Witnesses of UK anti-Muslim hate crimes ‘refusing to help’

Islamophobia victims often receive ‘little support from onlookers’, says report by two UK universities

Ben Flanagan
Ben Flanagan - Al Arabiya News, Dubai
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A British Muslim woman doused with alcohol on train; another whose hijab was pulled off before she suffered a hail of kicks and punches; yet another dubbed an “ISIS sympathizer” by a racist assailant who wanted to “blow her face off”.

All are shocking examples of rising Islamophobic attacks in parts of the UK. But these cases are also examples of where onlookers or police refused to act in the face of such incidents, a new report says.

Researchers from Birmingham City and Nottingham Trent universities have found that a “public refusal to help” was common in several hate attacks against UK Muslims, in what they said reflects a worrying broader trend.

Victims of Islamophobic attacks “often receive little support from onlookers”, according to the study, which was commissioned by Tell MAMA, which monitors attacks on Muslims in the UK.

“The public should intervene and assist victims of anti-Muslim hate,” the report noted. “A number of participants spoke about the lack of intervention and assistance from bystanders.”

The report is due to be launched today in the UK Parliament, during National Hate Crime Awareness Week, which runs until 17 October.

It comes at a time of rising attacks in parts of the country, with London’s Metropolitan Police Service in September reporting a 71 percent rise in physical, verbal and online attacks on Muslims in the 12 months to July. Tell MAMA says 60 percent of UK street-based Islamophobic attacks are against women.

The hijab-wearing woman on the train who had alcohol thrown at her did not receive any support from her fellow passengers, said Imran Awan, Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University, one of the authors of the report.

“She looked around, and no one was doing anything,” he told Al Arabiya News.

The university researchers also interviewed another Muslim woman who was threatened on public transport in the UK.

“One individual said to us they were on the bus, and a group of people starting saying, ‘look, an ISIS sympathizer, let’s blow her head off’,” said Awan. “She went to the bus driver and he looked the other way, and said, ‘I can’t do anything...’.”

In these two cases, the victims did not necessarily wish for bystanders to intervene physically – but rather wanted them to call the police or provide moral support.

“They didn’t want anyone to intervene and stop what was happening, because it might put them in danger as well. But they just wanted a simple phone call, somebody to say that they’d ring the police or do something,” said Awan.

But a third hate-crime victim interviewed by the researchers found that, when she did report the crime against her, the police did not take it seriously. The woman had her hijab pulled off and was then kicked and punched, according to Awan. “When she went to the police, the officer told her to pull herself together,” he said.

The universities’ report was based on 20 interviews with UK victims of online and offline anti-Muslim hate crime, who had previously reported incidents to Tell MAMA.

Awan acknowledged that was a small sample size, with the study intended to provide a “snapshot” of the impact of anti-Muslim abuse.

There is however wider evidence that suggests that humans are often reluctant to intervene in emergency situations in public, regardless of the race or religion of the victim. The so-called “bystander effect” describes the situation where the presence of other people makes individuals less likely to get involved after witnessing a violent act.

But Awan pointed to another academic study that found a specific problem with bystanders not acting when witnessing hate crimes, something he said was “mirrored” in his own report.

The Leicester Hate Crime project, a study by the University of Leicester, found “many” cases where witnesses could have done more to help victims. The study – which surveyed 1,795 people – included many types of hate crime, including those on religious and race grounds, as well as against disabled people, or according to the clothes someone wears or their sexuality.

“The public should be encouraged to take appropriate action when witnessing hate crimes,” the Leicester report noted.

“Seeing bystanders rushing past, turning a blind eye, or simply observing their victimization without offering to assist directly or indirectly, often contributed to a heightened sense of humiliation and isolation.”

The Tell MAMA-commissioned research also details the impact of online abuse against Muslims. One of the interviewees said her picture had been redistributed on Twitter with the caption ‘You Burqa wearing slut’. Another said she had been threatened with violence online, with the perpetrators claiming to have her home address.

Awan said such online abuse was having a negative impact on UK Muslims in the offline world. One women interviewed as part of the study, who had faced abuse online, had started wearing a hat over her hijab because she feared an attack in the ‘real world’, he said.

“People were really worried: If they were sworn at, or called ‘terrorists’ and so forth online, then that would have a real impact offline.”

Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Tell MAMA, called for social media services to do more to crack down on racist abuse online.

“When someone reports in through Twitter, there is no category for reporting racist or prejudiced language,” he wrote in the report.

“[The] structure is set up… only to deal with targeted threats of violence. Yet, we all know that promoting hatred and bigotry does not always involve threats of violence and in these circumstances, companies like Twitter simply shirk their responsibilities by saying that they are meeting legal requirements.”

A Twitter representative said the online service has a reporting system for posts that are against its rules.

“We review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit targeted abuse, violent threats and unlawful use,” a Twitter spokesperson told Al Arabiya News.

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