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.