Fears of Anti-Muslim Discrimination in India and the UK

Muslims worldwide observed Ramadan from 11 March to 9 April 2024. This sacred month marks the first revelation of the Holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) by angel Jibra’il (A.S.). Muslims believe these revelations are from Allah and are now contained in the Holy Qur’an, guiding humanity along the “straight path” of Islam. Ramadan, characterised by fasting during daylight hours and prayer, signifies transcending the physical needs of earthly existence to reflect on Allah and the hereafter and about being a moral and charitable person.

There is no doubt that there is greater awareness of the significance of Ramadan in countries where Muslims are a minority. For example, supermarkets in the United Kingdom(UK) tailor sections and advertisements for the Muslim community during the month. For the second year running, lights and decorations were also displayed in London’s West End, especially for Ramadan. In the United States(US), many Muslims gather in New York Times Square to pray and share it with the wider community on the first night of Ramadan. A growing number of schools across the US have also started to mark Eid al-Fitr (the celebration at the end of Ramadan) as an official holiday, allowing Muslim students to be with their families and communities rather than at school.

Despite this general awareness and sensitivity, the Muslim Ummah is increasingly alarmed about the commitment of non-Islamic nations to protecting Muslims, reflecting on their perceived inaction and complicity in the event surrounding Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people. The death toll in Gaza has surpassed 33,843 as the Israeli government continues in defiance of the orders made by the International Court of Justice(ICJ) in January. The Court adopted provisional measures required to be made by Israel to prevent genocide.

While this must be at the forefront of all of our minds, other developments are causes of concern for Muslims in India and the UK, specifically. Announcements were made about policies and pieces of legislation, which some fear may lead to discrimination against Muslim communities within those countries, just as Ramadan began and just before the International Day to Combat Islamophobia on 15 March 2024.

Diverse societies are experiencing significant inter-religious tension and animosity, the remedy for which requires governments to rise above divisive language and not to stoop to tactics that are seemingly designed to win over particular demographics ahead of elections.

On 12 March 2024,  the second day of Ramadan for Indian Muslims, it was announced that the long-feared Citizenship Amendment Act would be enforced, just over four years since the Indian parliament passed the Bill. The amendment entails an exception will be made for certain communities when applying for citizenship, reducing the wait period from eleven years to six years for eligibility. Non-Indians who can prove that they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh and are a member of specific religious minority communities (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian) in those countries then they are eligible for Indian citizenship after living or working in India for six years. The glaring omission is, of course, that Muslims from these countries are not eligible for this fast-tracked citizenship.

Critics of the Act suggest that it will call into question India’s claim to be a secular nation, as made in the preamble to the constitution. Moreover, Aakar Patel, Chair of the Board at Amnesty International India, described the Act as a “bigoted law that legitimised discrimination on the basis of religion,” with the human rights organisation pointing out that members of other marginalised groups in the region are excluded by the Act, such as “Rohingya Muslims, Sri Lankan Tamils, Bhutanese, Hazaras, Shias and Ahmadiyyas.” Amnesty International has also stated that, when the Act is read alongside other proposals like the National Register of Citizens and the Foreigners Tribunals, the laws might be weaponised against India’s Muslim minority community.

Just three days after Ramadan in the UK began, the British Secretary of State for Communities, Michael Gove, announced the government’s new definition of ‘extremism’ to prevent organisations named ‘extremist’ from receiving funding from the government or engaging with it. ‘Extremism’ is now defined as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; undermine, overturn, or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or intentionally create a permissive environment for other to achieve the results.”

Even before the definition was given, the head of the Church of England, Archbishop Justin Welby, warned that it “risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse” and will threaten freedom of speech, right to worship and peaceful protest. This relates to the increase in Islamophobic abuse in the UK in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 and the demonisation of pro-Palestine protests as “hate marches.” Others have suggested that the new definition might be an attempt to “silence” these pro-Palestinian campaigners. It was stated that the new definition was a response to the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, while it has been pointed out that its contents have nothing to do with that.

Gove named the Muslim Association of Britain(MAB), CAGE and MEND among the organisations that “give rise to concern for their Islamist orientation and views,” alongside two neo-Nazi groups. But in a seeming attempt to reassure the Muslim community, Gove also said that “Islamism should never be confused with Islam. Islam is a great faith, a religion of peace, which provides spiritual nourishment to millions, inspires countless acts of charity and celebrates virtues of generosity, compassion and kindness. Islamism is a totalitarian ideology which seeks to divide, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by Shari’ah law and seeks the overthrow of liberal democratic principles.”

But to single out only one religion (Islam) in the context of extremism and to place Shari’ah (Islamic law) as inherently at odds with “liberal democratic principles” is divisive and reflects how Muslim organisations may be disproportionately affected by this new definition.

The concerns of the Muslim communities of each country understandably cannot be allayed by superficial measures. Many diverse societies are experiencing significant inter-religious tension and animosity, the remedy for which requires governments to rise above divisive language and not to stoop to tactics that are seemingly designed to win over particular demographics ahead of elections. And if there is anything for us non-Muslims to take away from Ramadan, it should be to treat others with kindness, tolerance and charity.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, researching the Islamisation of Pakistan. She is also a freelance writer on issues relating to Islamophobia, Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK.

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