The last three weeks have brought out the best and the worst of Londoners. They have also shown us the best of what holds us together in this great metropolis as well as those who seek to divide and undermine community relations. From the murdering grins of the two young men who killed drummer Lee Rigby, through to the twisted political opportunism of far right groups like the English Defence League and British National Party, we have seen a flurry of activity, which has played with all of our emotions.
During this period, 12 mosques have been targeted for anti-Muslim prejudiced attacks and a Somali Centre in the leafy suburb of Muswell Hill was targeted. A few days ago, a Darul Uloom boarding school in Bromley was set on fire and the Tell MAMA project has recorded over 200 anti-Muslim incidents, both online and offline in nature, during the post-Woolwich period. Such incidents have included targeted hate statements and anti-Muslim abuse, through to property being damaged, anti-Muslim literature being circulated and mosques being targeted.
Third party reporting centres have been a key foundation in ensuring that hate incidents are reported into police forces. They receive reports whether online or offline in nature and since early 2012, Tell MAMA has been receiving reports from Muslims who have been targeted with online and offline comments and statements that they have found prejudicial and deeply unsettling.
Since late 2011 when the Tell MAMA project first formed, it became clear to us that the Internet and social media platforms were flooded with anti-Muslim websites, Facebook statements and tweets. Such was the volume and the level of hate that we felt that we were looking at un-surmountable odds. Given the volume of anti-Muslim prejudice online and knowing that reporting through the Internet is much easier than lining up and waiting at the front desk of a police force, people are increasingly lodging reports of hate material through Twitter, Facebook and other electronic means.
Yet, when Tell MAMA released figures of anti-Muslim prejudice post-Woolwich we were taken aback by the way some sought to undermine the figures and who simply disregarded any anti-Muslim hate incidents that were reported to have taken place online. Incidents less than serious assaults or leading to hospital admissions were simply disregarded. Pulled hijabs (religious head-coverings), threats and harassment online and targeted hate trolling were simply waived away as if the impact on the victim meant virtually nothing. The victim had simply been forgotten in the blink of an eye, as if their feelings, their fears and emotions simply did not exist or warranted any reflection and consideration.
So let us look at the impacts of online targeted hate against people because of their Muslim faith. Tell MAMA were contacted about four months ago by a young 15-year-old who explained that her picture had been placed on a website without her approval and it transpired that the young girl had then received targeted hate tweets and comments because of her faith. Her avatar showed a young girl with a Hijab on, looking rather innocent. Having received anti-Muslim tweets, she responded back with some confidence and then extracted herself from the conversation. What she subsequently found out was that a range of strangers and far right supporters began to make explicit comments about her and they posted statements that humiliated her faith, her sexuality and aggressively abused her privacy. She suffered this harassment for over nine weeks because of her faith in which she was also targeted by other far right activists. The pain, emotional distress, humiliation, fear and deep sense of anxiety was heightened by the fact the young girl could not tell her parents that she was active on social media and that she had previously posted her picture for fun on a Facebook page. To counter the fear and apprehension that she felt, she relied on Tell MAMA to assure her, work towards trying to remove the posting and to give her much needed comfort and support at a time of deep distress. Tell MAMA also arranged for an officer to see her at school and away from the home environment so that a statement could be taken from her.
Or take the case of the Facebook death threat by an individual which was targeted at Salma Yaqoob, the former leader and vice-chair of the Respect Party and an ex-Birmingham City Councillor. After appearing on Question Time, a specific death threat was made on Facebook. The comment was made by a man who was previously linked to the English Defence League in which he talked about "smashing: Pakistani people and taking a nail bomb into a mosque. The comments went on to state that Ms Yaqoob's throat should be cut.
Thankfully, a man was arrested in connection this hate crime, yet it shows the power of hate incidents online and the fear, pain and distress that they can create. In this instance, Tell MAMA passed on the online evidence to the prevent team in Birmingham City Council and the material was also passed onto the police.
So what do these two cases tell us? That online hate incidents cannot be waived away as if they do not have impacts on the lives and emotions of people. The fear that is generated by online hate can sometimes have long lasting effects, particularly when the perpetrator masks their identity and repeatedly targets people. Human nature is based on seeing, hearing or smelling threats and when neither of these senses are activated through online hate incidents where there is no identifiable perpetrator, anxiety levels can heighten, leaving the person angry, disorientated and frightened for the future.
In an increasingly globalised world, the Internet and social media are playing a role in connecting us, yet they also play a role in spreading hate statements that affect the lives of many more people. To discount this area of work because nobody may suffer physical violence, is to discount the future of our interactions which will become increasingly physically detached, yet more connected through the world wide-web.