British police say anti-Muslim attacks nearly doubled in England last year, prompting concern among community leaders and calls for changes in government policies.
Officials and Muslim community leaders attribute the increase largely to the May 2013 murder of a British solider in London by two Muslim men who claimed they did it for Islam. The incident was recorded by a security camera.
But anti-Muslim feeling in Britain goes beyond that, according to Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, a community organization.
“There is what we call a ‘background noise’ of anti-Muslim hate that has quite significant volume," Mughal said. "That volume is both online as well as off-line. There are troubling indicators that anti-Muslim hate is unfortunately on the social horizon and probably here to stay for some time.”
Experts say most of the anti-Muslim attacks come in the form of insults and graffiti. Some mosques have also been vandalized, including one in north London, where the head of a pig was thrown over the fence.
As worshippers arrived for midday prayers on a recent Friday, newspapers were reporting a sharp increase in the Muslim population in Britain, leaving community leaders inside, like Omar el-Hamdoun, president of the Muslim Association of Britain, to ponder the impact.
“An increase in the number of Muslims means that, as Muslims, we need to tackle anti-Muslim hatred or Islamophobia, so that Muslims are feeling more and more part of society,” el-Hamdoun said.
He acknowledges that can be difficult at times.
“As Muslims, we have our own practices, we have our own needs, we have our own reasoning," he said. "So I think all of these things are actually difficult for us to fully integrate into society.”
Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims make up 3 percent of the population and are part of the fabric of everyday life. But Muslim community leaders say a small number of militants, along with tensions in the Middle East and anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain, accentuate divisions in society here and across the continent.
“Europe, unfortunately, has a strain of hate that seems to run through it," Mughal said. "Something about Europe seems to carry this rejection of the ‘other.’”
Mughal calls for Britain’s single, year-old rules on hate speech to be tightened, for police to be more responsive to anti-Muslim incidents, and for judges to hand out tougher sentences to people convicted of hate crimes.
He and other experts say there is also a lot for community organizations to do to educate Muslims and the broader society, about what Islam is and how it can fit into a European context very different from its traditional homelands.