For many people the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London last month was an historic moment. Not only is he the first Muslim to lead a major Western city, but his victory is proof that there are opportunities for British Muslims to reach the top in this country.
The mayoral campaign itself was marred by accusations of ethnic smears and having a Muslim mayor of London will not spell the end of Islamophobia in this country, but for those who believe in multiculturalism it’s a welcome boost at a time when the belief that we do actually live in a more tolerant world is being shaken.
In the US, where the levels of muck-raking and personal vitriol among would-be Presidential nominees reached a new low, we had Donald Trump, who in less than six months time could be the most powerful man on the planet, calling for foreign Muslims to be temporarily banned from entering the country following the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Here in the UK, the Labour Party has found itself under fire over allegations of anti-Semitism within its ranks. Earlier this year the party revealed it had suspended 18 members for racism or anti-Semitism since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, including Bradford West MP Naz Shah and former mayor of London Ken Livingstone.
The Labour leader has since set up a wider inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, which is being led by civil rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti. And while such a review is welcome the fact it even needs to happen is worrying.
Equally troubling is the recent news that the number of religious hate crimes recorded by Yorkshire’s biggest police force has risen dramatically in the last two years.
West Yorkshire Police says the overall rise in the number of hate crimes recorded for this period is largely down to an administrative change which means reported incidents are more likely to be recorded as crimes.
But while race hate crimes have risen by 62 per cent in a year, ‘faith hate’ crimes targeting specific religious groups rose by 192 per cent in the same period. And of the 178 faith hate crimes recorded in 2015/16, only 36 resulted in charges.
What concerns many people is that half the incidents were targeting Islam, with another 13 per cent relating to anti-Semitic offences.
Zulfiqar Karim, Senior Vice President of Bradford Council for Mosques, says the latest figures are worrying but don’t come as a great surprise. “There is a rise and there is a real concern about this, but it hasn’t just happened it’s something that has been going on for some time.”
He says the nature of racist abuse in the UK has changed. “Once upon a time people were targeted because of the colour of their skin or their ethnicity. You used to have ‘Paki-bashing’ and now it’s Muslim bashing.
“This is the modern face of racism, it targets religion rather than the colour of someone’s skin,” he says. “When I was growing up people talked about which country you came from and now it’s about people’s religion. There’s been a shift in that conversation.”
Karim believes that the rise in Islamophobia can be traced back to 9/11. “That was when things changed. Before that you wouldn’t necessarily get targeted because of your religion, but post-2001 that’s changed.”
He says the spike in the number of incidents over the past 12 months is linked to the attacks in Paris and Brussels. “There’s a direct correlation between the rise in anti-Islamic incidents and anti-Semitic incidents and events around world.”
But Karim is critical of the way the EU debate is being conducted and the impact it is having. “Immigration has become the number one topic and rather than have a sensible debate it’s been about scaremongering and how we need to close our borders.”
There are some, like the former Equality commissioner Trevor Phillips, who believe that British Muslims have become a nation within a nation. But Karim disagrees. “There is a fear in the community. People are worried about anti-Muslim attacks and of course you’re going to become more insular to try and protect yourself.
“But I think there’s a realisation amongst Muslims that they need to integrate more. In Leeds and Bradford the community leaders and mosques are trying to encourage more dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
It’s an issue he says can’t be swept under the carpet. “There are challenges but this is about who we are as a nation and as human beings. We have to work together regardless of race, creed or religion and this is what we are doing.”
Azad Ali, Head of Community Development and Engagement at Mend, a not-for-profit company that supports British Muslims, says there is an increase in religious hate crime, but believes this is tempered by a concerted drive by organisations like his and the police to record these incidents.
He says one of the biggest concerns is the way we talk about Muslims in this country. “It’s to do with the general public discourse about Muslims and questions like whether women should wear the veil.”
Ali believes the tone of the political debate over migration in the run up to the EU referendum is also problematic. “Most low level incidents of religious hate crimes are carried out by people who are ignorant of Muslims and Islam. They base what they think on what they hear and what they read,” he says.
“Us Brits are tolerant people but I think we have a problem in some media and political circles. There’s a skewed narrative about Muslims that perpetuates the problem and the more we open up and challenge this the better we will be.”
It’s not only Muslim communities that find themselves being subjected to abuse because of their faith. For Jews in Britain anti-Semitism has always been lurking near the surface.
Dr Simon Phillips, Director for Interfaith at the Leeds Jewish Representative Council, believes that tolerance levels of minority ethnic groups differs depending on where you live. “In Leeds, there’s been an established Jewish community since the end of the 19th Century and we are used to seeing people from different faiths and cultures. Jewish people are part and parcel of the fabric of life in Leeds.
“And if you live in multicultural areas of Bradford where you have people from eastern Europe living alongside those from southern Asia, they are probably going to be more tolerant than more homogenous areas because they see ethnic diversity every day.”
Dr Phillips believes, too, that Britain is a more tolerant place today. “An inappropriate joke that might have been part of a stand-up routine 15 or 20 years ago isn’t acceptable now. And I think that’s a positive sign that we are heading in the right direction.”
Building bridges between faiths
Ann Dewar, Programme Director at the Leeds Jewish Representative Council, says anti-Semitism has never entirely gone away.
“It is hard to explain the feeling of hurt and intimidation when confronted with anti-Semitic comments, acts or images and it is easy under those circumstances to withdraw as a community. Instead, we are doing everything possible to engage with as many other faith and secular groups as possible in order to promote knowledge, understanding and tolerance.
“This ranges from involvement in dementia and adult literacy projects to religious interface in groups such as the local branch of Nisa-Nashim (a Jewish-Muslim women’s group), the Council of Christians and Jews and the Bradford Council of Mosques.”