‘Brexit has given legitimacy and a newfound voice to racist and Islamophobic narratives’ – Dr Qari Asim, MBE
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Dr Qari Asim, MBE, Senior Imam (Makkah Mosque Leeds)
The result of the historic EU referendum has been dramatic and unexpected for many, giving rise to the political and economic turmoil that had been widely forecast in the event of a Brexit. Other consequences were perhaps not as well predicted, such as the rise in racial attacks in the immediate aftermath of the referendum. The result has exposed the uncomfortable divisions between London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the rest of England and Wales. Brexit has sparked fears of further disintegration of the United Kingdom and even across the continent.
It has also highlighted the intolerance that exists towards ethnic minorities within the UK. The fact that there has been a 57% rise in the number of hate crimes reported in the aftermath of the referendum shows that the result has given a new found confidence to those who may have previously expressed such views online or in closed quarters; they have been emboldened to take their messages of hate to the streets.
Prior to the EU Referendum, I wrote that political leaders on both sides of the campaign needed to avoid alarmist scare stories and hyperbolic claims and focus on engaging all sections of the society, addressing the specific concerns of those who are under-privileged and disenfranchised. One particular section of society that seems to have been ignored by the Remain campaign are less affluent communities, living in areas of social and economic deprivation, with little or no employment prospects. Although by no means all members of these communities perceived the EU to be the cause of their lack of financial stability, an overwhelming majority did. Disturbingly, even areas which have been direct beneficiaries of EU funding have felt so disenfranchised with their lot that they have voted Leave.
Interestingly, although 46% of British Muslims live in the bottom 10% most deprived wards in England, most of them did not see European Union as a cause of their economic and social depravation. 70% of Muslims voted for Remain, in line with some other minorities like Asians in general (67%) and Blacks (74%).
The EU Referendum result highlights the gulf that exists in our country between the political elite and the under-privileged in parts of the our country. This protest vote, which ignored advice from political figures from David Cameron to Obama, respected institutions from the Treasury to the Bank of England, as well as Churches and other places of worship, makes one point abundantly clear: the disenfranchised amongst us will no longer accept being marginalised.
The Brexit result also seems to have unleashed division, bigotry, and hatred against migrants and minorities. It has given legitimacy and a new found voice to racist and Islamophobic narratives. Leading up to the EU Referendum, we all saw that the tone, language, campaigning material and actions of some members of the Leave campaign were anti-Muslim, anti-semitic and anti-ethnic minorities. The divisive and toxic campaigned continued for months – ranging from the Leave campaign poster stating that 76 million Turks were about to join the EU to the infamous UKIP ‘breaking point’ poster showing Syrian refugees on the Croatia-Slovenia border. But most of us remained silent.
In my own hometown of Leeds, which is a tolerant, dynamic, and economically vibrant city, I saw that members of the Leave campaign were espousing hate-filled rhetoric and attracting many people in city centre. Instead of talking about economic, political and social benefits of leaving the UK, they were focusing on the perceived “Muslim invasion” of Britain, or “Sharia” being enforced in parts of Yorkshire.
I must stress that those who voted to Leave did so for a variety of reasons and not all of them should be accused of being, selfish, bigoted, xenophobic or racist. However, my concern has always been that a UK departure would reinforce ultra-nationalist far right sentiments amongst certain sections of society, and they would seek to alienate and demonise minorities.
The brutal murder of Jo Cox MP – whom I knew to be an inspiring public servant, selfless humanitarian and fearless campaigner – is a stark reminder about the growing threat from far right extremism, as the murderer is alleged to have been in contact with far right movements, and potentially ‘radicalised’ by them.
My concern has therefore unfortunately been proven correct. Within a couple of days of Brexit, we have seen anti-Muslim, anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments on our streets. In the London borough of Hammersmith, the glass. doors of a Polish cultural centre have been daubed with an anti-Polish slogan. In Cambridgeshire there have been reports of signs saying “Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin” posted through the letter boxes of polish families on the same day as the referendum result. In Newcastle, a placard was placed urging the country to “start repatriation”. In Walsall, there has been an attack on halal butchers.
A number of Muslims have been shouted at with the question: “When are you going back home?” or called a “paki”, which many of us may have heard in the 1970s and early 1980s. The reports of incidents include a group of young men shouting “Get out, we voted ‘Leave’” at a Muslim girl in the street; and a man in a Tesco supermarket yelling “Rule Britannia! Now get out.” at a Muslim woman. Little do the abusers know that ancestors of some of these Muslims not only fought for Britain in World Wars, but then came to build Britain post World War II.
As an independent member of the government’s anti-Muslim hatred working group, I am deeply concerned about the rise of racial and religiously-motivated incidents against all communities, in particular Muslims. Anti-Muslim hate monitoring group Tell MAMA reports 326 percent increase in incidents against Muslims in 2015 – and warns Brexit could make it worse. We have already seen two elderly Muslims being murdered, and mosques being attacked; the current surge in Islamophobia is only likely to reinforce fear and create further divisions between communities.
Although sometimes it is argued that some Muslims do not follow British values, we are now seeing that British values – such as tolerance, rule of law and respect for others – are being trampled upon by far right extremists. What has been most upsetting and disturbing is that there have been no immediate statements from Leave campaign leaders condemning such xenophobic and racially-motivated incidents. I would urge our government, political parties and police to take robust and meaningful action to tackle the alarming rise in Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiments, but also members of civil society not to tolerate such incidents of hatred.
The UK has never been – and will never be – a land for one faith or one community only. It will continue to be a multi-belief and multi-ethnic community, united by shared values. Despite the rise in anti-Muslim hate intimidation and crime, Muslims need to stay calm, vigilant, and watchful. In the month of Ramadan, we need to display a dynamic spirit of open mindedness, co-operation and tolerance. There should be no place in Britain for any kind of prejudice and hatred. To allow otherwise is to do injustice to millions of people who voted to Leave the EU because they wanted their country to be more open and internationalist in its outlook.
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