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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.

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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”