Will Islamophobia Grow in the UK Following the Paris Attacks?
The refugees who've risked their lives to flee terrorism could find themselves becoming scape goats.
No sooner was France thrown into mourning than the knee-jerk vilification of foreigners had begun in some quarters. While confusion still reigned, and the death toll climbed, French TV played host to those determined to make political capital from the tragedy, demanding the shutting down of borders, and a rejection of refugees.
In the UK, the Mail on Sunday was happy to run with a front-page headline of "Paris Jihads 'got in as fake refugees'" on the basis that a Syrian passport was found near the scene, despite the numerous reasons to be circumspect.
About that: Serbian police have now confirmed they believe the passport to be a fake. As yet, French authorities have not said if that man's fingerprints match any of the attackers' remains.
The lightening fast leap by newspapers, commentators, and people on social media to blame refugees raises some tricky questions for those fleeing to the UK. Those we so recently welcomed as heroes to this country may soon find themselves as tabloid pariahs once again, living under suspicion of being potential terrorists.
Gulwali Passarlay, now a student at Manchester University, came to the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan at 13. He pointed out that refugees are in fact fleeing terror themselves. "As refugee myself, I understand the pain and suffering of those human fleeing conflicts and wars," he said. "By associating the criminals who have no doubt committed a crime against humanity with refugees is not only unfair, but insulting to us all."
"Let's focus on the issue at hand and separate the facts from fiction and reality. Most refugees know what it feels to lose a love and to live in a war zone. I hope we will not put them through another test of their life to blame for the actions of those from whom oppression and injustice they are running away," he said.
Elaha Walizadeh, herself born in Afghanistan, now works with refugee women who have been detained in Yarl's Wood immigration detention center. "These women are abused and traumatized for years," she told me when I asked her if she fears for those she works with in the wake of the attacks. "I fear that refugee, and Muslim women, may well be the targets of racist hate crimes after this attack. These often vulnerable people need our support, instead some might try to encourage further intolerance in our communities."
For Abdulaziz Almashi, a Syrian refugee living in Britain since 2009, the idea that these attacks should influence British attitudes to refugees is a deeply worrying thought. "Refugees, just like me, come to Europe to seek asylum in the hope of escaping Isis. If we accuse all refugees of being terrorists here, then Isis is affecting us abroad, too. It means there is no escape."
Almashi suggested that we look elsewhere for a more reasoned response. "In Turkey, there are more than 2 million Syrian refugees. After the bombing attacks there in October, the media didn't try to blame refugees for the atrocities," he said.
He pointed out out the same can be said following the tragedy in Lebanon, which left at least 43 dead in Beirut. "Governments and the media in the west should look to Turkey and Lebanon, nobody there is accusing refugees of being the cause. Why in Europe are we straight away pointing the finger at refugees like me? It makes no sense."
But it's not just those arriving into the UK seeking refuge who could be facing a backlash from the barbarism of Paris. The attacks could cause a rise in general Islamophobia.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a London based charity, has already issued post-Paris precautionary advice for Muslims to take in the UK. "The latest outrage on western soil should not become an excuse for the xenophobic or Islamophobic drawing of linkages with Islam or Muslims who are Daesh's biggest victims," states the IHRC. "Already we have seen commentators insinuating that Muslims in the West must face collective punishment for this crime."
Unfortunately, it's already gone further than insinuation. A Scottish couple who run a takeout restaurant in Fife, were attacked by 15 men over the weekend. The thugs reportedly cited Paris as justification for their racist abuse, leaving 53-year-old Mohammed Khalid hospitalized.
Meanwhile, a student Islamic society has been in the sights of angry idiots, too. "You're all fucking disgusting and it's beyond me why you'd have a place [at] an educational institution near our citizens," read a message sent to Strathclyde University Islamic Society in Scotland. "Oh and don't worry, we'll bomb your mosques and kill your women."
British Muslims know only too well that an attack such as this may well see things worsen day to day. Islamaphobic attacks are up by 70 percent in the past year. The killing of soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013 by violent extremists on London's streets exposed a racist vigilantism among swathes of the UK far right, who petrol bombed mosques and harassed Muslims in the street.
As for official policies towards refugees, there are no changes as yet. For now, Downing Street has remained quiet about refugees, and with the government accepting a mere 20,000 over the next five years, it seems unlikely that calls to allow fewer could be caved into. But the calls are there: British politician Nigel Farage made the link between refugees and terrorism in a speech last night.
The Paris attacks have shocked the world with their brutality. Unfortunately some, in their haste to apportion blame, are likely to target the very people who are the greatest victims of terrorist ideology. Far from turning away from those refugees fleeing violence in Syria and beyond, now is surely the time to welcome them with even greater understanding.
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