Having researched Islamophobia and anti-Muslim phenomena for more than a decade, I've come to realise that for some people the 'number' of incidents are far more important than the reality of the lives of those affected.
I often wonder what 'number' would make those who downplay the problem - as Andrew Gilligan did in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph (with a follow-up story in today's The Daily Mail) - finally acknowledge that Islamophobia is a social problem that needs to be tackled.
For me, the 'numbers' issue is problematic, not least because it is largely initiated and perpetuated by Islamophobia's detractors. For whatever reason this group either repeatedly declares that Islamophobia does not exist or attempts to undermine those trying to tackle it. In the world of these detractors, if there aren't any 'numbers' then this is categorical 'evidence' that Islamophobia does not exist.
It is no surprise therefore that the 'numbers' put forward by Tell MAMA, relating to the sharp increase in anti-Muslim incidents recorded since the brutal murder in Woolwich almost a fortnight ago, have undergone the same scrutiny. What the 'numbers' show is that since the barbaric murder of Lee Rigby, the number of Muslims who have become victims of prejudice, discrimination, bigotry and hate has increased. This cannot be denied.
The questioning of the Tell MAMA data reminded me of an episode following the publication of a report I co-authored into Islamophobia in Europe post-9/11, on behalf of the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism & Xenophobia (the largest monitoring project on Islamophobia anywhere in the world). Despite categorically stating how the vast majority of anti-Muslim incidents were 'low-level' - for example, verbal abuse, hijabs being pulled from women's heads, being spat on and similar - there was a concerted effort by some to dismiss this data because the number of 'high level' incidents - violent assaults, murder, firebombing of mosques etc - were (thankfully) low.
It is extremely difficult to present a full and comprehensive picture of the number of anti-Muslim incidents. This has been an issue for at least a decade and is something that I personally have asked the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia to prioritise. Noting the lack of "extensive, objective and comparable data", the European Union Minorities & Discrimination Survey considered anti-Muslim discrimination in its 2009 report. The survey found that 34% of Muslim men and 26% of Muslim women stated that they had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months, on average eight times per year. More worrying was that 79% of those experiencing discrimination did not report it to any institution or official agency. Therefore, to suggest the 'numbers' we do have are being exaggerated is likely to be largely inaccurate. If the European research is right, then it is likely that the 'numbers' we do have are significantly understated.
As regards the 200+ incidents recorded since the Woolwich attack, we should bear in mind that Tell MAMA does not only record criminal incidents: the service also provides support for victims and works closely with organisations such as Victim Support. Its data sits alongside that provided by various police forces (many of whom do not record anti-Muslim hate crimes), the Association of Chief Police Officers, the TrueVision online reporting system and the Equality & Human Rights Commission. Far from being a product of an "Islamophobia industry" - a tired and oft-repeated slur posited by detractors - Tell MAMA's 'numbers' help to fill the gaps that exist in the 'official numbers'. They give us a glimpse into some - and I stress some - of those potential 79% of victims who do not report anti-Muslim incidents to the authorities.
'Trigger events' cause sharp rises in anti-Muslim incidents that are typically temporary and transient, rarely lasting more than a week or two. Undoubtedly, Woolwich has been a 'trigger event'. It is essential therefore that we do not take Tell MAMA's recent data out of context. Instead of suggesting that Islamophobic incidents are increasing or reaching new highs, the data simply highlights how the numbers have increased dramatically over a very short period. Consequently, it provides a snapshot of what has occurred in response to a very precise and quite unprecedented incident.
Focusing solely on 'numbers' alone is a distraction. You cannot put a value on the damage done by prejudice, discrimination, bigotry and hate, quite irrespective of whether 'numbers' of incidents are on a rise or in decline. The fact that we know that ordinary people - in this case British Muslims - are continuing to be victims of discrimination and hate is what should be concerning us most. It's time to change the narrative, to move away from 'numbers' and focus on the harm, pain and suffering that is caused as a result of Islamophobia.