By Shehab Khan
A close friend of mine recounted recently how he was the only person not invited to a classmate’s 11th birthday party because of his religion. When he asked the host about the lack of an invitation, the response was quite clear: the child in question’s parents had told him that Muslims were not welcome in the house because they were responsible for 7/7.
What’s shocking about this anecdote isn’t that it happened – as a Muslim myself, I face similar prejudice every day – but that it was part of a whole slew of similar stories from people who have faced almost identical instances of racism in their lives.
That’s what made me so sad to see a stand-out act of suspected racist violence appear again in the news today. Swedish police were reported to have said they believe an attacker, who killed a teacher and a pupil with a sword near Gothenburg yesterday, had “racist motives”. Swedish media reports said the suspect’s Facebook and YouTube accounts suggested he was hostile towards immigrants and Islam, and interested in Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Violence and aggression motivated by Islamophobia has, unfortunately, become almost routine. Instances of abuse on public transport have gone viral after people recorded them on their smartphones. Hundreds of comments across Facebook and Youtube express shock and horror that blatant abuse like his occurs. How naïve.
According to police figures, hate crimes against Muslims in London have risen by more than 70 per cent in a year, but a lot of hate crime isn’t actually reported, so the statistics significantly understate the issue. I’ve often suffered abuse myself while travelling through London – racial slurs are more common than you’d think. For many like me, who face these issues in our day to day lives, it’s just something that you choose to ignore – and eventually normalise.
And it’s not just from people on the street; arguably the biggest issue is the clear and persistent presence of institutional Islamophobia. Earlier this year Mohammed Umar Farooq, a terrorism, crime and global security student at Staffordshire University, was falsely accused of being a terrorist and questioned under the Prevent initiative. His crime? He was a reading a book on terrorism studies in the library.
Despite being a student of counter-terrorism reading academic literature related to his studies, he was questioned by the university’s complaint officer about his views on Islam, al-Qaida and his thoughts on Isis fighters throwing homosexuals off of tall buildings. Mr Farooq found the ordeal so distressing he quit his course. So why were false assumptions made about him? Would it be wrong to assume they were made because he has a beard and his name is Mohammed?
And then there’s the 14-year-old schoolboy who was questioned about his thoughts on Isis after a discussion in a French class on eco-activism. The teenager mentioned that some people use the term “eco-terrorist” to describe those who used violence to protect the planet and a few days later he was pulled out of class and questioned with an adult sat behind him and another in front of him – people he’d never seen before. The boy’s parents are now taking legal action and again, it’s important to consider whether or not he would have faced this treatment if he wasn’t a Muslim.
Continually singling out Muslims and questioning them about affiliations with Isis and whether they are extremists is a personification of Islamophobia. Institutional or casual, Islamophobia not only affects British Muslims but also plays into the narrative put forward by extremists that the west will never accept Muslims.
We need to move away from the idea that Islamophobia only takes place in a small section of society. The assumption that it only comes from the far right organisations like Britain First and the EDL is a complete fallacy. Islamophobia is endemic and insidious in almost all sections of society and doesn’t just occur when people’s smartphones are on and headlines are made. If we want successful counter-extremism policy, we need to start with tackling the racism which plays into the terrorist narrative. We ignore prejudice at our own peril.