From ‘radical clerics’ to victims of hate

The attack on the Imam from Hull is a wakeup call for us all.

Imams are increasingly vulnerable to attacks [Reuters]

It’s fair to say when most people think of anti-Muslim prejudice and hate incidents, they tend to make the assumption that it mainly affects Muslim women. Indeed, it’s true to say that a number of reported cases have revealed that Muslim women have had their headscarves ripped off and are the victims of an increasingly Islamophobic climate, following Woolwich.

Equally, however, the recent attack on Imam Hafiz Salik from the Hull Mosque and Islamic Centre should make us probe further into the dark world of hate crimes committed against many of our Imams in the UK. Initially, Humberside police said they would not treat the attack on the Imam as a racially or religiously motivated attack because the incident took place in the dark, however, they later confirmed that the attack was a racist incident because the victim perceived it to be so.

Hull, which was recently announced as the city of culture for 2017, and is known for being the home of the poet Philip Larkin and the brilliant Hull Truck theatre, does not have a stain on it because of this latest attack on the Imam. However, it is a reminder for all of us who care about victims of hate crimes that Imams have become the new “invisible victims” we often never hear about.

Maligning Imams

Imams are the heartbeat of the mosques and the communities they live in. However, they tend to be negatively portrayed by some parts of the media who describe them as being somewhat backward, entrenched in their own religious or cultural philosophies and not really engaging with communities. This is further crystallised with high profile documentaries showing some  Imams agreeing to perform underage marriages, and some Imams in Britain directly contributing to “a culture of hostility against white British women”.

However, an equally important area in this discussion is the impact of hate incidents against Imams. When was the last time a documentary was aired about the abuse and victimisation of Imams? And that’s not because it doesn’t happen to them, because my study with British Muslims, and the impact of counter-terrorism legislation upon them, led me to meet a number of Imams in the UK.   

They were mainly from the South-Asian subcontinent, namely, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, but the stories they told me about the racial and physical abuse they received was harrowing. I remember vividly the depiction from an Imam in my hometown of Birmingham, who told me how he was spat on for simply, in his words, having a “Muslim appearance”.   

Hate crime is a disease and we need to find a cure for it before it becomes a wider pandemic and problem within our society.

This was not an isolated case; another Imam told me that, once, as he led prayers in a car park, a group of young people told him he was “Muslim scum“. This does seem to resonate with the wider abuse a group of Muslim football supporters received recently when they were praying in the concourse of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand at Upton Park, in east London. On the Facebook page where the videos were posted, one of the comments was: “I’m no racist but seeing bout 30 Muslims get their prayer mats out at half time in front of a load a west ham fans at the game in the concourse has to be one of the dumbest things they can do if they don’t want  to be targeted or stereotyped in society. # Not doing yourself any favours [sic].” 

And this does also reveal a wider scale of often neglected anti-Muslim prejudice against Imams throughout Europe and beyond. For example, the rector of Lyon’s main mosque, Kamel Kabtane has had direct experience of seeing anti-Muslim hate. In 2012, he received death threats in a letter with the words [Fr]: “A bomb will go ‘boom’ and it is not a pig’s head that you will find outside your mosque but your own…. Sod off quickly to Dubai and die there if you don’t want to die here.”

Rise of attacks

This recent attack against the Imam from Hull, who was punched in the face and has been told he is likely to be permanently blind in one eye, is not an isolated incident. Indeed, we have seen a steady rise of attacks against Imams: An Imam was killed in an arson attack at a mosque in Brussels after a suspect entered the mosque armed with an axe and spread flammable liquid before setting it alight; and an Imam was mugged in a Manhattan subway station and was a victim of racist and religious slurs.

No Imam walks down the street with a stamp on his forehead that says, “Look, I am an Imam: Hit me”, but they are Muslims, whether they have a beard or not, or are simply wearing a cap. Or, indeed, they do not even have to be Muslim to become a target; it could be purely because of the way they dress and their appearance. Take, for example, the recent case of David Flores, who is not a Muslim and was attacked in New York City. Vigilantes mistook him for a Muslim because he was wearing a small woven cap. He told the New York Post that they yelled, “Kill him; he’s a *** Muslim!” Or, a Sikh Columbia University professor who was badly beaten on a New York City street earlier this year by a mob that apparently believed he was a Muslim. The group of people who attacked him called him a terrorist and shouted, “Get Osama!” 

Hate crime remains a complex issue within society and one that needs a range of measures to help understand and tackle this phenomenon. Unfortunately, reporting it remains a problem for vulnerable victims who are in fear that they may be targeted if they speak out. The lesson we can learn from this incident comes from the Hull Imam, whose son, Atweeq said, “My father is a religious man and believes in patience. He has always taught us that.”  

And while patience may be a virtue, it’s about time we also started investigating hate crimes against Imams more thoroughly and started to recognise that while Imams are meant to be the beacon for Muslim societies, they are also, like us, human, and therefore susceptible to abuse and hate simply because of their appearance.  

Imran Awan is a senior lecturer in criminology at the Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University. His latest co-edited book Extremism, Counter-Terrorism and Policing is published by Ashgate (2013).