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It’s Time to Turn Back the Rising Tide of Islamophobia

As the first MP to wear a hijab, Apsana Begum's early political career has been blighted by anti-Muslim bigotry. Here she discusses her experiences – and why the battle against Islamophobia is so urgent.

Boris Johnson’s infamous comments that Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letterboxes” sent the message – loudly and clearly – about the now Prime Minister’s approach to diversity.

The incident demonstrated the acceptable prevalence of Islamophobia within the British mainstream, not least because nothing really happened to address these inflammatory crude comments which had no purpose or context other than to be offensive and add further fuel to the ongoing marginalisation of, and discrimination against, a minority community.

As someone who has first-hand experience of the rise in Islamophobia over the past decades, I know that every single day people of Muslim backgrounds like me face discrimination and prejudice.

It is crystal clear to me that my presence in parliament – the first MP to wear a hijab – makes many uncomfortable. It was only in January 2018 when a multi-faith prayer room was opened in parliament and not until this March when a trial of halal and kosher meals to be served in a Commons cafeteria was announced (and then put on hold due to the Covid-19 crisis).

Despite being a new, relatively young, MP I am regularly heckled and aggressively interrupted in the chamber in what often appears to me, and others, to be targeted. In fact, the level of trolling, intimidation, victimisation and smear campaigns has been relentless – off the scale. It seems that for many in the media and elsewhere, I am fair game. I am constantly having to cope with racist and misogynistic attacks, including ongoing risks, at times, to my safety.

It is widely known, of course, that women from ethnic minority backgrounds continue to face many barriers when getting involved in public life in various ways. Indeed, Rakhia Ismail’s comments when she left the post of Islington mayor in September attacked the political system as one that “allows white men to have what they want, when they want.”

However, for most people from a Muslim background, it is not just about enduring offensive remarks and presumptions, bad as those are, but about living with a constant shadow looming over our lives.

Islamophobic hate crimes continue to soar and impact Muslims in work, schools and in public. I know that many are fearful to leave their homes because they may face verbal or physical abuse and that some feel they are outsiders in their own country.

In fact, the prevalence of negative stereotypes, hate crimes, bullying, and harassment are only one part of a whole structure of discrimination. Widespread, often institutional Islamophobia, has a profound and ongoing impact as we are used as scapegoats for the failings of the political and economic system.

Far too often Muslims are cynically used as a focal point for people’s fears and anxieties. We are set up to be the outsiders or an ‘enemy within’ by the same type of divisive politics which have culminated in the hostile environment for migrants.

The harrowing case of the tragic death of 12 year old Shukri Abdi – a Somali refugee who settled in the UK with her family, but instead of finding safety and solace was repeatedly tormented by her classmates – not only evidences the horrific consequences of Islamophobia but also shows the ongoing structural failures that continue to play a role.

Report after report has demonstrated that Muslims are being held back in the workplace and that women wearing a headscarf face particular discrimination. Muslim households are more likely to be in poverty – as Muslims are being excluded, discriminated against or failed at all stages of their transition from education to employment.

It is not only that not enough is being done to address Islamophobia, but that we live in a society whose state-sanctioned approach to counter-terrorism is modelled on Islamophobic stereotypes.

Indeed, Prevent is widely criticised for fostering discrimination and includes overt targeting of Muslim children in schools so that young people are increasingly being viewed through the lens of security. Despite this year being marked by the inspirational global Black Lives Matter movement calling out the state regarding racism, parliament has passed legislation after legislation that will further entrench such discrimination.

Across the world, under the auspices of fighting terrorism and religious extremism, people of Muslim backgrounds face persecution and the denial of basic citizenship rights – from the Rohingya refugees being forced to flee their homes, the escalation of harassment of Muslims in France, to the human rights abuses in India and Kashmir and the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region in northwest China being unjustly arrested and imprisoned in what the Chinese government calls “political re-education camps.”

At the same time, far too often, the foreign policy of successive governments has fuelled, not reduced, the threat to us all. The so-called ‘War on Terror’ has manifestly failed, despite the human cost being so devastating.

Islamophobia Awareness Month is a well needed opportunity to highlight the need to combat all forms of Islamophobia – from subtle and institutional Islamophobia to discrimination, and hate crime to persecution and state violence.

Calling out Islamophobia and recognising is various guises must be a crucial start but if we are to make fundamental and lasting change for all people we need to struggle for a fairer and more equal society for everyone.

As has been pointed out by many, the Covid-19 global pandemic has profoundly demonstrated that compassion becomes the tie that connects us to one another. Now more than ever, we must come together and resist those that seek to divide us through violence, intolerance and hate.

I am humbled and inspired by how people continue to organise to protect our communities, and pay tribute the enormous contribution that Muslims across Britain make to our country, our communities and our way of life, from which the values of respect and understanding derive.

Because, in the end, it is only that hope that can lead us out of despair.