet to the fire" over Brexit become less relevant? 

If Ukip alternatively wishes to re-invent itself as the new working class party of the north and Midlands, it will need to show that it can beat Labour - now at its lowest ebb under Corbyn - in key seats like Stoke. Ukip know this and are very good at their by-election ground game with veteran by-election campaign managers like Lisa Duffy as good as any strategist. In Stoke, expect a full expeditionary force of Ukip's colourful and Falstaff-like army of by-election activist troops - arriving by train, coach and foot - to campaign and out manoeuvre Corbyn's New Left Red Army. 

Stoke Central is probably the most important by-election for Ukip since Heywood and Middleton in 2014 which became a watershed moment for the party. Even Ukip was taken off-guard by the result. Without much cash and without campaigning with the full Ukip army zeal, they lost by just over 600 votes and got a recount. 

Looking back, Heywood was a pivotal moment in Ukip's short history. It was the moment the party realised that its future lay not so much in persuading Disgusted with Dave of Tunbridge Wells to vote for Nigel, but rather with disaffected Labour voters wanting something down about immigration that they saw was changing the very face and identity of their local towns, estates and cities. 

But can Ukip really win Stoke? Well, they really have to try as this is their best chance they might get for a while. Which means that the really interesting question being asked by Ukip MEPs today to Paul Nuttall is "Are you running?" The deadline for candidates on the party's Approved Candidates List to put themselves forward is 4pm on Wednesday 18 January.

So far Nuttall's official line - as told to the Daily Express - is that he is not ruling out standing. As a no-nonsense northerner himself (a working class boy from Bootle in Merseyside who played "junior", not professional, football for Tranmere Rovers), Nuttall would appear to be an ideal working class candidate to empathise with the voters of such a socially dispossessed pottery town.

As Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at East Anglia University wrote in the Guardian: "If Ukip doesn’t win, or doesn’t run Labour close, that calls into question its ability to win parliamentary seats...it would suggest that the referendum, far from being a staging post on the road to supplanting Labour, might signal Ukip's peak." 

Ouch. But Hanretty has a point: if Nuttall stands and fails to win in a working class Midlands seat where 69 per cent of the electorate voted to leave, it does raise issues about how much impact can make on the Westminster electoral landscape should there be a snap election in the next few months as a result of repeated constitutional challenges to Article 50 (the Supreme Court ruling is expected to be announced this week) and legal challenges such as the Article 127 challenge brought by the pro-EU pressure group British Infuence, now postponed until February.

This case revolves around the claim that Parliament must be consulted not just over the UK's exit as a EU member but also (and separately) its exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) – and by definition from the Single Market. In her speech today, Theresa May made it clear that the UK will be leaving the Single Market, so this challenge is unlikely to go away. All this political jousting and legal posturing is likely to make for quite a political circus when the Stoke by-election date is announced (usually within three months of an MP dying or standing down). Should Ukip not win this by-election prize fight - or give Labour a very bloody nose and lose by a few hundred votes as they did in Middleton and Heywood in 2014 -  it would certainly be damaging for Ukip. 

Not the least if the party's leader and chief general (an MEP commander for the north west) chooses to stand himself. But Nuttall is faced with a tricky dilemma. If he stands and loses, the idea that that UKIP is the new party of choice for working class former Labour voters in the North and and Midlands may not look so convincing. Yet if Nuttall doesn't stand and the party puts up another strong candidate who goes on to win like deputy chairman Suzanne Evans (born in the Midlands) or West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge (who has a strong personal following in the Black Country and industrial Midlands), then Nuttall's own position as leader of a party with two MPs could be frustrated. 

So it is going to be an interesting day for Ukip in Strasbourg that's for sure. Ukip is a strange party in that two of its most senior and high profile politicians - deputy chairman and Health spokesman Suzanne Evans and the respected former Ukip mayor candidate Peter Whittle (culture spokesman and excellent film critic for Standpoint) are not even MEPs although Whittle is proving to be an adept member of the London Assembly.  

If Ukip win in Stoke, and Nuttall's name is not on the ballot, this could have political ramifications. There is a significant difference in Westminster powers and patronage in having two MPs in Westminster rather than one (as currently with Douglas Carswell with whom Suzanne Evans worked closely with as a Ukip member of Vote Leave, which was pointedly not the party's official designated Leave camp). With two MPs, Ukip becomes a party as opposed to a one man political solo show. 

If the newly-elected MP were to be, say, Suzanne Evans - one of the party's star performers on Newsnight and Have I Got News For You - Nuttall's power base as leader (no longer an MEP in 2020 after we exit the EU) might be diluted by another senior party member becoming a star performing Commons MP. 

So there is much at stake both personally and party-wise for Nuttall. Should Ukip be defeated in Stoke Central by some margin, this would be picked up by Tory and Labour strategists as offering evidence that Labour might not be wiped out by so many seats under Corbyn should May go to the country in say March or April to settle the Brexit mandate. Polls have been saying that under Corbyn Labour could lose as many as 80-100 seats should Ukip prove (with Stoke) that the party is, indeed, the number one threat to traditional Labour vote in the north and midlands.

Whatever happens in Stoke, the Tories won't win. They will be watching to see how the working class vote splits. This is why it is so improbable that May will attempt to call an 'early election' this year, even if the polls continue to show she would win by a landslide. 

The truth is she can't realistically call an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act even if she she wants to. The Act (one of the worst legacies of the Coalition govt which many MPs want repealed) requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for going to the country - something that not even the most suicidally inclined of Labour MPs will be prepared to do as they will be joining MEPs in being out of a job. 

In the event that Labour take the view that a political blood bath - with Ukip the likely winner in many seats like Stoke Central - is the only way to purge the party of Corbyn, then they will also have to swallow the fact that May (if pushed into an election by troublesome, unelected peers) is likely to spike her election wheel with a manifesto pledge to abolish most of the powers of the House of Lords, as well as booting many of the eldest, most pompous and idle. Such a mandate for radical reform of our largely unelected Lords would hardly be difficult to secure. More blood on the carpet. 

In the event that the Supreme Court rules this week that Article 50 must be signed off by both the Commons and the Lords, any Lib Dem and Labour pro-EU zealots will know that any attempted Kamikaze-style amendments (which could technically delay Parliamentary assent for up to thirteen months) will be met with punitive retribution from Downing Street. 

Ukip only lost in Stoke to Labour's Dr Tristram Hunt in 2015 by around 5,000 votes - largely thanks to disaffected working class voters feeling that their once proud industrial "pottery" city - once a Victorian symbol of industrial creativity and production - had become a symbol of a working class British city in decline. Faced with immigration, housing and other social issues, Stoke voters have felt for some time that the pro-EU metropolitan leaning Labour Party has abandoned them.

Not so Ukip, which is exactly why Nigel Farage chose to stage a major Brexit rally hosted by Grassroots Out (GO!) last April at Stoke's Victoria Hall urging the good people to vote to leave the European Union.

Addressing the packed hall, against his political opponent Tory Chris Grayling MP, and Labour's Kate Hoey (herself a Leaver), Farage drew applause from the Stoke crowd when he said: "This is not about left or right – this is about right or wrong." Farage then started up the audience of hundreds in a chant of "We want our country back." 

In other words, Nigel he knows perfectly well that Ukip can win Stoke. Which leads to the obvious question in Strasbourg today: "Are you going to stand Nigel?" 

Officially, Farage has ruled himself out saying he wants to focus on his international and speaking, broadcasting and advisory career. But as Farage said after picking up the leadership reins after they came loose following the resignation of Diane James: "I keep trying to escape ... and before I'm finally free they drag me back". 

The truth is that in his political heart, I suspect Nigel must be going through a dark night of his political soul over whether he should have stood for Stoke Central. Or still can? In so many ways, he has been waiting over 25 years for this moment. By the time the all-important Heywood and Middleton by-election result came on October 2014 (Ukip share of the vote up 36 per cent), Farage had already committed to standing for the south of England seat of Thanet South - his seventh election campaign to become an MP. Had Nigel stood in the Heywood by-election, he probably would have won. 

All his Ukip parliamentary election campaigns have been in the South, South-West or Home Counties, beginning with Eastleigh in Hampshire in 1994 when he won just 952 votes. But the interesting trend to note is that in his last two attempts to get into the Commons,  he has doubled his vote each time. In 2010 election, standing in Buckingham he won 8,410 votes (almost the same number as I won taking votes of Midland labour voters in North Warwickshire in 2015). In 2015, Nigel got 16,026 votes in South Thanet. 

My point is that had Nigel Farage stood for a solid Labour Northern or Midlands seat in 2015, he may well have won then. Yes, Nigel has said that he wants to get his life back after his extraordinary years as the "Mr Brexit" Ukip leader - apparently now the subject of a Warner Bros Bad Boys of Brexit comedy biopic. 

But as somebody who knows how much the pull of the green leather Commons bench - the true seat of western parliamentary democracy - means to Nigel, I sincerely hope he will re-consider standing for Stoke Central. Yes, he wants to earn money and become a global political superstar. But it will certainly be something to think about as he flies through the night to take up his front row seat in Washington on Friday's inauguration. 

And just think, after what Nigel did for Trump campaigning in Mississippi, how could Donald Trump possibly not campaign for his Brexit friend in Stoke? Now that really would be political theatre.