LONDON: British counterterrorism police are investigating far-right groups accused of using the coronavirus crisis to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment.
Dozens of incidents of far-right groups allegedly trying to blame British Muslims for the spread of the virus were recorded in March by the hate crime-monitoring organization Tell Mama.
It said it had debunked numerous claims made on social media that Muslims were breaching the lockdown by continuing to attend mosques to pray. There were also incidents where Muslims were attacked, it added.
Tommy Robinson, the founder and former leader of the English Defence League, and one of the most prominent far-right figures in the UK, shared a video online that was alleged to show a group of Muslim men leaving a “secret mosque” in inner-city Birmingham. The claims were subsequently dismissed by West Midlands police.
West Yorkshire police similarly dismissed images allegedly showing Muslims attending Friday prayers, pointing out that they were taken before the lockdown was announced.
David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, said counterterrorism police were looking into reports that right-wing groups were trying to use the pandemic to create division. “It’s something we are monitoring very closely,” he added.
In one incident reported to Tell Mama, a Muslim woman said she was approached by a man in Croydon, south London, who coughed in her face and claimed he had coronavirus. The incident was reported to the Metropolitan Police.
The woman, who wears a hijab, said she tried to avoid her attacker, but the man turned toward her and “got in her face.”
She told him she had already contracted the virus and recovered, and was therefore immune, after which he swore at her and racially abused her before leaving.
The Metropolitan Police acknowledged that coronavirus had played a role in hate crimes in recent weeks, telling Arab News: “People of certain ethnicities and cultural backgrounds have been targeted in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.” The “deplorable” incidents, it said, have taken place “in the real world and online,” and involved “physical violence in a small number of cases.”
Shaista Aziz, a journalist and anti-racism campaigner, told Arab News that the targeting of women in these crimes is “no accident.”
She said: “In the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of the far right in the UK. Their No. 1 rallying call is hatred of Muslims, and a lot of it is gendered Islamophobia: It’s targeting particularly women who wear the hijab and the niqab.”
She added: “It isn’t unexpected, it’s horrifying, and it just shows how an international crisis like this pandemic is being further weaponized by people with a warped ideology.”
Iman Atta, director of Tell Mama, said: “These extremists are using coronavirus to get their pervasive message across that somehow the Muslim communities are to blame for the spreading of the virus.
“It is mainly repeat offenders — individuals who are already known to hold anti-Muslim views — who are repeatedly seeing this as a way to cause community turmoil and tension. It is at times like this when there are pressures in society that some people manipulate this to fuel hate and division across communities.”
One such example of high-profile far-right figures exploiting the crisis is Katie Hopkins — notorious for her inflammatory and frequently Islamophobic messaging.
Hopkins shared a video of police in India assaulting Muslims for congregating at a mosque, and tagged Humberside Police.
She wrote: “Indian police assisting young ‘men of peace’ to disperse from crowded mosque during lockdown. Something to aspire to hey @Humberbeat?”
Dr. Rakib Ehsan, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, explained why figures such as Hopkins have been so quick to seize on the pandemic in their messaging. “While the concerned many see the COVID-19 pandemic as a devastating global crisis, it’s being welcomed with open arms by far-right extremists,” he told Arab News.
“In times of insecurity and anxiety, extremists think this is the time to target an individual group — people are looking for answers and someone to blame,” he added.
“The far-right weaponization of COVID-19 poses a serious challenge for public authorities across the Western world.”