Guest post by An-Nisa Society
Two weeks ago, a young Muslim mother with her baby was attacked with Islamophobic abuse on the 260 bus in Harlesden. She was called a ‘jihadi,’ referring to her faith, and was sworn at in an unprovoked incident. No one, except another Muslim woman, challenged the man. Even more shocking was that the Mayor of Brent stood right next to the abuser and did not report the incident to the relevant authorities.
By chance, journalist Shamim Chowdhury was on the same bus, challenged the abuser and offered support to the woman that was being attacked. She was consequently threatened by him as well. What was particularly tragic, is that several passengers on the bus, rather than support the traumatised victim, raised their voices in support of the male abuser! This, despite, judging from the image, everyone on the bus and the abuser were people of colour!
Shamim managed to take a photograph of the abuser and posted it onto Twitter detailing what happened and also reported the incident to the police and Transport for London (TfL).
The tweet went viral, reaching and surpassing half a million views. Members of the public identified that the woman in the flowery top standing next to the abuser was actually the Mayor of Brent, Councillor Orleen Hylton. The issue is not that the Mayor did not challenge the abuser there and then, but that in her position and role as Mayor and Councillor, she did not later report the incident to the police and the relevant departments within Brent Council. It was her duty and moral obligation to speedily report the incident and take action, and we cannot understand why she chose to remain silent.
As a Brent-based charity that works for the welfare of Muslim women and families for the past 35 plus years, we were horrified with what had happened. We immediately asked Brent Council for a response. Working with Muslim women, we know that many live in constant fear of being attacked, as Islamophobic abuse is rife in Brent. We circumscribe our lives to avoid abuse, as we don’t feel safe. However, none of us can avoid going out or using public transport.
Sadly, we have had several reports of attacks on Muslim women in Brent and in particular on buses and bus stops on the Harrow Road route through Harlesden. It begs the question as to why this is happening on this route and it needs to be investigated.
Muslims suffer the highest levels of abuse and attacks across the UK, and these are greatly under-reported and not even recorded for a variety of reasons. Muslim women especially are on the frontlines of Islamophobic attacks.
In Brent we have had reports of many Muslim women being attacked. Road crossings seem to be a favoured place for attacks as well as on buses. Outside Islamia School in Salusbury Road, there have been several instances of attempts at running Muslim women over, usually with children in tow! One Muslim woman at another crossing, had a woman stop her car, get out and hit her on the head with, ironically, a bunch of flowers, while shouting anti-Muslim expletives.
So, you can imagine our distress and horror at this incident on the 260 bus. Hundreds of people on Twitter were also enraged at the attack, with many leaving comments and retweeting. The views of the photo that the journalist posted were rapidly increasing, reaching over 630k at the time of writing. On my personal LinkedIn page post of the incident, there are over 20,500 impressions today and rising, with numerous shares and comments agreeing that such attacks were rife and expressing shock at the Mayor’s lack of action. The Muslim community in Brent were also sharing the incident on WhatsApp and in person with each other, speaking about their shock and distress. Despite the upset the incident caused and the growing comments, Brent Council remained silent for five days.
We expected that there would have been a deluge of councillors expressing concern about the safety of women, there are 57 of them! But disappointingly, only a couple of Muslim male councillors responded and a new female Muslim councillor, Ishma Moeen, who expressed strong concern and gave a promise to work for change. Why is a Muslim woman being attacked locally, only a concern for Muslim councillors?
The response that eventually came from the council was shocking in its banality, basically a ‘fobbing off’ type of classic corporate statement. Clearly, they did not give the incident any importance. The response from the Mayor, whose ward consists of 27% Muslims, sounded uncaring and inconsistent. She said she was at the front of the bus, so denied that she saw or heard anything but also contradictorily added that she was intimidated, which is why she didn’t intervene! It seems highly unlikely according to journalist, Shamim Chowdury, that the Mayor did not see and hear what was going on as such a big ruckus was created on the bus.
The Mayor’s lack of action as a public servant is of grave concern. In our view, she displayed moral cowardice and lack of integrity. She has not even apologised at the very least for her actions. This year, funnily enough, the Mayor was appointed for her ‘service’ to the borough In her appointment statement she “assured the community that she will work tirelessly…to surpass expectations and deliver the best results for Brent’s diverse communities.” As a result of her actions, how can the community trust the Mayor to fairly represent their issues with understanding and vigour, if she ignores abuse that she’s been a witness to? She has lost all credibility. She has failed in her duty to Brent residents. The moral and right thing for her to do is to resign. Or failing that the council should sack her.
However, neither has happened, she continues to be a guest of honour at events in the borough, shockingly so soon after the bus incident. There was the Mayor’s Fun Day, in Wembley on Saturday 16 September, organised by Brent Health Matters, which is a council initiative, and she was seen laughing and enjoying herself, as well as being given status and kudos.
On Sunday, she was guest of honour at Queens Park Day, where she was spotted by a Muslim Harlesden resident, whose daughter was performing there. The resident approached the Mayor, and politely told her that ‘her response to a woman being verbally abused was disappointing.’ She replied, that a statement had been issued. He asked if she could tell him the main points of the statement as he had not seen it, and whether she had written it herself or if was it delegated. At that point, security stepped in and whisked her away! The Harlesden resident was very disturbed by the incident and Brent Council’s lack of robust response. He told me, “The Mayor has a responsibility as a representative of the community to model the behaviour we ask of our kids.” He added, “I have a daughter, who will soon be travelling to school alone on local buses and if the Mayor can’t take action to keep the local area and buses safe, then we are very concerned.”
The Mayor at Queens Park Day
So, not only has the Mayor not resigned or been suspended, she continues to merrily carry out her duties at local community events in total disregard for the huge upset amongst the community. This behaviour is symptomatic of the lack of moral integrity in local and central government, and politics generally. It also sends signals that Islamophobia and attacking vulnerable Muslim women is okay.
Meanwhile, the council’s statement did not answer any of the questions that we posed, other than it had been reported to the police (not by the Mayor obviously)! We had asked the council for specifics to let us know who in the police is dealing with this incident; what are they doing about it; we asked for figures on Islamophobic attacks in Brent; what are the monitoring processes; how are these attacks recorded. There was radio silence and still is. We do not accept their condescending statement, and want tangible and measurable actions so that such attacks are stopped.
We also wanted to know what the council is doing to ensure the safety of Muslims, particularly Muslim women. Apparently, there is a Brent Council Community Safety Team, surely, they should be aware of and have policies to deal with Islamophobia? But when we have asked for it, the council ignores the request and does not provide the information which should be readily available. Instead, the council has proposed a disingenuous offer of hosting an event for Islamophobia Awareness Month. The event was a big flop last year and had no strategic objective to deal with Islamophobia. And as far as we are concerned, without anti-Islamophobia measures being embedded in its policies and procedures, such an event is just window dressing and pointless.
We are convinced that if a woman had been attacked from any other community in Brent with the Brent Mayor present and ignoring the incident, it would have had a much more urgent and robust response. We feel that we, Brent Muslims are ignored and are treated with contempt by the council.
Abuse and attacks and how they are mishandled by the authorities puts the spotlight once again on widespread Islamophobia in the public sphere. However, that’s not only where it exists. It is thriving in the public sector, which is supposed to cater equitably and sensitively for the needs of our citizens, who are tax payers.
The way this attack has been so atrociously handled, demonstrates a clear example of institutional Islamophobia. Coincidentally, in a separate incident in a few days after the attack, a group of Muslim women set up a petition, due to institutional Islamophobia they suffered in Everyone Active Leisure Centres within Brent and Westminster, who demonstrated a complete lack of understanding or respect for the needs of Muslim women in sport. This type of insensitivity leads to Muslim women not taking part in sports, contributing to poor health outcomes.
To begin with, contrary to the incorrect popular belief, Islamophobia is not about racism (which is about colour). Islamophobia is about a hatred, prejudice and ignorance of Islam and Muslims, resulting in abuse, attacks and discrimination. It can be perpetrated by people of all colours against Muslims of all colours. Institutional Islamophobia is anti-Muslim discrimination in the public sector, both in its internal practices and service delivery, this can be deliberate or unintended, due to ignorance and lack of understanding.
To be clear, Muslims are a multi-ethnic, heterogenous and diverse community. We are not ‘Asians!’ Our values and most of our needs are influenced by our faith, whether we practise Islam a little or a lot. We are all as a group, also targets for abuse, prejudice and discrimination.
Brent is a good example, of how even in such a multi-cultural and multi-faith borough, both Islamophobic abuse and institutional anti-Muslim discrimination are thriving. As a charity that has been based in Brent for almost 40 years, widely known for being at the forefront of campaigning against Islamophobia, we have been saddened and disappointed by this council’s consistent indifference and lack of concern for its Muslim residents. We have been advocating and appealing to the council for decades to address the invisibility of Brent Muslims to the council and its own institutional Islamophobia. See our blog post on Wembley Matters about the Invisibility of Muslims in Brent.
Despite, the awards that Brent has won for its diversity, there is actually rampant institutional Islamophobia, which includes insensitive and discriminatory workplace practices and service delivery. Let’s just look at a few examples:
Muslims staff employed in Brent - By their own figures Muslim staff in Brent are underrepresented (10%) and are not commensurate to the large number of Muslims (21%) that live in Brent. Why is there an under-representation of Muslim council employees? In addition, Brent Muslim employees have reported Islamophobic discrimination and abuse internally to us, which they feel afraid to report to the council due to repercussions and victimisation.
Public Services - The council provides a wide number of services such as child protection, children in care, health, housing, education amongst a lot of other services. Insensitivity, outright discrimination and lack of understanding of Muslim needs are responsible for Muslim social exclusion; research and surveys repeatedly show Muslims have some of the highest levels of ill health and socio-economic disadvantage in the country, including Brent. From our own experience with Brent Council, over decades, through our interactions and the experience of our community, we believe we are ill-served by Brent Council.
While this was happening, the latest of numerous research reports showing Muslim specific disadvantage and inequalities, was published showing that Muslims had higher rates of death from Covid and, as significant numbers of worked in health services as essential workers, they faced greater exposure to the risks. This demonstrates that research using faith as a factor, alongside race and ethnicity, clearly highlight more accurately the true reality of the discrimination that Muslim specifically suffer.
We are not asking for special treatment or privileges. We are saying that the council needs to take Islamophobia seriously in all its forms. It needs to tackle Islamophobia as a priority, separate to race-based approaches. Race-based categorisations, identifying and delivering services to communities as racial groups does not work for Muslims. It has excluded us and
does not meet our faith-based needs and issues. We want Islamophobia to be recognised as a serious form of abuse that is a separate type of hate to racism, and is also a factor for institutional discrimination, although racism and Islamophobia can sometimes intersect. That is why we do not accept the toothless and incorrect definition of Islamophobia that it is a ‘form of racism.’
An-Nisa Society fought for decades for religious discrimination to be outlawed. Since the Equality Act 2010 came into force, Religion & Belief has been recognised as one of the nine protected characteristics; it is as important as racial discrimination. The public sector now has a statutory public sector equality duty to address discrimination based on religion and belief. By ignoring us, especially as we the community are demanding action that Islamophobia be tackled, they are effectively breaking the law.
Earlier this year, we launched our report. ‘Islamophobia - From Denial to Action’ about tackling Islamophobia in the Public Sector. The report presents a working definition of Islamophobia as a form of hate, prejudice and discrimination that emanates from a hatred of Islam and Muslims. It goes into this issue extensively and makes practical recommendations for change. However, it was ignored by Brent Council. It might be helpful if the council would actually read it and implement the recommendations.
We understand, there is a review of Brent’s Diversity, Equalities and Inclusion (DEI) strategy underway right now. This seems an ideal time to overhaul the outdated DEI race-based classifications in identifying communities and strategies that are no longer, if they ever were, fit for purpose. It needs to ensure its own policies and procedures and service delivery meet the needs of all its communities, which means factoring in faith in such a faith-dominant borough.
Islamophobia is not harmless. We know that Islamophobia kills! Unless the council uses this opportunity to take Islamophobia seriously, we demand an independent investigation into institutional Islamophobia within Brent Council. If this tragic incident triggers a will from the council to address Islamophobia, then it will be something.