By Senior Campaign Agent Sam Jacobsen
You’ve probably read recently that the Labour Party has a problem with anti-Semitism. You may also have heard about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. Any type of bigotry which festers within a mainstream political party is abhorrent, and should be rooted out immediately. However, there is a more systemic form of discrimination coming from the state itself which has gone relatively unchallenged for too long. For years, successive British governments have overseen a security policy that systematically targets and victimises Muslims. The result has been a callous and tribalistic attitude that has spread throughout our society, which is partly to blame for the tragic and avoidable death of Shamima Begum’s baby in Syria.
In 2000, Tony Blair’s New Labour government passed the Terrorism Act, which essentially gave security services the the power to stop and arrest anyone they suspected of being involved in terrorism, regardless of whether there was reasonable means to suspect them. Labour stayed in power for another decade, during which time British Muslims would frequently report that the police were ‘abusing’ their powers to target people of their religion. Over this period, there were also repeated Islamophobic statements from the government. In 2002, Jack Straw opined that British Muslims had a special responsibility to challenge terrorism. In 2009, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears admitted “that some of our counter-terrorism powers will be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community”. Aside from the fact that it is highly problematic to speak of one ‘Muslim community’ in Britain - Muslims come from a wide variety of backgrounds and do not constitute a single cultural entity - it is also grievously unfair to hold an entire religion responsible for the crimes of a few individuals. Also, on a purely practical level, it is not possible to determine someone’s religion merely by looking at them. This means that people are all too often stopped and questioned based on the colour of their skin due to lazy, racist assumptions about what Muslims are likely to look like. A 2011 survey found that people from ethnic minorities were 42 times more likely to be stopped and searched under section 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act. Under the same legislation, Muslim men were detained indefinitely without trial at Belmarsh prison, in clear violation of their human rights. Blair’s government also launched the Prevent scheme, which obliged teaching staff at schools and universities to report students at risk of ‘radicalisation’. Prevent is still in operation today, and has been criticised for targeting Muslim students, some as young as 13. These types of policies brought New Labour’s ill-conceived ‘war on terror’ home from the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Iraq, to victimise British Muslims in their own country.
This toxic mix of discriminatory policing and bigoted rhetoric was continued by the coalition and Conservative governments which succeeded Labour. Theresa May was given the undesirable title of ‘Islamophobe of the year’ in 2015, by the Islamic Human Rights Commission, for overseeing the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, which the IHRC described as ‘the latest in a long line of legislation to target and criminalise the Muslim community.’ Only this month, we saw May’s successor as home secretary, Sajid Javid, deny Shamima Begum re-entry to the UK, only for her infant son to die days later. Javid has been accused of jeopardising the wellbeing of a child in order to appeal to nationalistic public sentiment.
We are faced with a discourse in British society in which Islam is increasingly misunderstood and demonised. A report from earlier this year found that one third of people think Islam, by its very nature, is a threat to the ‘British way of life’. Hate crimes continue to rise; last year 70% of Muslims in the UK experienced religion-based prejudice. Sometimes these hate crimes are lethal: last year a right-wing terrorist drove his van into a crowd outside a mosque in North London, killing 51 year-old Makram Ali. These types of attacks are not isolated to the UK. Last week a horrific attack on a mosque in New Zealand claimed the lives of 49 people. While most of the world reacted with sympathy and outrage, one New Zealand politician took it upon himself to blame Islam for bringing the violence upon its own followers. Sadly, Senator Fraser Anning’s vile assertion that Islam is a ‘savage belief’ that is inherently violent will resonate with many on the extreme right, and justify future attacks.
Bigotry and intolerance can be found everywhere. Yet the media focuses on reports of racism in political parties as if they have appeared out of thin air. Meanwhile, repressive anti-terrorist legislation is often passed with barely a mention in the news. Language which depicts Islam as violent and incompatible with Western values becomes normalised. It is only in this environment that it can be politically acceptable to allow a British baby to die because his mother is deemed an enemy of the state. As long as this type of hate permeates our society, no single institution will be clean of it.
Sources and further reading
‘Rising Islamophobia in the UK: Muslim Council of Britain Demands Action’, Muslim Council of Britain (16 October 2018)
‘Senator Attacks Muslims For Shooting’, The Young Turks (15 March 2019)
Lizzie Dearden, ‘Finsbury Park mosque terror attack: Victim Makram Ali’s family describe trauma of losing ‘peaceful’ grandfather’, The Independent (2 February 2018)
Vikram Dodd, ‘Asian people 42 times more likely to be held under terror law’, The Guardian (23 May 2011)
Jonathan Freedland, ’The Tories are tough on Islamophobia? What a joke’, The Guardian (6 March 2019)
Jamie Grierson, “My son was terrified': how Prevent alienates UK Muslims’, The Guardian (27 January 2019)
David Jamieson, ’Dossier: Islamophobia in the Labour Party’, Commonspace.scot (6 March 2019)
Christina Pantazis and Simon Pemberton,‘From the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ suspect community examining the impacts of recent UK counter-terrorist legislation.’, British Journal of Criminology 49(5): 646-666.
Frances Perraudin, ’Third of Britons believe Islam threatens British way of life, says report’, The Guardian (17 February 2019)
Jess Phillips, ’Playing politics with the life of Shamima Begum's baby shames us all, Mr Javid’, The Guardian (10 March 2019)
Shaheen Sattar, ’As a British Muslim, I'm terrified that Theresa May - winner of 2015's Islamophobe of the Year - is my new Prime Minister’, The Independent - Voices (13 July 2016)
Image: UK Parliament @flickr