Chris Allen (Birmingham University)
Ten years ago, Kenan Malik invited me to take part in a provocatively titled Channel 4 documentary, ‘Are Muslims Hated?’. In it, Malik questioned whether allegations about the scale and prevalence of Islamophobia were being exaggerated? Comparing the relatively low number of Islamophobically-motivated attacks that had been officially recorded in the wake of 9/11 with the much higher number of racially-motivated attacks in the 1970s (a number of which resulted in death), he concluded that it “doesn’t speak of a generalised climate of physical attacks on Muslims, of Islamophobia in that sense does it?” As I countered, just because quantitative data was not available did not mean that it was not happening.
A decade on and it could be argued that qualitative evidence might suggest that the situation has worsened ‘in that sense’, to echo Malik. Most recently, this can be seen in the murder of Muhsin Ahmed, an 81 year old pensioner who was attacked on his way to a mosque in Rotherham. This tragedy was sadly reminiscent of the previous murder of Mohammed Saleem, a 75 year old man who was repeatedly stabbed on his way home from a mosque in Birmingham in 2013. So too might Nahid Almanea be mentioned also. A 31 year old female student who was repeatedly stabbed while walking alone in Colchester in 2014, Essex Police has since suggested that it was possible she was murdered because she was wearing ‘Muslim attire’. As with the recent violent attack on Qaiser Hamid, a nurse who was beaten by a gang in Stockport that had mocked his beard, or the two men who were shot at with air rifles on leaving a mosque in Nelson, Lancashire, the sole motivation was that all of the victims were identified as being Muslim.
While reluctant to suggest that a ‘generalised climate’ of Islamophobia exists in today’s Britain, the problem of Islamophobia is, however, all too real. As quantitative data from the Metropolitan Police shows, the number of Islamophobically-motivated attacks in London has increased by 65 per cent in 2014. However, while the situation in the capital is worrying, similar quantitative data is not currently available for other parts of Britain and so the extent to which this is a national trend is inconclusive. And this is because the Metropolitan Police is anomalous is this respect in that it is one of the few police forces to separately record ‘Islamophobic hate crimes’. As quantitative evidence relating to Islamophobia remains lacking, are we any nearer being able to refute Malik’s decade-old dismissal about the true scale and prevalence of Islamophobia in Britain today?
This has been an issue that I have personally been aware of, so much so that I asked the increasingly impotent All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia to prioritise soon after its launch in November 2010. This was important because as well as those such as Malik that had highlighted the problem, it was becoming evident that those who sought to contest or dismiss out of hand the very existence of Islamophobia were increasingly deploying the lack of quantitative data as justification for doing so. For them, the ‘numbers’ appeared to be far more important than the detrimental impacts Islamophobia had on those who had become victims of it. As my own research into the experience of visible Muslim women who had become victims of street-level Islamophobia has shown, when those victims become too scared to go out alone or allow their children to play in their own garden, a singular focus on the ‘numbers’ might be missing the point somewhat. Nonetheless, there is a need for quantitative data about Islamophobia and so the Metropolitan Police’s approach is both interesting and innovative in that it uses existing statutory guidelines and practices relating to hate crime to do so.
Back in 2007, a shared definition for hate crime was established by the Police Service, Crown Prosecution Service, Prison Service (now known as the National Offender Management Service) and others. This definition stated that a hate crime was any criminal offence which was perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic. In categorising those various personal characteristics, five strands for recording purposes were identified, one of which was religion. Any hate crimes motivated by hostility or prejudice shown towards a victim’s personal characteristics that happen to be identifiably ‘religious’ therefore – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other – became duly recorded as a religiously-motivated hate crime.
A number of issues emerge as regards this particular approach however. The first is that as ‘religion’ is necessarily broad, it becomes extremely difficult to know against whom religiously-motivated hate crimes are being perpetrated. As regards racially-motivated hate crime, this is overcome by police forces recording the ethnicity of the victim which is then used to disaggregate the data once published. Given this does not happen with religion, so those who want ‘numbers’ are once again able to dismiss official hate crime data on the basis that it fails to prove neither the scale nor existence of Islamophobia.
The second is that police forces across the country have begun to separately record hate crime motivated by Antisemitism. While welcome – and indeed proof that separate recording can be easily incorporated into police practice across the different forces – it could be argued that as Antisemitism is recognised and recorded differently, so an unofficial hierarchy of ‘types’ of hate crime has been institutionally established thereby negating the victims of Islamophobia. Given these arguments and the ease with which the Metropolitan Police have been able to separately record Islamophobic hate crimes, so it would appear unfounded for the same not to be done elsewhere.
The final point relates to evidence from those such as Tell MAMA – a third-party monitoring service that records and provides support to victims of Islamophobia – which argues that that not only do Islamophobic hate crimes get widely and inaccurately recorded as being racially-motivated but so too are they substantially under-reported. This latter observation is widely corroborated. This was most evident in a 2009 report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights which stated that almost 80 per cent of Muslims who experience Islamophobia failed to report it to any institution or official agency. Given that it also found that victims were likely to have experienced Islamophobia around eight times in the preceding twelve months, even where quantitative ‘numbers’ relating to Islamophobia are likely to be significantly understated.
Nonetheless, the Metropolitan Police’s approach to separately recording Islamophobic hate crime remains a welcome development and one that if rolled out to other police forces, would significantly improve the existing quantitative evidence base albeit still under-reported. So too must comments made by the Home Secretary, Theresa May a few months ago also be seen to be equally welcome. Shortly before this year’s General Election, she pledged that under a future Conservative Government new legislation would be introduced to not only make Islamophobic hate crime a more serious offence but so too require all police forces to record Islamophobic hate crimes separately. It is however disappointing that it is likely to a part of new counter-terror legislation thereby reinforcing the inappropriate view that Islamophobia and terrorism are indeterminably linked.
While quantitative data – the ‘numbers’ – is important, unduly prioritising this over the qualitative can be both distracting and misleading. This is because one cannot put a value on the detrimental impact prejudice, discrimination, bigotry and hate potentially has on ordinary people’s lives, irrespective of whether the ‘numbers’ are increasing, decreasing or even staying the same. The fact that we know that ordinary people – in this case British Muslims – are continuing to be victims of Islamophobia is what should be most concerning for us all. As Shareefa, a female British Muslim who was a victim of Islamophobic hate crime put it to me:
“…it made me feel very scared…I was scared to go out on the street or into the area on my own. It made me think continuously that I need some sort of self-defence class so I know how to defend myself and protect my children…you start to think that something is going to happen. It kind of makes you feel like somebody is ready to attack you in the street…it kind of makes you think people hate you because of the way you dress. And then you start linking everything as being anti-Muslim and that may well not be the case. For example, some people give you a look which may be nothing, but…”
And maybe the ‘but’ at the end of her comment is most telling of all. Whether being asked ‘are Muslims hated?’ a decade ago or if there is a genuine need for all police forces to separately record certain types of hate crime today, we cannot allow an undue and likely ideologically informed focus placed on Islamophobia’s ‘numbers’ to in any way detract from the harm, pain and suffering it causes. It is this that makes hate crime – all hate crime irrespective of the basis upon which they are perpetrated – so heinous in today’s Britain.
Allen, C. ‘“People hate you because of the way you dress”: Understanding the invisible experiences of veiled British Muslim women victims of Islamophobia’ in International Review of Victimology (Vol. 21, No. 3: 287-301).
Allen, C. ‘Exploring the Impact of Islamophobia on Visible Muslim Women Victims: A British Case Study’ in Journal of Muslims in Europe (Vol 3, 2014: 137-159).
Allen, C. “Between critical and uncritical understandings: a case study analyzing the claims of Islamophobia made in the context of the proposed ‘super-mosque’ in Dudley, England” in Societies (Vol 3, no. 2, 2013, pp.186-203).
Allen, C. Islamophobia. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
Chris Allen is a lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Birmingham where he researches Islamophobia and contemporary issues facing Muslim communities as also religion in the contemporary political and policy spaces. He blogs at: wallscometumblingdown.