The threat of discrimination and violence against Muslims in the UK has been growing over the last 20years. It has beenfueled partly by global events, including 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, and the geopolitical machinations that have followed, and partly by the growing acceptability of bigotry against Muslims as epitomized by the actions of tabloid newspapers and some right-wing groups.
This has led to an upsurge in incidents of anti-Muslim prejudice, and an increase in reported hate crimes. One of the main organizations dedicated to recording and tracking this bigotry is Tell Mama, a group set up in 2012 that not only monitors bigotry and violence against Muslims, but also works with those on the receiving end of such incidents, offering somewhere for victims to find support.
But the organization has also been in the front line of another struggle, coming under attack from figures within the Muslim community, and those attacks have highlighted another threat to Muslims, from self-appointed religious figures, some of whom have been invited to weigh in on issues affecting Muslims by the British government. Back in 2015, the working group on anti-Muslim bigotry, originally chaired by Baroness Warsi, was criticized by some Muslims, including the founder of Tell Mama, for inviting contributions from religious figures with their own history of bigotry.
These included individuals who had a record of working with anti-Jewish groups which campaigned specifically against Jewish MPs at election time, and others who had exhibited prejudice against LGBTQ individuals and promoted sectarian views.
This criticism from a senior figure at Tell Mama was met by a concerted campaign online, across social media, against the organization, including criticism of its support for LGBTQ people, its support for the minority Ahmadi sect, and itssupposed failure to denounce the existence of the Israeli state.
The attacks highlighted an uncomfortable truth; that bigotry aimed at Muslims can also come from within the Muslim community, and organizations such as Tell Mama, which provide support for LGBTQ people, and which condemn violence against all groups, are a target. Many of the Muslims who voice such criticism do so from an orthodox religious perspective and appear to be effectively calling for a double standard: discrimination against Muslims on religious grounds to be condemned, but discrimination against LGBTQ people, Jews and Ahmadis to be condoned or overlooked.
The battle over the composition of Baroness Warsi’s working group also points to a larger problem, which affects the prospects of British Muslims. By being classed primarily as Muslims, hundreds of thousands of British citizens, most of them of south Asian heritage, are not having their needs addressed, as they are primarily considered a religiously-motivated group. This is an impression that some self-appointed religious leaders are happy to reinforce, as it bolsters their power and influence, and enables them to push an entirely religious agenda.
There are significant problems affecting the lives of people who happen to be Muslims in the UK, but many are not primarily related to religion. Issues of high unemployment, low academic achievement, racial discrimination and barriers to employment all need to be addressed, but these are not responsive to a religious perspective or to religion-based solutions.
But a minority of vocal Islamic religious figures seem to be prepared to allow the formation of an ‘underclass’ drawn on religious lines, an almost-forgotten section of the UK population, suffering from disproportionate levels of unemployment, poverty and discrimination. While many Islamic religious figures do good work in their local areas, religious leaders often favor Islamic over secular study and are focused on the unity of the religious community, not individuals’ well-being.
And, as the furor over Baroness Warsi’s working group shows, the UK government has not always been sensitive enough to the dangers of inviting extremist religious figures or those with extreme views into the corridors of power, allowing them to pose as leaders or representative of British Muslims, and turning a blind eye to their particular brand of bigotry and double standards.
Ultimately, UK Muslims are UK citizens and are as entitled as any other UK citizens to have their social, employment, educational and other needs addressed. By elevating orthodox religious voices and providing them with official sanction and platforms, the UK authorities run the risk of doubling the discrimination that many UK Muslims face. In tackling the obvious problem of anti-Islamic and racist discrimination, it is important that government, both national and local, doesn’t lose sight of the threat posed by extremists and bigots within the Muslim community itself.