Saqib Saddiq is a smart, highly-educated British Muslim who admits that he’s just as worried about extremist terrorists as anyone else.
And yet he knows that simply because he is Asian and a Muslim he will be suspected of having terrorist sympathies. It’s an injustice that he is now working hard to rectify, for himself and others.
As he explains: “A Pakistani man is 154 times more likely to be stopped by security at an airport than a white male. I used to travel a lot for my job and I was once stopped five times in a two-week period at airports.
“I don’t blame individuals for being fearful after 9/11. I can empathise with them, I was afraid myself. But what we need to realise is that we are all human and it’s only a tiny per cent of Muslims who are involved in terrorism.
“There are 3.5m Muslims in the UK and just a few hundred have gone to Syria and many of them were aid workers.”
Saqib, a chartered organisational psychologist who has worked all over the world, is chair of the Huddersfield group of MEND, a national body that seeks to engage British Muslims more fully in the communities in which they live in order to counter Islamophobia.
He returned to his home town, where he now works as a business psychologist, in order to focus on MEND’s mission to heal communities and reduce hate crime. As well as lecturing part time in Huddersfield University’s business school he is currently awaiting appointment as a magistrate.
There’s no doubt that 9/11 was a watershed moment for Muslims living in the UK. Subsequent atrocities, including the recent mass killings in Paris and America, as well as Islamic State activities in the Middle East, are compounding the Islamophobia that erupted after the Twin Towers.
Figures from West Yorkshire Police show that anti-Muslim hate crime has more than doubled since 2010, with parts of Kirklees among the worst affected areas. In an eight month period up to August this year there were 70 recorded offences, compared to less than half of that for the whole of 2010.
MEND’s regional manager Shahab Adris believes that if religious hate crime is not tackled then small acts of Islamophobia could become something much more.
He explains: “My white British friends say they wouldn’t be surprised if in the future we end up with another Srebrenica (the massacre in which 8,000 Muslims were killed by units from the
Bosnian Serb army) in the UK. This is how it starts, with small things like people being thrown off buses and insulted in the street.”
Saqib, who has used his academic background to research Islamophobia, added: “We are
seeing increasing numbers of attacks and bystanders are not defending them because there’s a feeling that Muslims deserve it.
“The media representation of Muslims is quite negative. For every positive word associated with Muslims there are 21 words that have a negative association, even the word cleric is associated with terrorism.
“We are seeing more racist bullying in schools. Even back in 2012/13 Childline was saying that it was getting reports of playground bullying of Muslim children, and it has got worse in the last 12 months, with the most common insults being ‘terrorist’, ‘bomber’ and ‘go back to where you came from’. These are words that children have learned from their parents.”
Shahab says the vast majority of Muslims want to live peacefully with their neighbours.
He explained: “A lot of Muslims are happy in this country and are not going anywhere, so we have to learn to live together. They feel part and parcel of British life and contribute to the economy.
“A survey showed that next to the Sikh community, the Muslim community is the most patriotic; more patriotic than the average English white person. This is the best country in Europe to be a Muslim. I have grown up with good experiences.”
Saqib agrees: “Britain is brilliant, it has an openness and tolerance. But we feel that the media is feeding a fear of Islam – and there’s a lack of Muslim participation in public life. We want to increase community engagement by Muslims, both men and women, so that they are more involved with civic life, politics and the media.”
As a psychologist Saqib acknowledges that a fear of the unknown is a factor in Islamophobia, which makes it vitally important for the Muslim community to reach out and share their culture with others.
Professor Paul Thomas from Huddersfield University, an expert on community cohesion, agrees that education is vital for improving relationships between communities.
He says: “A lot of fears that people have are there through ignorance. Education is very important and there is a good school twinning programme in Kirklees, with schools taking children to the mosque, Sikh temple and churches in the area.
“But I know of some schools where parents have not allowed their children to go on a mosque visit, which is a terrible shame.
“We have done research in schools and found that while children say they have friends from different backgrounds there is very little mixing outside school. MEND has an important role to play in shifting conservative attitudes.
“Children from all communities need to mix to understand each other, but there are parents who don’t want their children to mix.”
“Meeting people from different backgrounds, doing art, playing sport or anything that brings them together allows them to start seeing each other as individuals.
“I would say that religious schools cause division and we certainly don’t need any more of them. They segregate children and don’t help.”
Prof Thomas, who has been involved with the Government’s Prevent anti-terrorism strategy, recently returned from speaking at an international conference in Sydney, Australia, on Islam and Radicalisation, and says the reasons why British Muslims have gone to Syria to join the Islamic State are many and complex.
He added: “Not all of those who have gone to Syria have been radicalised, some are just naive, others are loners, and they are seeking adventure. One of the debates we had was whether Islamophobia causes radicalisation. But there’s no simple explanation for radicalisation.
“What we can definitely say is that Islamophobia makes it less likely that people in the Muslim community will feel comfortable taking part in anti-terrorist activities and passing on information if they feel they are being prejudiced against or spied on.”
Outward signs of Muslim culture, such as the wearing of the hijab and burkha are strongly linked to Islamophobia.
MEND volunteer Saqib says: “We are seeing an increase in confident hijab-wearing women but there is also an increase in attacks on them. Many of the women who choose to wear the hijab are quite content individuals but face a lot of hostility and it baffles us that it offends people. Islam is a very spiritual faith and no-one should be judging the faith by what people wear.”
However, research conducted by Huddersfield University among residents of Dewsbury has found that burkha wearing is damaging to community relations.
Prof Thomas explained: “There is unhappiness about face-covering from the non-Muslim community because they perceive it as a barrier to communication.
“There’s the idea that men are forcing women to cover up, but it’s controversial in the Muslim community itself and there are Muslim families who don’t want their women to wear the burkha because they know it’s divisive.
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“The hijab is another matter. There is a danger that we read too much into hijab wearing. I come from South Wales and when I was a kid I can remember my grannies and aunts wearing headscarves whenever they went out.
“We have noticed an increase in the number of young women wearing the hijab on the campus but I think there is a whole fashion sub-culture with headscarves; they accessorize them and make a fashion statement with them.
“There is also good academic research evidence that younger women are interpreting Islam in their own way and using the hijab to establish their identity. They are not being conservative, but looking forward, moving into higher education and jobs and showing that they’re still good Muslims.
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“One of the most important things is that we have to be able to talk about such issues. Prevent hasn’t focussed enough on education and debate with young people. It’s been about monitoring people, which can be counter-productive.
“We need to be openly debating these things, in our homes, at work, in schools and communities.”
MEND was founded by entrepreneur and philanthropist Sufyan Gulam Ismail, who is prominent in financial services, global real estate, private equity and wealth consultancy. Sufyan is involved in humanitarian relief work across the globe and is a trustee of the 1st Ethical Charitable Trust, an Islamic educational organisation working in Britain.
MEND’s website, www.mend.org.uk, has information on how to join the campaign and become involved with a local group. Statistics gathered by the organisation reveal that only one in four British people feels positively about Islam and 44% believe there are too many Muslims in Britain.