Islamophobia Surges Amid Lockdown Warn Civic Leaders in North of England
Fears new Covid-19 restrictions announced on eve of Eid al-Adha may exacerbate community divisions
By Helen Pidd, Josh Halliday, Amy Walker and Nazia Parveen
Wed 5 Aug 2020 17.46 BSTLast modified on Thu 6 Aug 2020 04.37 BST
Zulfi Karim likes to claim there is no prouder Yorkshireman than him. As deputy lieutenant of West Yorkshire, he is the Queen’s representative in God’s Own County. “I carry the sword, I wear the badge. I’m Queen and country, you don’t get more patriotic than me,” he said this week from his home in the Bradford suburb of Saltaire, where he is recovering from the after-effects of coronavirus.
Born in Britain to Pakistani parents, Karim has become part of the Yorkshire establishment. As comfortable in a flat cap as a crocheted prayer cap, he is president of the Bradford Council for Mosques, ran the city’s World Curry Festival and is the director of an NHS health initiative trying to improve outcomes in the UK’s youngest city. He also sits on the council’s outbreak control board, having privileged access to the latest data on the pandemic.
It is from this rarified position that Karim worries the racialisation of the Covid-19 crisis could damage community relations so badly that he now fears for the “Zulfis of tomorrow”.
“For the last 50 years we have come together as harmoniously as one community and one country. A lot of progress has been made but now we almost feel like we have put the brakes on and we are about to slip back,” he said. “White communities are starting to see Covid as a ‘brown problem’.”
The Guardian spoke to civic leaders from across Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire who said they were concerned about a rise in community tension following the new lockdown measures, announced on the eve of Eid al-Adha last Thursday, which many said had prompted a surge in online anti-Muslim sentiment.
Tell MAMA, the monitoring group, said it had seen a 40% increase year-on-year in online Islamophobia during lockdown – to about 150 reports a week – and had been receiving reports of friction between communities in northern England since last week.
Anti-Muslim sentiment surged online during lockdown and steadily manifested in real-life incidents as soon as the restrictions were eased, according to Iman Atta, the group’s director.
She said Muslim people had been spat at and taxi drivers called terrorists and accused of spreading the disease. Fuelling the division was online misinformation, such as a misleading but widely shared picture of a mosque in one northern town on Friday, purportedly showing hundreds of worshippers not observing physical distancing. In fact, the same gathering from a different angle showed people standing about two metres apart.
In Leicester, police said there were 208 racially aggravated incidents in July, up from 156 last year — largely the result of “neighbour disputes or general anti-social behaviour”.
In Bolton, a Conservative councillor was suspended hours after the new restrictions were announced for posting on Facebook: “Don’t penalise me over the increase in Covid cases in Greater Manchester. I’ve stuck to the rules for four long months. Blame the 48,000 illegal immigrants, the BAME community and the morons that never obey the rules.”
There was no reprimand for Tory MP Craig Whittaker when he said it was “the BME communities that are not taking this seriously enough” in his Calder Valley constituency.
Karim said Whittaker should resign: “If we are not going to call it out and [we are going to] look the other way then the future is not rosy when it comes to harmonious communities living together… What it’s going to do is make it more difficult for the Zulfis of tomorrow to make their own way up and be part of mainstream society.”
The leaders of Bradford, Burnley and Oldham say their areas have come a long way since the race riots of summer 2001. But Wajid Khan, the mayor of Burnley, said some of the anti-Muslim sentiment he had seen online since the lockdown was reminiscent of language used nearly 20 years ago.
“There’s definitely been an increase in online abuse towards BAME communities. It really worries me, this whole social media phenomenon. Any tension will rise much quicker these days,” said Khan, the youngest mayor in Burnley’s history.
He said the timing of the announcement by the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, on the eve of Eid al-Adha, had given the impression that “everyone will think it’s a Muslim problem … What about the Liverpool and Leeds fans [celebrating in large numbers last month]? Look at some of the pubs, look at Bournemouth beach. You can’t put this down to one religion or one community.”
Only the day before, Khan said, he had been trying to convince people to contact loved ones by phone rather than in person – but their response was: “Whatever I do I’m always going to get blamed.” He added: “There’s a feeling of helplessness, that you can’t do anything right.”
In Rochdale, council officials are considering establishing an online public information campaign reminding people there will be a “zero tolerance” towards racism.
Sara Rowbotham, the council deputy leader and former sexual health worker who blew the whistle on grooming in the town, said the northern restrictions had emboldened people to post racist messages online. After calling out online abuse, Rowbotham woke up on Wednesday to two angry emails from rightwing people. “I’ve not had stuff like that since Three Girls,” she said, referring to the acclaimed BBC drama on the Rochdale grooming scandal, in which she has the starring role.
Rowbotham said councillors were keenly aware of the potential for long-term community division over coronavirus and were monitoring the situation. “The vast majority of people across the borough are not racist,” she said. “But there are definite pockets of racism that rear their heads every now and again and there’s potential for it to become more volatile.”
Some public figures in the north of England, however, have played down the threat of online abuse directed towards BAME communities. Mark Burns-Williamson, West Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, said although he had been monitoring social media “quite closely” in the past few days, he had noticed just “the odd comment”.
West Yorkshire police said there had not been an increase in racially motivated incidents since lockdown restrictions were reintroduced in Bradford. “We are continuing to closely monitor this and listen to any concerns from the communities,” they said.
Mohammed Riaz, chairman of Bradford Conservatives, said tensions were no more pronounced than usual. “There’s always bits of moans and groans, but I don’t think anything substantial or anything out of the ordinary,” he said.
In Calderdale, where restrictions were re-tightened last week after an uptick in infections in a multicultural area of central Halifax, leader Tim Swift said remarks by Whittaker, the local MP, “heighten the risks from both sides. If people from the BAME community are feeling blamed it’s another little barrier to coming forward and saying ‘I’ve got symptoms’ and getting tested. But also I worry that it encourages complacency in other areas.”
Susan Hinchliffe, the Labour leader of Bradford council, said she had received emails “vehemently disagreeing” with a statement she gave on Friday in which she lambasted those using the local restrictions around Covid “to promote division and disharmony”, insisting that those more vulnerable to the virus were poor rather than one particular ethnicity, and often working in low paid, frontline jobs. But more people wrote to offer their support “and that’s what keeps me going”, she insisted.
There is a concern that unless a concerted effort is made to bring communities together, longer-term tensions will rise to the surface as the economic pain unfolds in the months head, resulting in more job losses and further hardship in already-struggling areas.
“We’re in a different dynamic now. There will be frustrations that are already creating tensions,” said Atta. “The further division that is being created in our society is concerning and quite problematic.”
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Culled from The Guardian UK.