Is Islamophobia a Problem in Portsmouth?

Local students talk to Abigail Lofthouse about their experiences of Islamophobia as she explores the rise of anti-Muslim attitudes in the UK.

Islamophobia is a growing issue in the UK. With a rise in EDL demonstrations and an increase in people voting UKIP, it is clear people are misunderstanding minorities. The New Statesman’s website dedicated to the general election, MAY2015, predicted on April 18th that UKIP will gain 3 more seats in Parliament. Within the Portsmouth North constituency, voters are expecting UKIP to get more votes than the Liberal Democrats won in 2010.

A small number of people misunderstand UKIP’s anti-EU stance and vote for them with the expectation that they’ll ‘wipe the country clean’ of immigrants. Thing is, voting UKIP won’t remove every brown face – nor is this UKIP’s aim, but for many of their voters, that is an ideal outcome. Many supporters of UKIP believe every Muslim is an illegal immigrant that supports Shariah law and ISIS. This ludicrous misunderstanding, spurred on by extremist terror attacks such as 9/11, has caused white people with racist tendencies to make huge generalisations. British Religion in Numbers states that in a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times (published 18th January 2015) , 58% of the public believe British Muslim leaders could be doing more to stop radicalisation and terrorism – 84% of UKIP voters agreed.

I’ve seen my fair share of Islamophobia in Portsmouth. Once, outside Isambard Brunel Wetherspoons, I saw a fat, bald white guy tell a woman he called a ‘Paki’ to ‘go back where she came from’. This massive generalisation was probably made because the woman was wearing a headscarf. Many people in Portsmouth, mainly locals, make these racist generalisations. Most of it is down to nostalgia, something along the lines of ‘we never saw people like that back in my day’. This, as well as problems with the NHS, economic turmoil and the UK being ‘too full’ has made some people blame problems on groups they don’t know much about. We saw it in Nazi Germany, now we can see it in Palestine – let’s just hope we put a stop to it before it gets anything like either of these.

I spoke to Kinnan Zaloom from University of Portsmouth Anti-Fascists, a group that actively protests against racism. He told me Islamophobia is a rise of hate crime that is largely ignored by the media and government. It’s been allowed to grow and is heavily disregarded.’ Kinnan also tells me about his views on the English Defence League, after protesting against an EDL demonstration outside a mosque last year. ‘Since the departure of Tommy Robinson from the EDL, far-right fascist splinter groups have emerged. They are more volatile and harder to combat given their increased lack of constraint without a central organisation.’

This is something I know to be true. I have seen it myself, specifically at an anti-UKIP protest. A far-right ‘splinter group’ came along with their England flags, shouting abuse along the lines of ‘you hippies!’ and threw beer cans at us until the police moved them on. Although I have been affected by these groups, I have never experienced racism from them. I wanted to know if it was common for students in Portsmouth to be affected by hate crime.

Argnesa Uka, a student and member of Islamic Society Portsmouth, told me about her experiences of Islamophobia. Within the University of Portsmouth, she believes it is almost non-existent, but, she has noticed it in the wider Portsmouth area. However, she mentions that abroad, she is much more likely to be affected. ‘One case, my friend was told that he wasn’t liked because the person didn’t like ‘Arabs’ and a generalised assumption was made’, she said.

I spoke to many other Islamic students, none of whom had personally experienced Islamophobia in the university area, yet had been affected by it elsewhere in the UK. Students seem to be separated from this hate crime by a largely diverse and liberal union that bans prejudice through their No Platform and Zero Tolerance Of Racism policies, which ban extreme groups from the union’s facilities.

I managed to talk to someone who has fought racism first-hand, Imran Khan, the well-known lawyer who represented the Stephen Lawrence family. Khan agrees there has been a rise in Islamophobia in recent years. ‘I am aware of that both anecdotal and official sources show there has been an increase in reports by victims of such behaviour.’ He states that he believes since 9/11, July 7th and the so called ‘war on terror’, many western governments, including ours, have ‘developed a paradigm which involves a ‘clash of civilisations’.’

Khan agreed that UKIP and the EDL have gathered a great deal of support, ‘mainstream parties and the Government have recklessly promulgated a view that the Muslim community is the source of the problem’, he said. He believes UKIP and the EDL have taken advantage of this and it has fanned the flames of prejudice. ‘When there are problems in society, it is often easy to blame them on those that are seen as different.’ He told me that ‘UKIP and the EDL fuel this process and attract people who believe that society’s ills can be cured by policies which allow society to go back to the ‘good old days’: a period which is seen through rose tinted glasses and is infected with a misplaced nostalgia.’

Khan agrees that Islamophobia is a serious issue that needs to be tackled. But exactly how can we put a stop to it? ‘Firstly,’ Khan says, ‘we need to recognise, acknowledge and accept that Islamophobia exists. Unless we do this, we cannot deal with it.’ Khan believes it is an institutional problem – the government, police forces, prison establishments and other organisations that make up society must deal with it. He also says ‘the sanctions against change must be powerful and meaningful. Acts of Islamophobia should be punished in a strong and very public way.’

Islamophobic actions can no longer be ignored. We’ve got to show we want change to encourage institutions to enforce it. The majority need to prove they disagree with the likes of UKIP and EDL. As Khan said: ‘It is not up to the Muslim community to change’. It’s up to the rest of society to end Islamophobia once and for all.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.