THE Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU) has seen a sustained increase in Islamophobia since October 2023 including a number of horrific incidents and extreme cases of discrimination.

IRU data shows a 236% increase in case reports between January and April 2024. This, however, does not represent the full extent of the rise in Islamophobia as a reluctance among Muslim communities to report such incidents means many cases go unrecorded.

This is often due to a distrust of authorities stemming from media and political demonisation of Muslims and a broader failure to call out Islamophobia. The impact of this on Muslim communities is substantial and many feel unsafe and unheard.

Though Islamophobia has notably increased in recent months, it has been a growing problem for some time. According to police records, 44% of religious hate crimes in 2022/23 were Islamophobic, significantly higher than any other religious group.

Yet the lack of an official definition of Islamophobia means that such crimes are not effectively recognised, reported, and addressed. Though the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims adopted a formal definition of Islamophobia in 2018, the Conservative government has consistently refused to accept it as they believe it would curtail free speech.

The IRU findings highlight the need for Muslims to get involved in electoral politics by forming cross-communal alliances and supporting candidates who are explicitly opposed to Islamophobia, as a way to tackle discrimination, ensure their political representation and safeguard their rights and protections.

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This is crucial in the current political climate as the recent surge in Islamophobia is being facilitated by the media and politicians against the backdrop of the genocide in Gaza, by which Muslims are being represented as a threat, fuelling anti-Muslim opinion.

Negative media and political representations of Muslims and pro-Palestine activism have impacted public opinion to evoke hostile views, as Muslims are increasingly linked to extremism and violence. Research shows that despite Muslims being less supportive of violence than the general population, 43% of the public believe that the association between Muslims with violence and terrorism is true, while 56% agree that Islam poses a serious threat to Western civilisation.

As the association between Muslims and extremism has been magnified in media and politics, Islamophobia has increased in a range of public settings since October 7. In December 2023, a 14-year-old neurodiverse student was the victim of Islamophobia at a college in Gloucestershire. During a science lesson, the victim - the sole Muslim in the class - was deeply disturbed after the class teacher said that Muslims are “inherently aggressive people”.

When asked by the college to apologise, the teacher did not see her comments as discriminatory and tried to reason, that “half of Muslims are inherently aggressive; the other half are not”.

With the lack of effective mechanisms for recognising and sanctioning Islamophobia, the victim received an underwhelming response from the college, for which the IRU stepped in and assisted the victim in navigating the appeal process.

Islamophobia is increasingly being displayed and legitimised by politicians to impact public opinion. Recent polling revealed that 58% of Conservative Party members believe that Islam is a threat to the British way of life.

The Muslim Council of Britain recently called for an investigation into the Conservative Party’s structural Islamophobia, saying it was “institutional, tolerated by the leadership and seen as acceptable by great swathes of the party membership”. This is evident in their political rhetoric and counter-extremism measures that seemingly target Muslims.

In March this year, Michael Gove unveiled a controversial new government definition of extremism which targeted a number of mainstream Muslim civil society organisations. With existing measures like Prevent already disproportionately targeting Muslims, Amnesty International UK warned that “this expansion will lead to further misuse and discrimination”. In singling out Muslims, the government’s counter-extremism agenda has reinforced the association of Muslims with extremism and violence and vilifies a specific religious group to cause divisions in society.

The equation of Muslims with extremism has also been played out in the inflammatory and conspiratorial rhetoric of a number of Tory MPs, specifically in response to pro-Palestine activism.

(Image: PA)

Former home secretary Suella Braverman (above) wrote that “Islamists” had taken control of the country, former Tory MP Lee Anderson suggested that Sadiq Khan had given the capital away to his “Islamist” mates, and Liz Truss warned of a “radical Islamic party” winning the Rochdale by-election.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to call Anderson’s comments Islamophobic, reflecting the government’s opposition to the definition of Islamophobia for which they refuse to use the term and have been reluctant to call it out.

Sunak himself has associated Muslims and pro-Palestine activists with extremism. The Prime Minister has not only sought to crack down on pro-Palestine protests through the Criminal Justice Bill but has himself framed activists as “extremists” and told senior police officers that the UK is descending into “mob rule”. When such rhetoric is emerging from the government itself, Islamophobia is being legitimised and will only increase.

The media have also played a large part in contributing to anti-Muslim opinion and hostility through biased coverage. A large proportion (55%) of the British public get their information about Islam from the media, by which coverage of events in the Muslim world and negative portrayals of British Muslims fuel Islamophobia.

While Muslims have long been associated with terrorists, the Centre for Media Monitoring found that between 2015 and 2019, more than half of the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” were used with the terms “Islam” or “Muslim.”

More recently, the British media’s coverage of Gaza and pro-Palestine activism has done more to link Muslims to extremism and violence. Mainstream media outlets have displayed bias through selective coverage, favouring the Israeli narrative which dehumanises Palestinians and depicts them as terrorists in contrast to Israeli “victims”.

Muslim political participation has also been framed by the media as something to be feared. The election of Muslim councillors and their inclusion of the Palestinian cause in their messaging has been attacked by media outlets like the Daily Mail and The Telegraph.

As the UK Government and many MPs have refused to call out Israeli war crimes, Muslim candidates and campaign groups have raised this vital issue and gained support from Muslim and non-Muslim voters alike in standing up for social justice.

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Yet both the media and politicians have framed Muslim political participation and anti-genocide advocacy as a move towards sectarian politics and a threat to British democracy.

Muslim political participation is essential to ensure their interests are heard and represented. Despite the sharp rise in Islamophobia, the current government have done little to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. The government’s anti-Muslim-hatred working group has not met since 2020 and as its chair, Akeela Ahmed, has said, “politicised discussions about terminology have stalled the real work needed to address prejudice, bigotry and discrimination against British Muslims”.

However, Islamophobia is not limited to the Conservative Party and will only continue through the government should Labour come to power. Both the 2022 Forde report and Labour Muslim Network found that Labour have a problem with, and does not take, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism seriously.

In the run-up to elections, the Labour Party have deselected and demonised Black and Muslim candidates including Faiza Shaheen and Diane Abbot (above) - for which the party has been called out for “systemic racism” and “factionalism in the Labour Party”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer himself has adopted policies and views that align with the Tory right and discriminate against Muslims. He has committed to keeping the Conservatives’ controversial two-child benefit limit which is one of the biggest drivers of child poverty and disproportionately affects Muslim families.

Following Michael Gove’s (below) accusations of extremism, Starmer has also adopted a policy of non-engagement with the Muslim organisations Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) and the Muslim Association of Britain.

Furthermore, his position on Gaza - which is echoed by the shadow cabinet - has shown a disregard for Palestinians, from denying Israeli human rights violations to sabotaging the SNP's vote for a ceasefire in parliament.

We need to ensure that those in positions of power work to tackle all forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia. With Islamophobia present in both the Labour and Conservative parties, Muslims need to engage in electoral politics and support candidates who are opposed to it so that their communities are supported.