Hate crimes and backlash? It’s still the structure, stupid.

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Arzu Merali argues that structural racism is the elephant in the room.

[23 May 2013] I woke up this morning to news that at least two mosques had been attacked. This is the UK post-Woolwich, but it could be the UK post-anything in my experience. It hasn’t only been the 9-11 or 7-7s that have sparked anti-Muslim backlashes in the UK. In the era of the war on (of?) terror, even the verbal dysentery of a high ranking politician e.g. Jack Straw’s tirade against nikab in 2006, caused an upsurge in hate attacks reported. And that is the point.

We are so used to the ‘backlash’ at times of majority society crisis i.e. violent political attacks on ‘home’ soil, we forget the terrorism that people of colour, and that includes Muslims and other racialised communities, face on a daily basis, worldwide, as a result of the policies of Westminster and Washington, Paris even. We are objects of not just physical violence but forms of representation that engender and justify violence against us. Here it may be hysterical discourse and draconian, targeted laws and street hate or over there, it is the invasions, the cycle of brutal dictators, the drone attacks and the sanctions that silently kill even more.

Yet this violence – racial violence – is never acknowledged. As foreign policy it is benign intervention, as hate crime it is portrayed (by media, law and politics all constitutive of each other) as the acts of biased individuals, or at times of crisis, the unsurprising and implicitly merited response to the collective guilt of the victim’s community. Put shortly, Muslims were asking for it. This prism through which we understand discrimination and hate crimes is deeply flawed, and one that governments wish to foist upon minority communities who are increasingly besieged not just by street level hatred, but rabid anti-minority discourse in the media, from politicians, social commentators and public intellectuals.

I woke up this morning, and the clock and had gone back, way back to the moments after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. At IHRC, we had analysed the causality of so much of the backlash after 9-11 in the UK, and surprisingly a lot of our recommendations were taken on board. In particular we highlighted that emotional and (sometimes unwittingly) biased reporting by journalists commenting while witnessing, stoked up a general environment of hatred. Likewise over the years that followed, loud briefings by even louder policemen at the times of anti-terror arrests highlighting detainees’ Muslimness hyped up the idea of the ever present Muslim bogeyman, ready and willing to kill himself and dozens more in the process.

Late morning 7 July 2005, media reports and news anchors took great care. Even the Metropolitan Police were wary of saying the words Muslim or Islam. No such reticence however, from erstwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair. The rest is history, and it spoke after Woolwich of attackers of ‘Muslim appearance’; it speaks today of acts of Muslim terrorism and extremism. It spoke this morning on the BBC’s flagship news programme on its Radio 4 when the presenter John Humphreys introduced with disgust the scenario that most people would be horrified at the thought of how a man going about his every day life could be hacked down in the street. It was as if this had never happened before. Except that it has. There was the brutal racially motivated knife attack against 75 year old Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham just a few weeks ago. The ferocity of the attack was so severe that knife wounds inflicted from the back pierced through to the front. He was on the way back from the mosque. There are also the, any number of, racially motivated murders - more than a hundred monitored by the Institute of Race Relations alone since 2000.

However, IHRC learnt from the many years or recording, that simply trying to get Muslims to report random acts of hatred was doomed to fail. Not only were Muslims failing to report attacks, thus giving the impression that anti-Muslim hatred was an illusion, but the focus also reduced the idea of racism / Islamophobia to that of the individual. There is no racism / Islamophobia, just individual (anonymous) racists / Islamophobes. It is this context that we set ourselves a challenge – to develop a methodology that would provide reliable statistics for law enforcement agencies, be sustainable and cost efficient. It also however needed to be a project that looked beyond individual acts and motivation but at the environment which makes them possible and ways at which those structural forces can be challenged.

We piloted the project in the UK and France, refined it and reran it in North America. Today was to be the day of the launch of IHRC’s latest book in the series, Once Upon a Hatred: Anti-Muslim Experiences in the US. Its prime finding was that a shocking 30 percent of Muslims (in 2012) surveyed said they had experienced a physical hate attack. In the UK the figure had been 13 percent, in France 20 percent. In all three published works, the media is raised again and again as a cause of Islamophobia and racism, with near 70 per cent and upwards of those surveyed stating this. Islamophobic political discourse isn’t far behind. All these cause a hate environment and the creation of the hated society i.e. the group singled out as the objects of societal hate. The report on the US was dedicated to Sunando Sen, the Hindu pushed under a train on the New York subway at the end of last year. His assailant, allegedly, was a woman who claimed she had been attacking Hindus and Muslims for a decade because of 9-11.


Back in the UK, today, the upsurge of support for the neo-fascist EDL shocks no-one, and the elder statesmen of British journalism not only fail to critique the racist state but perpetuate it by asking how many more attacks against British soldiers on British soil are in the offing. One wonders how many Sunanado Sens, Mohammed Saleems or Yassir AbdelMoutallibs must there be, before the real and pervasive terror inflicted on racialised communities merits a committee meeting, let alone the convening of COBRA. Until that day, we will not even be at the beginning of the end.

NB One more day later [24 May 2013]: While being interviewed on Sky News, Chair of IHRC, Massoud Shadjareh said Woolwich is not a terrorist act and compared it to the Breikvik case, and the killing of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham etc. No, the presenter responded, it was considered terrorism because they shouted Allahu Akbar. Does this need more commentary?

Arzu Merali is one of the founders of IHRC. Follow her on twitter @arzumerali