Although anti-Muslim prejudice is already a huge problem in the UK — the fact that even a pandemic will not stop people from spreading bigotry and shame and fail to bring society together, is unfortunate.
During times of crisis and change, community is often the place we turn to for security and protection. Communities coming together to help those in need has been a strong theme of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is also vital to prevent community from being weaponised and sow distrust against a specific group which will endanger public health. The spread of ambiguous conspiracy theories during these troubled times have heightened the intolerance and discrimination against Muslim communities. In the past few months, since the first COVID-19 cases were reported, a broad range of misinformation spread across social media where users were found using unsubstantiated information to blame Muslims as the ‘super spreaders’ of the virus. This phenomenon will result in disorder and disturbance in the society once the restrictions are eased. Furthermore, most of these theories are advocated by the far-right figures in the United Kingdom who believe that Muslims had been flouting social distancing measures and spreading the virus.
In a recent study carried out by Imran Awan, Professor at Birmingham City University, and Roxana Khan-Williams concluded that Islamophobic online ‘cyber hubs’ were being formed which linked Muslims to the spread of COVID-19 in the form of spreading anti-Muslim memes and sharing fake news stories. The upsurge of false news and the spread on social media has led to an increase in the already existing myths produced by the far-right. While the world is struggling with the pandemic, hate speech related to the virus is spreading online almost as fast as the virus itself.
The holy month of Ramadan, for example, seems to have led to a wave of conspiracy theories around Muslims — with claims that the virus has spread around this time now that the Islamic festivities are at their peak. Abusive online posts have been spreading theories such as “Muslims are responsible for spreading the coronavirus, as after China it went straight to Christian countries United States, France, England and Germany” and also called for the demolition of all mosques to “cure” the virus.
The far-right activists in the UK stand united in their view that Islam and Muslims are the spreaders of the virus, as this would fit well within the broader known far-right ideology depicting Muslims as ‘parasitical’ to the society — foreign, alien and ‘disease-like.’ Statements from famous personalities who are turning into far-right extremists are causing further damage to this cycle. The founder and former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, had posted an old video which showed worshippers leaving a mosque in Birmingham during lockdown. The video was later discredited and dismissed by law enforcement officials. Such online narratives that have a strong tone of anti-Muslim prejudice are creating a negative impression on the viewers who are more involved in online news and debates now than ever before.
Another recent accusation with a fake video was uploaded by a Twitter account that claimed that Muslims were praying at Wembley Central in London and not practising social distancing. The same social media account, with a focal point for extreme Muslim prejudice ideas, said that “Islam will put our future in danger and destroy the country.” The monitoring group Tell MAMA, which records and measures anti-Muslim incidents in the United Kingdom, has debunked this and other similar claims during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
The ideas have been assisted by prominent far-right personalities such as Katie Hopkins, who recently tweeted that “like India, UK too should physically assault British Muslims praying in public.” These examples of right-wing extremists who have been blaming British Muslims for all the problems in the UK ranging from virus spread to terrorism, demonstrate how quickly the internet can act as an echo chamber — and how easily such narratives have the ability to be widely accepted in mainstream society.
These stories are not only untrue and dangerous, but also undermine the significant work of Muslim community in supporting the national effort, from working on the frontline, with a number of Muslim medics having lost their lives, to setting up community initiatives to help those who are vulnerable. Muslims have effectively been told not only that they must make a special effort to integrate, but also that they must assume collective responsibility for the problematic actions carried out in the UK and elsewhere in the name of the Islamic faith.
Muslims are often treated as the dominant threat to British society. Like other racialised groups, the media tends to represent Muslims as one homogenous uncivilised group, with mass generalisations that often depict Muslims as terrorists or Islamic extremists. This creates a fundamental reason for the marginalisation of the community and supports the belief that Muslims are somehow invading, corrupting force that is overtaking and replacing the native population. There is a general approach towards the community as a “problem group” wherever they are.
The argument here is that although anti-Muslim prejudice is already a huge problem in the UK, the fact that even a pandemic will not stop people from spreading bigotry and shame and fail to bring society together is unfortunate. One reason for this anti-Muslim injustice is concentrated among those who see immigration and multiculturalism negatively. This fits flawlessly in the view of far-right activists who are blaming globalisation and immigration for the spread of the virus. There is also willingness of mainstream politicians to employ Islamophobic statements for political gains. These have indicated that mainstream politicians regard Muslim minorities, and at times Islam, as a threat to Western secular democracy and, indeed, regard this community as the ‘minority’ that is a risk to multiculturalism and integration itself.
The widespread belief in society is that the Muslim population is growing faster than non-Muslim and the same proportion thinking Islam seeks to replace British law with Sharia. This has promoted more hostile views, and far-right conspiracies of ‘race replacement,’ that Muslim populations are growing at a rate many times faster than non-Muslims — and will replace the white British population.
During the month of Ramadan, the mainstreaming of these accusations of Muslims preparing to break the law, could lead to violence against the community after the lockdown is eased. Disinformation can lead to wider retribution against Muslims. The wider tradition of media to depict ethnic minority communities as “endangering the cultural and political values of the nation” and the news media’s focus on non-white immigration into the UK and other parts of the world has re-awakened debates of “culture clash.” Media and internet companies must do more to tackle these developing problems and regulate posts that are being used to wedge divisions further, especially at a time when community solidarity is of utmost importance.
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