By Remona Aly
A video has been circulating on social media that shows Hanane Yakoubi, a pregnant Muslim woman, being verbally abused on a London bus by a black woman. It reminded me painfully of my own experience some years ago: a white woman in her 50s verbally harassed me, saying: “You Muslims, you’re disgusting. I’m going to kill you. You Muslims. I’m going to kill you.” She said this over and over again, and while this was hardly comparable to Yakoubi’s experience, it left me feeling frightened and humiliated in my own country. An Asian man eventually came to my defence, telling the woman: “No one wants to hear your nonsense.”
I was shocked that this had taken place in London, arguably one of the most diverse cities in the world – but recent figures have shown that hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise here, increasing by 70% in the past year, according to the police. I asked Muslim people in my own circle if they could recount just one experience of abuse, and the answer was quite often yes.
What is being highlighted by this video and others (another has recently emerged, in which an elderly disabled Muslim is apparently verbally attacked by a young black man) is that these attacks do not always involve the stereotypical far-right white, male skinhead, but come, disturbingly, from a broader cross-section of society.
A woman I know called Fatima, from west London, worked for a large media company and wore the face veil – the niqab – for nine years before she felt compelled to remove it after suffering almost daily abuse. She was holding her new baby in a shopping aisle when she was shoved aggressively by a woman in a wheelchair who shouted anti-Muslim comments. She was in the car with her children when two young men threatened her with bottles and told her to “go back to your own country with your terrorist babies”. And she was in her back garden, hanging out her washing, when three builders working nearby shouted abuse and upset her young son playing outside.
“I asked them, ‘Why are you doing this? I’ve not done anything to you.’ I was so upset for my son, and that this had happened in my own home, that I called the police. The building contractors were so good about it and removed the builders. But I had had enough of all the abuse I’ve endured over the years. I decided to remove my niqab. Islam places your safety first, and I’ve felt threatened all these years and have a responsibility to protect my children.”
Fatima says that since replacing her niqab with a headscarf the abuse has almost disappeared. But for Anne, a white convert from Kent who married an Asian Muslim man, wearing a headscarf provoked a torrent of abuse. She has been called “traitor” on many occasions, and came home one day to find the words “Muslim whore” scrawled on her front door. She has since taken off her headscarf. She did not report these incidents to the police as she didn’t want to “make things worse for herself”. The fact that a visible expression of personal belief can lead to infringements of an individual’s sense of safety is a paradox when we pride ourselves on being a society based on individual freedoms. When we threaten those freedoms, we threaten the very principles of liberal democracy.
Aisha, a British Asian friend in her 30s, was on a busy commute to work on the London Underground when a white man in a suit, carrying a broadsheet paper, yanked on her headscarf, forcing her head back, and aggressively sneered, “What is under there. Are you going to bomb us all on this train? Are you a jihadi bride?” While many people hid behind their newspapers, a white man and white woman intervened, calling him a “disgrace”. “It was the first time I felt unsafe in my own city,” says Aisha. Yet Aisha refuses to use the term “Islamophobia” to describe this experience. “I believe any form of prejudice is xenophobic, and this was not necessarily anti-Muslim. This man saw me as different to him, and felt threatened.”
There is a strong sense in these stories that difference is seen not as positive diversity, but as negatively alien: so alien that the basic humanity of others is not even acknowledged. A friend from the Midlands was at the cemetery with his mother and sister, saying a prayer over the grave of his father who had suffered years of cancer, when a white woman, who was with her children, shouted: “One down, three to go.” He said he felt “sickened, as I was still broken with grief. But I also felt 200% rage.” This woman did not see a family in mourning, but was so blinded by prejudice that she dehumanised them. The vast majority of people would be shocked by this, but these incidents do seem to be on the rise.
Yet Masud, from Buckinghamshire, believes that apart from members of groups like the English Defence League, British people are generally not prejudiced; rather they are genuinely afraid – and some politicians are choosing to stoke that fear rather than dissipate it. His main concern is the “casual Islamophobia” that becomes an acceptable, everyday part of conversation.
Recently, in a bank queue he overheard two young men discussing Muslims: “Look at all these Muslims, they support Isis. We’re being too soft.” Masud engaged with the men, one of whom was of Romany background, and they came to a respectful understanding about how some media can tarnish entire groups – including Traveller communities. “What we need is more engagement,” says Masud. “Muslims have been reaching out for years, but in some areas more bridges need to be built to counter the powerful negative narrative Isis propagates.”
Those who abuse Muslims in the street and on social media see us as violent, narrow-minded terrorists, while playing out the very blinkered attitudes and aggression they themselves seem to be so angry about. More shocking than the abuse dealt out by Simone Joseph, Hanane Yakoubi’s abuser, are some of the vile comments aimed at Joseph online. “She would have done better under slavery than in our civilised world,” is one racist comment, while another used the N-word, and urged that she be “sent back to her own country”. In our indignation at prejudice, we cannot lose our own sense of humanity.
For any community or individual on the receiving end of abuse, the greatest challenge lies in not allowing ourselves to become caught in an introverted, victimised mindset. We need to be proudly British, certain of our sense of belonging. If we do submit to the negative forces on the street or on social media, we will end up with an embittered society, laced with fear, rising tensions and paranoia, rather than a vigorous environment of coexistence, solidarity and confidence. Playing into the hands of the haters and extremists is simply not an option. We have to continue to challenge any attitudes that deepen the sense of isolation and division among British people. Britain is greater than that.
• Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed