As a former senior police officer, I’ve seen how hate crime rises when politicians make judgments about the Muslim community.
I retired from the Metropolitan police service in 2013, after 30 years during which I had to challenge racism from within and outside the organisation. When I joined in 1983, I could count on one hand the number of officers who did not make racist comments. By the time I left, overt use of the P and N words did not happen, however negative comments about the Muslim community continued. In response, I set up the National Association of Muslim Police, in part to enhance understanding in the police service. But such language persists in the wider community, too.
The comments by Boris Johnson, stating Muslim women wearing burqas “look like letter boxes” and comparing them to “bank robbers”, are racist and likely to stoke violence against Muslim women. The Conservative party has now recognised the seriousness of this incident by initiating an inquiry into Johnson’s conduct.
In my experience working in London – in Harrow, one of the most religiously diverse boroughs in the country, and Tower Hamlets – women are easy victims for racist bigots. I recall reports in 2006 of young mothers wearing veils being spat on by racist thugs shouting “Show us your Paki face” but not wanting to report the crime because they lacked confidence in the police. This was after Jack Straw’s comments about not wanting to see women wearing veils at his constituency surgery.
As many as 170,000 hate crimes go unreported each year. Information from the police across England and Wales showed there were 80,400 hate crimes recorded in 2016-17 – an increase of 29% from the year before. The vast majority of crimes are racially motivated, approximately 78%.
Unfortunately, there is a pattern of hate crime in the UK: after terrorist attacks and when politicians make pronouncements about the Muslim community, Islamophobic attacks increase.
We should be building links with Muslim communities to help strengthen our fight against terrorism, but Johnson’s comments will make this more difficult. Events like this actually strengthen those extremists who declare that Muslims should not work with the state.
In the past, single mothers and immigrants have been fair game for MPs and now Muslims, as Johnson demonstrates, have conveniently become the hate figures of choice.
There has been condemnation of Johnson’s comments from people who have a proud record on equalities: Fiyaz Mughal, founder of the Tell Mama charity which records Islamophobic crime, the Labour MP Naz Shah (the shadow equalities minister) and the Muslim Council of Britain. However, concern over the comments has spread to his own side of the political divide with Theresa May, Lord Sheikh, the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, and Sayeeda Warsi calling them out.
The Muslim community and the wider electorate will now be watching how Johnson is dealt with by his party when they carry out their investigation. Will there be tacit approval or a clear condemnation of his views?
It is seven years since Warsi’s “dinner-table test” speech, in which she warned that Islamophobia was becoming normalised in this country. The dangers are still staring us in the face.
We now have a stark choice: tackle the evils of Islamophobia or stand back and watch mainstream politicians join the bigots who use demeaning language to criticise religious dress. Free speech is a fundamental part of our society but comments used to attack vulnerable women must never become acceptable.
*Dal Babu is a former chief superintendent in the Metropolitan police