Recent weeks and months have witnessed a rise in UK hate crimes. In fact, hate crime has increased steadily over the past few years. Whether it’s anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of bigotry, the battle against hate crime and hate speech is one we seem to be losing.
Despite the pressing need for a concerted and proactive drive against such bigotry, the current government has consistently failed to step up to the mark, even as Islamophobia has shot up by 65% in the past year. Since the Woolwich attack, the number of Islamophobic incidents reported to the Metropolitan police jumped from an average 1 a day to 8 a day just in London – and that remains the most cautious figure available.
Indeed, the coalition’s lack of interest in this area has been nothing short of breath-taking. Despite the timely need for support, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia has received little or no government assistance. The cross-government Anti-Muslim working group which operates under the Department for Communities and Local Government has fared little better. The group, made up of experts on hate crime and notable figures from the British Muslim community, have in the past complained of government ministers ignoring and marginalising them whenever it has tried to make its voice heard to decision-makers in Whitehall.
This is indicative of an administration that has simply not given enough regard to challenges faced by Britain’s minorities. Sayeda Warsi, a former Conservative minister herself, has consistently warned about the need to tackle Islamophobia and the dangerous electoral implications of the Conservatives maintaining their time honoured tradition of poor ethnic minority engagement. Unfortunately, little has changed, despite her warnings.
In contrast, Labour has promised a tougher stance on all forms of hate, whether it is Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia or racism. Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has pledged to create a blacklist of people who are known to spread hate and bigotry so employers may be aware. She has also pledged to uphold proposals by the Law Commission to extend the criminal records system which the current government disgracefully shot down.
Such measures are vital, particularly as the effect of the current government’s negligence is more pervasive than it may at first glance appear. The government’s lazy approach to tackling Islamophobia and hate speech, the Orwellian views of Gove and co. on social conformity to their definition of Britishness as a benchmark for integration and Cameron’s public disdain for a multicultural society appears to have created the mood music for increasingly brazen Islamophobic attacks in right-wing press. And if that’s not enough, all of this acts as a huge obstacle that blocks the Government from reaching its counter-radicalisation goals. The government must work to engender a baseline of trust with the British Muslim community for the kind of sustainable community engagement that underpins counter-radicalisation efforts.
As it stands, Muslims appear to be fair game in the British press; or at least that’s the implicit message many sense from Whitehall. The government’s very own working group on Anti-Muslim hatred has been attacked in the press for being, fundamentalist, entryist and anti-Semitic; and, the government has done nothing to rebut these claims. What was particularly unsettling about the episode is how easily guilt by association was deployed to ignore years of public service from working group members like CEO of Unitas Communications, Muddassar Ahmed who has done much to strengthen transatlantic security cooperation and Muslim-Jewish ties; or Iftikar Awan, former Trustee of DEC charity Islamic Relief; or Iqbal Bhanna OBE who was attacked for acknowledging the positive role bodies like the Islamic Human Rights Commission, an organization with UN consultative status, can play. Mere affiliation to overtly Muslim organizations, however benign or far in the past, can it seems, be enough to justify a character assassination in rightwing media nowadays.
For such a culture of public anti-Muslim sentiment to be addressed, past problems must be rectified. This means greater transparency in who government funds, greater proactiveness in how the government responds to vitriolic fear-mongering and more authenticity in how the government engages with Muslim and other minority communities. Trust in the state is vital if the state’s counter radicalisation strategy is to have any chance of success. This is why it is important the work of the anti-Muslim working group to tackle hate and Islamophobia continues, much like its Jewish equivalent which has thankfully been far more successful.
After nearly five years of wasted chances however, the current coalition’s credibility amongst those minority groups Baroness Warsi warned the Tories of doing too little to win over may well be irreparable. Let us hope that if a more inclusive Labour administration comes to power post-May, it also offers a fresh start and a renewed opportunity to build the trust with minority communities that so much else depends upon.
Yasmin Qureshi is the Labour MP for Bolton South East. She is amongst the first group of British female Muslim MP’s elected in 2010. She is also a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee.