Being Muslim in Britain in the age of Islamophobia

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An English Defense League (EDL) rally. EDL are known throughout Britain as being far-right and anti-Islamic. (Photo: AFP-Justin Tallis)

By: Roqayah Chamseddine

Published Thursday, May 29, 2014

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been victorious in the European elections, marking their first national election win and pushing the Labour party and the Tories into a position of having to vie for second place — for the first time since 1906. Posing as quintessential nationalists, UKIP spokespersons have run on a rigid anti-immigration platform, pushed for deeper spending cuts, stood fervently against LGBT rights, and mercilessly stoked the fires of Islamophobia. The UKIP stems from the same “True Blue” pond scum found floating amongst the UK’s traditional right, unabashedly espousing bigotry and racism with ease; from wanting all immigrants to take “Britishness” tests and ending promotion of multiculturalism to a proposed code of conduct for British Muslims, commissioned by UKIP MEP and immigration spokesman Gerard Batten.

“The Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us,” said UKIP peer and former leader Lord Malcolm Pearson in 2009. "We see large and growing Muslim communities which are set against integration with the rest of us. We see thousands of home-grown potential terrorists,” Lord Pearson reiterated in 2013. Senior UKIP member of the European Parliament Godfrey Bloom was recorded on film in 2013 criticizing aid being sent to “bongo bongo land” and in 2014 UKIP candidate William Henwood tweeted that comedian Lenny Henry “should emigrate to a black country” and compared Islam to the Third Reich. UKIP councilor Chris Pain was forced to step down in 2013 after abominable, racist Facebook posts were brought to light, wherein he referred to immigrants as “free-loading, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking, baby-making, non-English-speaking...bomb-making, camel-riding, goat f— ..." and claimed there were “too many Muslims” in the UK. The party is brimming with so much xenophobia and layer after layer of incredible bigotry that UKIP leader Nigel Farage has had to come scurrying out every now and again to stand against his own peers so that he may do away with public charges of virulent racism. The UKIP’s founder left the party in 2013 because it was ‘too racist’ and then came the explosive departure of Sanya-Jeet Thandi, a prominent UKIP youth member routinely praised by Farage, who quit in May of this year due to “racist populism” and what she argued to be the exploitation of “ignorance in British society.”

The media continues to focus on the statements of the UKIP, the bumbling bigots that make up the party and their supporters, but what of those affected by their statements and platforms? According to verified data collected by Tell Mama (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) attacks on Muslim women accounted for 58% of all incidents reported — in Muslims in the UK: Policies for Engaged Citizens the Open Society Institute (OSI) notes that 'Muslim women suffered the highest levels of discrimination in the aftermath of 9/11, encountering greater hostility from students, lecturers and employers due to widespread anti-Muslim hate reinforced by stereotypes that existed about Muslim women, and that these stereotypes were having an impact on their lives.’

I interviewed a number of Muslim women living in the UK about their experiences and these are portions of their stories, edited for clarity:

Sana
British-Yemeni freelance journalist working in independent media production.

On a personal and day-to-day level I find those I come across are decent and tolerant citizens while the rest are closet-racists. I have not experienced nor dealt with any sort of Islamophobic or racist situations during my time in Britain. Having said that, as a British Muslim I do feel stigmatised and that is due to the media. Over recent years it has become quite impossible to dismiss Islamophobia and racism in Britain.

Britain has a large anti-Islam propaganda machine both on TV and largely print. Our newspapers are ready and prepared to make mountains out of anthills on any story remotely related to the Muslim community. Just last week it was revealed that Pizza Express is "secretly" using halal meat in all their stores and suddenly every Muslim in all levels of society has had to defend Halal meat to those who regularly go hunting for fun. The British media is always looking for ways to further demonise the religion and its followers, regardless of how ridiculous the story may be. The British Muslim community has had to defend the hijab, niqab and now halal meat in national debates in an attempt to fit in and be accepted with British society.

Fatihah
White Muslim convert, part-time technical writer

I converted about six-and-a-half years ago, and the Islamophobia started straight away. It was subtle at first. White people questioned the decision. White friends drifted away or got uncomfortable. My family were completely against it from the outset — early on my brother decided I had become radicalized and a “terrorist sympathizer” and he hasn't spoken to me since.

I noticed very early on that white people started to view me differently, and it got worse when I started wearing the hijab. I got the very clear message that by choosing to be a Muslim I'd somehow chosen to not be British anymore. I didn't see it that way at all, and yet in the years that I've been a Muslim I've felt this constant, unspoken assumption that I've picked the wrong side in an ongoing culture war. You get treated like you defected to the enemy.

In hindsight it sounds hopelessly naïve but I didn't expect other white people to turn on me with that level of venom and vitriol. I've seen people dismiss white converts as mentally ill, cite them as proof of the "Islamification of Britain", and call for them to be deported. I once wrote a blog post about my experience as a convert that prompted a group of white atheists to speculate that I must have daddy issues or schizophrenia. It's never-ending.

There's this widespread attitude that Muslims and Islam don't "belong" in the UK and therefore if you're a Muslim in Britain you have two choices: you either abandon your religion in the name of "integrating," or you leave and good riddance to you. I hear the expression "Go live in a Muslim country" a lot. People in the UK view Muslims as outsiders and there's often an assumption that if you're a Muslim you must also be an immigrant or a foreigner. So I've had people tell me they're surprised I speak such good English or to "go back where I came from" on the basis that if you're a Muslim woman in hijab you must be a foreigner.

It's not just me — I'm lucky to live in a fairly tolerant part of the UK but even then every Muslim I know has stories. My husband has been interviewed by racist HR reps and his friends have all been racially profiled at airports. My friend had her hijab ripped off her head once. Another friend told me she's scared to go out by herself. It's getting noticeably worse and it's got to the point where I don't feel safe here anymore.

Humaira Aslam
19 year-old A-level student

To be a Muslim in the UK was never an issue at a young age; I grew up in Southall which is a very “ethnically diverse” area which meant that I grew up pretty much colour blind. I was aware that all of us may be of different ethnicities and cultures but it didn’t bother me and to my knowledge, it didn’t bother anyone else. It was just something we didn’t think about. Maybe this was because we were young but I feel it has more to do with the fact that the diversity in the area made people more aware of other religions, cultures and practices and we were all brought up to be tolerant of one another. This attitude was reflected at school and in the home. I had many non-Muslim friends and I never felt stigmatized.

However, in the last several years I have faced experiences which were quite upsetting. My family and I moved out from Southall and into a small town in Berkshire, the general population of which is white, middle-class people. To us, this was not a problem as the house my parents had purchased was beautiful, crime was low and it was a peaceful area with good schools. But that was when the problem came about. I had never experienced racism before and going in to a school where people made fun of me due to the fact that I was a “Paki” or a Muslim was so strange to me. This carried on into secondary school; I once came to school wearing a hijab because it was Ramadan and I had decided I wanted to start wearing one – the amount of nasty comments faced in those six hours of school made me take it off and I never wore it again. I felt like an outsider and a joke. The school I went to didn’t provide the support I needed in any way at all and so this carried on. At one point, I started telling people I was an atheist because I no longer wanted to feel like an alien but nothing helped. There was a point when I joined the sixth form of that very same school that I decided that I had had enough. I was and still am proud of my Pakistani origins and my religious beliefs (which require me to dress modestly) so I walked into the sixth form wearing a salwar kameez (a traditional South Asian dress). I wanted to show people that I didn’t care about what they thought about me, my religion, my skin colour when in fact I really did. But by making one simple change it helped me to accept the fact that I am Muslim and Pakistani and to not be ashamed of it because there really is no reason to be. It also helped start a healthy dialogue as the people around me wanted to know more. However, their views on me were still influenced by the media’s views on someone who is of Pakistani origin or Muslim.

When I first faced racism I became reserved and conformed to the norm because I wanted to fit in and be “normal” and this behavior continued for several years. I felt incredibly uncomfortable being myself and I felt as though I couldn’t relate to anyone around me. However, as time went on and I became more used to the fact that in life, I will be discriminated against by a minority due to my ethnicity or my religion and these attitudes won’t just disappear. After accepting this I became more comfortable with speaking out against these issues.

Mariam
Psychology student and graphic artist

I feel as though many Muslim women are facing verbal and physical violence due to the Islamophobic influence of the BNP (British National Party), the UKIP and the British media. We are never British enough, no matter how assimilated we get. I know many Muslim women who want to wear the hijab but have had their parents talk them out of it because of the physical attacks that women have faced. Their parents are afraid for them. Women, for no reason, have had their hijabs ripped off in the streets and have been spit on in public, in front of other people who do nothing but look on.

My younger brother has had students in his class come up to him and ask him if he’s a Muslim or if he’s British, because “you can’t be both” and he comes home with a look in his eyes that’s a mix of shock, terror and confusion. You turn on the television and read the news only to realize that politicians keep framing you as “the other” and that the media is intent on keeping it that way. People think that Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment only affects adults here but the reality is that children are learning this hatred from their parents, from their teachers and from what they see and hear on television. I read a report not long ago about a Muslim woman picking up her child from school only to be verbally attacked in front of the school by a parent. The parent actually followed her to her vehicle so he could verbally abuse her and in front of his own children, calling her foul names and making her fear for the well being of her child and herself. I’ve had things thrown at me and have been called things like a “sand n—” while getting a cup of coffee and a “dirty terrorist c—” in front of the chemist for doing nothing else but being out in public. For a time I even used to have a friend go out and get things for me because I was just that scared after having a rock thrown at my head.

UKIP’s win is scary for many of us because even though we’ve known about the rampant Islamophobia, the racism and the attacks on minorities this just goes on to confirm it ten-fold. This makes it real and I fear for my brother and for others who have to grow up worrying even more about their own skin, identities and their safety. But despite this, I won’t hide. I respect those women who choose to stay home at times because they have to protect themselves but I can’t. They can’t make me hide anymore.

Comments

The comments section is symptomatic of the problem these women are describing; it is also illustrative of the tactics that Euro racists pick to feel authorized and righteous as they go on on their crusade -- fantasize about a scenario that is either exaggerated or entirely fictitious portraying Muslims as being the ones who are privileged and aggressive and Christians being the poor persecuted ones. These stupid and vicious folks seem barely aware their country is responsible for the worst crime in the XXI century -- Iraq War -- which was basically a war of Christians against Muslims qua Muslims.

Muslims they do all sort of horrible things (bombings, beheading, stoning just to name a few) to others but they cry foul when they get the taste of their medicine even if it is only in a very mild dose?!! Hippocrates

Barry you're dishing out some laughable fallacies there I see. You are a closet racist. Sex predators? Are we really going to sit here and have a back and forth about statistics because I assure you that you will lose dear, miserably. You sound like a fascist.

I am not a Muslim and you don't have to be one to stand against bigotry here. Even a blind man can see that they're one of a number of groups specifically targeted by racists. Then again to people like you the n word and attacks on women based solely on race and religion is a-ok.

Interesting that you say this since you would not consider me white in a million years. And more interesting that you accuse me unspecified attacks on women when my life is dedicated to protecting women from sex abuse.
You have obviously never been to UK nor have you read media there. Pakistani Muslim older men are notorious for "grooming" white and Asian girls for prostitution. Jails are full of them, even with many getting off by explaining that their culture's views of women and Britain's views of women are completely different.
Geez, google it. As usual, the leftists are the real racists (and cannot have an actual debate based on facts; just call someone a racist and make bizarre accusations and voila, you won!).

You read an article showing how these women feel ostracized and even have been attacked what do you do? Talk down as though they're winging. Are you kidding me? And you work to prevent sex abuse? One of the first things taught in training is to never belittle or judge victims and yet here you are mocking the entire article. You're not fooling anyone. Any do you want to have a back and forth on jails and miscreants because darling I will break you in two. I know the stats.

Also, you can find the most horrid of people from all walks of life. From Jews to Buddhists to Muslims to Athiests. But keep crying to yourself about Muslims you annoying brat. I'm an ATHIEST and i am telling you this.

This article highlighted crimes against women and the suffering they face. And you want to sit and dismiss it like the pathetic troll you are. So again, either you are lying about your work or fucking hell have they failed in training you.
And an fyi I'm not a Leftist. Try again pissant.

Atheist?!! Nice try muj

Incredibly powerful article! In response to the above comments, how can you justify hatred with more hatred? You are derailing the entire issue. I don't understand your logic when you state "In Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan....countless, and just for the mere of being a Christian. You can't even wear a cross in Saudi Arabia. Muslims build mosques everywhere, they worship everywhere, why Christians cannot?" So by saying this you mean that because Christians are being treated unjustly elsewhere then Muslims that had completely nothing to do with any this should endure the same injustice? You cannot remove hatred by injecting more hatred and you cannot make a society just by acting unjustly. I suggest you stop derailing the real issues.

Do you really wonder why?
I mean come on. The Christians are been slaughtered in every Muslim country and you wonder why westerners have this issue with Muslims/Islam!!
In Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan....countless, and just for the mere of being a Christian. You can't even wear a cross in Saudi Arabia. Muslims build mosques everywhere, they worship everywhere, why Christians cannot? Could that be a legitimate
Question, to be answered? And why Islam almost never condemns those terrorist actions? A British soldier was brutally murdered on the street, by someone who claims doing it for religion reason.

You literally brought up straw men. Also Muslim figures have condemned violence again and again, which is more than what many others have done. Let's condemn all Catholics because of pedophilia within the church, or Judaism because of what Zionists have done? Is this how we should follow your logic? Why are all Muslims pinned together like animals like they all think and act the same? Are you a child? They don't all think alike. There are different religious schools. They are over 1.2 BILLION. So enough of this nonsense. Not every Christian is the same and not every atheist is the same and not every agnostic and not every Jew and not every Wiccan and so on and so on. Enough crap. You don't like having Muslims around? Create your own white supremacist island and commit to fascism there. Leave us out of your nonsense.

You have got to be kidding me. The UK has been the most hospitable destination for Muslims in history. There are Muslim schools and institutions supported by taxpayer dollars. Prisons, the army, police - their biggest challenge is to make Muslims feel at home and happy.
if there is backlash, it is due to the enormous surge in crime, including creepy sex predators who seem to be tolerated by these communities.
Closet racists, indeed.

take a look in the mirror and see who the beheaders, butchers, bugger boys, sex predators are

"The UK has been the most hospitable destination for Muslims in history" Really?
you mean after they have destroyed, raped and stolen everything from Muslim countries and left their harem boys in charge, no doubt!

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