Coronavirus: ‘Dangerous’ conspiracy theories could spark wave of Islamophobic attacks when lockdown lifts, report warns

Exclusive: Report raises concern that online hate could translate into attacks when restrictions lift

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 19 April 2020 16:28 BST
How might lockdown measures be eased?

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Muslims are being targeted using “dangerous” conspiracy theories claiming they are spreading coronavirus by violating lockdown restrictions, a report has warned.

Far-right extremists have been circulating old footage to claim that mosques are still open, causing police to be inundated with complaints by duped members of the public.

Abusive online posts have called for the demolition of all mosques to “cure” coronavirus, and Muslim women have been the victims of suspected hate crimes in public during the outbreak.

A report commissioned by independent members of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group (AMHWG), seen exclusively by The Independent ahead of its release, warned that the claims could lead to a spike in attacks when the lockdown lifts.

Co-author Imran Awan, a professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, said: “The Covid-19 crisis has been used to create ‘others’ of Muslims, blaming them for the spread of the virus. The spread of fake news online is contributing to this extremely worrying trend.

“While we haven’t yet seen this translate into physical hate crimes, once social distancing rules are relaxed there are concerns that this could be the case.”

In one recent incident, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and a protective mask overheard a man in a supermarket say to his partner “look, a bomb” as he pointed at her.

In another incident, which was reported to the Metropolitan Police, a Muslim woman said she was approached by a man who coughed in her face and claimed he had coronavirus.

Roxana Khan-Williams, who co-authored the report, warned that anti-Muslim hatred and conspiracy theories were “penetrating common-sense thinking”.

She told The Independent that during her research, she saw examples of people who were not being deliberately Islamophobic but “were seeing this fake news and absorbing it”.

“It has gained a lot of traction, which is what has made it more dangerous,” she added.

“It’s the usual suspects peddling [anti-Muslim narratives] but it’s gained a lot of support. What they’ve done has worked because people are worried and Muslims are being scapegoated.”

Analysing posts across Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp groups, the report identified narratives claiming that mosques and Muslims are spreading coronavirus, police are giving preferential treatment to Muslims, and that the “UK’s Muslim population is responsible for a quarter of the country’s Covid-related deaths”.

“Online narratives rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry are evolving and transforming in the new social context created by the pandemic,” the report says.

“In this new context, Islam and Muslims have been associated directly with the causes of the pandemic, fitting well within broader well-known far-right themes depicting Muslims as parasitical to society – foreign, alien and ‘disease-like’.”

Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson and former Ukip leader Gerard Batten have been among those sharing posts targeting Muslims in connection with the pandemic.

An old video shared by Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, claimed to show worshippers leaving a mosque in Birmingham during the lockdown.

The footage sparked a deluge of complaints to West Midlands Police, which was forced to investigate the false reports.

“Although we can confirm the footage was filmed in Small Heath, our officers have conducted enquiries and are satisfied that the mosque is currently closed,” said a police statement on 30 March, adding that it had not opened since the lockdown was implemented.

It was one of a series of similar incidents, including fake claims over mosques in London, Leeds and Shrewsbury.

The report contains numerous posts claiming that police were turning a “blind eye” to the violations and spreading “unfounded narratives that argue ethnic minorities, and particularly Muslims, are given preferential treatment by the police”.

Its authors are concerned that similar claims will resurface during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week and traditionally sees Muslims gather for prayers and meals with relatives and friends.

The Centre for Media Monitoring, which campaigns over the reporting of Islam, launched complaints last week about news articles that claimed “experts fear social gatherings in Ramadan will lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases”.

The Muslim Council of Britain called the stories “untrue and dangerous” after issuing guides on performing Ramadan prayers at home and conducting digital worship.

The body said more than 375 mosques and prayer facilities in the UK suspended prayers before Boris Johnson announced the UK-wide lockdown, and the remainder complied with the restrictions.

The Muslim Council of Britain previously issued theological messages saying the individual obligation to perform Friday prayers in congregations was lifted because of the pandemic.

The vast majority of coronavirus-linked hate crimes so far reported in the UK targeted people of Chinese or southeast Asian appearance.

Police said they recorded “localised” spikes in offences that slowed when the virus started spreading more rapidly outside of China.

A report issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion on Friday said antisemitic hate speech had also “risen alarmingly” during the outbreak.

Ahmed Shaheed said it was being exploited “to spread hatred against the Jews and other minorities” amid the spread of conspiracy theories claiming that Jewish people are responsible for developing and spreading coronavirus.

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