Speech by Wes Streeting MP
Launch of Islamophobia Awareness Month
Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, Westminster
1st November 2017
Among the various roles I hold in Parliament, I am proud to co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Muslims, so I’d like to join my good friend Stephen Kinnock in welcoming you to Parliament this evening to mark the launch of Islamophobia Awareness Month.
I’ve chosen to attend this evening alongside parliamentary colleagues, the Metropolitan Police, the Football Association and all of you, because of the pernicious, and sadly increasing, levels of physical and verbal abuse experienced by Muslims in my constituency and across the country.
Across London, recorded Islamophobic hate crime has risen by nearly a quarter.
In my own borough, the London Borough of Redbridge, the Metropolitan Police record an even higher rise in hate crime against Muslims of over 30 per cent.
And we know that in the wake of terrorist attacks like those carried out in London and Manchester by people who pervert the Islamic faith for their own evil ends, the majority of law-abiding Muslims often fear a backlash – exemplified in the worst possible way by the appalling attack on worshippers at the Finsbury Park mosque in June this year – the same month that the Met recorded the highest number of hate crime incidents against Muslims across London.
Behind every hate crime statistic is a human being. Human beings like my constituent, Sophia Dar: on her way to work in the morning rush hour, walking along Oxford Street minding her own business, and set upon by a man trying to forcibly remove her headscarf asking “why are you wearing that?”
Listening to Sophia Dar speak in the aftermath of that attack I was struck by three things:
- Firstly, the fact a mum of four on her way to work could be physically assaulted, in broad daylight, because she is a Muslim. And in this: one of the most open and diverse cities in the world.
- Secondly, that as she stood there sobbing on one of the busiest shopping precincts in London, that no one stopped to help. Not to question why a woman was being manhandled in this way. Not even to ask someone stood crying in the middle of the street if she was OK.
- And thirdly, her determination not to let her attacker win and to speak out because, in Sophia’s words: “if you let things go, people’s mindsets will not change”
Islamophobia Awareness Month isn’t simply a moment to raise awareness of rising hate crime against Muslims, it is an urgent call to action to ask ourselves - and each other – what we are prepared to do to stamp out anti-Muslim hatred in our communities.
I’m conscious of our responsibility as legislators to pass laws that guarantee the rights, freedoms and liberties to which all human beings are entitled; and of our responsibility to make sure that those laws are enforced, whether on the streets, in schools, in workplaces or in the courts.
But as I know from my work with Stonewall – one of the country’s leading LGBT rights organisations, in fact one of the country’s most successful agencies for social change full stop – changing the law isn’t enough. The battle for equality is a battle for hearts and minds.
That battle that must be joined by all those in positions of power and responsibility: employers, educators, police officers, judges and juries, companies and public services and, of course, newspaper editors.
But it’s not just those in positions of authority who possess agency. All of us have a responsibility to act: to choose to use the agency that each of us has to bring about a just society.
Look at the example of Mohammed Mahmoud, the Imam of Finsbury Park mosque, who even a moment of terror and chaos leapt to defend a man who might have killed him, because in that split second he saw the possibility that the heat of anger might have seen another human life lost and preventing his attacker from being brought to justice. He refused to be a bystander.
Or take Julie Simpson, my constituent who saw what happened on television and made the long journey from Ilford to Finsbury Park in her mobility scooter to show solidarity with the Imam and his congregation and to make it clear that the man who sought to harm Muslims did not speak for her. She refused to be a bystander.
But let’s also remember all those passers-by on Oxford Street on the morning that Sophia Dar was attacked, who didn’t stop to intervene, or to offer help or comfort. They were bystanders to hatred.
You see, it isn’t just the perpetrators of hate crime we should worry about - it’s also the bystanders.
And that’s why I can’t attend this evening’s event without saying something about the controversy surrounding it.
Like Stephen, I chose to attend in the face of fierce criticism and, to be as equally blunt as Stephen, if I had chosen not to attend I might have enjoyed a more quiet life in recent days.
Some of the criticism that Mend has received from certain quarters has been both unsurprising and unfair. That Mend encourages participation in politics is a good thing, particularly when hate preachers waste so much oxygen telling Muslims that voting is un-Islamic. The criticism that Mend has been ‘seeking to influence electoral politics’ by ‘running fringe events at party conferences as well as arranging hustings at election times’ is just bizarre. As far as I am concerned, this not only legitimate, it is good practice followed by other major faith groups and civil society organisations.
As Stephen said last week, Mend’s work on tackling Islamophobia has been recognised internationally as ‘best practice’ by the World Economic Forum and in my community has brought hundreds of people together to directly inform the hate crime strategies of the local Council, Police and other agencies.
But that work is fatally undermined if the organisation tolerates, or is perceived to tolerate, individuals expressing attitudes that fall far short of Mend’s stated commitment to creating a more “inclusive and tolerant Britain” and – to quote again from Mend’s mission statement - “a Britain in which all members of society are valued and respected whatever their religious, racial or ethnic background, gender or sexual orientation”. From reported remarks about gay people and the use of antisemitic tropes to criticise the State of Israel to appearing to justify the attacks on British troops – such behaviour cannot be excused or tolerated.
I believe that Mend has both an opportunity and a responsibility to address the criticisms the organisation has received in recent days and to set out how Mend plans to live up to its own laudable aims.
Looking in the mirror and asking ourselves if we truly live up to our own values and expectations can be an uncomfortable experience. But, and I say this with humility given events in Parliament this week and the Labour Party’s recent problems with antisemitism and complaints about our handling of rape and sexual assault, it is a necessary exercise if we are serious about delivering the kind of society that I hope we all want to see: a society that is open and inclusive and that genuinely values the dignity and worth of every human being.
I could have chosen not to attend this evening and to have opted for the quiet life. But as my constituent said: “if you let things go, people’s mindsets will not change”.
And for Muslims across the country, experiencing abuse and violence because of their faith, it is vital that they do.
I want to conclude with one final reflection.
Not long after I was first elected, a brick was thrown through the window of a local Muslim community centre and bacon stuck to its doors. When I condemned the attack, I was criticised in the comments section of the website of my local newspaper for defending people who would throw me from the top of a building for being gay.
What bigots like these fail to realise is that I know that once they’re done with the Muslims they’re coming for gay people, too. And history shows us that if it’s not Muslims or gay people first in the line, it will be Jewish, black, Asian or disabled people instead.
Those of us who know what it is to experience prejudice because we are perceived to be different have a special responsibility to combat all forms of prejudice. To stand together and to work together. Let us commit to that spirit as we join together for Islamophobia Awareness Month.