Tackling Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 2:11, 7 December 2023

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for proposing today’s important debate, and all my fellow members of the APPG on British Muslims for their work. I also thank somebody from the other place: Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the treasurer of the APPG, for her constant work, and for holding up a mirror to us all, but particularly to her own party, and for the courage and strength that she shows in doing that.

It is a privilege to listen to and take part in this emotive, powerful and timely debate. Islamophobia is a scourge on society. It is on all of us to tackle it, call it out, and educate. It is something close to my heart, and I declare my interest as the co-chair of the APPG on British Muslims. I firmly believe that it should not be left to British Muslims to tackle Islamophobia in this country. It is on all of us to build a fair, inclusive society, which we can all benefit from, and to highlight the huge contributions that Muslims make to our country.

I see those contributions in my constituency every single day, through inspirational charity work, public services and business. If anyone wants to see a great representation of how diversity is strength, I encourage people to look at the videos of Luton Town football club fans leaving Kenilworth Road in the constituency of my hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins, on news of our promotion to the premier league after the team’s historic win, taking them to Wembley. They entered Bury Park to the sound of dhol drums, Irish bands and people of all faiths and none, and of all backgrounds and ages, celebrating together as one. Multiculturalism is alive and kicking in towns such as Luton. It is a strength to be the town of many voices that we are.

I have been fortunate to meet fantastic people from across the country living their faith through action, and I learn something new with every meeting. When I visited the British Muslim Heritage Centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend Afzal Khan, I learned that an invention by Muslims is the thing that gets me going and powered throughout the day: coffee, which is possibly the greatest invention, especially for any parent or shift worker. I would like to spend more time talking about the great work being done in Luton North by our Muslim community, whether it is through organisations such as Inspire Eid, Discover Islam, Curry Kitchen and Faiths United, or internationally through Islamic Relief and the Muslim Council of Britain. Unfortunately, hate crime is so rife that less time is now afforded to the wonderful contributions of Muslim communities in our country. Instead, we have to spend so much time talking about the horrific impacts of Islamophobia, as well as other forms of discrimination.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that racists do not stay in their lanes. Hatred rears its ugly head in the form of misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, anti-black hatred as well as anti-disabled discrimination. In many instances, a perpetrator will not just limit their hatred to one protected characteristic. Often the victim will be picked out for more than one issue, facing a barrage of hatred for multiple parts of who they are. That is especially true for Muslim women, black Muslims and disabled Muslims. We have heard horrific examples of that from my hon. Friend Apsana Begum, who is a dear friend, just for doing her job.

According to statistics from the Home Office, hate crimes targeting Muslims rose by 25% last year, making Muslims the most targeted religious group. Almost half of religious hate crimes are directed towards Muslims, and with the atrocities taking place in the middle east we are seeing an even more horrific rise in Islamophobia. Tell MAMA reports an increase in recent incidents of Islamophobia in the UK of over 300%. That is concerning enough on its own, but it is only the tip of the iceberg, as the level of under-reporting and misreporting is likely to be considerable. That is why we desperately need the Government to adopt the cross-party definition of Islamophobia. That would be just a start in tackling the problem head on. How can the Government begin to tackle Islamophobia if they refuse to define what it is?

For years, we have heard that the Government would be looking into that. My hon. Friend Afzal Khan has pushed hard on it, as have others, yet we have heard nothing but silence—just more holding answers and delays as the incidence of Islamophobia continues to rise. That simply is not good enough, so will the Minister give assurances that an agreed definition of Islamophobia will be coming from the Government, and explain the real reason for the delays? I would also be grateful if she confirmed that the additional funding announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement rightly to tackle the rise in antisemitism, as Rehman Chishti raised, will be matched, or at least that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will fight for that, to tackle Islamophobia at the same rate?

While we wait, more people will be subjected to abuse, intimidation and violence without a standard that institutions and individuals are held to, and are accountable for. More than 15,746 attacks have been committed against Muslims since 2017. How many more must happen? How much more misery must be inflicted before the Government act? As my hon. Friend Naz Shah, an ardent campaigner against Islamophobia, has called for many times, when will the long-promised adviser on Islamophobia be announced and, importantly, worked with?

Let me turn to the intersectional aspects of Islamophobia, which is incredibly important, particularly for younger generations. We know the horrific impact and the rise in Islamophobic attacks following the description that the former Prime Minister and former Member for Uxbridge gave of veiled women as “letterboxes”. Research from Tell MAMA showed that Islamophobic incidents rose a shocking 375% the week after those comments from someone who clearly should have known better but sadly did not. Constituents in Luton North contacted me to share their anger and concern, which I shared, about the impact of the slurs against Pakistani men made by the former Home Secretary—or should I refer to her as another contender for the Tory leadership? Those slurs were founded not in evidence, but in fear- mongering and Islamophobia.

It is beholden on all of us in this place and in positions of power to lead by example, and to continue to learn, educate ourselves and challenge our own prejudices. Being anti-racist is something to consistently strive for. Many have a lot to learn still, especially when it comes to intersectionality and Islamophobia. Shockat Patel, a board member of Muslim Engagement and Development, reported:

“Lots of women say they are fearful of going out, just because of the fact they are wearing a headscarf. For those that wear a niqab they find it even more difficult because they know, almost certainly, that they are going to get verbal abuse.”

The visibility of Muslim women increases the chances of their being targeted for hatred. They experience the double whammy of misogyny and racism, often compounded when class is also factored in.

That discrimination creates barriers to talented, compassionate and experienced Muslim women in many walks of life, including in the workplace, accessing services —particularly important for Muslims with disabilities—representation in the media and, sadly, in politics, and in other forms of public life. We are all the worse off because we are missing out on the best and widest pool of talent. Representation matters, not just in politics but in every walk of life. The constant use of culture wars to stoke division and hatred by those in power, who should know better, is a dead end. It is detrimental to us all, especially those of us who want a fairer, safer and more inclusive society.

On the flipside, we can also see positive steps being taken internationally, leading to progress. This year, the United Nations held the first-ever International Day to Combat Islamophobia on 15 March 2023. That was after a resolution backed by 60 Muslim member states was passed by the UN General Assembly. The UN called on all UN member states to mark the day by recognising Islamophobia and working to combat it. Can the Minister tell us whether that was marked and recognised by the UK Government? If not, do they plan to do so next year?

The point I want to end on is that we can do better than this. If we are to build a safe, fair and inclusive country for all, we must do better, and that starts with the leadership of this country, and in particular the leadership of the Conservative Government, who have all too often been found wanting on the challenges of Islamophobia. Despite what some politicians and media outlets describe as “woke issues”, Islamophobia affects entire communities—our villages, towns and cities across the country and internationally. It is a poison that knows no boundaries.

We know that the world is an incredibly unstable and volatile place, especially for people of faith. The example of state-sanctioned Islamophobia that we see in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs is an affront to humanity. The reports of torture, imprisonment, killings and denial of people’s religion breaches multiple human rights laws, and it is genuinely welcome that the House is united in the condemnation of those atrocities. However, many residents in my constituency have contacted me, and I share their condemnation of senior members of the Netanyahu Government speaking about “flattening Gaza” or enacting “Gaza’s Nakba”. That is compounded by other dehumanising language, with Israel’s President claiming that there are no innocent civilians in Gaza.

When it comes to genocide, we look back at history. We even stand in this Chamber, and we utter the words, “Never again”, yet here we are, staring at it from afar, knowing that this tragedy is now the present for the Uyghurs and a real threat for the Palestinian people. If we are to avoid the further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, I urge the Minister to speak directly to their colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure that the UK backs the United Nations’ unprecedented calls to invoke article 99 of the UN charter for a ceasefire to protect civilian populations. We must ensure that we work as an international community and strain every sinew in the pursuit of peace, an urgent lasting ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, an end to the loss of innocent life and the freeing of hostages to ensure that the current atrocities being endured are no one else’s future.