The programme My Week As a Muslim caused outrage this autumn. It’s easy to see why: a white woman was ‘browned up’ as a Muslim, complete with hijab, prosthetic nose and false teeth. Instead of ‘disguising’ someone in such a crude manner why not actually ask Muslims about their experiences? It also stereotyped Muslims as ‘brown’ when in fact, Islam is a faith and not an ethnicity.
While I understood the controversy, the programme was also a powerful reminder of the importance of empathy. For just one week this woman experienced the intolerance many Muslims face on a daily basis. This includes being abused, spat at and labelled a terrorist. There is an old adage that to truly understand someone you need to walk a mile in their shoes. This went further by asking someone to a mile in someone else’s skin.
I don’t need to wear a prosthetic nose or false teeth to begin to recognise what Islamophobia feels like. Although I am a practicing Sikh, I have been mistaken for a Muslim by idiotic thugs on many occasions. People see my skin colour and turban, and in a bate of ignorance assume that I am both a Muslim and a terrorist. If the leap of assumptions wasn’t so hideous it would be funny. But perhaps that’s my sense of humour. One of my worst experiences came on an ordinary Friday evening. It was a few months after the 9/11 tragedy when the atmosphere was one of fear and anger. I was on the tube on my way to meet friends, with my headphones in and oblivious to everyone else. So far so normal. A man became extremely aggressive, shouting ‘you killed three thousand people’ going on to call me scum and every other name under the sun, becoming increasingly belligerent and threatening. A perverse dilemma entered my mind: should I defend myself against the false ‘charge’ of being a Muslim or the preposterous inference that all Muslims are terrorists. I was stumped. As my fellow passengers became increasingly concerned for me, an American man, who I know was only trying to help, stepped in, also thinking I was Muslim. “Leave him alone, I’m an American and we all hated them [Muslims] at first but now I’m not angry. It wasn’t their fault.” My attacker was by now screaming, his face turned red and he was about to punch me. He would have succeeded if a passenger hadn’t stepped in to defend me as I ran towards the platform squeezing past the slamming doors. Despite my best efforts to enact the British spirit to keep calm and carry on, I was left completely shaken and it remains one of the most frightening experiences of my life. I didn’t report it, at the time I just wanted to get out of the situation. And I’ve regretted it ever since.
From then on, I’ve made it a principle to report any time I face hate crime. The police have not only taken it extremely seriously, but I have found even just the act of reporting cathartic and empowering. I deserve to take a stand and say ‘enough’. Too often victims of hate crime stay silent. Statistics show a 29% rise in hate crime over the past year and a rise in Islamophobia specifically. Despite this, there are still serious challenges with underreporting. Some think they won’t be taken seriously or feel unsure if what’s happened even constitutes a crime. As someone who has been affected, as well as in my personal experience as a barrister, my message is simple: report it. Whether it’s online or offline, attacks on the basis of race or faith should never be tolerated. And if you see someone being targeted – step in.
Hate crime is thankfully not endemic in our society and despite some horrible exceptions Britain is characterised by tolerance and respect. The fact that hate crime is on the agenda shows that it is not acceptable in our society. Not only is the Government monitoring statistics but the police actively encouraging people to come forward by making it easier to report crimes, including setting up online apps. This all points to Britain’s proud history of creating a liberal society where all are treated equally under the rule of law. Respect for those who are different is a value to be celebrated and it is clear that progress is being made in tackling the very antithesis to liberty: hate crime. We shouldn’t have to dress up as another ethnicity to know how important it is to defend the rights of one another. The only intolerance we should accept is for intolerance itself.