Britain is stuck in a vicious cycle of violence that will only get worse as long as communities are polarized and Muslims demonized by an unsophisticated government and media narrative, say experts on extremism, on a national day of action against the government's counter-terrorism strategy.
University campuses across the country saw students distributing leaflets, holding meetings, and organizing protests on Monday against the government's "Prevent" strategy which organizers of the day of action say is only worsening a growing tide of Islamophobia in the UK.
Reports of Islamophobic hate crimes in London rose by 70 percent between July 2014 and 2015, the Metropolitan Police announced in September, a surge that was followed by a even greater spike in the weeks following the Paris terror attacks last month. The number of reported Islamophobic crimes rose from 24 in the week of November 13 to 76 two weeks later, the Met said last Friday.
Monday also saw reports that a Muslim man was thrown off a bus in England's southwest city of Bristol after passengers said he was making them "uncomfortable."
"We had between 165 and 170 incidences reported to us two weeks after the Paris attacks; we'd usually get between 50 and 60 [in a two week period]," said Fiyaz Mughal, director of Tell Mama — an organization which gathers information about Islamophobic incidents in the UK and offers advice and guidance to British Muslims.
"Clearly there was a spike after Paris. We usually find that whenever there are major international terrorist incidents: [the murder of British soldier] Lee Rigby, Charlie Hebdo. What's concerning is the sheer frequency and volatility of these incidences and the impact they're having on community relations," Mughal told VICE News.
A hashtag which went viral after a knife attack on London on Saturday did offer a "ray of hope," he said. A video showed a bystander to the incident — in which a man with a knife attacked a passenger while reportedly shouting "This is for Syria" — shout at the attacker "You ain't no Muslim bruv," and the phrase took off.
The #YouAintNoMuslimBruv hashtag has been used on Twitter more than 100,000 times since. On Monday, "You ain't no Muslim bruv" was repeated by British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mughal said the hashtag was very welcome news. "Anything that disassociates Muslims and Islam from these attacks is really positive."
Tell Mama offers online support and telephone support, and communicates with up to 1,000 British Muslims each week. After every major incident, Mughal said, his group encourages Muslims to try and counter the narrative put about by the media by posting positive stories and reemphasizing that they want to be part of their communities.
"It's quite clear when there's a big incident and the press reporting takes place, there's a link between negative reporting and the rise in Islamophobia," he said, arguing that Muslim communities need to show the wider community is not responsibly by getting active online and publicly disassociating themselves.
Women are particularly susceptible to attacks, Mughal continued, saying that in particular "there is something about the face veil" that can encourage people to "dehumanize" Muslim women.
"We have seen some violent incidences," he said. "Most of them are general abuse. We've seen mosques that have been attacked, Islamic centers that have been attacked, women who are punched in the back, a woman was punched twice in the back on the bus last week."
Charlie Winter, Senior Research Associate at Georgia State University's Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, and formerly with anti-extremism organization the Quilliam Foundation, said an unsophisticated societal understanding of and response to extremism was a major problem.
"Everyone needs to be more active in recognizing that there is a strategy behind terrorist attacks and they're not just irrational brutality," he told VICE News. "The predictability of any kind of attack like this and its aftermath is shocking and thoroughly, thoroughly depressing. If we just take the last few weeks and the case in point: Paris happened, communities polarized, intervention was escalated."
Winter said Saturday's attack in Leytonstone was a "clockwork enactment" of Islamic State strategy. "You do an attack, communities get polarized, tensions rise, escalation in the region increases, that continues to exacerbate and animate the nutters in society and then something like this happens and it's a vicious circle, it's a cycle of violence that continues and continues and continues," he said.
The #YouAintNoMuslimBruv hashtag offered an "alternative narrative that kind of cuts through the rhetoric of jihadists and violent extremists," he said, "And for that reason I think it's really important."
The National Union of Students' black students' officer, Malia Bouattia, said terror attacks were often manipulated and used by governments as a pretense for intensifying counter-terrorism measures, and ordinary Muslims were often targeted in "reprisal" attacks.
The UK government's Prevent strategy, a decade-old counter-terrorism initiative, was recently altered to say that teachers and lecturers have a duty to spot and report signs of "non-violent extremism" in students and report them to the police. This has been labeled "deeply controversial" with Muslim imams calling the rules "divisive" and school authorities saying it stifles healthy discussion.
"[Over the past academic term] we've already seen plenty of cases of what we could call harmful implementation of the duty, including students being referred [under] Prevent on such weak grounds as just mentioning the word terrorism, as well as more insidious examples like cameras being installed in university prayer rooms and tests on extremism being handed out to Muslim primary school children which contribute to a growing sense of securitization and discrimination against Muslim students," Bouattia said.
Islamophobic attacks or the fear of attacks had become part of the "daily reality" for British Muslims, she continued, and this had only got worse since the Paris attacks.
"I can't claim to speak on behalf of Muslim students on the whole, but in general from what I could gather from those around me there was a deep sense of dismay amongst us, and amongst black students in general, for what we could see as a now cyclical occurrence of warmongering from the British state against the Middle East which will inevitably lead to more civilians deaths and instability," she said. "Muslim students in the UK are amongst the most active campaigners amongst the student body and it is something we will continue organizing against I am sure, but it will be accompanied by the heavy burden of regret."
Participant in the NUS day of action against Prevent. (Photo via NUS Welfare campaign)
On Friday, a vigil was held at a London mosque which was the target of an attempted firebomb attack the previous week.
The incident was "part of a growing trend of anti-Muslim hatred in London following the Paris attacks earlier this month," Mohammed Kozbar, the general secretary of the Finsbury Park Mosque, told VICE News. "Our community members, women and men who attend the mosque, have been physically attacked. I have female members of the congregation here who say they are afraid to walk alone or to go shopping or take public transport in recent weeks. It is serious: these incidents are increasing, not declining."
At a protest outside British parliament last Tuesday while MPs were debating and voting whether to bomb Syria, VICE News spoke to Thamanna Hussain, a 29-year-old Muslim nurse from London, and her sister, Sharmina, a 26-year-old maternity nursing assistant.
Both sisters said friends of theirs had been abused in recent weeks. "We're lucky that we've never had any issues with it, but I've heard stories and I do think it is definitely happening more so now than ever before," Thamanna said.
"We have heard from friends that they've been racially abused and even physically abused. To be honest with you it is very scary because we are afraid of terrorists as well as we are afraid to go out and [have] people thinking that we are terrorists. "
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd