Samir Seddougui is studying for an PhD in Social Policy at the University of Bristol. This article originally appeared in The Pen, The Aziz’s Foundation’s scholars blog:
Over the last few years there has been a notable increase in Islamophobia, from physical attacks to online harassment. A number of events in recent years have also contributed to the rise in Islamophobia, such as the election of Trump and Brexit which emboldened bigotry and xenophobia. Islamophobia had already been increasing prior to these political events however, and as Dr. Narzanin Massoumi explains, ‘has been nearly 20 years in the making’, with the ‘War on Terror’ isolating Muslims as an existential threat to Western civilisation, ultimately creating the conditions for ‘widespread Islamophobia’ across Europe and North America. This period has also seen to a rise in the distrust of politicians and mainstream media outlets, with there being a clear growth in popularity of alternative news sources, often accessed through social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. This seems to have impacted the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking, which can often seem more appealing in stressful and uncertain times. The UK has never fully recovered from the 2008 financial crash, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated uncertainty in society.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a clear overlap between the rise in Islamophobia, and conspiratorial ideas, with a strain of Islamophobia existing on the fringes of a political discourse which highly promotes conspiratorial ideas. Firstly, that there are ‘Muslim No-Go Zones’ within the UK and Europe, where laws are ignored and alternate courts are used. Secondly, that there is an orchestrated plan to flood Western countries with immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, and fundamentally alter the demographics of said country, which is known as ‘The Great Replacement’. This conspiracy theory was coined by Renaud Camus in his 2011 book of the same title, which gained popularity amongst white nationalist and far-right circles, especially during the 2015 refugee crisis. A 2018 YouGov poll found that of the respondents, 31% of Leave voters and 6% of Remain voters believed in a version of the great replacement theory. Another study also found that there has been a steady rise in the usage of the term ‘The Great Replacement’ between 2012 and 2019, with a spike in its usage immediately after the Christchurch attack. The steady increase of the term over the years highlights the normalisation of hostility towards Muslims in Europe and North America, arguably contributing to a rise in Islamophobic street attacks and the targeting of mosques.
Unsurprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a rise in Islamophobic conspiracy theories, with Muslims being blamed for everything — from being super spreaders, to defying lockdown rules and social distancing regulations. As the first lockdown began in March 2020, fake videos began to circulate on social media claiming to show Muslims breaching social distancing by attending secret mosques. These claims were all untrue, with the reality being that mosques were following government guidelines, with many setting up voluntary support initiatives throughout the pandemic. Another feature of the conspiracy that Muslims were flouting lockdown regulations is that the police forces were hesitant to respond to these regulation breaches out of the fear of appearing racist, which seems to contradict that data that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) citizens were more likely to be fined under the Coronavirus legislation. This is consistent with more general trends and the disproportionate level of interactions BAME people have with the police in the UK, with this becoming particularly pronounced in light of the tragic killing of George Floyd which galvanised Black Lives Matter movements globally.