As Head of Communications at Islamic Relief UK, I’ve seen for myself the challenges that Islamic faith-inspired charities face every day. I may not be Muslim but I too have been on the receiving end of Islamophobia.
November: Islamophobia Awareness Month
This month is Islamophobia Awareness Month but in all honesty, I’m not sure that one month is enough to raise awareness of such a critical issue. Islamophobia is all around us every day, every week, every month, year after year.
Recent events in the media, civil society and political circles have proven just how widespread Islamophobia really is. Not only have Racist and Islamophobic attacks been on the increase since Brexit, but large sections of the British media also continue to perpetuate Islamophobia.
The Sunday Times, for example, recently came under fire for publishing a piece by the polemicist Rod Liddle which recommended that Islamists should “blow themselves up in Tower Hamlets”.
Only weeks earlier, Baroness Warsi demanded an investigation into Islamophobia within her own party, the Conservative party. This isn’t at all surprising considering the infamous words of the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, comparing women wearing burkas to letter boxes.
In fact, this isn’t the first time that Johnson has come under fire for his comments on Muslims/Islam. He’s previously announced that “Islam is the problem” and stated that “the natural reaction to Islam is Islamophobia”. Can that really be right? Is Islamophobia the “natural” reaction to Islam? Add to that this question: why have I – a non-Muslim – been the victim of Islamophobic comments? To unpack these issues, I think we need to first explore what Islamophobia actually is.
According to the Collins dictionary, Islamophobia is “the fear or hatred of Muslims or of their politics or culture”. Ok. But where has this fear come from? Well, as with many attacks against minorities, fear often arises from ignorance. When it comes to ignorance, there is wilful ignorance and unconscious ignorance. Sadly, the British media has undoubtedly played a huge part in wilfully perpetuating Islamophobia.
A recent article in The Independent stated that research by the University of Cambridge has highlighted how “mainstream media reporting about Muslim communities is contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility toward Muslims in Britain.” We all know that sensationalism and scaremongering sells papers but they also mislead people. The Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project also concluded that “biased coverage” and “negative portrayal of Muslims and Muslim countries” are affecting the way that people view Islam and Muslims across society.
We must therefore acknowledge the role that the media, more often than not, shapes and actively crafts public opinion rather than mirroring it and how socio-cultural stereotypes and the way we respond to these, can and do have a huge impact – for better or for worse.
Working at IRUK: My personal experiences
When I decided to come and work at Islamic Relief UK, many of my friends and family were quite surprised. Most of them would say: “But you’re not Muslim!” “No, I’m not and neither was I Christian when I worked at Christian Aid” was my reply. When new acquaintances ask where I work, I am used to my answer being met with deathly silence.
Many of those dear to me – who know my history – were still somewhat bemused that I was going to start working for an Islamically-inspired NGO. Subsequently, further questions came my way. I was asked how I felt about the hijab, halal meat, FGM, early and forced marriage, grooming gangs, ISIS. You name it: they said it. Everyone had an opinion about Islam and sadly none of those opinions were positive.
Nobody said: “How wonderful!”, “Have you heard about Zakat? Isn’t that an amazing thing?”, or “That’s great, Islam is about peace after all!” or, “Isn’t halal about ensuring animals are well-looked after before death?” Instead I found that most comments were ill-informed and unconsciously ignorant.
I myself was no expert on Islam, but knowing I was going to work at a faith-inspired charity, I decided to do some research. I went on an Intro to Islam course at the Central London Mosque, I read the Qur’an, and I read about hadiths, hijabs, halal and even beards. I read about revolutions in the Middle East and I read about Generation M – the generation of young Muslims on the cusp of tradition and modernity.
In other words, my ‘natural reaction’ to Islam was not Islamophobia, but to find out more. Even now, I’m still learning each and every day – and that’s something I enjoy! Being part of a multicultural, multifaith team at Islamic Relief UK is an utter joy.
Despite what many people may think, Islamic Relief supports people of all faiths and none and it employs people of all faiths and none. It’s the largest Islamically-inspired development agency in the world but does not specifically work to aid Muslims. And it’s this diversity that is very much represented here in the office and something that I value every single day.
However, whilst it’s been a joy to work at Islamic Relief, it also has a major challenges: Islamophobia. Now, as a non-Muslim member of staff, you may ask: how does this even affect me? Well, it does – each and every day!
Having a great time with my colleagues in Istanbul for an IRW training.
Every morning when we enter the building, we walk past a sign that warns us what to do if we receive an envelope with a deadly substance in it. Shortly after starting work, a letter was circulated called ‘Punish a Muslim’. Many colleagues were understandably concerned. Some in fact didn’t want to come into work that day.
Last Ramadan we ran a campaign to draw attention to our work and the fact that – despite misconceptions – Islam promotes the sanctity of life. The Qur’an states: “Whosoever saves a life, it is as if he had saved the whole of mankind” (5:32). That’s why our Ramadan campaign message – displayed on buses, billboards and in tube stations across the UK – declared: “For the love of Allah, save a life now.” We wanted to remind British Muslims that Islamic Relief exists to transform and save the lives of ‘poor and needy’ both at home and overseas and to also demonstrate to non-Muslims the good that Muslims do.
However, despite the best of intentions, people on social media complained. As the Head of Communications, part of my job is to explain and defend our campaigns to the press and I was happy to do so. We subsequently put out a press release explaining the campaign which was picked up by some of the press. It was even picked up by the alt-right news agency, Breitbart, who, not surprisingly, twisted it to suit their Islamophobic agenda. And then came the offensive message on my twitter feed from a man in California who rather shockingly declared: “You can shove your Islamic thoughts up your c***!”*
I know this is a smidgen of abuse that many Muslims face every day. I don’t claim to be the worst affected. Not at all. But it shows just how pervasive Islamophobia is in society. Speaking to members of my team managing our social media accounts, I’m also reminded of the abuse that they have to read, witness and ignore every single day. But that can’t be easy. They love Islam and to have it denigrated is not a nice thing to face.
St Jude: The patron saint of lost causes
My friends call me Jude and sometimes I can’t help but think how ironically perfect the name is! You see, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. It might help explain why in my career, I have worked on “unpopular issues”, such as human rights in Central America, refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, international development and now international development for an Islamic charity.
It might explain why I go on countless marches, sign petitions and write to my local MP – and all for great causes. Do these work? Not always. But that can’t be the reason why I do not stand my ground for the causes I believe in. I will always defend my right to speak out, to defend those at risk and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, the marginalised and those who are discriminated against. This Jude will continue to fight against Islamophobia and is determined that this is not another lost cause. It can’t be.
To find out more about Islamophobia, click here to read a recent survey on Islamophobia in British society. You can also read about one man’s fight against Islamophobia in the British media.
*Tweet removed from feed and reported to the police alongside all other offensive material.