This goes back a few months but the story is important and reveals more than just one thing about how events shape themselves in the so-called democratic world.
Following the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on the morning of 7th January 2015, British schools witnessed a sudden and very discernable rise in the number of attacks – verbal and physical, as well as instances of bullying against Muslim students. The single charity that monitors the rise of Islamophobia, Tell MAMA, had reported soon after the Charlie Hebdo attack that there had been a significant increase in the instances of bullying and abuse directed against British Muslim students. There are some 400,000 Muslim children in British schools, so this was a matter of grave concern to the Muslim community and should have been to any government as well.
The instance that was most worrying was recorded in Oxfordshire when a young Muslim teenager was slapped by one of his schoolmates while playing football.
When he asked why he was slapped, the answer came that it was because he was a ‘Paki’. The young teenager was the only Muslim in his class and the incident followed a discussion in his class of the Charlie Hebdo incident. Even more worryingly, it was reported that the teacher who had conducted the discussion had advocated the display of the sort of objectionable cartoons that had led to the attack on the French magazine and had further suggested that T-shirts be worn with these cartoons.
The only other charity that monitors this sort of activity, ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ had also reported strong anecdotal evidence of the increase in such instances of Islamophobia. It had in particular mentioned a word association exercise that young, white British students were asked to take part in, in which they were asked to write down the first word that came to their mind when they heard the word ‘Muslim’. Most of the reactions recorded, mentioned words like ‘pig’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘immigrant’, with perhaps the most acceptable word mentioned was ‘praying’.
At that time, concerned with this disturbing trend, Tell MAMA had wanted to liaise with the Department of Education in trying to produce some form of advice or guidance that could be used by schools which were facing this sort of problem.
They did not receive much by way of a response and in fact, at that time the Department of Education had admitted that there were no specific guidelines for tackling this sort of Islamophobia in schools.
Nor was this disturbing trend to be seen only in schools. The University of Birmingham which has a large number of Muslim students, found a graffiti on its walls one day proclaiming, ‘Islam must die’. In Wales, a young Asian dentist narrowly escaped an attack by a knife-wielding assailant who was later apprehended and sentenced for attempted murder.
What these incidents showed was a perception of Muslims amongst the mainstream community that was increasingly beginning to homogenise Muslims and to see them as a single group which consisted of ‘terrorists’ and ‘immigrants’ – the two, at least for some, being equally negative epithets. In fact, in the weeks immediately following the Paris attack, there were as many as 112 incidents of attacks in various forms on Muslims, the most vulnerable group being women who wore the hijab as that made them easily identifiable.
But then, luckily, there was an election to be held in May. In what was perceived as a tight competition (but in actual fact turned out to be a fairly comfortable win for the Tories), the Tories were trying to make a bid for Muslim votes and the Home Secretary, Theresa May came up with the announcement that if the Tories won the elections, every police force in England and Wales would be required to record anti-Muslim hate crimes and treat them as seriously as anti-Semitic attacks. Mrs. May said that the police would have to record Islamophobic attacks as a separate category, just as anti-Semitic crimes are recorded separately.
It may be clarified here that the police forces are run by local government institutions in the UK and there is therefore a certain lack of uniformity in the way they respond to certain situations. Thus, at present, while some forces, including the Metropolitan Police in London, do record Islamophobic crimes as such, other forces simply categorise them as hate crimes or, sometimes even just as specific offences like assault of grievous bodily harm etc.
At this point it may be worthwhile to elucidate what exactly constitutes a hate crime in the UK. A government website describes hate crime as a crime committed against someone because of their disability, gender-identity, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation; such crimes can include threatening behaviour, assault, robbery, damage to property, inciting others to commit hate crimes or harassment. Thus, if a crime is recorded simply as a hate crime, it shows that the crime belongs to a broad genre of criminal acts, of which Islamophobic acts are just one part. But if these acts were to be recorded specifically as Islamophobic acts, they would focus everyone’s attention on this phenomenon, including, most importantly, that of the government and the police and would give activists the fundamental tool with which to fight this problem – the undeniable statistics and figures which would show the true extent of this problem. Thus the announcement by the Home Secretary was hailed by Islamic groups. Also, the move brings parity between Jewish and Islamic groups, which is something Islamic activists have long been campaigning for.
However, evidence on the blogosphere suggests that most white people are less than thrilled with this. The argument most widely used is why is there no such provision for anti-Christian crimes and that if there has to be a law on the subject it should be for all religious groups, not just one or two. These objections, it may be pertinent to add, did not surface when this provision was made for Jewish groups and for this, the western media has to shoulder much of the blame. A perception seems to have been created that Jews are victims of physical violence and terror, while Muslims are the perpetrators and as anyone knows, perception is all that counts; facts are neither here nor there.
However, this was all in the run up to the elections. Since the elections have been held and the Tories have won and it is anybody’s guess just how many Muslim votes the Tories won because of Theresa May’s promise. Since the elections there has been no talk of any further action on this score with the Prime Minister and his government being more than fully occupied with the very uphill business of trying to win concessions from the European Union prior to the referendum to be held before the end of 2017. The referendum will determine whether the UK stays as a part of the EU or says goodbye to it. He is scheduled to take off on a five-day trip during which he will visit various European leaders calling on the most important of them all, the German Chancellor, in his last stop. He has his work cut out for him and Islamophobia must be way back in his list of priorities at the moment.