Brexit and the Muslim Community

The decision of the British public to leave the European Union has presented Muslims with a complicated situation. For most of us, the result was an unexpected setback which reinforced discriminatory fervour amongst a broad section of the population, and signalled the beginning of increased economic uncertainty. As we have now been made aware by data from Lord Ashcroft Polls, 70% of Muslim voters chose to remain, no doubt as a means of countering these issues.1 Yet despite the ostensibly beneficial nature of voting to remain, it may be that Brexit presents the community with some relief regarding their foreign policy concerns, as the UK, EU, and perhaps even NATO will need to reconsider the extent of their capacities to intervene in the Middle East. If anything is certain at this early stage, it can only be that time will uncover how Britain fares post-Brexit, and what the long term implications will be for the Muslim community.

Perhaps the strongest communal argument against Brexit would be its notable, albeit not absolute association, with Islamophobia and racism. Therefore, it was to be expected that the triumph of Brexit would be accompanied by a surge in anti-Muslim incidents, with a 57% increase in hate crimes against Muslims and others reported by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.2 Reports of specific attacks do not serve to ease concerns. A Halal butchers in Walsall was firebombed, yet despite a local council leader reporting a “notable increase in tension” in days prior, the detective inspector said he would be “keeping an open mind” regarding the motive behind the attacks.3 A Muslim woman, who wished to remain anonymous, was threatened and spat on whilst at McDonald’s with her children, an event that left her “feeling sad, confused and truly afraid for the safety of myself and what my children may witness.”4 Closer to home in Leyton, Adil Jamil was attacked with a crowbar as he drove his friend back from the local Masjid. The attacker smashed his windscreen before attacking a Somalian bystander and shouting verbal abuse about Muslims. When commenting on the general climate, Adil said: “There is always a chance incidents like this can rise after the Brexit vote because of the way the people tried to portray certain parts of the community. I think it’s always a risk but there’s a higher risk of attacks now because a lot of the people who hold racist views believe 52 per cent of the country is with them. Of course that’s wrong.”5 Along with these more physical attacks, came the accompanying barrages of online and verbal abuse, with recurring reports of Muslims, or seemingly anyone with Brown skin, being told “Get out, we voted leave”, chants of “bye bye you’re going home” and, of course, the inevitable use of the word “paki”, in addition to other remarks not befitting a Muslim newspaper.6 Sadly, all of the above can only be perceived as “business as usual”, following a 200% increase in anti-Muslim incidents offline during 2015 according to Tell MAMA.7

The economic prospects of the community, whilst not wholly bad, do not inspire much optimism given uncertainty. During the campaign, it appeared as though the remain side had dominated the argument in this respect, with various studies and reports, including analysis from the Bank of England, forecasting not only economic disadvantage, but a possible recession.8 Such an outcome would inevitably have meant a rise in unemployment, and therefore particularly disastrous consequences for the Muslim community, which has long been subject to job discrimination. Far from being assessed fairly on the basis of merit and personal circumstance, Muslims have been the most disadvantaged UK minority in the workplace, as academic research has shown.9 In light of this, it will be of interest that unemployment levels have remained at their lowest in a decade, with 31.7 million people in work from March-May, presenting us with a 176,000 increase from December-February. As bleak as employment prospects often look for Muslims, it can at least be said that the job market has not been made even more inaccessible. Even so, the post-Brexit economy appears to have shown some signs of decline, presenting us with what the Financial Times termed as a “mixed picture”. The Pound has dropped to 9%-12% against the Dollar, and 9% against the Euro, this is beneficial for exports, though imports are now more expensive. A consumer confidence survey from GfK found that most households reported expectations of lower salaries and reluctance to spend. Even so, it is too early to speak in wholly negative terms. Much still remains uncertain, and will only become clearer with the government Autumn Statement in November.10

Perhaps even more disturbing than the domestic situation, is the enduring plight of the refugees. The triumph of Brexit and the prevailing anti-immigration sentiment has highlighted the broader demonisation and neglect of refugees by politicians, not to mention their troubles as political capital. Among the various campaign spectacles, was the now infamous Ukip campaign poster depicting a crowd of Syrian refugees, and the words “Breaking Point” in red. The poster told us: “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.” As a comparison from the New Statesmen pointed out, the image appeared disturbingly similar to Nazi propaganda.11 That said, the remain side cannot claim a spotless record on this matter either. It is also difficult to forget David Cameron’s own scaremongering regarding the 2003 Le Touqet Treaty with France, which permits British border officers to operate in Calais and the French to operate in Dover. Despite the treaty not being subject to the European Union, Cameron stated: “should we leave the EU then some of these other arrangements that we may have with other countries, for example the juxtaposed controls we have with France, could be called into question.The point here is that if that’s called into question and those controls cease to exist, then you have potentially thousands of asylum seekers camped out in Northern France who could be here almost overnight.”12 Not long thereafter, Francois Hollande clarified that casting doubt on Le Touqet “doesn’t make sense,” and that, contrary to Cameron’s assertions, there would be no reconsideration of the treaty.13

Whilst the politicking surrounding immigration regresses, it is the refugees who continue to live in uncertainty. Al-Jazeera spoke with Alaa Ahmad, a Syrian refugee currently trapped in what has been termed the “Jungle” refugee camp near Calais, though he had hoped to be granted asylum in Britain. In commenting on the effects of Brexit, he related widespread fears that refugees could be rejected en masse: “After the result I’ve been worrying more about the future … a lot of people here are thinking about what their situation will be like if they reach Britain and there’s a lot of concern about whether asylum laws will change.”14 With the premiership of Theresa May, this would be a distinct possibility given her history of attempting to strictly limit entry into the UK. Her efforts include granting only a minimum stay of protection and the denial of automatic rights to settle for refugees who have travelled through a safe country to Britain, and also successful asylum seekers who have overstayed their British visa.15 It is also suspicious that May has decided to “absorb” the post of minister for refugees into the Home Office, a decision that some would point to as an outright abolition.16 Whatever the truth of this most recent maneuver, it cannot be denied that the British government has a poor history in meeting its targets regarding resettlement. According to a report released by Oxfam, the UK has only taken in 24% of its “fair share” of refugees.17 This ineptitude and neglect flirts dangerously with the worst of right-wing politics, including the far-right on the European continent, a fact which has not been lost on the refugees themselves. Al-Jazeera also spoke with Ammar, another Syrian man in the camp, who said: We don’t know what’s going to happen in one or two years, and now the extreme-right parties are growing and that’s worrying us.”18

Whilst the refugees are seen as a burden on Europe and the UK, they possess important insights as to why this crisis exists in the first place. In the words of Muhammad, another refugee near Calais, British intervention in Syria has been a contributory factor toward the destabilization which has prompted people to flee en masse: “The people who voted out and are against immigration should know a lot of their tax money is used for striking countries like Syria … a lot of the reasons people come to their country is [due to] its politics,”19 Interestingly enough, it is here that Brexit may yield the most interesting results. The new cabinet is not unlike its predecessor in terms of foreign policy objectives, but for the fact that its affirmation of global engagement is now somewhat more abstract as a result of the referendum. The basic post-Brexit objectives were set out by new secretary of state Boris Johnson who, in his speech to the United Nations, was quite plain in expressing that Britain would not recede from the world stage, stating: “Brexit means us being more outward looking, more engaged, more energetic, more enthusiastic on the world stage than ever before.”20

This notion was also affirmed by the leading conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, which recently issued a report entitled Making Sense of British Foreign Policy After Brexit: Some Early Thoughts, a part of the organisation’s “Britain in the World” project set up by none other than Michael Fallon, the secretary of defense. The report expresses a false reluctance regarding military interventions, as the concession is given that such policies are: “The last thing that the public or the political establishment want.”21 Even so, this concession is rendered meaningless by the priority of maintaining the traditional British alignment with America in order to expand the influence of NATO abroad for the advantage of its member states. This was also applicable to the EU until recently. As President Obama had said in his Telegraph op-ed during the campaign: A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.”22 The fact that a major American means of influence in Europe is now leaving casts doubt on American abilities to shape its policies in the future. NATO is still an American-led project, however, and here the “special relationship” continues. With regard to the Muslim world specifically, the report also mentions the increased need to co-operate militarily in the region under the pretext of bringing stability: “The Syrian civil war continues and the security situation is deteriorating in Iraq and Libya. There is also reason to believe that the next US administration might be more activist in this area, in a way that might place further demands on the UK (in the context of a reinvigorated security relationship).”23

Such statements will appear troubling for Muslims in Britain, the vast majority of whom abhore the previous debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Even so, the point remains that any future engagements in the Middle East, North Africa, or indeed anywhere else, will be limited by Britain’s reduced ability to commit to NATO “as an active and burden sharing partner”, something analysts have already recognised. The report cites an article Christopher S. Chivvis of the American government-financed RAND Corporation, who previously expressed skepticism that Brexit would strengthen the British military contribution to NATO. In response, the report attempts to allay such concerns by claiming that an increase in overall defense spending would be a gesture of commitment that would strengthen NATO: “The reality is that Brexit creates the conditions for strengthening not weakening NATO. Removing the layer of EU-related political interests and obligations from UK’s strategic calculus should make London a more responsive and efficient NATO partner. NATO is an even more important conduit of UK’s influence than it was before the EU referendum vote.”24 This policy this does not address the issue of enduring economic uncertainty with the UK, and how this is impacting the impressions of observers. This was noted by Chivvis himself in the referenced article. As he put it: “Most analysts are skeptical, however, that the overall economic effect will be positive for the U.K, and if the U.K. faces more economic hardship in the near term as a consequence of Brexit, its investment in defense capabilities is very likely to suffer. This would also be negative for NATO.”25 The defence capacities of the UK could also be subject to another concern given the likelihood of another referendum for Scottish independence. With 62% of Scottish voters having elected to remain, Nicola Sturgeon is well able to justify consideration of a second referendum by next year.26 As has been noted by Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform, a victory for the SNP would mean a possible loss of the £3.3 billion contribution to the UK defence budget, in addition to “…a significant part of its defence infrastructure.”27 In summary, it is sufficient to cite Chris Doyle of the bipartisan Council for Arab-British Understanding: “…it is tough to imagine Britain will have time or resources for any new global initiatives at all. Only the most reckless of prime ministers would embark for example on a new war in the Middle East with this uncertainty enshrouding his country.”28

It should also be remembered that Brexit will impact the EU as much as it does the UK. Chivvis continues: “Without the U.K., the E.U.’s military and defense capabilities – including in key areas such as strategic lift, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and special forces – are considerably reduced.”29 These assessments do not mean that intervention in the Middle East will cease tomorrow, or indeed any time soon. Even Doyle ends his analysis with the recognition that Brexit has proven that “British politics has become disturbingly unpredictable.”30 Despite its newfound limitations, the British government still covets its various interests in the Muslim world, whether it be natural resources, or the maintenance of regimes that repress unfriendly dissenters. Even so, if any form of political development were to prompt a British reconsideration of the its role abroad, it would be one of this scale at least.

The final issue then, is what Muslims in Britain could or should do in order to address the issues mentioned herein. It is apparent that, in aggregate, there are both clear negatives and positives regarding Brexit and that, whether one voted to leave, remain, or not vote like myself, making the most of this situation now falls to us. It is evident that hatred towards Muslims is only intensifying and, in the short term, da’wa is the only means by which negative attitudes towards Muslims can be countered in this country. It is a duty on us, and one which has lead to thousands of people in Britain to revert to Islam on yearly basis.31 If nothing else, it would ease community relations if non-Muslims in this country could at least better understand Islam by being presented with a more authentic version than what is shown in political propaganda. The refugee crisis and broader international situation will be solved primarily by those regional governments with the capacity to intervene, whether it be in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere, in order to establish a political arrangement that the population can converge upon. It appears that intervention will become increasingly burdensome for the UK post-Brexit, therefore Muslims in Britain should make it clear that regional governments already possess more than adequate military forces with which to accomplish such a goal. Muslims should continue to stress that interference from western governments will only disrupt local efforts, and aid the growth of ISIS and takfiri jihadism as an ideology. It should also be stressed that if national security is truly a concern for the post-Brexit government, then acknowledgment of this fact is within British interests, as is the reduced threat to British soldiers. It is fitting to close with a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu ‘alayi wasllam). As it occurs in Sahih Muslim: “Amazing is the affair of the believer. Definitely, all of his life is good and this is not for anybody except the believer. If something of good happens to him, he is grateful and that is good for him. If something harmful befalls him, he is patient and that is good for him.” Whilst Brexit may bring its share of problems and uncertainties, it can only mean good provided we are thankful to Allah ta’ala and remain patient.

7 The Geography of Anti-Muslim Hatred: Tell MAMA Annual Report 2015 (London: Faith Matters, 2016), 10.

9 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/homenews/britishmuslimsfaceworstjobdiscriminationofanyminoritygroup-9893211.html; Sundas Ali et al., British Muslim in Numbers: A Demographic, Socio-Economic and Health Profile of Muslims in Britain Drawing on the 2011 Census (London: The Muslim Council of Britain, 2015), 58-60.

31 M. A Kevin Brice, A Minority Within a Minority: A Report on Converts to Islam in the United Kingdom (London: Faith Matters, 2011), http://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-reports/a-minority-within-a-minority-a-report-on-converts-to-islam-in-the-uk.pdf

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