But is this under threat? Just how much is hatred a feature of modern life in Britain and elsewhere? The YouGov poll commissioned by Arab News with the Council for Arab-British Understanding showed that 7 percent of Brits believe Islamophobia is a problem. A whopping 55 percent support racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims, and seven in 10 would not support allowing more Syrian and Iraqi refugees to come to Britain.
Adding to this, the 2017 British Social Attitudes Survey published last week showed that 26 percent of Britons are at least “a little” prejudiced; 18 percent thought some races were less intelligent, and 44 percent believed some races were born harder working. In 2013, about a fifth said they would mind if a close relative married a black or Asian spouse, but this rose to 44 percent if it referred to a Muslim.
Has Britain really become more racist, more heartless? Is it worse than anywhere else?
Many have perhaps been a little complacent. Gone are the days of Oswald Mosley’s fascists of the 1930s, or the race riots of the early 1980s in Britain. But racism never went away.
In 1987, those who admitted to being a bit racist reached a high of 38 percent. It then dropped, before another spike after the 9/11 attacks, and hit 38 percent again in 2011. That it is 26 percent in 2017 is not a cause for joy, but perhaps not as bad as at some points in the near past. The lowest figure ever was 25 percent.
All of this suggests questions about what being “a little bit racist” means, and whether people’s perceptions of what racism is have changed in the past 30 years.
Much of the increasing hate crime has been directed against Muslims, or those who people believe look like Muslims. Mosques are attacked and veils are ripped off women. That the YouGov/Arab News poll found such massive levels of Islamophobia is perhaps not that shocking, but it is alarming. The dangerous trend is that too many blame all Muslims for the crimes of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Polls have also found that people across Europe consistently overestimate the number of Muslims in their countries.
Anti-semitism has also been on the rise. Here again, to witness in the 21st century people denying or belittling the Holocaust and other atrocities against Jews is beyond belief.
But other communities, such as the British Chinese, suffer too, often in silence.
The rise of the far-right anti-immigrant Ukip party over the past decade challenged this comfort zone. One crumb of comfort is that this party has at least rejected a bitterly anti-Muslim candidate for its leader. That said, the new Ukip leader claims to have “fought Islam,” whatever that means.
But Ukip is far from the most extreme. The British government has just banned two neo-Nazi supremacist groups.
A new survey supports the YouGov/Arab News poll finding that Britain has a problem with discrimination. There is work to be done, but it may be that in the past 30 years people’s perception of what racism is has changed.
Part of this current escalation of hate is due to deep economic recession and austerity. Research proves that levels of racism and hatred do rise during such periods. People want a scapegoat. The Brexit debate has also coincided with a huge spike; more than 2,300 racist incidents were reported in the six weeks after the 2016 referendum. Many politicians are in part to blame for parading views such as “taking our country back,” which reinforced prejudice against a “swarm of migrants” seen by some as somehow having stolen Britain.
Yet none of this is unique to Britain, and in many countries it is much worse. White supremacism does exist in the UK, but there is nothing on the scale found in the US. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise in the UK, but they are too even in countries such as Canada, where there has been a 253 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2014. Let us not forget that in January six were shot dead outside a Quebec mosque. How many capital cities across Europe would elect a Muslim mayor, as London did last year? British Muslims are appearing more frequently in major public positions of influence.
Do not forget, also, that while there has been a far-right surge in much of Europe, most recently in Germany where Alternative fuer Deutschland won 12.6 percent of the vote in last month’s parliamentary election, Britain has largely seen it off. Ukip has never had a candidate elected to the House of Commons, and is now widely viewed as a spent political force.
Britain is divided. For sure, London rightly remains a largely respectful, tolerant, multicultural city. Regressive thinking is more prevalent among white, elderly Brits living in deprived areas, while the younger generation seems less affected and more tolerant.
All these findings highlight that much work needs to be done. Barriers are still there to be broken down and inequalities addressed. The London Olympics in 2012 had just such an impact. British Arabs and British Muslims have most to gain from addressing these trends. What is needed, before it is too late, is a strategic effort that works with politicians, the media, students, schools and the public at large.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech