An Imam and a mosque trustee share their thoughts on the abuse received for wearing a hijab and practicing a faith many still misunderstand
This November is Islamophobia awareness month which aims to tackle the prejudices that UK Muslims often endure.
Some people lucky enough not to experience this abuse may think that Islamophobia is becoming a thing of the past. However, in March 2020, the Home Office reported that 50 per cent of religious hate crimes reported to the police between 2019 and 2020 were targeted against Muslims in England and Wales. That’s 3089 reported offences.
No other religious group in England and Wales came close to receiving that amount of reported abuse, antisemitism coming in at 19 per cent. The Home Office also reported similar statistics the year before.
Islamophobic attacks have also been reported to rise after recent terrorist incidents.
After the 2019 attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, Islamophobic attacks rose by almost 593 per cent, and after the 2017 Manchester bombings, attacks rose by 700 per cent.
‘We never used to use the word ‘Islamophobia’
“We never used to use the word. Now it’s something the majority of Muslims will have to face some time in their lives,” Shahida Rahman, an author and trustee of Cambridge Central Mosque, Mill Road said.
She added: “I grew up in Cambridge. Then we faced racism but not Islamophobia. It was ‘go back to where you came from.’ Nowadays its not where we’re from, but the religion we follow.
The entrance of the new eco-mosque built on Mill Road, purpose-built as a non-denominational space (Image: Cambridge News)
“From the early 2000s it became worse because of the incidents happening across the world”, referring to the attack on the Twin Towers in New York by Islamist extremist group Al-Qaeda and the ensuing war against them, their founder Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and later ISIS.
“It magnified Islam and brought it more attention in a negative way,” she added.
We looked around Cambridge’s stunning all-inclusive mosque
He said: “We can’t let our religion be misrepresented. One teaching in Islam that is always present is that if someone takes the life of an innocent person, its akin to taking the life of the whole of mankind. Saving a life is akin to saving all of mankind.
“How could a Muslim harm another person? It’s against the teachings of Islam to do so.”
He said the media have a responsibility to portray a balanced perspective on Islam. He said: “We as Muslims share much in common with everyone.
“The phobia doesn’t help us integrate into society and identify these commonalities. That’s why practising what we preach of peace and community work is the best form of educating the people around us, wherever we live.”
Imam Usman Butt oversees Ahmadiyya communities across Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and Hertfordshire (Image: Usman Butt)
Shahida agreed: “It’s about engaging with those who don’t understand Islam properly, to make them aware of what the religion is really about.
“By speaking with people and having open communication, sometimes you can change peoples views. It’s important to keep that conversation going.”
Though working to right prejudice through open conversation and education is a peaceful way of addressing any issue, its often a huge daily task for people who face prejudice. Shahida says she has to be constantly ready to explain herself.
She said: “We have to work twice as hard to show we Muslims aren’t what the media portrays us as being. All our actions are important, but a small minority tarnish the name of Muslims. It’s not fair, but it’s one of the challenges we all face.”
She said the development of social media has caused these prejudices to spread.
She explained: “It gives people more of a platform to express themselves. I’ve experienced Islamophobia myself online there. I put myself out there because of the community work I do and as an author.
“It doesn’t deter me though, I’m thick-skinned.”
Asked how anonymous abuse affects her, she said: “It’s not just me, it affects the mental health of the community as a whole. It’s easy for me to say it doesn’t bother me but it used to, I just developed an immunity. But collectively its something we carry with us.”
The five daily prayers of worship would usually take place at the Ahmadiyya Mission House in Cambridge, however this hasn’t been a reality since March due to the pandemic (Image: Debbie Luxon)
The Ahmadiyya faith that Usman practices isn’t accepted by every Muslim, and for some Ahmadiyya communities, they face hatred from some people in other sects.
Usman said: “We do get hate speech and abuse but it’s nothing compared to in countries such as in Pakistan and Bangladesh where the persecution extends to people losing their lives.
“In every place in the world, you will find people that will accept you and not accept you. But there is a difference between lack of acceptance and actively trying to make life hard for us. In the UK there is freedom to practice our faith.”
The weight of being visibly Muslim
Shahida wears a hijab, a type of headscarf worn by some Muslim women. She said: “I’ve been asked why I wear a dustbin on my head, I’ve been called a ‘muzzie’ [a derogatory term for Muslim].
“Some people see me and judge me instantly, but when I talk with people they see that they’re engaging with a normal human being.”
This doesn’t stop her from wearing it though. “It’s part of my skin. When I started community work I was worried I’d be judged, it took a lot of confidence. But this is me, and I don’t care what they think about it”, she said.
She said some people think she is oppressed because she wears her hijab, that her husband makes her wear it, or that her religion is telling her to. But the reality is it’s her own choice.
“It’s how I choose to follow my own religion. I have my own brain and hair underneath [my hijab].
“Many women don’t wear them. Islam gives women more rights than people realise, but the culture seems to have overtaken the understanding of our religion and people don’t seem to know the difference.
“Muslims come from all over the world, and their culture will affect how they interpret religion and visa versa”, she said.
Despite it all, statistics on abuse and her own experiences don’t get Shahida down, and she’s already had breakthroughs with people who held negative views, by hosting tours of the new mosque on Mill Road.
“It’s been a community ice breaker. We get interest from people of all religions and backgrounds. People are coming forward to find out more and to break their negative attitudes”, she said.