As Islamophobia awareness month ends, let us find safety in solidarity

Zarah Sultana
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

As we mark the end of Islamophobia Awareness Month, let’s recognise that this is a chance to reflect on the fight against this rising bigotry. And the picture is bleak.

Across the Channel, the French government has recently announced that it would close down the country’s largest non-governmental organisation dedicated to combating Islamophobia, the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). The purported justification is last month’s horrific attacks, even though CCIF has no connection to them.

Amnesty International has described the decision as “shocking”. But Emmanuel Macron hasn’t stopped there. Other measures his government has announced include issuing children with identification numbers and requiring imams to be officially accredited. As Amnesty has said, Macron’s government has “doubled down on their perpetual smear campaign against French Muslims”.

These decisions should alarm every committed anti-racist. From French Muslim friends, I know there is extreme distress and anxiety about the direction of the country. The bigotry that Marine Le Pen and the National Front have stoked for decades is being mainstreamed as Macron chases the vote of the far-right. But when I spoke out about it on social media, I was met with hostility and condescension from Britain’s own right-wing.

Conservative MP Neil O’Brien described my concerns as “grim”, telling me that Macron was “reasserting basic liberal values” – as if closing down anti-racist organisations and issuing children with ID numbers were “liberal”. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson shot back saying Macron was “defending, not attacking, Islam” – a bold thing for him to tell a Muslim woman, especially since his magazine has published articles saying “there is not nearly enough Islamophobia in the Tory party”.

The downplaying and dismissing of Islamophobia is something British Muslims are used to. After all, in his bid to become Prime Minister, Boris Johnson hardly seems to have been hindered by his own Islamophobic remarks – even as his description of Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bankrobbers” was found to have led to a shocking 375% surge in Islamophobic incidents.

For years, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi has highlighted “widespread” Islamophobia in her party, which, she has said, “exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top”. This has been repeatedly ignored by the party leadership, which has reneged on its promise to hold an inquiry specifically into this issue.

The evidence certainly supports Warsi’s comments. Polling has found that almost half of Conservative Party members believe Islam is “a threat to the British way of life”, while six in ten have negative attitudes towards Muslims. And these attitudes find their way to government policy. To take just one example, this summer the government brought forward a bill that removes the statutory deadline to review its Prevent strategy, despite the overwhelming evidence that it discriminates against Muslims.

But Islamophobia is neither confined to the Conservative Party, nor is it new. A report from the Muslim Labour Network, published earlier this month, shows that the Labour Party still has a long way to go. 29% of respondents reported directly experiencing Islamophobia in the party; 44% did not believe the party takes Islamophobia seriously; and 48% disagreed with the statement “the Labour Party represents the Muslim community effectively” compared to 29% who agreed with it. The report made for difficult reading, but I wasn’t surprised – my friends, my family, and I have all experienced Islamophobia in the party.

My own experience of Islamophobia started at a young age. Growing up during the “War on Terror”, I remember the racial abuse family members and I would receive on the street, the surveillance cameras installed in a Muslim-majority area near to where I lived, and the silencing effects of Prevent at university.

But since I was elected as an MP last December, I have had to learn what it is like to be a left-wing Muslim in the public eye. A letter filled with hate for my support for refugees told me to “go back to your country of origin, foreigner!”. Another wished me a “slow and painful death”.

It isn’t nice to need a police investigation into hate mail like this, but it seems to be price of being a young, outspoken, left-wing Muslim woman. I got active in politics to change things – to fight bigotry and oppression in all its forms and to build a more equal world. So things like this don’t deter me.

Recent months have shown that the Labour Party must do more to truly champion equality, for Muslims, for trans people and for Jewish people. These are not competing struggles. They are motivated by the same fundamental belief: a commitment to the liberation and equality of all. That is why we must abhor and challenge Islamophobia, antisemitism, transphobia and all forms of oppression, wherever we see them.

It is why we must treat an attack on one of us as an attack on all of us. In coming together to fight oppression – whether it be Islamophobia, antisemitism, or any other form – we are all made stronger. In uniting our struggles, we all stand taller. And in building these links of solidarity, we are all made safer.

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