LONDON: Conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 could lead to violence against Muslims after the UK’s lockdown is eased, an upcoming report warns.
Written by independent members of a British government advisory group on Islamophobia, the report says far-right figures in the UK have been sharing false claims about Muslims breaking lockdown restrictions and spreading COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 crisis has been used to create ‘others’ of Muslims, blaming them for the spread of the virus. The spread of fake news online is contributing to this extremely worrying trend,” coauthor Imran Awan, a criminology professor at Birmingham City University and an independent member of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, told The Independent newspaper.
“While we haven’t yet seen this translate into physical hate crimes, once social distancing rules are relaxed there are concerns that this could be the case.”
The report’s authors cite examples of Islamophobia, including one incident reported to London’s Metropolitan Police after a veiled Muslim woman said she was approached by a man who coughed in her face and claimed he had COVID-19.
The report includes social media analysis from websites and platforms popular with far-right figures, such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
The authors uncovered recurring themes about police officers giving preferential treatment to Muslims, and claims that they are disproportionately responsible for COVID-19 deaths.
“Online narratives rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry are evolving and transforming in the new social context created by the pandemic,” the report says.
“In this new context, Islam and Muslims have been associated directly with the causes of the pandemic, fitting well within broader well-known far-right themes depicting Muslims as parasitical to society — foreign, alien and ‘disease-like’.”
Notorious far-right figure and former leader of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, shared a video purporting to show Muslims leaving a mosque during the lockdown. In actual fact, the footage was old and did not represent what Yaxley-Lennon claimed.
West Midlands Police said in a statement released on March 30 following a litany of complaints regarding the footage: “Our officers have conducted enquiries and are satisfied that the mosque is currently closed.”
It added that the mosque has not reopened since the government initiated the lockdown in March.
Roxana Khan-Williams, who works for advocacy group Hope Not Hate and coauthored the report, said conspiracy theories targeting Muslims are “penetrating common-sense thinking.”
She added that she saw examples of people who were not deliberately seeking to be anti-Muslim but “were seeing this fake news and absorbing it.”
Dr. Rakib Ehsan, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told Arab News: “Public authorities must guard against the possible rise in anti-Muslim attacks in post-lockdown Britain.”
He added: “Far-right extremists have been responsible for spreading disinformation and peddling untruths over the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes the dissemination of conspiracies suggesting that mosques are refusing to respect social distancing rules and the rehashing of social media material showing Islamic public gatherings which took place before the outbreak gained a foothold.”
According to The Independent, the report’s authors fear that claims about Muslims spreading COVID-19 will recur during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims normally gather for prayers and meals.
The Centre for Media Monitoring last week referred to news articles that claimed “experts fear social gatherings in Ramadan will lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases.”