How will Brexit affect British Muslims?

If the initial aftermath of the Brexit referendum is anything to go by then the future of British Muslims is going to be turbulent to say the least.

It is obviously a legitimate question to ask how the U.K.’s leaving the European Union will affect three million British Muslims when the population of Muslims in Europe is relatively insignificant. According to a research by the Pew Research Centre, even with a steady increase, there will be only 8 percent Muslims in Europe by 2030. Therefore, on the surface Brexit should have very little impact on Muslims.

Brexit debates hardly mentioned the EU as a “Muslim” issue and there was no overt mention of the words “Islam” and “Muslims” by Brexit campaigners. However, if we look deep into the matter, we will find three important factors emerging that bring Muslims at the forefront of the problem.

The first thing to look at is the statistics of abuse, insults and attacks British Muslims are facing after Brexit. The level of Islamophobic attacks rose sharply after the referendum results, with the Muslim Council of Britain reporting a hundred anti-Muslim hate crimes during the weekend after the referendum alone. There has been a sharp increase of verbal and physical abuse against Muslims online and on the streets, including prominent politicians and journalists being asked to “go home”.

A large number of the abused are Muslim women, particularly those who wear the hijab. According to a report by Tell MAMA, an organization that measures anti-Muslim attacks, “ … women were more likely to be attacked or abused while travelling on public transport to town and city centers or when shopping.” It is true that there have been several attacks on eastern Europeans with Polish centers vandalized and even a Polish individual was killed in a racist incident, yet the number of abuses Muslims have received is much higher compared to eastern Europeans.

Secondly, the debate over immigration often ends with bringing up the “Muslim problem”. Nigel Farage’s poster of refugees with the heading “breaking point” just before the referendum is an illustration of how the Brexit campaign covertly attacked Muslims. As much as the Tory Brexit leaders distanced themselves from the charismatic former UKIP leader, it has no doubt influenced a large number of people to unleash their hatred towards Muslims.

The third reason to believe that Brexit is likely to exacerbate attacks on an already alienated British Muslim community is the bizarre fear mongering of the likelihood of Turkey joining the EU by all sections of the Brexit campaigners. Former justice secretary and one of the figureheads of the Brexit campaign Michael Gove had said one month before the referendum that Turkey would likely join the EU and that it would put the British people in danger due to a supposed high level of criminality among Turkish citizens. This type of stereotyping of an entire nation is nothing but outrageous, but the only counter argument against this by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, who resigned after his remain campaign was defeated, was his effort to “clarify” that there was nothing to fear as Turkey would not join the EU in near future. Although not said explicitly, the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country was one of the main reasons for this astonishing fear mongering.

Brexit has divided the nation, but its immediate aftermath has already shown signs of a worrying future for the ethnic minorities. While it will be hugely unfair to suggest that 52 percent of the population who voted to leave are racists, there is a genuine cause for concern due to the political direction of post-Brexit Britain.

The political landscape of Britain is changing fast with the rise of right-wing parties. Labour Party, traditionally known as pro-immigration and liberal towards ethnic minorities, are in a bitter civil war that is making them almost unelectable, while the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to regroup quickly after their catastrophic results in the last general election.

On the other hand, the ruling Tory party is moving towards the right after the Brexit vote and the coronation of Theresa May as the prime minister. What is most concerning is the establishment of UKIP as a mainstream political party. After being in the fringe for years, it has now successfully galvanized a large section of disenfranchised white working class people around the country and is gaining votes in traditional Labour strongholds in the north. Although it is not clear how its new leader Diane James will fill in the big shoes of Nigel Farage and will be able to overcome the party’s own challenges, there is no doubt that its public support is growing at an alarming rate. The prospect of UKIP gaining parliamentary seats from a divided Labour Party means that big challenges lie ahead for ethnic minorities in general and the Muslim community in particular in the coming years.

One of many potentially disastrous consequences of Brexit is that Britain will no longer be bound by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has been a gatekeeper of human rights in the region. The current Prime Minister, Theresa May, as the home secretary, had threatened to withdraw Britain from the ECHR two months before the referendum if British courts were not allowed to overrule the decisions of the Strasbourg court. Now Mrs. May has the license to do so, which means that many people will lose that last hope of justice if the British justice system fails to uphold human rights of ethnic minorities due to some laws enacted by the government.

Compared to many countries in the West, Britain is still one of the best countries for Muslims to practice their religion and manifest their faith in public. How long they will be able to maintain this freedom remains uncertain as the country has entered into unchartered territories after the Brexit vote. Early signs are not too encouraging and the political situation also gives a bleak picture of what is to come. The only encouraging sign so far is that politicians from all sides, including UKIP have strongly condemned racist attacks on ethnic minorities after the referendum.

Although I don’t see banning of Islamic practices like wearing the hijab an immediate concern, there is certainly a fear that intimidation towards Muslims by some sections of the society, sometimes fuelled by negative media portrayals of Islam and Muslims, are going to increase in the coming days. Whatever direction the country takes after Britain officially leaves the EU, political parties, civil right societies and the media should never keep their eyes off this threat.

Published in The Peninsula, Qatar on 27 September 2016. url:

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