It’s time we had a grown up conversation about Islamophobia in Britain

Mosque defaced with a swastika and the term 'EDL' (Via Jewish News)
Mosque defaced with a swastika and the term 'EDL' (Via Jewish News)

Nusrat Ghani MP’s allegations against Downing Street – that she was sacked as a Minister because she was a Muslim, and that her “Muslimness” was raised as an issue – will come as a shock not just to Muslims, but to all religious and ethnic minorities. The idea that her status as a “Muslim woman minister” made her colleagues in government feel “uncomfortable” is not the hallmark of an inclusive, democratic society, but one in which it is dangerous to be seen as ‘different’.

There is no reason not to believe Nusrat Ghani, and if true these allegations are appalling. As a British Muslim woman it is my worst fear to be unfairly treated because of my faith & identity. Many British Muslim women from different walks of life routinely experience similar anti-Muslim discrimination.

All too often, however, Muslim women remain silent when they experience discrimination in the work place or at school or university for fear of being penalised or gaslit simply for speaking out about their experiences of racism.

Some of the reactions to Nusrat Ghani’s revelations from her fellow MPs have shown how these fears are not unfounded. One MP claimed that Nusrat Ghani MP could not have been sacked because of her faith, as she was not “obviously Muslim”.

This type of gaslighting and denial of anti-Muslim hatred is typical of discriminatory attitudes towards minorities, as can be seen for instance in relation to anti-Semitism.

Anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice is not determined by how much or whether the victim practices their faith or not. It is entirely predicated on the racial bias of the person or structure that is causing and resulting in Islamophobia.

During the COVID19 pandemic, the Government’s cross departmental working group on Anti-Muslim Hatred, which I chair, reported on how Islamophobia had been exacerbated by online hubs which proliferated fake news about Muslims, blaming them for the spread of the virus. Some of these tropes filtered into mainstream media, which amplified fearmongering stories claiming that infections were increasing due to Muslims observing Ramadan.

Having sat on and chaired the government’s working group on Anti-Muslim Hatred for ten years, it is clear to me that despite some progress in dealing with Islamophobia, it is not being given the attention it deserves. And at this moment in time I believe that negative attitudes towards British Muslims are at an all time high, as is corroborated by recent research.

My own personal experiences of multiple hate incidents whilst I go about my daily life are a stark and traumatic reminder of just how prevalent hate crime is – hate crime which is directly linked to negative media coverage, online hate and negative attitudes.

Yes we have some incredible British Muslim role models who have achieved unprecedented success. The likes of Nadiya Hussain and Sir Mo Farah, as well many others from across different sectors and industries – including those working in the battle against COVID19 – show that progress has been made. But Ghani’s allegations show how Islamophobia can manifest at even the highest levels in this country, causing damage to the career of a highly successful woman just because she is Muslim.

It’s time we had a grown up conversation about how Islamophobia is a scourge on our country that occurs in so many everyday situations. A conversation that recognises that it is an issue that goes beyond party politics and is not exclusively perpetrated by those on the political right.

We need a conversation which meaningfully listens to the voices of British Muslim women – who bear the brunt of anti-Muslim hate crime and discrimination: more than 70% of anti-Muslim hate crimes are perpetrated against British Muslim women, especially those who are visibly Muslim, such as those who wear the hijab like I do.

The country needs an impartial and open discussion about the lived realities of anti-Muslim hatred on the ground – one that is grounded in evidence, not speculation, and focused on practical solutions, not just gathering data.

British Muslim women have spoken to me about how their children are facing anti-Muslim rhetoric and bullying at schools, how they adjust their lives to avoid abuse on public transport and sometimes take time off work to avoid discrimination at work.

There are now dozens of studies showing that in nearly every aspect of their lives, many British Muslims are experiencing prejudice based on their faith, often intersecting with their gender, race, class, disability and sexuality – and that Islamophobia itself is gendered.

It is also becoming clear that structures and agencies that should have been dealing with Islamophobia have failed to address it for years, both nationally and locally.

So what can be done to address Islamophobia? One thing anyone can do to help address the demonisation of Muslim women is to listen to us in our own words and to stop making assumptions about us. I founded She Speaks We Hear to amplify the voices of Muslim women and connect them to the public sphere. We recently launched a podcast so that people can listen to a range of diverse Muslim women in their own words.

Another is to speak up against Islamophobia when you see it, in any context. Because when one minority is victimised, all minorities are at risk from this mindset of divisive hate. That’s why last summer, I spoke out when a convoy of cars screamed horrendous antisemitic abuse in North London, and ended up also receiving antisemitic abuse as a result. The lesson is remarkable: as communities, we are much more able to overcome all forms of hatred when we support each other in solidarity.

Ghani’s allegations vindicate those of us who have been saying, year after year, that addressing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred needs urgent attention. But it can only be truly tackled if we all come together as a country to collectively stand against anti-Muslim hatred in all its forms, as part of our stand against all forms of racism and discrimination.

In these volatile times of political uncertainty and economic fragility, community solidarity and interfaith relations are more important than ever – because, ultimately, we are stronger together.

About the Author
Akeela Ahmed MBE, is Chair of Independent Members of the cross government working group on Anti-Muslim Hatred and founder of She Speaks We Hear
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