Tackling Islamophobia must begin at home for Theresa may

If May is serious about tackling Islamophobia, her work must begin at home
5 min read
10 Jul, 2017
Comment: Theresa May is arguably the chief purveyor of Islamophobic policies, making her claims to fight it beyond laughable, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
May vowed to tackle widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain [Getty]

For those who allege Islamophobia is a myth, the Finsbury Mosque attack in London last month was an apt reminder of what it means to be Muslim in the West today. "I am going to kill all Muslims" screamed Darren Osborne, the driver who rammed through a group of worshipers outside the mosque.

British Prime Minister Theresa May called the attack an "act of terrorism", stating that that Islamophobia was a form of extremism; a statement that may have caught some by surprise. May was praised for her straight talking, and for vowing to tackle widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain.

However, the PM is no dove when it comes to matters of dealing with the UK Muslim community. In fact, she is arguably the chief purveyor of Islamophobic policies, making her claim to fight it beyond laughable.

During her six-year stint as home secretary in previous Conservative governments, she oversaw the expansion of programmes such as Prevent; a counter-extremism strategy that gave unchecked powers to intelligence authorities to spy on mosques, detain Muslims on dubious charges, and create propaganda literature intended to shape UK Muslim attitudes and behaviours.

Prevent - a Muslim-focussed initiative

Despite Prevent being a Labour party initiative under Tony Blair, the Conservative governments of the current decade are most notoriously associated with it.

"Prevent is an integral part of our counter-terrorism strategy and aims to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism" May said in June 2011, at the unveiling of the revised Prevent Strategy.

For starters, the government could listen to the Muslims it claims to help protect

Under the David Cameron-led government, Prevent was substantially expanded and gave the Home Affairs Department very wide-ranging powers to apprehend individuals and surveil communities at will. It not only focused on violent extremism, but also non-violent speech and activism. The strategy is largely (and quite rightly) seen as an escalation against the basic civil rights of British Muslims.

Data collected by the National Police Chief's Council between 2007 and 2010 shows that referral cases made by institutions participating in Prevent included 67 percent Muslims, despite the national Muslim population being just 5 percent.

The loose definition of "extremism" has led to some shocking incidents in which Muslims - especially young Muslims (school children included) - were targeted for basic expressions of faith, or speech that would not cause an outcry if the individual in question were of any other faith group.

  Read more: Selective compassion: London Bridge, Manchester and Kabul reveal western media bias

According to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a two-year-old was apprehended by school authorities after reciting an Islamic song and saying "Allah Hu Akbar" (God is great). The child was referred to social services for what was termed as "concerning behaviour".

In another case reported to the MCB, a child was reported for saying the word "Alhamdulillah" which translates to "Praise be to God".

David Anderson, an independent terrorism legislation reviewer whose remit included Prevent, has said that "reputable community organisations refuse to engage with it". He added that "Suspicion has tainted it and will only be deepened by US actions seen to be targeted at Muslims".

Under the David Cameron-led government, Prevent was substantially expanded and gave the Home Affairs Department very wide-ranging powers

The ignorance displayed in some of these incidents is very much reflective of the current Tory government that peddled Islamophobic assertions long before it came into power. Current cabinet member Michael Gove for example, wrote in his 2006 book entitled 'Celsius 7/7', that a sizeable British Muslim minority hold "rejectionist Islamist views".

More recently, evidence of the Conservative party's anti-Muslim rhetoric was on full display during the London mayoral campaign last year, when Labour candidate Sadiq Khan faced a barrage of Islamophoic attacks from his rival Zac Goldsmith who attempted to paint him as a security risk; an overused approach trying to link Muslims like Khan to terrorism.

Read more: Muslim by label and British by happenstance

Goldsmith accused Khan in a Daily Mail article of associating with extremists; a totally baseless claim. The article used a picture of the 7/7 London attacks in 2005, and was widely condemned, including by members of Goldsmith's own party.

Tackling Islamophobia

It is clear by now that policies such as Prevent simply do not work. And while tackling Islamophobia in British institutions present a significant challenge, the issue must be addressed.

For starters, the government could listen to the Muslims it claims to help protect. Relying on so-called counter terrorism organisations such as Quilliam (whose founder is labelled by Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim extremist) for insights into British Muslims - groups that have no grounding in the UK's Muslim community - will only make the latter more suspicious of the government's invitation to collaborate.

Inclusion of more diverse teams in news outlets would help bring a positive difference

Another way to curb the rising tide of anti-Muslim animus is for the government to encourage the British mainstream press to accurately portray the diversity of Muslims, who are almost unfailingly depicted through the lens of war and conflict. Several studies show that much of the British media's coverage is overwhelmingly negative, portraying Islam as a threat to British society.

Inclusion of more diverse teams in news outlets would help bring a positive difference, and introduce nuance to editorial teams who believe its ok to give a platform to right-wing pundits such as the toxic Katie Hopkins; someone who has called Muslim refugees cockroaches and advocated for a "final solution" to British Muslims.

Nevertheless, considering the extent to which the incumbent government has its hands dirty when it comes to betraying the trust of UK Muslims, it is perhaps wise not to raise our hopes too high.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.