Before I was elected, I was nervous about being a Muslim woman in the public eye. Growing up, I had seen the abuse that prominent British Muslims were subject to—I knew I would not be in for an easy ride. Today, I would like to say that I was wrong to be worried. When young Muslim girls ask me what it is like, I would like to say that there is nothing to worry about, that they would face the same challenges as their non-Muslim friends and colleagues. However, in truth, I cannot say that, because in my short time in Parliament, that is not my experience.
Let me read out a few examples. One person wrote to me to say, and I quote, “Sultana, you and your Muslim mob are a real danger to humanity.” Another wrote and said that I was a “cancer” everywhere I go, and soon, they said, “Europe will vomit you out.” A third called me a “terrorist sympathiser” and “scum of the earth”—and that is sanitising their unparliamentary language.
I have discovered that to be a Muslim woman, to be outspoken and to be left-wing is to be subject to this barrage of racism and hate. It is to be treated by some as if I were an enemy of the country that I was born in—as if I don’t belong. It was summed up by these words, in a hand-written letter, “If you can’t stand the racism, perhaps you would be happier going back to your country of origin—foreigner.” It is worse when I speak up for migrants’ rights, speak in support of the Palestinian people, or criticise Tony Blair for the war in Afghanistan. One abusive letter said, and I quote, “Our cities are full of Muslims. Send them to Pakistan.” Another suggested that I must support the Taliban—all because I am Muslim and against endless war.
This Islamophobia does not come from a vacuum. It is not natural or engrained; it is taught from the very top. These fires are fanned by people in positions of power and privilege. When a far-right online account targeted me with racist abuse, suggesting that Muslims were an invading army, a Conservative MP replied, not by calling it out for its racism, but by insulting me instead. When our England football stars were subjected to vile racism, in the Chamber I highlighted that the Prime Minister had fanned those flames by ridiculing Muslims and black people. At the Dispatch Box, the Minister told me to watch my tone.
Although none of that is nice, the worst effects of Islamophobia and racism are not just abusive language, but policies and political decisions. This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. That horrific act of mass murder cast a long shadow. The war on terror, launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in its wake, set a narrative that too many readily embraced. Muslims, wherever we are, were portrayed as a security threat in need of discipline and suppression. Abroad, that was the background to disastrous wars in the middle east. False links were drawn between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, providing false legitimacy to a war that had more to do with oil than the safety of British citizens.
At home, it meant the erosion of the civil liberties of all and the targeting of Muslims in particular, with policies such as the Prevent programme, which countless studies and human rights groups have demonstrated discriminates against Muslims, from young girls being referred to the programme simply for choosing to wear a hijab to a Muslim teen being questioned by anti-terrorism officers for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge. I knew about that at university, so I, too, feared speaking out in class. I held back where I might otherwise have criticised Blair and Bush for illegal wars.
Growing up, I might have hoped that things would be better, but if anything they have got worse. Today, our Prime Minister mocks Muslims as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. Far from scrapping Prevent, earlier this year his Government announced that a review of the programme would be led by William Shawcross, a man who once said:
“Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”
That appointment led dozens of human rights organisations, including the likes of Amnesty International and Liberty, to boycott the review, saying that it was just there to rubber-stamp the discriminatory programme.
Closer to home, things are not good either. My party has seemingly welcomed back a man who said that Muslims
“see the world differently from the rest of us”,
and that we are a “nation within a nation”. It has been silent after a Muslim colleague was cleared following vexatious claims and endured 18 months of horrendous Islamophobia. In a recent by-election, it supposedly had a senior source pit Muslims against Jews, demonising whole communities.
I have always known what it is like to face racism, and through my political life I have come to understand this bigotry better—to see it in its different forms and to recognise the need to confront and challenge it wherever it is found. Islamophobia is very real in Britain today. It is something that I know too well, but it cannot be defeated in isolation. The people spreading this hate target not just Muslims but black people, Jewish people, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, migrants and refugees. There is safety in solidarity, and it is only through uniting our struggles that we will defeat racism.