The UK Government created a working group in 2012, bringing together independent Muslim experts and a range of different government departments to identify challenges around Islamophobia.
The group has worked on public transport awareness, misrepresentation in the media and protecting mosques from attacks, among many other things.
“Young Muslims would call the helpline and talk about the difficulties they faced in their lives, at work, in finding a job – like the women who wore the hijab and who would not be called for a second interview,” says Akeela Ahmed, former director of the Muslim Youth Helpline and member of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, which is run by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
In the aftermath of the 2010 General Election, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, then Minister of State for Faith and Communities, worked hard to form a government working group on anti-Muslim hatred. The aim was to challenge Islamophobia and address the issues Muslims in the UK faced because of it.
The Conservative minister had warned that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner-table test” and that the government’s failure to engage with Muslim communities was undermining Britain’s fight against extremism. Despite her resigning in 2014 over the British government’s “morally indefensible” policy on the escalation of the Israel–Gaza conflict, the working group remained in place.
Equalities campaigner Akeela Ahmed has been in the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group since its inception in 2012.
She says it was created with the recognition that there was a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime that was going unreported to the police.
“There were also broader issues such as sentiments expressed in the media and manifested through discrimination in the workplace or university,” she says.
“Much of the work we do is about raising [anti-Muslim hatred] issues with government departments and helping them address it within their own work,” says Akeela.
The working group is based in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and includes officials from there, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Foreign Office and the Crown Prosecution Service.
The group’s priority areas are:
One successful initiative of the group was petitioning the Home Office for funding to protect mosques from attacks around the UK. There had been a sharp spike in incidents as the result of Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013 by Islamist extremists.
The group put forward a proposal stating that mosques needed funding to secure buildings from attack, as they did not have the necessary infrastructure for basic security – there were 43 attacks on mosques in the year after Lee Rigby’s murder.
The Home Office agreed to allocate £2 million over three years for the protection of faith institutions. This was increased after the attack on Finsbury Park mosque last year, when a van ploughed into worshippers leaving the mosque.
“I think it worked well because there was a tangible demonstrable need and a practical solution to that need that the government could take on board,” says Akeela.
Another achievement has been to provide start-up funding for Tell MAMA, a national UK project which records and measures anti-Muslim incidents across the nation.
The working group also worked with then-Home Secretary Theresa May to make it compulsory for all police forces to flag anti-Muslim hate crime separately, in the same way as antisemitic hate crime.
“In the past, the only hate crime that was disaggregated was antisemitism and we pushed for the police to record anti-Muslim hate crime, so that we would be able to access police data on hate crimes against Muslims,” states Akeela.
The initiative has been rolled out slowly and police in the UK have until 2018 to implement it. Akeela says that in the regions that have done so, such as Bedfordshire, it has worked well and the data has given more insight on how best to challenge anti-Muslim hate.
Another aim of the working group has been to educate people in schools and communities on the consequences of hatred, via the Remembering Srebrenica project.
“It may seem to that to the outside world, things are not happening or that members are not doing anything even though we are. I think there was perhaps an expectation that things would change quickly and that’s been difficult to do,” admits Akeela.
Managing the expectations of communities and what could actually be done by the government working group is a constant challenge for the members.
Akeela says the massive nature of the government, with different non-homogenous departments holding different priorities, is not always understood from the outside.
Both communication with Muslim communities and a lack of time appear to have played a role. While the working group has not measured impact formally, Akeela says they do measure the priorities they hold against the outcomes achieved.
It can be a challenge to work with some government departments, which do not always understand the role they could play in combating Islamophobia alongside the other sets of priorities they hold.
One of the main tasks for the working group has been addressing the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media. Akeela says speaking to representatives in the media was a learning curve for her “as I found out how little they understood what anti-Muslim hatred was”.
The working group is still working with Independent Press Standards Association (IPSO) to see how the media could responsibly report on Muslims.
While IPSO has a code of practice in a charter that is signed by media organisations, discrimination only applies to an individual rather than a group or community – which limits its effectiveness.
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
In November, IPSO cleared a column in The Sun, written by Trevor Kavanagh, which referred to “the Muslim problem”. In a decision that prompted anger from groups representing Jews and Muslims, it ruled that while his use of phrase was “capable of causing serious offence”, he had not discriminated against an individual and therefore did not breach discrimination clauses in the editor’s code of practice.
“Communities are taking [negative media portrayals] in their stride and pushing forward their own narrative as well. I think that’s made more of a difference that us sitting down with editors and explain to them what anti-Muslim hate crime is,” says Akeela.
The growing body of research by Cambridge University, the Muslim Council of Britain, think tank DEMOS and other NGOs demonstrating how Muslims are portrayed in the media have also pushed things forward.
“It feels quite obvious if you’re a Muslim but unless you have the evidence to back it up, claims of negative press coverage of Muslims can be dismissed. Twitter and Facebook are more aware of anti-Muslim hatred and are doing more to address harassment on their platforms,” she says.
She is aware that the working group would benefit if the Muslim community had more of a voice in it, but she says this is complicated by how diverse the community is and the nature of a governmental working group.
“Muslims don’t have anything like a secretariat that is funded by a broad range of community organisations – if we did have some of that capacity from within the Muslim community to help push things forward on a political level, that would be really useful,” says Akeela.