London, UK – The number of reported instances of anti-Muslim hate crime in the UK has risen sharply since the murder of a British soldier in London last year, with women wearing traditional Islamic dress most likely to be the victims of abuse and street attacks, according to a new study.
But researchers believe that a widespread lack of trust in the police in Muslim communities and endemic under-reporting of hate crime masks the true scale of the problem, with most Islamophobic incidents, ranging from online trolling to verbal abuse and extreme violence, going unlogged and unpunished.
The publication of the report also comes amid concerns expressed by some Muslims about their safety on British streets following the murder of a female Saudi Arabian student in Colchester last month. Police say the attack may have been religiously motivated because the victim was wearing an abaya.
The study, conducted by researchers at Teesside University, is based on analysis of 734 incidents reported to and verified by case workers at Tell MAMA, an organisation monitoring anti-Muslim attacks, over 10 months from May 2013 to the end of February.
They included 23 cases of assault, 13 cases involving extreme violence, 56 attacks on mosques and hundreds of instances of online abuse, with an average of more than two confirmed cases a day.
Matthew Feldman, the co-author of the report, told Al Jazeera that while official figures showed a decline in hate crime generally, anti-Muslim abuse appeared to be bucking that trend.
The majority of abusers were men under the age of 30, although children as young as 10 were among those identified as perpetrators. And while on-the-street hate crime was typically targeted at men, Feldman said 54 percent of cases recorded by Tell MAMA had been reported by women, including many who felt they had been abused because they were wearing headscarves, face veils or other clothing which visibly identified them as Muslim.
“This figure might indicate a greater willingness [among women] to report anti-Muslim attacks. Or, on the other hand, Muslim women could be seen as more visible targets because of the traditional clothing they wear such as the hijab or abaya,” he said.
After effects of Rigby murder
The study also highlighted a 400 percent increase in incidents a week after two Muslim converts murdered British soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013.
The attack was strenuously condemned by Muslim organisations but a spike in attacks followed, with one man subsequently convicted of murdering an 82-year-old man, Mohammed Saleem, as he walked home from a mosque in Birmingham, and plotting to bomb three other mosques.
The secretary of one mosque in Essex, attacked at the time by a man armed with a smoke grenade and knives, told Al Jazeera that Muslims were afraid they would become “sitting targets”.
Under-reporting is a real problem, so the wider picture is something that is of real concern to us.
“At this time, many people in Britain felt frightened and victimised,” the report concludes.
Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Tell MAMA, said the baseline of incidents remained higher than it had been prior to Rigby’s killing, but added that the data only offered a partial picture of the potential levels of abuse routinely encountered by British Muslims.
The UK’s official crime survey estimates there are about 278,000 hate crime offences committed annually, including about 185,000 racially or religiously motivated incidents. But it estimates that only 40 percent get brought to the attention of police.
“What we are picking up is a snapshot of what is reported to us over a specific period of time. But under-reporting is a real problem, so the wider picture is something that is of real concern to us,” Mughal told Al Jazeera.
Feldman said Tell MAMA’s figures highlighted a worrying lack of trust in the police in Muslim communities. He said that just 17 percent of people who had contacted the organisation had also gone to the police, including just four of 135 victims of street attacks.
“That is very concerning and in a sense that is a wider issue about trust in the police or the belief that hate crime will be taken seriously,” he said.
Imran Awan, a criminologist at Birmingham City University and the author of another new report examining anti-Muslim abuse on Twitter, said Feldman’s concerns chimed with his own research among Birmingham’s Muslim communities.
“People are concerned. There is a level of anxiety and fear. Some people say it’s just one of those things that we have to get used to. But others say: ‘Perhaps I should move to another country,’ and that is quite shocking to me,” Awan told Al Jazeera. “You have people wondering if they will be targeted because of their beard or their headscarf or because they have a Muslim name.”
If you look at most of the reports around Islamophobia they focus on attacks on the streets. But it is happening even more online.
Awan said he had identified systematic patterns of abuse targeting Muslims online and called for the use of social media by supporters and sympathisers of far-right movements such as the English Defence League to be taken more seriously.
“It has amplified the problem. If you look at most of the reports around Islamophobia they focus on attacks on the streets. But it is happening even more online and we have to understand the impact that this abuse is having on people. The worry is that we just allow this cyber-hate to permeate.”
Concerns about Islamophobic attacks have heightened since the murder on June 17 of Nahid Almanea, a women from Saudi Arabia studying in Colchester who was stabbed 16 times as she walked to class along a quiet riverside footpath.
Detectives said one of their main lines of inquiry was whether she had been killed because her dress identified her as a Muslim, although they also stressed that jumping to conclusions about the motivations of her murderer was “deeply unhelpful, wrong and dangerous“.
But many Muslims have nonetheless perceived the attack as one on their faith.
“Sadly this is not the first attack on a Muslim student in the UK and I fear it may not be the last,” said Omar Ali, the president of the Federation of Islamic Student Societies.
“While the motives behind this senseless crime are still under investigation, it seems very likely that this is another crime inspired by Islamophobic hatred, due to the victim’s visibly Muslim appearance. Unfortunately, this would correlate with an increasingly disturbing trend of hate crimes against Muslims here in the UK.”
New legal initiatives
The British government in May launched a revised action plan to tackle hate crime which acknowledged that Muslim adults were more likely than other adults to be the victims of religiously or racially motivated hate crime.
It cited its support for initiatives challenging Islamophobia such as “regional road shows” and the “Big Iftar”, which encourages mosques to open their doors to the wider community during Ramadan.
“Addressing anti-Muslim hatred remains a central theme and our dialogue with local communities is already under way through the roll out of a number of regional road shows.
These events provide the opportunity to promote our work and to allow us to explore what more we can do to tackle the issue,” said Norman Baker, the minister for crime prevention.
Mughal said better training was required for police and prosecutors to better understand and recognise Muslim hate crime, and called for all police forces to classify and log it separately to other hate crimes; something currently only undertaken by police in London.
Feldman said that collating data concerning anti-Muslim prejudice was relatively recent and that more work was needed to promote reporting and encourage victims to come forward, citing the example of work done in the Jewish community to tackle anti-Semitic hate crime as an example.
“The question that needs to be asked is whether Muslim communities in this country are living in fear. Anyone, Muslim or not, would say that is unacceptable in any community. That is a glimpse I get when I look at this data, but we need more information.”