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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Muslims don't need to be singled out, emphasising our 'otherness'

'Punish a Muslim Day' should be condemned from the top down – so why hasn't Parliament spoken?

'Punish a Muslim Day' urged attacks on Muslim communities
'Punish a Muslim Day' urged attacks on Muslim communities

If Pokemon Go was taken over by a racist hatemonger, the results might have looked much like the rules currently being circulated about "Punish a Muslim Day". Letters are being received by Muslims around the UK declaring that April 3 is the target for inflicting horrendous physical assaults on Muslims. Those who find Muslims and carry out the attacks against them will collect rewards points.

“They have hurt you, they have made your loved ones suffer,” begins the vile letter. “What are you going to do about it?” A neatly formatted table offers some options. You can win 25 points if you “pull the head-scarf off a Muslim ‘woman’”. The quotation marks around ‘woman’ are obviously needed because Muslim women apparently do not count as women. There are 50 points for throwing acid in a Muslim’s face. If you torture a Muslim using electrocution, skinning or a rack, you’ll accrue a whopping 250 points, although I’m not aware that Amazon or high street retailers do any special lines in medieval equipment, so this could be tough to do. Or you could go for the nuclear option, literally, and win 2,500 points if you "nuke Mecca”. If only these violent extremists could get their spellings right: it’s Makkah.

I’m trying to poke fun because what I actually want to say is that I’m deeply alarmed. If there was a widespread campaign threatening to have acid thrown in your face – or that of your children’s – you would be too.

The public discourse has been furiously accelerating the dehumanisation of Muslims, turning them into one homogenous terrorist persona that carries collective guilt for the terrorist acts of a handful of violent individuals.

It’s not a big stretch from the idea of collective guilt to the implementation of collective punishment.

More than a decade ago, I was writing about the echoes of European history in the 1930s being revived and how we needed to learn the lessons of the rise of Hitler to a backdrop of populism and hatred being whipped up. I was told this was not an appropriate comparison. I was told Muslims were overreacting. I was told I was disrespectful. I was told that Europe had pledged “never again”.

In 2018, with the revival of the far right across Europe, the rise of populist parties, with a US president who promotes a Muslim ban and tweets videos promoting anti-Muslim hatred, it no longer seems that different, even to the most sceptical eyes.

Muslims are often accused of "playing the victim". Here is clear evidence there is no "playing" in this equation.

This letter is a widespread campaign. Four Muslim MPs received suspicious packages in Parliament along with the same ominous letters.

When one of the targeted MPs, Yasmin Qureshi, raised the issue in the UK Parliament, the response was woeful. There has been no unequivocal condemnation from Prime Minister Theresa May. There is no mobilisation of security or police forces to protect mosques or other Muslim centres.

There has been some comfort offered by ordinary people, with responses like “Love a Muslim Day”, which offer rewards for pleasant acts towards Muslims, like buying a cup of coffee and cake (25 points) all the way up to buying a hajj package for a Muslim family, which wins 2,500 points.

It’s heartening that there is a groundswell of support but Muslims don’t need to be singled out, exacerbating our "otherness". Instead, we must fight anti-Muslim hatred. We can encourage respect, love and solidarity.

None of this comfort comes from those who hold power and can effect change from the top down. What’s going on here is Islamophobia. But the government hasn’t even commissioned a definition. It is not instituted in law. In fact, the government focus is in the contrary direction. Yesterday the British government announced a new integration strategy which again casts Muslims as different and problematic.

With this top-down demonisation, it’s no wonder that the horror I initially expressed online in response to "Punish a Muslim Day" has received so many vile responses, such as: “Muslims are themselves to blame for Islamophobia” and “this is just the beginning. More to follow if you Muslims don’t mend your ways”.

The message is very clear: this is not a game. This is life, death and torture.