Islamophobia Awareness Month: Prevent, prejudice and precariousness
Last week marked the start of Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM), a campaign founded in 2012 to showcase the positive contributions of Muslims and raise awareness of Islamophobia. Both ambitions are laudable, but they also betray a troubling truth about the pernicious nature of the experiences of the Muslim community in the UK in 2023, writes the Runnymede Trust’s Shabna Begum. IAM reminds us that we continually need to prove our lived reality of everyday discrimination and that the terms of our belonging requires us to regularly demonstrate our ‘added value’ to British society.
Muslims make up 6.5 per cent of the UK population and come from a range of multi-ethnic backgrounds. Yet despite this diversity – and, at times, partly because of it – there are patterns of inequality and discrimination and narratives of demonisation that are persistent across communities.
Last week, Amnesty International published a report, This is the thought police, revisiting concerns about the Prevent strategy, which requires teachers, doctors and social workers to identify those who might be at risk of committing a ‘terrorist’ offence. The report argues educators, carers and medical professionals often make referrals on a ‘gut feeling’ and that these subjective decisions are rooted in a cauldron of Islamophobic stereotypes of ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’.
People of Muslim faith are eight times more likely to be referred by staff in the healthcare sector than non-Muslims. Disproportionate numbers of neurodiverse people and young people aged 15–20 are also referred. It is deeply problematic that people are often referred without knowing why and can then get lost in an opaque and bureaucratic system, which has deeply traumatising consequences for individuals and their families.
‘The huge loss of life will leave unspeakable scars’
Add to this the recent events in Gaza and Israel. The huge loss of life will leave unspeakable scars, not only in the Middle East, but in the hearts and minds of all of those here in the UK who want the violence to end. It is deeply problematic that the Prevent strategy creates an additional toxicity in schools, curtailing permission to speak about the issues in critical and open ways. This highlights to Muslim students the double standards in the ways global events are translated in educational environments.
We have seen the Metropolitan police defend a decision to escalate the presence of Safer Schools Officers in the context of the crisis, promoting the idea that this extra visibility would be used to gather ‘intelligence’. As Prevent Watch, an organisation that has long documented the harmful impacts of the Prevent Strategy, argues ‘[The] Government’s Prevent strategy, a problem at the best of times, is deeply problematic in the current context of Israel-Palestine, because it is being used with overt bias. More than ever, we see Prevent now as a political tool, and not as a means of bringing genuine and long-term public security which is its ostensible purpose. Rather, it is creating more tension at an already incredibly tense moment in the UK.’
This is made worse in a wider external context where there has been flagrant disregard for the duty of government to operate as a guardian of peace. The Home Secretary has used incredibly provocative language, describing a demonstration of 500,000 people on 28 October as a ‘hate march’. Her polarising words have been followed up with threats to amend legislation to curtail demonstrations, and leaked documents suggesting an expansion of the definition of ‘extremism’ is being drawn up, threatening to further restrict and further demonise Muslim civil society organisations in the UK, including the Muslim Council of Britain.
As Liberty has said: ‘[The] proposed change would be a reckless and cynical move, threatening to significantly suppress freedom of expression. The increasing securitisation and delegitimisation of protest and dissent is inimical to the values of a healthy, pluralistic society and is sadly all too characteristic of a government that has been determinedly reckless with the hard won rights of British democracy.’
Furthermore, the distress and anger so many people – from all faith backgrounds and none – are experiencing as the Gaza-Israel crisis continues to unfold, is compounded for Muslim and Jewish communities here in the UK by the rise in religious hate crimes. Racialised and religious hate crimes spike at moments of political tension. When political leaders aggravate tensions through divisive language, and frame the crisis in Gaza and Israel as a religious conflict, the costs translate into violence inflicted on ordinary people.
‘While hate crimes are visceral and tangible, they are arguably the tip of the iceberg’
We have seen anti-semitic hate crimes soar in this period with a 1350 per cent increase in reported incidents in London. At the same time, the Muslim community has also experienced an increase in levels of violence and hatred. In London, the Met has recorded a 140 per cent increase in Islamophobic offences.
There have been attacks across the UK, including a petrol can being thrown at a Mosque in Oxford where the perpetrator had written ‘IDF’ over it, a man attacking a Muslim woman with a concrete slab, and alcohol being poured over Muslim worshippers praying at a protest. Even before this, Home Office data shows that where the perceived religion of the victim was recorded, 2 in 5 of all religious hate crime offences were targeted against Muslims. The Muslim Council of Britain notes that as such, 39 per cent of all religiously motivated hate crimes were against Muslims, making them the most targeted faith group.
Demonising Muslims, trading in cultural-deficit models that transfer blame to them rather than the structures of discrimination, and framing legitimate political grievances Muslim communities may have and that are expressed peacefully as ‘hateful’ should be highlighted as a deeply politicised process that creates the conditions in which hate crime flourish.
While there is a poorly evidenced perception that these hate crimes are perpetrated across each community and upon each other, there is some evidence that the active incitement for this faith-related violence is being encouraged by far-right groups, which are exploiting tensions for their political ends. There may be little comfort to be gained, but it is important to note the expressions of solidarity exchanged between faith organisations, which speak to the bonds that have long held these communities together.
However, while hate crimes are visceral and tangible, they are arguably the tip of the iceberg in terms of the broader discrimination experienced by Muslim communities in the UK. A 1997 Runnymede Trust report – widely credited with putting the term ‘Islamophobia’ into public policy discourse – argued the structural manifestations of Islamophobia meant British Muslims experienced far worse outcomes in terms of exclusion from government, prejudice in employment, and discrimination in health and education. Regrettably, much of this structural violence remains true today.
Twenty-five years on, British Muslims experience much higher poverty rates than the white British community. Census figures reveal that 39 per cent of Muslims live in the most deprived areas of England and Wales. Muslim Census figures show that British Muslims with Pakistani heritage, the largest ethnic group within the British Muslim population, experienced the most difficulty in affording to pay their energy bills, and that 1 in 5 British Black African Muslims struggled to pay at least one of their monthly bills, compared to 13 per cent of all those surveyed.
Seventy-nine per cent of Bangladeshi Muslim households are in the lowest-income quintiles and unemployment remains highest for that group. It is problematic that explanations for these patterns continue to fixate on cultural-deficit models that blame the communities rather than recognise the evidence that suggests the bulk of this inequality stems from discrimination.
‘Islamophobia is not just a professional concern, it is a lived reality’
The theme for this month’s Islamophobia awareness month is #Muslimstories. The story for Muslim communities in the UK right now feels sadly bleak. In recent weeks, I have exchanged messages with friends and family urging vigilance as they go about their daily lives.
I have had to interject my children’s questions about the continuing crisis with the need for caution, recommending restraint about how they express themselves in conversations at school; that their questions to teachers about why their school can activate charitable drives for other global and humanitarian events but not Gaza should not be too persistent; that they need to be cautious their distress is not clumsily expressed in social media posts.
I have to do this work because my children are Asian and Muslim: Islamophobia is not just a professional concern, it is a lived reality, even for those of us sitting in positions of relative affluence and comfort.
Dr Shabna Begum is the interim co-CEO of the Runnymede Trust.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.
Photo © Sama Kai/Runnymede Trust
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