From arson to vicious assaults: the reality of daily life for Muslims

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sheraz Ghafoor is so wearily resigned to a daily battery of racist abuse that when two young white men walked into his off-licence in Hull and warned that he and his family would "burn in their beds" in the small flat above, he thought little of it. "We just assumed it was more of the same," said the Mr Ghafoor.

It was a grave and almost deadly miscalculation of the level of hatred felt towards him. At 1.30am, six days after the warning, the doors to his premises were forced open, an accelerant was tipped across the floor and within minutes an explosion had reduced the building to a shell.

The force of the blast, in the city's Stoneferry district, threw the metal security shutters into the road and destroyed much of his stock and possessions but by chance Mr Ghafoor, 20, his wife, Neelam, and their two children – aged 14 months and three months – were away visiting friends that night. "Every time I look at the shop I can just see four dead bodies lying on the floor," said Mr Ghafoor, who has since taken his family into hiding in Bradford. "We are so lucky we were out for the night."

The attack on 19 November, which is being investigated as racist by Humberside Police, is not entirely out of keeping with the misguided minority which has encumbered Hull with a dubious race relations history in recent years. Last year asylum-seekers were forced to flee the city after being attacked by thugs wearing knuckle-dusters.

But it is also an extreme example of a new way of life for Muslims who have been living with an overwhelming increase in race attacks since 11 September, according to figures released by the Islamic Human Rights Commission. For while the media spotlight may have shifted from the attacks, the violence has not stopped.

The commission has logged details of more than 400 attacks on Muslims in Britain since the terrorist hijackings in the US – four times the number it has received in an entire year since it was established four years ago.

Details of the attacks, which are given to the commission by its 300 field workers and passed on by other Muslim organisations, show they range from nuisance phone calls to hammer attacks. But an increased proportion are of a physical nature according to the commission and many are not reported to the police – which means that, as ever, race crime statistics are not painting an entirely accurate picture of the British Muslim experience.

Arzu Merali, director of research at the commission, said: "There is still not a high level of trust in the police, and their ability to stop this, to make people report it.

The level of racist abuse does not remotely compare with that felt by American Muslims since 11 September. In the US, two people have died at the hands of racists while the most serious British attack recorded by police was on a London taxi driver in September. The Afghan driver, Hamidullah Gharwal, 28, was left paralysed from the neck down after being attacked by three customers he had picked up in Twickenham.

But the degree of low-level abuse is considerable, particularly that experienced by easily identifiable Muslim women wearing the hijab. The commission's data reveals them to be the victims of more attacks than men. Though the attacks are nearly always in public places, non-Muslims do not tend to intervene.

At 6pm on the day after the World Trade Centre attack, a 20-year-old university student boarded a crowded bus in Longsight, Glasgow, and was heading for her sister's house when a white man sitting behind her said "you Muslim bastard" and hit her over the head with a fizzy drink bottle. The 20-year-old was dazed but no one came to her help.

"I didn't know what to do, the driver didn't do anything even though he saw what had happened," she said. "The bus was full. It is a sad thing that because of anti-Muslim feeling no one came to my rescue." Much of the abuse is more insidious. In Manchester, Zahra Afzal, 38, a political scientist, said shopping trips near her home in the Cheetham Hill area had become an unpleasant ordeal.

Soon after 11 September, a group of women stared and laughed at her as she shopped in the hijab. Some days later, she was trying to back her car out of the shopping centre when a white man accosted her and began shouting. In a third incident, she had stopped at traffic lights when she was abused by women in an adjacent car.

Mrs Afzal's husband, Qasim, said: "This hatred is coming from people who would never have thought of hating somebody before 11 September. Those people who had been coming to terms with ethnic diversity are being pushed back."

Mr Afzal, who is chairman of Manchester Liberal Democrats and a member of the Liberal Democrats' national executive organisation, added that the way Islam has been depicted meant that anyone on the street who wore the hijab or a beard was seen as being opposed to the West's "war on terrorism". The commission believes community relations have been set back 10 years, to the kind of atmosphere which followed Iran's declaration of a fatwa on the author Salman Rushdie, when every Muslim was considered a fanatic.

Some of the abuse it has recorded masquerades as politics, like that experienced by a Muslim woman in Morden, south London, who received a British National Party leaflet through her letter-box, "spelling out" Islam: "I: Intolerance, S: Slaughter, L: Looting, A: Arson, M: Molestation of women."

By other accounts, it is also ingrained in officialdom. The Oldham independent review panel, which examined the cause of last year's rioting, cited the experience of a young, hijab-clad Asian woman who got a job, then heard a conversation between colleagues along the lines of: "She's all right really; she thinks like a Westerner".

In the London borough of Brent, Islamophobic attacks have been so common since 11 September that local health authorities recently held a community forum to discuss ways of tackling the problem. There has always been a level of racism, said Ayesha Khan of Brent and Harrow health authority, but many of the offenders felt that the 11 September atrocity legitimised Islamophobia.

Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he believed attacks had decreased since an initial September backlash because of the intervention of Tony Blair.

Police forces also report varying degrees of race crime since 11 September. Greater Manchester Police, which is keeping an "open mind" on the motive of arsonists who caused damage to mosques in Fallowfield and Bolton, declared "no noticeable rise" yesterday. Tony Burden, Chief Constable of South Wales, revealed there had been 180 racist incidents during September compared to 128 in the same month in 2000.

However The Independent has heard from individuals who have not contacted the police. Afia, a young pharmacist, was told she was no longer wanted by her employer, an independent chemist who insisted she wear Western clothes. A woman wrote from a Northern town describing how her son Azad, 14, had had his face pushed into a toilet bowl by a gang, who then wrote "Osama" on his forehead and pushed a sausage into his mouth to force him to break his Ramadan fast.

"We expected all this to peter out after the bombing of Afghanistan started," said Arzu Merali. "But until now we've had the same level of reporting coming in, if not more." Her own telephone experiences have placed her on the receiving end too: several anonymous calls have warned of various fates which may befall her.