LONDON: The UK is preparing itself for increases in incidents of Islamophobia as the country begins to end its lockdown introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19.
There are fears that mosques and other Islamic community centers could be targeted, having been closed to worshippers for much of the period.
Places of worship for all faiths in the UK were reopened by the government on June 13, but only for “private prayer.”
Guidance on congregational worship, such as Friday prayers, is less clear, raising fears that Muslims trying to pray while observing social distancing measures could be unfairly accused of ignoring them.
Tell Mama, a UK organization that supports Muslim victims of racist abuse, says it has recorded several cases of far-right groups blaming Muslims for spreading COVID-19 during the lockdown.
Several British-Muslim MPs said they had also received racist emails during the lockdown, especially around Ramadan and Eid.
They added that they had seen evidence of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories spread on social media, including that Muslims increased transmission of COVID-19 by congregating at mosques.
MP Afzal Khan, vice chair of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Muslims, said: “The journey of this is first the thoughts, then the words, then the action comes. We know in the past things have happened.”
He added that he received racist messages after he criticized Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right English Defence League, and another far-right group, Britain First.
Khan told The Guardian newspaper: “It’s true that a large number of people do participate (in prayer at mosques). But they understand the risk. They are complying with (the rules) and there is no evidence to show that they are not, and yet the narrative from the far right is the opposite.”
Sikh MP Tan Singh Dhesi, vice chair of the APPG for British Muslims, said: “There have been attacks in the past — people have been cooped up at home, and there’s been a distortion of what’s going on through social media. They may feel very, very worked up.”
He added: “Communal elements are more common in certain faiths but there have been certain elements of the far right saying this is how the coronavirus is spreading. This is a dangerous narrative we need to call out.”
MP Wes Streeting, another vice chair of the APPG for British Muslims, has called on police to step up security at mosques.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has offered advice to imams and Muslim communities across the UK on how to operate social distancing in British mosques, by limiting numbers and staggering entry.
MCB Secretary-General Harun Khan said: “Though we as Muslims are longing to go back to our mosques and worship with our communities, it is essential that we do not rush.”
He added: “Coronavirus is still prevalent and dangerous, and mosque leaders must carefully plan and decide when they feel they can put the required controls in place to reopen in the safest way possible.”