Tackling Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:28 pm on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 1:28, 7 December 2023

I am grateful to the all-party parliamentary group for British Muslims for reminding me before the debate that mine is the constituency with the 77th largest number of Muslims. They constitute about 13.5% of the population there—about 16,000 people. To put that in context, the Muslim population in my constituency is itself hugely diverse and has communities from Africa, Asia, the middle east and indeed from Europe. That is within a constituency where almost half the total population was born outside the UK. It is a very liberal and very tolerant constituency, and I have always been extremely proud to represent it and to live there in the heart of the community.

Unfortunately, however, even in normal times there are significant numbers of hate crimes. I am shocked that, nationally, 44% of all hate crimes are committed against Muslims. I am shocked that 42% of mosques have experienced some form of attack over the last three years. We have had incidents where women going about their ordinary business have had their headscarves pulled off and been abused. There is a great deal of what one might call casual—though by no means trivial—racism where, in the context of the neighbourly disputes that we all deal with as MPs, people’s religion is brought up, often from a position of entire ignorance. I am struck by the fact that quite a lot of non-Muslims are also subject to Islamophobic abuse, presumably on the grounds of their ethnicity.

Complacency is the enemy here; we need to educate people as much as we can, but we also need to punish people, and I am sure that all hon. Members present are working with their local police on tackling Islamophobia and hate crime. It is also the case that Muslim communities, who often are disproportionately in poor housing, suffering from poverty and other forms of injustice and living in overcrowded and damp conditions, are neglected and do not get their fair share of resources.

One particular type of discrimination is the lack of prayer space and community space. For many Muslim communities, the mosque is not just a place of prayer and worship, but an educational, social and cultural hub. Particularly in areas such as London, where land and property are hugely expensive, that is made very difficult. We live in straitened times but, through the lottery and other money, there is potential to provide that. However, increasingly I see Muslim communities not having the resources that they should have and being discriminated against in that way.

If that is the position in normal times, unfortunately the times we live in are worse than that because of the international situation. I will not go into detail, because the matter will be subject to the courts in due course, but an individual was arrested about 10 days ago for a series of attacks, over a period of a month or so, on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in west London. I have visited the major local mosques in my constituency, in White City and Shepherd’s Bush, and I am pleased to say that they have not been victims, but Acton mosque and other mosques in the area have suffered repeated and regular attacks to their premises.

In addition—this is of particular concern to me—the Palestinian mission was attacked on a number of occasions. Death threats were issued and there were attacks on property owned by the mission staff. I am very proud to have the Palestinian mission in Hammersmith, but there is an irony here that, because of the failure to recognise Palestine as a state, the mission lacks diplomatic status. Everybody refers to Dr Husam Zomlot, whom many of us know as the fantastic representative of Palestine in the UK, as “the ambassador”, and to the mission as “the embassy”, but it has been brought home to me very significantly that that is not the case.

I have written several times to the commander responsible for diplomatic protection, asking that diplomatic protection be granted to the mission, particularly at this difficult time and particularly when it has suffered a series—not one, but a series—of criminal damage attacks. I have not had a response to those letters. I know that my right hon. Friends the shadow Home Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary have also written to their counterparts raising those concerns, so they have been raised at the most senior level. It is frankly outrageous, when tensions are running so high and when any embassy of any other country would receive full diplomatic protection, that that is not being granted. The Palestinian mission represents all Palestinians irrespective of religion, but there is undoubtedly an Islamophobic element in the flavour of the attacks that have taken place.

I have said that the enemy here is complacency. We must take Islamophobia seriously. We must at all times be aware that its impact on our community is significant in people’s everyday lives. That is equally true of anti- semitism and other forms of hatred based on race, religion and other protected characteristics; it is an insidious and a growing part of our society, but it is disproportionately affecting Muslim communities. Even in the most liberal and tolerant parts of our community, that is a feature that we must resist. I hope that the Minister responds to this debate not just with warm words but with action, funding and a real determination to take Islamophobia seriously, because it is a constant and ever-present threat within many of our communities.