Vigilant but not paranoid: Tooting’s Muslims speak about Islamophobia

At Friday prayers, the Imam at Al-Muzzamil Mosque in Tooting mentions the attacks. Outside Finsbury Park Mosque, 11 days previous, a man drove his van into a group of worshippers, killing one and injuring ten.

In Newham, three days after that, a Muslim girl and her cousin were left scarred after having acid squirted on them through a car window. Not that this is news to the congregation. They are fully aware of the rise in Islamophobic crimes following the attacks at Westminster and London Bridge.

Sadiq Khan revealed in June that such attacks had increased five-fold compared with the same period last year.

But even before these attacks, Islamophobic hate crimes had been on the rise. In the 12 months leading up to March 2015, there were 16 reported Islamophobic hate crimes in Wandsworth, in the 12 months leading up to March 2017, this had risen by 137% to 38.  In London overall there had been a 71% rise over this time period.

But while Muslims here are well aware of the dangers, many feel that this hatred is not a daily experience in Tooting, that the multicultural make-up and large Muslim population in the area means the risk here is minimal.

Khadija Ahmed, who works at an Islamic bookshop in Tooting, highlights the relative safety the area affords to Muslims.

“This area is quite peaceful,” she said. “Tooting is not a poor area so there is not such an economic divide. There are a lot of different communities living here.”

Umar Vali-Mahomed, secretary, volunteer and attendee at Balham Mosque and Tooting Islamic Centre insists that the focus by establishments such as his on community integration has helped make the area a safe one.

Despite this, he has to allay the fears of some worshippers and says he gets about 10 to 12 people a week asking about what is being done to further secure the mosque.

“As a leader, I have to keep reiterating a message of ‘Keep calm and carry on’. A very British message,” he said.

Not everyone is convinced Tooting is a shelter from Islamophobia.

Javed Mohamed, 35, is a shopkeeper at Tooting Market. Within the last month his wife has been spat on by a stranger while wearing her veil and called a ‘fucking Paki’ while taking her children home from school. Both incidents occurred in Tooting.

“We are not even from Pakistan, we are from Mauritius originally,” he said.

“She got so scared that she called me at work, crying on the phone. I just said ‘Be courageous’.”

Neither Javed nor his wife reported the incidents to the police.

“There’s no point reporting it, no one’s going to catch them. She couldn’t even remember the faces,” he said.

“I moved here 15 years ago. I have been living in Tooting all these years without any problems. In the last few months it’s gone completely upside down.”

As in previous years, Javed and his family are going on a caravan holiday to Cornwall. This year, afraid of what might happen, he is asking his wife not to wear her veil.

Khadija says that the wearing of a hijab means women are more likely to experience Islamophobia.

She said: “Men can sometimes pass and not look visibly Muslim. Women can’t pass.”

Khadija’s mother wears a niqab, a veil covering the face, and she says her family fear it’s not safe for her to go out alone at night.

Jalila Rizki, a Tooting resident who also wears a niqab, says that when she first started wearing it she would get comments from people telling her to take it off.

In the aftermath of the 2005 bombings, while heavily pregnant, she was accosted by a white woman who screamed to passersby that Jalila’s baby bump was a bomb.

“I could not help myself, so I said ‘Boom!’ I could not take it!” She said.

Despite incidents such as these, Jalila insists that she feels at home here and is not made to feel like an outsider.

“I was 26 when I came from Morocco, I am 55 now. I have lived here longer than in Morocco. When I go back there, I cannot wait to come back [to Britain].

“I think the British people are the best in Europe. I have been to France, to Spain, to Italy and here is where I feel they treat you most like a human.”

Some suggest that a lack of integration and the media’s negative portrayal of Islam are responsible for Islamophobia.

Abdul Wahab, 32, who attends Al-Muzzamil Mosque, points out the disparity in how similar attacks are covered in the news, depending on the culprit.

He said: “When a white person [commits an attack], it’s mental issues but when an Asian guy does it, it’s Islam.”

He questions the media’s relative lack of coverage of the acid attack in Newham and in the language used in reports.

“This sister got attacked in East London. Why is that not a terrorist attack?” He asked.

Javed agrees with this indictment and believes the news often fails to make a clear distinction between a tiny minority killing in the name of religion, and the majority condemning the attacks.

He said: “The media, the way it portrays thing now, it makes so that people get more hatred in their hearts for the Muslim people.”

Ahmat Stewart, a 22-year-old Muslim from Tooting, believes that a lack of interaction allows people to be reduced to labels.

He said: “As soon as you label someone, no matter what they do you can say they are in the wrong.

If people do not integrate and do not mix, of course there is going to be a lot of hatred.”

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