On October 19th 2015, grainy footage emerged of an elderly Turkish man facing horrific Islamophobic abuse on a North London bus, culminating in his zimmer frame being violently thrown. Such a racist tirade on London transport came with an unfortunate sense of familiarity. Just a week prior, an Islamophobic rant on a bus towards a woman in a headscarf, by a mother with a pram, had shocked and outraged. One uniform characteristic of both incidents was the political language used to degrade and victimise. In the first video, the victim was labeled ‘ISIS bitch’ amongst other things ‘terrorist’ related; in the second video, the elderly man was told to stop stealing benefits amidst a horrible diatribe.
With poignant timing it was on the same day this second video emerged, that David Cameron was busy announcing a reformed counter extremism strategy, calling on ‘the silent majority of Muslims’ to act against the ominous threat of Islamic extremism. This framed rhetoric is a microcosm of the ‘enemy within’ state of mind that is possessing popular politics – informing the Islamophobia that has been so prevalent in public spaces recently, and as the videos attest, consuming even those from more unlikely backgrounds.
Statistics reflect this, with record numbers of Islamophobic crime in London, up by 80% in the last year (in findings compiled prior to the Paris attacks). There is something to be said in the fact that London, a place usually held up as a beacon for multiculturalism, has been home to so much discrimination. The public space therefore, especially transport, has become an arena to shame and humiliate Muslims. Just yesterday claims emerged, substantiated by eyewitness reports that a Muslim passenger in Bristol was told to leave a coach by the driver as a result of making other passengers feel uncomfortable by his mere presence.
Attempting to illuminate the day-to-day racism faced by British Muslims the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) conducted a survey of 1800 people, comparing the results to the same survey of 2010. They concluded a sharp rise in verbal and physical abuse. Two-thirds of those surveyed had experienced direct verbal abuse, a rise of 40% since 2010, while 82% had witnessed Islamophobia directed at someone else, up by 50%. Physical assaults also followed this trend, with cases rising from 14% to nearly 18% in 2015.
Anecdotes within the report make for equally bleak reading. One Muslim midwife recalls abuse while delivering a baby: ‘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.”‘ The project DOAM (Documenting Oppression Against Muslims) is a practical reaction to the alienation felt by Muslim communities. It seeks to amplify unheard crimes through its social media pages. Although DOAM remains somewhat problematic, with some sources tenuous – many posts provide shocking reading – reflecting the anecdotes in the IHRC report, and reinforcing the magnitude of the problem.
Given recent events, the government may feel a sense of vindication at these pro-active reforms, as they look to further tighten security measures in the wake of the abhorrent terrorism that has taken place on the UK’s doorstep. Such pro-activity however, should not assume priority without proper consideration for consequence. ‘Islamic extremism’, which David Cameron describes as the greatest threat to our generation, is a threat deserving of at least a workable articulation of strategy. Instead, the strategy left deliberately vague not only allows potential abuse of freedoms but fuels a warped view of Islam, defined by political agenda.
The strategy is centred on an emphasis of ‘British values’ yet there is subsequent failure to define what such values entail, besides legislative political points such as the rule of law. The consequence of this strategy, Prevent, targeting violent and ‘non-violent’ extremism, is a huge ambiguous remit over what constitutes extremism, reminiscent of a certain Orwellian dystopia. Surveillance extends to schools, prisons, NHS trusts and ‘entryism’ in local authorities – assisting in labeling every Muslim as a potential extremist for scrutiny. The practical reality of the reformed Prevent strategy is children being scrutinized for innocuous comments. Take, for example, the recent incident of the pupil who was questioned about ISIS after discussing ‘eco-terrorism’ in a debate about the environment.
It is no wonder then that the IHRC survey also reported a deep distrust of politicians by Muslims. While the government does specify the significance of engaging the community and challenging Islamophobia, this translates to merely empty rhetoric. The government’s own body set up in 2012 to examine these relations has since been consigned to historical obscurity. Matthew Goodwin a former member of this project, writing in The Guardian documents this demise, lamenting the lack of engagement within government strategy: ‘During a generally unpleasant four years, the basic message appeared to be that the government was simply not that interested in anti-Muslim hatred.’ Matthew Goodwin was joined in dissenting voice by another former government advisor, Muddassar Ahmed, professing ‘I am British, Muslim, and afraid of my own government’.
The manifestation of this clumsy rhetoric and lack of engagement is tangible. Rising Islamophobic attacks in public spaces, which defy the conventional ‘go-back-to-your-own-country!’ abuse, instead take on a politicised edge. It is not only the language of attacks, or the ubiquity of attacks – but the reaction to last weekend’s events that evidence this assertion. In the immediate aftermath of the Paris atrocities a group of men attacked a Muslim couple, claiming vengeance for Paris. This is not an isolated case, with trends extended nationwide – a report compiled by the Tell Mama helpline suggests that in the week following the Paris atrocities there have been 115 attacks, amounting to a spike of over 300%. These incidents share the commonality of politicised insults like ‘terrorist’ and bomber’.
The distorted view of Islam which is held up as the norm facilitates the creation of otherness which hinges on a juxtaposition of ambiguous ‘British values’ and a uniform purported Islamic culture. The two recent bus incidents which drew attention for their ‘unusual nature’, in that the perpetrator was an ethnic minority, join a recent attack by a man of Japanese origin pushing a woman in a hijab against a train on the tube. These attacks demonstrate the deeply pervasive fear gripped by the public against the ‘Muslim-looking’ British population.
Ideas of otherness also determine the types of crimes against Muslims. In examining the nature of Islamophobic crimes a pattern emerges: most are against women. The hijab, niqab and burka have become the symbolic antithesis of these vaguely defined ‘British values’ which the government seek to defend – easily identifiable, provoking fear and distrust.
This purported view of Islam has not been developed through an ongoing dialectic – but a unitary enforced view precipitated by the unsavoury symbiosis of government policy and media. Reports are awash with ambiguous, generalising, accusatory language – language which is in turn legitimised by the discourse led by government. The Sun provoked outrage recently for its questionable findings, suggesting one in five Muslims sympathise with Jihadists – joining a Telegraph article endorsing Enoch Powell to contest for the most irresponsible journalism we will see this year. This past week has not been an exception – it is language we have become accustomed to, with the ‘Muslim’ becoming synonymous with the ‘extremist’.
Such dehumanisation of Muslims can be exemplified by the treatment of refugees. The lack of compassion in the reaction and the reporting to one of the greatest humanitarian crises in our recent history is telling. This was recently encapsulated by the eagerness to propagate dubious evidence regarding the nationality of one the Paris bombers, in order to smear the case for granting asylum, by some of the press.
The significance of discourse on Islam and counter extremism is not confined to Islamophobia. It is a self professed but viable theory, that ISIS are seeking to exploit fractured relations between Muslims and Europe, resultantly expanding their ‘Islamic State’ – eliminating a ‘greyzone’. In light of this, the vacuous rhetoric about the need to safeguard ‘British values’ should be treated with more contempt. It is now, more than ever, we need a transparent dialectic involving the Muslim community that recognises the scale of discrimination faced by British Muslims.
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Priya Rane is a University of Warwick History graduate, with a postgraduate diploma in Law. Her interests lie in British domestic policy, identity politics, and post-colonial History. Follow her on Twitter @ran92ep
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