Tackling Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:53 pm on 7 December 2023.

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Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South 2:53, 7 December 2023

In a debate on Islamophobia in Parliament two years ago, I spoke up about my experience as a left-wing Muslim woman in the public eye. I spoke up about the barrage of hate I receive on a daily basis. I talked about being called a “cancer” and being told that my

“Muslim mob is a danger to humanity”,

as well as about how people tell me to “go back” to my own country. That is a difficult claim to get my head around, I must admit, since I was born in Birmingham. I spoke about the worst effects of Islamophobia, and about how they are shaped in this very Chamber at that very Dispatch Box in policy and political decisions, from attacks on civil liberties at home to disastrous decisions to wage wars abroad. I would like to say that in the two years since, things have changed and people have listened, and that people take Islamophobia more seriously, but I cannot. If anything, things have got worse.

In recent weeks, as I have stood up for the rights of the Palestinian people, I have experienced a new wave of hate. Because I am a Muslim who supports the rights of the Palestinians, far-right trolls widely share claims that I am a Hamas supporter, repeating the allegations no matter how many times I condemn Hamas’s killing of civilians. Because I am a Muslim, when I speak up about Palestinian children being indiscriminately slaughtered, people write to me telling me, “Keep your effing mouth shut, you Muslim bitch.” And because I am a Muslim, when I called for a ceasefire and an end to the bloodshed—a view supported by 76% of the British public, but not this House—someone wrote to me saying it was me who was “anti-democratic” and “anti-British”, and I was again told to “go home.”

I want to live in a country that looks after the poor and the vulnerable at home, and respects human rights and international law abroad, and where the NHS is fully funded, homes are not mouldy or unaffordable, everyone can go to university without having to worry about debt, and every single person can put food on the table and keep a roof above their head. But for some people, the colour of my skin and the religion I choose to follow mean I am beyond the pale. That is difficult to process, but what makes it harder is knowing that that racism does not come from a vacuum.

As I said in the debate two years ago, that hate is not innate or natural; it is taught from the very top by people in positions of power and privilege. For example, despite a Home Office report saying that most child sexual abuse gangs are made up of white men and there is no evidence that grooming gangs are disproportionately black or Asian, earlier this year the then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, falsely said that grooming gangs were “almost all British-Pakistani”—a claim so strikingly wrong that even the press regulator called it out.

It is not just politicians fanning the flames of hate. Shortly after I gave my speech, the Muslim Council of Britain Centre for Media Monitoring published a report on the British media’s coverage of Muslims and Islam, analysing almost 48,000 articles and 5,500 broadcast clips. It paints a very disturbing picture of how Muslims are portrayed in the media. Articles antagonistic to Muslims were found to outnumber supportive articles by a ratio of seven to one. Islamophobic tropes were pervasive, with The Spectator, for example, asking “tough questions” such as

“can Muslims learn to put country before faith community?”

The report found that false anti-Muslim generalisations often go unchallenged on broadcast media. Recently, we have seen Islamophobia spouted by journalists, such as the newspaper editor who said that

“much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult”.

With that steady drip-feeding of hate, it is little wonder that racists tell me I am not British. That is the message right-wing outlets publish, with dog whistles and sometimes even foghorns. But as I said, the worst effect of this hate is not abusive language, but policy and political decisions, and we see that today.

Earlier this year, a long-awaited review into the deeply controversial and widely discredited Prevent programme was published. The review was led by someone whose anti-Muslim views were already well-known and who had said, for example:

Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”

That person had been hand-picked for the job by a Government led by a man who mocked Muslim women as “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”. It is little wonder that the review totally ignored the programme’s discriminatory impact and undermining of democratic freedoms.

Of course, Islamophobia is not confined to this country; we see dehumanisation at home and abroad. Even liberal British newspapers do not talk about Palestinian children, instead referring—I quote a recent article—to

“Palestinians aged 18 and under”.

The Palestinian people as a whole are often depicted and treated as terrorists, deserving not of rights and self-determination, but of suppression or even elimination. In India, Prime Minister Modi has introduced discriminatory anti-Muslim legislation and anti-Muslim mob violence is becoming normalised. In China, shocking human rights abuses and the suppression of Uyghur Muslims are well documented.

In the US, we have seen horrifying attacks in recent weeks. The six-year-old Palestinian American Wadea al-Fayoume was killed after being stabbed 26 times, with his landlord charged with the boy’s murder, and three young Palestinians were gunned down in what is believed to be hate crime, for the apparent wrongdoing of speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs. Across Europe, the Islamophobic far right is on the rise, from the hate-filled and openly Islamophobic Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Le Pen’s continued advance in France.

Much closer to home, as I discussed in the debate two years ago, I still have serious concerns about my party’s handling of Islamophobia. The Forde report into the Labour party, commissioned by the party’s national executive committee and carried out by the distinguished Martin Forde KC, published its final report in summer last year.

It found that:

“the Party was…operating a hierarchy of racism or of discrimination with other forms of racism and discrimination”— such as Islamophobia and anti-black racism—

“being ignored.”

Martin Forde reiterated that view this year with a stark warning that still has not been listened to. That is why I, along with the Labour Muslim Network, have called for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Labour party.

Today, both Islamophobia and antisemitism are rising sharply across Britain, but they are not disconnected struggles or competing concerns, as some people like to portray them. The far-right thugs who attack one group of us today will go for the other group tomorrow. The politicians who whip up hatred against migrants now will want other scapegoats in the future, and history tells us that Jewish people and Muslims are often at the top of their list. For me, the fight against Islamophobia and the fight against antisemitism are part of the same struggle: the fight to live in the world where everyone, no matter their race or religion, is able to live in dignity and freedom. I believe that we are made stronger not by not pitting our communities against each other, but by uniting our struggles and finding solidarity and safety.