The non-Muslims experiencing Islamophobic attacks

“What should I tell the kids? That they are hitting us because they think we are Muslim?”

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When Taranjeet, 36, had his shop windows smashed, he felt both helpless and scared. He also found it extremely difficult to explain to his wife and children, why they had been targeted with a horrific Islamophobic attack, when they themselves are not Muslim. “Both my wife and kids have had it really bad. When the shop windows were smashed, they were inside and I was out. My wife is always scared now. Actually, she did not want to go back to the shop for a whole month. My kids at home always say 'Daddy why are they hurting us? Is it because they don’t like us? But we haven’t done anything wrong to them.' What should I say to them? That they are hitting us because they think we are Muslim?”

Islamophobia does not distinguish between people's experiences of victimisation. It’s for those reasons that as part of hate crime awareness week, I and a colleague are presenting evidence to MPs about a form of Islamophobic hate crime that people often either ignore, or are just not aware that exists. This is not Islamophobia against Muslims, but Islamophobic hate crimes against non-Muslim men. The experiences of non-Muslim men who suffer Islamophobia because they look Muslim remain invisible in both official statistics and empirical research. 

Statistics show that racist and anti-religious hate crimes dramatically peaked immediately after recent terror attacks in the UK, such as the attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge. But what the figures don’t show is the human side behind the spike in attacks. Drawing on data from qualitative interviews, we set out to record the experiences of non-Muslim men who suffer Islamophobia because they are perceived to be Muslim. Our interviews included meeting and talking to people from Sikh, Christian, Hindu and atheist backgrounds. 

These men reported racist graffiti scrawled on properties and Sikh places of workship, gurdwaras, non-Muslim men sworn at and called "terrorists" because they either had a beard, wore a turban or because of their race or ethnicity. We found that the prevalence and severity of Islamophobic hate crimes are influenced by "trigger" events of local, national and international significance. Such events galvanise tensions and sentiments against the suspected perpetrators, and groups associated with them. For example, in 2015, Zack Davies was sentenced for life after he attacked Dr Sarandev Bhambra with a claw hammer and a 30cm-long machete. The attack according to Davies, was for “Lee Rigby” - the soldier murdered by Islamist extremists in 2013. Bhambra’s brother said in a statement: “Sarandev was singled out because of the colour of his skin.”  

In a globally connected world, the actions by one terrorist group such as Isis can lead to counter-reactions which can also impact upon non-Muslim men in the UK. For example, Richard, 28, told us that: “Another driver overtook my car shouting: 'You’ve killed innocent people, go back to Syria, you Isis terrorist'.”

Our study also shows how race and religion are interlinked in Islamophobic hate crimes. In certain cases, if the markers of Islam (for example, a Muslim cap or beard) are present and an individual "looks like" a Muslim, than they were perceived as being the "other". Correspondingly, the people we interviewed were convinced that it was their distinctive appearance that made them a target of Islamophobia. For example, Paul, 37, told us: “On a daily basis, I get people on the streets calling me 'traitor' and 'Ginger Terrorist' because of my beard. They think I’m Muslim, a convert to Islam but I’m not, I’m an atheist. Having a beard is part of my style, not for any religious reasons.”

We argue that Islamophobia is a form of racism, which can be attributed to anti-Muslim attitudes as well as to racist sentiments. Islamophobia and racism become mutually reinforcing phenomena. Our research found that individuals, particularly those who were perceived to be Muslim because they had a "visible" identity, are more vulnerable to anti-Muslim hostility, intimidation, abuse and threats of violence. For too long these victims have been ignored. We believe that for such victims, it is difficult to isolate Islamophobia as only a "Muslim" problem, because they too receive daily threats of intimidation, violence and abuse. 

The report is entitled: “We are accused of being terrorists”: The experiences of non-Muslim men who suffer Islamophobia because they look Muslim". All names in the article and report have been anonymised. The research will be presented at the House of Commons on Wednesday 18 October. 

Dr Awan along with Dr Zempi are co-authors of the book; Islamophobia: Lived Experiences of Online and Offline Victimisation published by Policy Press.

Imran Awan is an Associate Professor in Criminology at Birmingham City University, who writes about Islamophobia and extremism. His twitter handle is @DrImranAwan

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