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Who Will Apologise for Anti-Muslim Attacks?

25/01/2015 18:40 | Updated 27 March 2015

Following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and kosher supermarket in Paris two weeks ago, I immediately prepared myself for the worst: the inevitable anti-Muslim backlash and the calls for apologies and public condemnation from Muslims - as we are apparently accountable for the actions of all 1.6billion followers of Islam across the world.

Last weekend, students at the University of Birmingham discovered racist graffiti painted on to the walls of the Frankland Psychology Building at the Edgbaston campus, including the statement "Islam must die" and large swastikas. A spokeswoman for West Midlands Police stated that the racist attack was linked to another incident of Islamophobic graffiti that was sprayed on the Jalalabad Trust Mosque, less than a mile away from the campus.

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This followed a string of incidents last week where groups of men shot at and used hammers to attack shops, restaurants and boutiques in Small Heath and Sparkbrook, suburbs of Birmingham that have a large Muslim population.

University campuses are supposed to be safe spaces for all students regardless of their race, religion, gender and sexuality but recent events have shown them to be far from insulated from the wider Islamophobia currently gripping society.

In March 2014, Muslim prayer room signs were vandalised at King's College London with one sign having "Muslim" scratched out and another with a sticker over the same word.

In December later that year, a high-profile conference on Islamophobia bringing together some of the foremost academics addressing the issue, was forced to relocate after Birkbeck College, University of London, gave in to Islamophobic pressure and cancelled the event booking, following threats by far-right groups to demonstrate outside the venue.

Most sobering is the case of Nahid Almanea, a Saudi Arabian student at the University of Essex, who was brutally attacked near her home in June 2014, sustaining sixteen stab wounds - two of which proved fatal. At the time, Nahid was wearing a dark blue full-length robe and a head-scarf, items of clothing known as being distinctively "Muslim".

As a Muslim student at the University of Birmingham and a born-and-bred Brummie, am I surprised by these attacks on my community? The short answer: No.

Whether in the form of (crude) graffiti, verbal or physical assault, attacks against Muslims on campuses are not a new phenomenon, but that does not mean that tactics designed to intimidate Muslims and Muslim students should not be taken very seriously.

But while the violence directed against them seems to merit comparatively little coverage, Muslims in Britain are never far removed from the mainstream media gaze, constantly being made object of some or other hysteria.

In February 2014, student newspaper The Tab was at the forefront of an Islamophobic campaign where it published articles regarding halal meat being served to "unsuspecting students" at universities, knowingly playing into the perceived threat of 'Creeping Islamisation' or 'Creeping Sharia'.

Never before had I come across articles in The Tab shedding light on the issue of say, battery farming, and yet overnight hundreds of students became animal welfare advocates opposed to the idea of halal meat without actually knowing what constituted as 'halal meat'. The reality is that another Islamic practice was being put under the microscope allowing others to condemn Islam as a 'barbaric faith' the same way hijabs, niqabs and circumcision have been used as means of attacking the religion and its adherents in the past.

On a wider media level, we recently had Steven Emerson of Fox News, billed as an 'expert' on terrorism-related issues, informing viewers that Birmingham was "totally Muslim" and a "no-go area" for people of other faiths. However ridiculous Emerson's claim were, even incidents like this can prove dangerous to a community already in such a precarious position, by contributing to the already toxic climate against all things Muslim.

In 2010, for example, intrusive CCTV cameras were installed in the Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath areas of Birmingham as part of a counter-terrorism initiative to spy on the Muslim population despite being marketed as a general crime-prevention measure. The £3 million Project Champion initiative saw the two areas monitored by a network of 169 automatic number plate recognition cameras - three times more than in the entire city centre - before being defeated by local campaigners.

It is sadly inevitable that Muslims and Islam are marked out as threats in society when the mainstream media and the government directly engineer this perception. It therefore comes as little surprise that the Muslim community in Birmingham and beyond feel demonised and isolated as we are constantly being viewed through the prism of 'national security', 'extremism' and 'counter-terrorism' - by the government and its institutions, by neo-con think tanks that target student Islamic Societies and by universities themselves that are now being forced by legislation to effectively spy on Muslim students to watch out for 'signs of radicalisation'.

The new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, the seventh major counter-terror law introduced in Britain since 9/11, was introduced to Parliament late November and is currently being fast-tracked through into law. One of the proposals includes making PREVENT - a central component of the government's 'CONTEST' counter-terrorism strategy - a statutory requirement for public bodies including universities.

The PREVENT strategy has long been criticised for operating a politically-motivated definition of 'extremism' and for directing its resources predominantly at Muslims in Britain to offset the inherent threat that this community apparently presents. Despite - or more likely, because of - the heavy investment the government has put into PREVENT, the strategy has succeeded only in further criminalising Muslims, curtailing freedom of expression for all in society and creating an even greater climate of suspicion on campuses. Racist graffiti artists are only one of the many evils this institutionalised Islamophobia breeds.

The strategy encompasses and regulates all public institutions in Britain today: from education and healthcare providers to faith groups and charities. At universities, PREVENT officers have asked university lecturers to inform on 'depressed', 'isolated' or even just openly-political Muslim students, deeming these groups at-risk of 'radicalisation'. At the University of Bradford, staff were asked to disclose students' names and dates of birth to a PREVENT liaison officer who infiltrated student activist meetings on campus to gather intelligence and monitor students.

Even as one of almost 10% of students at the University of Birmingham of Muslim background - and despite representing students at a national level on the NUS National Executive Council - I still do not feel safe to air my opinion openly at my own institution. In seminars about topics such as the 'War on Terror', I have found myself reluctant to criticise British foreign policy in case my comments are flagged up to university staff. There is also hesitancy when publicly speaking on global events related to Palestine, Syria and Iraq out of the fear that I may be misrepresented by student media, picked up by national media and before you know it, targeted as a terrorist-sympathiser by the world's biggest bigots on social media.

So much for the 'freedom of speech'(!).

Probably one of the most pernicious outcomes of PREVENT and counter-terrorism legislation is the imposition of a good 'moderate' Muslim/bad 'extremist' Muslim binary.

While I am yet to find any theological basis for this divide, the British government has helpfully indicated that 'Moderate Muslim' acts as a synonym for 'the acceptable Muslim' who is pro-Western foreign policy, pro-imperialism, pro-draconian terrorism legislation and someone who doesn't 'look (too) Muslim' or 'act (overly) Muslim'. Someone who is reassuringly 'diverse', but not uncomfortably different.

An interesting point to note is how hardly any Muslim students gave their opinions on the graffiti calling for their deaths. Could it be because they weren't asked? Or because they are scared to talk about Islamophobia and the wider issues at hand?

At the root of this lies the fact is that strategies like PREVENT ultimately exist to police Muslim expression and most perverse of all is that they serve to pathologise Muslims for responding to the oppression we constantly face at the hands of the state and its institutions.

Despite being battered by prejudice, discrimination and violence throughout society, we are expected to remain passive and submissive - because apparently seeking justice and equality is conduct unbecoming of the good, moderate Muslim.