COVID-19: Blaming Britain’s Muslim Communities
- Chris Allen
Since the start of lockdown, a number of discourses that seek to blame Britain’s Muslims for the COVID-19 crisis have emerged. Drawing on well-established Islamophobic tropes, these discourses not only problematise Muslim communities but have the potential to embolden some within the far right, justify hatred towards all Muslims without differentiation and legitimise hate crimes.
Muslim communities like others have felt the impact of COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, concerns about the spread of COVID-19 among Muslim communities were expressed by existed some NHS officials. A particular concern was that Muslim families tend to have greater numbers of people living in smaller residential spaces - at times having three generations under one roof – which could increase the risk of infection among elderly family members at the same time as limiting opportunities to self-isolate. The Muslim Council of Britain was one of the first organisations to issue unequivocal guidance: calling on all to strictly adhere to social distancing, to close mosques and cancel gatherings for weddings and funerals.
Others have sought to scapegoat Muslims by being far more explicit in the attribution of blame, particularly following the local lockdown in Leicester. Despite claims to the contrary from the Department of Health, social media was soon awash with claims that the city’s Muslims were to blame: first, because they could not understand government guidelines due to not speaking English; second, because they refused to use hand sanitiser given that the teachings of Islam forbid alcohol. Subsequent investigations have shown that neither claim was correct.
Similar reactions have been evident following the recent lockdown in parts of Manchester, east Lancashire and West Yorkshire. As well as covering a number of areas where large numbers of Muslims reside, the fact that the July 31st lockdown was announced on the eve of Eid did not go unnoticed. While this prompted some within Muslim communities to express dismay, others outside those communities responded quite differently. For them, this was clear evidence that Muslims were to blame for the spike in infections behind the lockdown. This perception was reinforced by reports that the government had identified Eid as ‘problematic’ months prior.
To make matters worse, some individual politicians afforded credence to these blaming discourses. Following the northern lockdown, Craig Whittaker – Conservative Member of Parliament for the Calder Valley – stated that because Muslims were not taking COVID-19 seriously, they were to blame for spreading the virus. Despite Whittaker failing to cite any evidence to support his claims, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson subsequently refused to condemn Whittaker or distance himself from the claims made.
Potentially conferring legitimacy on the blame attributed to Muslims, Johnson’s silence may also embolden those within the far-right milieu seeking to exploit the COVID-19 crisis against Muslims and the religion of Islam. The first evidence of this from the far right emerged when a handful of videos taken while driving through densely populated Muslim areas appeared on social media. Filmed by far-right activists, the videos were ‘proof’ that Muslims were spreading the virus through ignoring social distancing. Other videos contained historical footage of Muslims praying, ‘proof’ that Muslims were still attending mosques. The thousands of accompanying tweets using the hashtag #CoronaJihad supported the view that Muslims were deliberately spreading COVID-19.
More pernicious have been those far right activists that have called on those infected with COVID-19 to visit local mosques and Muslim neighbourhoods to spread the virus in Muslim communities. One group, the British National Socialist Movement shared a poster on social media titled “What to do if you get Covid-19”. Incorporating the logos of the World Health Organisation and Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the poster encouraged supporters to ‘deliberately infect’ Muslims. On the other hand, while it has been normal for far right groups to oppose the building of mosques for some time, Britain First’s recent opposition to a new mosque development in central London centred on the biological threat posed by worshippers and the increased risk of virus transmissions.
One can only speculate what impact discourses blaming Muslims might have on large numbers of people already fearful of the effects and consequences of an invisible virus. In localised settings where community tensions exist or where numbers of infections are rising, the scapegoating of Muslims will be wholly detrimental even without the far right exacerbating the situation. Add in the ensuing social and political uncertainties and the situation becomes increasingly concerning given the rising levels of hate crimes targeting Muslims prior to the pandemic.
Time will tell how substantial a threat is posed by these discourses of blame. For now, , it would be wrong to underestimate the very real potential they have to further reify established discourses of Islamophobia and further strengthen an ever more dangerous far right.