Headscarves have become more prominent in the UK, and Islamophobic assaults on women wearing them are on the rise.
London, United Kingdom – British government policies are fuelling a worsening “environment of hate” in which abuse, discrimination, and even the threat of violent assault have become the “normal experience and expectation” for Muslims living in the UK, according to the conclusions of a new report.
The study into the day-to-day experiences of British Muslims, carried out by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), found a sharp rise in the number of people reporting verbal abuse and an increase in the number of physical attacks since the survey was last undertaken in 2010.
Two-thirds of the 1,800 people polled said they had been subjected to verbal abuse, up from 40 percent in 2010, while 82 percent said they had witnessed Islamophobia being directed at someone else, up from 50 percent. Reported cases of physical assault rose from 14 percent in 2010, to nearly 18 percent.
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“Muslims in the UK feel targeted by media and political institutions, which in their understanding contribute heavily towards a deteriorating climate of fear, a rise in far-right groups and a rise of anti-Muslim racism… Most Muslims now feel they are hated,” the report says.
It cites examples of individual cases of discrimination, such as a Kuwaiti tourist who was detained and questioned under terrorism legislation for taking a ‘selfie’ of himself outside a shopping centre, and a woman working with children with autism who was told she could not wear a hijab because parents would not feel safe leaving their children with her.
‘A police state in all but name’
But the report also highlights widespread opposition to government policies such as the controversial Prevent counter-extremism strategy and the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which the authors say have “created a police state in all but name”, as well as growing sensitivity to anti-Muslim rhetoric used by politicians and in the media.
While just 34 percent believed in 2010 that government policies were having a negative impact on Muslim communities, that figure has now risen to 60 percent. Ninety-four percent also said they had encountered negative stereotypes of Muslims in the media, and 85 percent said they had heard politicians using Islamophobic language.
“It feels as if we have really gone over a tipping point and that is what is so worrying,” Arzu Merali, one of the authors of the report, told Al Jazeera.
“We are seeing that the escalation of Prevent has been instrumental in this, and people feel in general that the security agenda is fuelling that. In the past people blamed the media, but now we’re seeing a shift towards people saying it is about the government and its institutions as well.”
The Prevent strategy, which was set up in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings with the aim of tackling Islamic extremism, has long been a source of resentment among many British Muslims, with critics complaining that it sows mistrust of Muslims and subjects them to discriminatory levels of surveillance and harassment.
But under the current government, Prevent has been rolled out into schools, hospitals and other public sector institutions, with teachers, doctors and even childcare providers now required by law to monitor and report children, patients and colleagues who they suspect of holding extremist views, and to promote so-called “British values”.
The ‘backbone’ of Islamophobia
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which became law earlier this year, has also bolstered the powers of the police and security services to curtail the freedoms of those deemed to be extremists.
In a series of high-profile speeches, David Cameron, the British prime minister, has repeatedly called on Muslim communities to do more to tackle extremism, even suggesting earlier this year that obeying the law was now no longer enough.
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘As long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone,'” Cameron said in May. “This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach.”
But, speaking at an event to launch the IHRC’s report on Tuesday, David Miller, a professor of sociology at the University of Bath, said that government counterterrorism policies were the “backbone” of Islamophobia in the UK, and cited cases of children whose bank accounts had been shut down because their parents were associated with Muslim organisations or charities.
“The counterterrorism apparatus is the key element in disadvantaging Muslims. We should talk about people being attacked on buses or refused service in shops, but what stands behind all that is government counterterrorism policy,” said Miller.
There has undoubtedly been a growth in feeling against Muslims in recent times. Islamophobia is growing and Muslims are worried. It is one of the big concerns.
“When we are talking about the bank accounts of Muslim children being closed down, that is a real line in the sand. When you start to do that, you are starting to move towards marginalising a whole community.”
A ‘constant threat’
While the IHRC report paints a bleak picture, other Muslim organisations say they share its concerns about rising Islamophobia and the direction of government policy, and its conclusions appear to be borne out by other data and research.
Last month, Tell MAMA, an organisation monitoring anti-Muslim hate crime, published its own report entitled “We Fear For Our Lives” which concluded that some Muslims had adopted a “siege mentality” because of a “constant threat of anti-Muslim hate”.
In one reported incident, a woman working as a midwife in a hospital described how she had been abused by a woman giving birth: “When she saw me with my hijab she swore at me. She shouted at me: ‘I don’t want my baby to see your terrorist face. I don’t want my child to come into this world and see someone like you, a terrorist.'”
Figures released over recent months by the Metropolitan Police also indicate a sharp upward trend in the number of reported hate crimes against Muslims in London, with 818 incidents recorded in the year up to September 2015, compared to 499 in the previous 12 months; a 64 percent rise.
“It is important to recognise that the UK is a tolerant and respectful place in general,” Miqdaad Versi, the assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, told Al Jazeera.
“But there has undoubtedly been a growth in feeling against Muslims in recent times. Islamophobia is growing and Muslims are worried. It is one of the big concerns.”
‘Pushing a closed door’
A Home Office spokesperson said that the government was “committed to combating all forms of hate crime and has done more than any other to counter anti-Muslim hatred”, and cited a new requirement for police forces to record anti-Muslim hate crimes as a specific category in crime statistics for the first time.
“Prevent is about protecting those who might be vulnerable to the poisonous and pernicious influence of radicalisation,” the spokesperson said.
“We must work with the overwhelming majority of Muslims who abhor the twisted narrative that has seduced some of our people. We must continue to celebrate Islam as a great world religion of peace.”
Yet a working group on anti-Muslim hatred, set up by the government in 2012, appears to have dwindled into irrelevance, with one academic, who resigned from the group last month, complaining that he had spent three years “pushing against an extremely cold and closed door”.
“The basic message appeared to be that the government was simply not that interested in anti-Muslim hatred. In fact, to my knowledge, the government has still not undertaken any research into what causes Islamophobia and what might be done about it,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent.
“We are today no closer to understanding and tackling anti-Muslim hatred. If anything, it feels as though we have gone backwards.”