Hard times: British Muslims under lockdown
Muslims across Europe, like other religious communities, have faced hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing, for example, has forced public closures of mosques across the continent. But the pandemic has also highlighted pre-existing hardships that Muslims in Europe have uniquely faced. European Muslims, some are arguing, have been under lockdown long before COVID-19. For example, the introduction of protective face masks has raised fresh doubts over the burqa ban in France, with Muslims arguing that enforcing face masks while burqas remain banned reveals how Islamophobia is informing policy in the country. How the pandemic unfolded in the UK, however, has particularly highlighted the hard times European, or specifically British, Muslims have been living in.
The long goodbye
On 6 March 2020, days before the lockdown started in the UK, British Muslim musician and actor Riz Ahmed released his short film, The Long Goodbye. Dropped online, the film received critical acclaim. Leading British film critic Mark Kermode called it a “poetic” and “unflinching” piece that made a “bold and challenging statement about Islamophobia” that was “genuinely quite alarming”. Accompanying his new album of the same name, the film shows a British Asian family dragged from their home by armed white men and executed. The police and neighbours, also white, do not stop this. Riz Ahmed did not intend to simply tell a dystopian story: he was making a prediction. While columnist and author Luke Gittos believed the film offered an unrealistic view of the British public, filmmaker and writer Reza John Vedadi argued that citizens being killed for their religion and ethnicity could indeed happen in the UK.
Claiming the ‘steep rise’ in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant discourse within the UK over the last ten years, Vedadi called The Long Goodbye more a documentary than a piece of fiction. While this discourse may have begun as academic, populist, political, and localised, Vedadi added, it is now more open, accepted, institutionalised, and national. Vedadi and Ahmed are forecasting the results of Brexit too, which many have feared is an anti-immigrant movement. According to a major study in 2018, a third of Brexit voters, believing immigration to be a secret plot to Islamicise Britain, expected that leaving the European Union would also help expel Muslims. Many Brexiteers were trying to not only limit the entry of outsiders: they were also trying to put an end to the entry of Muslims into the UK.
The long lockdown
The inequalities made visible in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic appear to hold up Vedadi and Ahmed’s claims. Muslim frontline health workers were one of the first to die in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were also found to die more often. These death rates not only revealed a failure to better protect black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) health workers but also highlighted how living less equal social and economic lives had made BAME people more vulnerable to health shocks such as COVID-19. These unequal lives were, ironically, further amplified by the appointment of Trevor Philip to lead Public Health England’s inquiry into COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on BAME people. Philips, a former chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, had been suspended from the Labour party for alleged Islamophobia. Leading Muslim campaigners, including Muslim Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of the Conservative party and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) raised concerns that his appointment deeply ignored British Muslims voices. With the UK now exiting its months-long lockdown and set to embrace its post-Brexit future, such concerns are becoming even more intense. Many campaigners are now asking: will British Muslims ever leave their long lockdown?
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