Finsbury Park mosque attack: why have we allowed Islamophobia to flourish?

The media has cultivated a culture of hostility, which the government has done little to prevent.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

An attack on Muslims near Finsbury Park Mosque on Sunday night, as they finished their prayers during the last days of the sacred month of Ramadan, left one man dead and injured ten others. A 47-year-old man from Cardiff called Darren Osborne has been arrested on suspicion of terror offences.

Over the past two years, Finsbury Park Mosque has been threatened or attacked at least twice, including once with a petrol bomb. It is not alone in becoming a target for far right groups.

A week earlier, on the other side of London, volunteers outside East London Mosque were co-ordinating with the charity Islamic Relief to gather emergency supplies for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. In the midst of this, Paul Golding and other members of Britain First turned up to make an inflammatory video, calling on the far right group's supporters to take back their country. From what, I asked him. Religious charity workers out to help the needy?

Following the Manchester attack last month, arsonists set fire to an Oldham mosque. Another mosque in Stockton-on-Tees was defaced with graffiti.

We know that in the wake of terrorist attacks, Muslims experience a surge in hate crimes. But what is being done to understand why regular Muslims are being victimised for the actions of terrorists? Why has Islamophobia become normalised?

The background music to these incidents is the far right rhetoric in the mainstream, which only feeds a sense of vindication among relatively marginal groups that their doctrine of conflict is true.

That normalisation is clear in the near constant inflammatory headlines blurring the lines between Muslims and extremists. In one such example, one of the most widely read papers in the UK, the Sun, featured commentator Douglas Murray declaring that the UK needs “less Islam”. Does anyone care to ask what exactly such statements mean in concrete terms?

Not only has the British government devised no serious policies to counter Islamophobia, but the term itself is contested, as if Muslims were conspiring to create a national self-pity contest.

Commentators are given a platform to claim not only that Islamophobia is not real, but that it’s actually rational to express prejudice towards Muslims on the basis of their religion. The normalisation of hostility towards Islam and Muslims feeds into a dangerous cauldron of broader discontent – immigration, fear of terrorism, racism.

In this atmosphere, the symbols of our faith become politicised. Headscarves and face veils, mosques and prayer rooms, become targets. The consensus is clear – Muslims are a problem.

What kind of a problem you deem them to be typically reveals your political colours. From fifth column to a threat to Britain’s liberal mores, you don’t need membership of the English Defence League to openly declare your concern with the number of Muslims in the UK. You can hear such views aired on Radio 4 or alternatively, read up on "startling" Muslim birth-rates in the Times.

Earlier this month, while referring to Muslims, former LBC presenter Katie Hopkins called for a "final solution", while Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson has called for internment camps. This is the mainstream. Go to the fringes, and former EDL leader Tommy Robinson recently warned militias would "clean out this Islamic problem" and referred to British Muslims as "enemy combatants", presumably meaning they are fair game for attack.

And it’s not that there isn’t sufficient evidence of anti-Muslim prejudice from official statistics and human rights groups. In 2015, hate crime in London had risen 70 per cent, with Muslim women the primary victims.

The monitoring group Tell Mama reported that incidents of anti-Muslim abuse were up by 326 per cent in 2015 across the country, and warned that far right extremists were radicalising people online. It also expressed concerns at the impact of Brexit rhetoric on Muslims.

While the survey found incidents often occurring online, many attacks also happened in the real world, at schools and colleges, in restaurants and on public transport.

As a community, these are not simply numbers – this is someone’s grandfather murdered on his way back from the mosque. It’s a pregnant women losing her baby in a violent attack while shopping in the supermarket. It’s your children being taunted with names like “Bin Laden” or “Isis” at school and asking you why people hate Muslims. It’s a van being driven into your friends as they pray. None of this is theoretical or in question to those on the receiving end of Islamophobia.

Official efforts to tackle mounting Islamophobia have been slow off the ground, and have little to show. In 2012, while a government minister, Sayeeda Warsi formed a working group on anti-Muslim hatred, after previously warning that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test”. Four years on, many participants had jumped ship or openly denounced the lack of action.

One former participant and academic, Matthew Goodwin, spoke of a lack of funding or motivation to take the task seriously. Writing in 2015, he asserted: “During a generally unpleasant four years, the basic message appeared to be that the government was simply not that interested in anti-Muslim hatred.” He, like others, eventually resigned from the group out of sheer frustration.

As a consequence, there is no government research into the causes of anti-Muslim hate or possible strategies to tackle it. Various "community engagement initiatives", which are meant to assuage concerns but have ultimately not resulted in any concrete solutions, have been bandied about.

And while the government recently announced a hate crime strategy, including funding to tackle it in communities and protect places of worship, this still does not engage with the root causes of Islamophobia.

In her speech following the attack in Finsbury Park, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke of the need to tackle "terrorism, extremism and hatred [...] whoever is responsible." This is essential. As is the PM’s recognition of Islamophobia as a form of extremism. Finally, some may say.

But what about tackling the source of that extremism? Where are the studies which could help point out the reasons behind the rise and normalisation of Islamophobia?

It’s high time the government took seriously anti-Muslim hate. Not only for the welfare of Muslim citizens, but also because the lack of attention to this issue feeds into a dangerous dualistic worldview, according to which the government invests in policing Muslims as suspect community, but does little to tackle their concerns. And that’s not good for anyone.

Myriam Francois is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah