Living in the shadow of Islamophobia: how to protect Muslims and their mosques after UK attacks


Source: The Guardian

Across the country many Muslim communities are feeling anxious about the safety of our families and children, and our friends.

Friday marks one week since the terrorist atrocity in New Zealand in which a 28-year-old Australian man published an online white supremacist “manifesto”, and then went into two mosques in Christchurch with multiple firearms, opening fire and killing 50 Muslims as they prayed. Nobody was spared from his Islamophobic massacre, not even children. One of the youngest casualties was three-year-old Mucad Ibrahim who was at the mosque with his family.

One week on, the implications of those terrorist crimes in New Zealand are having a profound and deep impact on Muslim communities across the world, including here in the UK. Many of us are traumatised. Many of us feel horrified. We are devastated. We are broken and we are terrified.

This morning West Midlands police have confirmed their counter-terrorism team is investigating attacks on five mosques in Birmingham damaged by sledgehammers overnight. According to local media reports one mosque in the city was attacked this morning – the windows were smashed. The motivation behind these attacks is not clear but these attacks are designed to increase Muslim fears of vulnerability.

We know that many in our communities, people of faith and no faith alike, feel a deep sense of shock and horror, and there have been many moving and kind individual and community acts of solidarity, sisterhood and brotherhood across the country. Our mosques have been showered with flowers and handwritten messages of solidarity, and cards filled with children’s handwriting.

On Monday I was invited by a group of young activists and community organisers to attend a vigil for New Zealand outside News Corp’s headquarters near London Bridge. News Corp is the Rupert Murdoch-owned media company that publishes newspapers such as the Sun.

Outside the towering glass building, a woman from the Inclusive Mosque Project recited the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, and recited the prayer Muslims read for the deceased’s soul to rest in eternal peace. The crowd joined her in calling for unity, peace and justice for the victims. We also heard from a young man who had lost his uncle and cousin – gunned down in one of the two mosques attacked in Christchurch. He spoke movingly about how proud he was of his loved ones and how he will hold on to that pride for the rest of his life. I, along with others, was asked to read out the names of the victims and what we knew of them.

What struck me most was how uniquely each life was connected to New Zealand from other parts of the world: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere. We mourn for every life lost, for who they were and for who they never had the chance to become.

Alongside poignant and reflective vigils and random acts of kindness, there has also been a spate of hate crimes reported across the UK, including here in Oxford, where I’m a Labour city councillor. Swastikas and references to the far right and New Zealand were sprayed on the wall of my former school in Oxford, and a Muslim woman reported an incident of a man making shooting sounds as she walked to work. Police have questioned two teenagers over the graffiti. Students at Cheney school disgusted by the racism are designing a mural to celebrate diversity, fearing that the wall would be “haunted by the words” if left blank. In Surrey a 19-year-old man was stabbed in what police suspect was a far-right-inspired terror attack.

Across the country many Muslim communities are feeling anxious about the safety of our families and children, and our friends. To be clear, this anxiety is a constant, we live in the shadow of Islamophobia and in a context where reported hate crime and incidents of racism are on the increase. One young woman I met this week described it as “living in a constant state of low-level anxiety. Being a Muslim woman I feel vulnerable all of the time but especially after a terrorist attack anywhere in the world. It’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, except we are living the trauma here and now.”

We are almost six weeks away from the start of Ramadan in early May. This is the busiest time of the year for mosques, with people often travelling from afar to attend special prayers and to break fast in the mosque. Most mosques in the UK are open places of worship – other than during the five prayer times mosques are community spaces where children learn the Qur’an and community activities take place.

In 2017 Muslims were targeted in an attack on a mosque in Finsbury Park, London, when far-right extremist Darren Osborne rammed a van into worshippers leaving Ramadan prayers.

After New Zealand and following calls by the Muslim Council of Britain and other Muslim organisations to strengthen measures to protect Muslims and our mosques, the Home Office has doubled an annual fund for protective security at religious institutions.

However, groups must individually bid for chunks of the £1.6m funding, which is also – and rightly so – open to Christian churches, Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and other places of worship. Security for Jewish communities is separately awarded £13.4m via the Community Security Trust; Muslim groups are calling for equivalent support.

For some in the Muslim community having a heightened police presence around mosques is not the solution. As a community who are overly policed, the feeling is that mosques should organise their own network of security patrols. Meanwhile, others want to see an increased and visible police presence, at a time of dwindling police resources and numbers.

New Zealand has shown all of us once again that we must not be complacent about the real danger and threat the far right pose to minorities and to the fabric of our society.

Shaista Aziz is a Labour city councillor in Oxford, journalist and writer. She was a keynote speaker at the conference ¡No Pasaran! Confronting the Rise of the Far Right, attended by delegations from across Europe in London on 2 March 2019.


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