EU Referendum – Democratic Decision not an Excuse for Bigots

By Qari Muhammad Asim
Senior Imam – Makkah Mosque, Leeds

This article was first printed by the Yorkshire Post.

The EU referendum has not only resulted in political and economic instability, but has also exposed the uncomfortable divisions that exist within the UK.

I believe the Remain campaign ignored voters living in areas of social and economic deprivation. Although by no means everyone living in such areas perceived the EU to be the cause of their lack of prosperity, an overwhelming majority did.

Interestingly, although 46 per cent of British Muslims live in the bottom 10 per cent most deprived wards in England, most of them did not see EU as the cause of their economic deprivation – 70 per cent of Muslims voted for Remain and so did other minorities.

The Brexit result also seems to have unleashed bigotry and hatred against migrants and minorities. It has given legitimacy and a new-found voice to racist and Islamophobic narratives.

Leading up to the EU referendum, the tone, rhetoric and campaigning material of some members of the Leave campaign was anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-ethnic minorities. The divisive and toxic campaign continued for months – from the Leave campaign poster stating that 76 million Turks were about to join the EU to the infamous Ukip “Breaking Point” poster showing Syrian refugees on the Croatia-Slovenia border.

Even in Leeds, I saw that members of the Leave campaign were espousing hate-filled rhetoric and false information to many people in the city centre.

Instead of talking about economic, political and social benefits of leaving the UK, they were focusing on the perceived “Muslim invasion” of Britain or “Sharia” being enforced in parts of Yorkshire – the truth could not be further from that.

Those who voted to Leave did so for a variety of reasons and not all of them should be accused of being, selfish, bigoted, xenophobic or racist.

However, my concern has always been that a UK departure would reinforce ultra-nationalist far right sentiments amongst certain sections of society, and they would seek to alienate and demonise minorities.

The fact that there has been a 57 per cent rise in the number of hate crimes reported in the aftermath of the referendum shows that the result has given a new found confidence to those who may have previously expressed such views online or in closed quarters; they have been emboldened to take their messages of hate to the streets.

We have seen anti-Muslim, anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments on our streets from Newcastle to London. In Cambridgeshire there have been reports of signs saying “Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin” posted through the letter boxes of Polish families.

A number of Muslims have been shouted at with the question: “When are you leaving our country?” Little do the abusers know that ancestors of some of these Muslims not only fought for Britain in the World Wars, but then came to rebuild it post-war. The reports of incidents include a group of young men shouting “Get out, we voted ‘Leave’” at a Muslim girl in the street; and a man in a Tesco supermarket yelling “Rule Britannia! now get out” at a Muslim woman.

As an independent member of the Government’s anti-Muslim hatred working group, I am deeply concerned about the rise of racial and religiously-motivated incidents against all communities.

Anti-Muslim hate monitoring group Tell MAMA reports a 326 per cent increase in incidents against Muslims in 2015 – and warns Brexit could make it worse. What has been most upsetting and disturbing is that there have been no immediate statements from Leave campaign leaders condemning such xenophobic and racially-motivated incidents.

Two weeks ago we saw the consequence of intolerance and hatred when the life of humanitarian and MP Jo Cox was taken away from us. Her accused killer has alleged links with the far-right movement.

I am not oblivious to the fact that a lack of appropriate immigration control has been a challenge for quite some time. I know that many skilled labourers feel they are in constant competition with migrants.

I am aware of many people in my neighbourhood who feel they have lost control over the future of their country, but the solution is not to become intolerant, racist or violent.

There is a need for an honest debate around immigration, how it should be managed, its impact on our families, on public services, housing and so on.

There is no doubt that the repercussions of this historic vote will be felt potentially for decades to come. But this decision of over 17 million people must be respected and we must remain positive.

Now is not the time for fallouts. Unity, stability, reconciliation and tackling of inequality and bigotry must be our priorities post-Brexit.

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