Controversy of British Channel 4’s new documentary about British Muslims

The British TV Channel 4 aired a document called “My Week as a Muslim” on October 23rd. The show created significant backlash because a White, British Islamophobic woman dressed up as a Pakistani, Muslim woman. Katie Freeman not only wore Muslim clothes but also wore dark make-up and prosthetic nose and teeth. Opponents of the documentary call this a racist use of brown-face.

The producer, Fazia Khan, had previously created “Extremely British Muslims” on Channel 4. She says her goal with this new documentary “was to educate, not offend.” She intended to avoid “preaching to the converted” by including Freeman, who was hostile towards Muslims like many White Britons. Khan writes, “We hoped that people who shared some of Katie’s views would go on the journey with her. I think the disguise element was an absolutely crucial part of this.”

Khan placed Freeman in a Muslim household. Khan discussed the idea with local Muslim organizations, such as the British Muslim Heritage Centre, and the family before starting the project.

As a result of the disguise, Khan argues, Freeman experienced an “insider” feeling that otherwise who not have been possible in other situations.

Others disagree that this was the correct way to portray Muslims and Islamophobia. Radhika Sanghani says that the idea of challenging racism is worthwhile but this documentary is “perpetuating old cliches and focusing on physical appearance.” She questions why the show follows a non-Muslim woman rather than Muslim women who experience racism regularly.

Freeman changes her views by the end of the segment. Still, Sanghani is concerned that the Freeman’s “week as a Muslim doesn’t just depict the reality of life behind a hijab – it implies that all Asian women look a certain way, and sends out the damaging message that brownface, with all its historical and racist connotations, is acceptable.”

Row arises over plans for a mosque in a Jewish London neighbourhood

The Centre for Islamic Enlightening, a Shia Muslim organization, bought the Grade II (meaning second tier of historical importance) Golders Green Hippodrome building and intends to use it as a mosque and community center. Most recently the hippodrome was used as an evangelical church.

Residents of Golders Green, a London neighbourhood with a large Jewish presence, have voiced opposition to the mosque. An online petition against the building’s repurposing received more than 5,000 signatures.

Some of the objections have focused on the possibility of traffic and parking problems but others are directly Islamophobic. One resident wrote, “This is going to force the Jewish population to run away, and make this beautiful neighbourhood too crowded with loads of burkas.”

Another person suggested that placing a Muslim institution in Golders Green would lead to anti-Jewish terrorism and violence and attract “undesirables” to the area.

A Reform rabbi in Golders Green, Mark Goldsmith, said that the Islamophobic comments were “threatening and misleading.”

Ahmed al-Kazemi, spokesperson for the Centre for Islamic Enlightening, said, “There might be people who don’t like us, but we don’t feel threatened. I have lived in Golders Green for 15 years, I have a Jewish neighbour and a Christian neighbour, and they are my brothers. I would invite people who don’t know us, and maybe have said something nasty about us, to come and meet us, and have a cup of tea or share a meal.”

 

Hate crimes against UK mosques double between 2016 and 2017

Hate crimes against British mosques doubled in the period between March and June of last year and the same time period this year. This may be related to several high-profile, ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks.

Hate crimes at or near mosques have ranged to vandalism of vehicles to bomb threats to violent assaults on worshippers. The greatest increase in hate crimes was seen in Greater Manchester and the second highest increase was in London.

A spokesperson for the home office responded, “all forms of hate crime are completely unacceptable and the UK has some of the strongest laws in the world to tackle it.”

Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama, an anti-hate crime organisation that focuses on supporting the Muslim community, said: “Political events have supercharged the sense of confidence in sections of our population which probably held those [extremist] views and didn’t voice them before, but felt confident in voicing them over the last few years. We have seen a rise in anti-Muslim extremism and far-right activity online, with a very slow, dinosaur approach from social media companies to take off hate, and an utter denial for three or four years that this was their responsibility.”

Mughal also noted that Muslim terrorism is correlated with hate crimes against Muslims. He argues it is critical to reduce these terrorist attacks.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the crimes should be “met with the full force of the law.” Rudd also announced a new online hate crime reporting tool which hopefully will encourage more victims to report hate crimes.

The data comes form the British police and was obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the British Press Association.

Study finds British Muslim schools’ uniforms policy often require girls to wear the hijab

The National Secular Society found that 59 out of the 142 Islamic schools that accept girls have a compulsory hijab policy. Hijab refers to Islamic standards of modesty, but is being used in the articles summarised below specifically to refer to the hair-covering practice of girls. Three of the schools which require hijab receive state funding. The National Secular Society opposed these school polices and say it is duty of the British government to protect the liberty of these students.

The organisation wrote a letter raising concerns about this issue. The letter is co-signed by feminists from “Muslim backgrounds, ” including activist Sara Khan and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

The Bradford Council for Mosques responded to this finding saying that wearing the hijab should not be compulsory for school uniforms. Spokesman Ishriaq Ahmed said, “People should have choices without the fear of being criticised…No child should be forced to do anything.”

The controversy over required hijab in dress codes follows closely after a controversy over allowing girls to wear hijab. The Sunday Times surveyed primary schools in England and found that 20% of primary schools “allow the hijab” in their uniform policies.

Gina Khan, a Birmingham children’s rights advocate, criticised the policy, saying, “Schools…need to support Muslim girls to have free choices, not to be set apart from other children.”

On the other side, Toby Howard, the Bishop of Bradford and an inter-faith leader, said, “this is a matter of religious identity not sexualisation.” The concern about sexualisation arises from the practice of starting to wear a headscarf post-puberty. But Howard noted that is not necessarily the case, as girls may choose to where the headscarf to “look like their mums.”

Report on racism in the British criminal justice system finds surge in Muslim prison population

Labour MP David Lammy authored a report which found a surge in the Muslim prison population and found lack of data on why this population has surged. The report was commissioned by David Cameron in 2016. There has been a 50% rise in the share of prisoners who are Muslim in only ten years. Muslims are only 5% of the overall British population but 15% of the prison population.

Lammy notes that the trend is difficult to trace back to its origins because data is not collected on the religious identities of defendants while still in trial. So, it is unclear if the disparity arises in arrests or in sentencing.

Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman David Isaac stressed that the lack of explanation should signal that “we need more transparent data published.”

Dr Zubaida Haque, a researcher for the think tank The Runnymede Trust, said terror convictions cannot account for the size of the rise. Dr Haque also raised concern about Islamophobia within the prison system and in the criminal justice system more broadly.

British leaders are concerned about anti-Muslim sentiment following the Parsons Green Attack

Some British leaders and public figures have responded to the recent terrorist attack in the London Underground in relation to British Muslim communities.

The former head of the UK’s domestic security service, Eliza Manningham, criticized the Islamophobic related to the recent attack on the London Underground at Parsons Green.

Manningham said that Donald Trump had used the incident to promote the Muslim ban, which has negative consequences for security. Trump linked the two concepts in a tweet. Manningham said, “If you ban that particular ethnicity and religion wholesale — which he hasn’t quite done, but he’s more or less done — why would you as an American Muslim, or a Muslim somewhere else in the world, offer to an American government with that [President] at the head, intelligence that might be life-saving?”

She brought attention to the (paraphrased) 2011 words of a Muslim security agent who said that he was inspired to work for MI5 because he could save lives, counteracting the wickedness sometimes done in the name of Allah.

Sean O’Grady, the managing editor of the British newspaper the Independent, writes that blaming refugees for terrorism is counter-productive, leading to further radicalisation. He notes that many newspapers focused on the foster-care status of the attackers, which reinforces the idea that “terrorists are in the midst of these refugees.”

Terrorists are linked in this discourse to Islam. While there is some connection to Islam, O’Grady says that Islam is generally peaceful and the focus on a single violent action is unreasonable. He points out that terrorism occurs through many means and is not dependent on the presence of refugees.

The Muslim Council of Britain’s Secretary General, Harun Khan, condemned the attack and asked for anyone with information to assist the police. Khan also alluded to the dangers of Islamophobia following the attack, saying, “We do not yet know the identity or motivation of the attackers, but whatever it is, we must not allow them to achieve their ultimate aim – to drive a wedge between fellow citizens in our society.”

Prominent Muslim clerics form national council

Senior Muslim Imams are creating a national body to promote an understanding of Islam that reflects British values. Qari Asim, a prominent British Imam of a Leeds mosque, said the community needs a central authority to deal with doctrinal, theological, and social issues.

Asim said, “The attempt is to embed Islam in a 21st-century British context. It’s about contextualising Islam in Britain.”

The national body will not be state-backed, which will help it maintain credibility. The body would supplement the Muslim Council of Britain which does not determine religious doctrine.

Asim related the need for theological clarity to the dangers of radicalisation. He hopes the new body can show that the Muslim community is actively and resolutely against terrorism, which is needed especially after the terrorist attacks in Spain.

British Muslim responses to Barcelona terrorist attack

After terrorist attacks in the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Cambrils, British Muslims have responded in various ways. Independent British Muslim journalist, Abbas Nasir, noted that Barcelona was attacked despite its previous strong opposition to the Iraq war. For him, this indicates that terrorism is not about the West but about “spiritually defunct” individual Jihadis.

Leading Britain’s Conversation radio host, Maajid Nawaz, compared the Spanish terrorist attacks to the Charlottesville’s white supremacist violence. He said that people “don’t want to challenge neo-Nazi ideology and yet every time there’s a jihadist those on the far-right do want to talk about ideology.”

Farrukh Younus, the article’s author, decries U.S. President Trump’s false story about General Pershing deterring terrorism by shooting perpetrators with pigs blood. Younus writes, “It is a sad day when the President of the United States needs to understand that pigs are not a ‘Muslim-kryptonite.'”

Younus suggests that Muslims should be naturally against terrorism. As terrorism contradicts “Prophet Muhammad’s own design for city living: a place where people of all faith, can live together in peace.”

He also notes that Las Ramblas, the name of the road on which the terrorist attack occurred, has an Arabic origin meaning “river bed that is dry.” Following on this, he writes, “these terrorists who casually took innocent lives, harming others, have an empty, dry soul, devoid of the spirit that gives life beauty, meaning or purpose.”

“The Missing Muslims” report discusses public benefit of enfranchising British Muslims

British non-profit, Citizens UK, published a report called, “The Missing Muslims: Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All.” The report was based on the work of an interfaith commission, convened by Citizens UK. The study included public hearings, roundtable discussions, and closed discussion with various stakeholders, both Muslim and not. A Muslim Leadership Group and Muslim Youth Leadership Group were consulted. The report is not clear about which groups made which suggestions but tries to summarise the ideas of the Muslim communities and other stakeholders.

Muslim involvement in public life is beneficial to all, says the report. Public life is understood to include civic engagement, public service delivery, the ability to be part of a “cohesive and strong society,” and opportunities to share ideas.

The study finds that Muslims are not active in British civil society which is a “growing problem.” Muslims have been involved in some important initiatives to serve the public good, such as the British Islamic Medical Association and the Ramadan Tent Project which invites homeless and other non-Muslims to engage in dialogue and eat with Muslims; however, in many ways, Muslims are excluded from public life.

Some problems with Muslim/non-Muslim interaction were acknowledged. Diversity within the British Muslim community is too often ignored, which contributes to polarisation and the us/them dichtomy. Terrorist attacks, such as 9/11 and 7/7, have contributed to distrust of Muslim communities. This led to problematic government policy. The Prevent Strategy was often mentioned by Muslims in their studies. The aim to counter extremism was seen as legitimate by Muslim respondents but there was a concern for the effect on the safety of children, especially, who may be targetted by government suspicion. This is because the government often focuses its prevention in schools. There are also concerns about a general police state atmosphere, unclear definitions and roles within Prevent, the conflation of religion and culture with extremism, and the mistrust in public institutions as the strategy moves away from just security professionals.

Another problem is that housing is often segregated along ethnic lines. While Muslims may be integrated into their own ethnic minority communities, there needs to be better engagement across ethnic categories. Employment discrimination, especially in relation to Muslim women, is severe. There is also a need for more transparent and effective leadership training. Another issue is women’s rights. Muslim women often face cultural limitations to their engagement in public life.  Fears of discrimination discourage the participation of young British Muslims in political life.

The recommendations for non-Muslim aspects of society are as follows.

The commission suggests partnerships between local authorities and civil organisations to promote diverse leadership. They promote mentorship programmes for the Muslims community which would allow individuals to support each other in areas such as employment. They suggest that businesses should adopt anti-discrimination policies including name- and address-blind applications and unconcious bias and religious literacy training.

They suggest that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) focuses more on fair reporting of Muslims by assessing the relevance of stories, the appropriate use of statistics, and the fair inclusion of terminology (especially in regard to Arabic words which are often misused). The government should engage with certain organisations (the specific organisations are not listed in the report) which they seem to boycott in order to hear a broad range of views. The government should also listen to the many stakeholders related to the Prevent Strategy, even though (and especially because) stakeholders have serious criticisms of the strategy. The report also suggests that the government is more explicit in pursuing integration and anti-prejudice strategy.

For Muslim communities, the report suggests umbrella bodied can create a voluntary set of standards such as for mosque governance. These could include training, a stronger stance against discrimination against other religious groups, including diverse voices in mosque governance, fostering partnerships with other communities, and investing in British-born Imams.

A critique of the report by a Muslim PhD student in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Ali Meghji, says the report should be more focused on the needs of the Muslim community and not about the Muslim community being better “for all.” This can lead to blaming Muslims for terrorism and extremism.

Report on foreign funded Islamist Extremism in the UK

The right-leaning, British, foreign-affairs think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, published a report on foreign funding of Islamist Extremism. The report is summarised below.

The UK government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy acknowledged the role of foreign funding of Islamist extremism. In 2017, the UK formed a commission for countering extremism which did research on funding of extremism but has kept its findings secret, leading to a lack of publically available information.

Foreign funding to promote Islamic extremism in the UK has gone to religious institutions which host extremist preachers and distribute extremist literature. There is also concern about Islamist material in British independent (private) schools from the right-wing, Saudi, Salafi-Wahabi tradition.

Saudi Arabia has actively promoted its Wahabi version of Islam, including through providing funding to Muslims in Western countries. In the UK,  there are two major institutions that help distribute Wahabi ideas, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Muslim World League (MWL). Both organisations have hosted speakers affiliated with the controversial political organisation (sometimes labelled ‘terrorist group’), the Muslim Brotherhood. Bookshops linked to Saudi-funded mosques may also be distributing Salafist literature.

Full scholarships to the University of Medina encourage British young Muslims, hoping to become religious leaders, to go to this Wahabi institution instead of to South Asian seminaries.

The report concludes with a critique of British government policy. The UK is said to be doing less than other European countries, as reports of funding risks have not been published nor has there been a clear response to them. It is suggested that the UK could criminalise funding to certain institutions or funding from particular countries.