No country for hijabs: SE Asian students in the UK live in fear of Islamophobia
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No country for hijabs: SE Asian students in the UK live in fear of Islamophobia

ON Nov 9, 2016, Putri Viona Sari, a student at the University of Edinburgh went to a grocery store. It was like any other day for the PhD candidate originally from Bekasi, Indonesia. But in America, property-developer-turned-reality-star Donald Trump had just been elected as its 45th president.

As she exited the store, a young white man shouted to her: “Make America great again!” before proceeding to laugh in her face.

She was stumped. This isn’t America – What did he mean by shouting that? And why shout at her? Weren’t there others around her?

SEE ALSO: Malaysian university tries to convert those with LGBT ‘disorders’

Then it dawned on her: “Oh, it must be because of my hijab.”

To be singled out for such racist vitriol because of her hijab isn’t normal for Putri. But after a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe, anti-Muslim sentiment is palpably on the rise. And with it, more verbal and even physical acts of Islamophobia.


Putri thinks Edinburgh is generally welcoming towards Muslims. Source: Putri Viona Sari

Today, religious hate crimes are up nearly 30 percent, according to Home Office data. Scotland Yard recorded a further increase in hate crimes following the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack on 22 March 2017. In London, reported anti-Muslim hate crimes has soared by almost 40 percent in the past year.

For Putri and other Muslim students in the country, these figures mean they now live in a climate of fear.

One in three Muslim students in the UK had experienced some type of abuse or crime at their place of study, with one in five experiencing verbal abuse in person. Most believe they are motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice.

SEE ALSO: Racism used for ‘divide and rule’ in Malaysia, says report

On the streets, one in three feel fairly or very worried about being physically or verbally abused. For hijab-wearing women or those in clothing that makes them ‘identifiably Muslim’, this fear is several times more.

It didn’t used to be this way. Spending a few years at a British university used to be as close to a fairytale as possible to almost every Malaysian or Indonesian teenager back home.

Citizens of both countries exalt British higher education and its renowned universities. Together, they export among the largest numbers of citizens to the UK, surpassing countries with populations several times bigger, like India or Pakistan. Of the £20bn (US$28.38) the UK earns from international education, a significant portion comes from these Southeast Asian nations’ coffers.

But while its universities continue to open their doors to them, British society is slowly shutting them closed. Intolerance is brewing, with Downing Street requiring schools and universities to report students who are “vulnerable to radicalisation,” a move criticised for causing more stigma on Muslims than to solve radicalisation. Muslims are 40 times more likely to have been referred to Prevent last year than someone who is not Muslim.

SEE ALSO: Malaysian laundry washes hands of non-Muslims, but denies being racist

Certain politicians play witting or unwitting roles in fostering this racist climate. When British-Pakistani Sadiq Khan stood for the mayoral elections in 2016, Conservative Party politician Zac Goldsmith’s blatantly racist campaign tried to link Khan to Islamist extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism.

The media isn’t exactly very friendly to Muslims either, to say the least. Actual headlines include: ‘Terror in Spain: Gunman screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ opens fire in supermarket’; ‘Muslim loonies hijack elections’; ‘Muslims plot to kill Pope’; ‘Muslims tell British: Go to hell!’.

Unsurprisingly, all these prejudice and hate have real consequences. In the real world, they result in real threats of violence and intimidation, scarring these students’ otherwise pleasant experience studying in the UK.

The ‘Make America Great Again’ event wasn’t the only racist encounter for Putri and she isn’t the first Muslim student to have experienced such things in the UK.

Azzam Anwar, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics at King’s College London, said he was verbally abused when he went out one day donning a ‘jubah’, a traditional Muslim dress usually used for pray.

“A van passed by us, and in the van was a driver. He passed us, and as he did, he shouted the phrase “F****** Pakis” in our direction. He threw an empty yogurt pot at us as he did so, which fell onto the floor.”


Azzam thinks he would not have acted any different from his abuser had he gotten the same upbringing and environment. Source: Azzam Anwar

Though Azzam didn’t find this “particularly traumatising,” it’s a world very much different from Muslim-majority Malaysia. Malays and a number of indigenous groups, deemed the “sons of the soil”, are born to a plush set of special privileges, thanks to an affirmative action plan penned several decades ago to lift them out of poverty. Although the government touts its shift towards a more needs-based approach, race-based quotas for public universities, government jobs and discounts on property purchases remain.

And while Indonesian Muslims do not receive quite the same level of state-sanctioned gift of privileges, being part of the religion that makes up 87.2 percent of the population means you still receive certain luxuries other religions don’t. Javanese patterns of thoughts, behaviour, and standards dominate the archipelago, thanks to years of Java-centric policies and the country’s history of transmigration.

SEE ALSO: Malaysian sues over flag mistaken for US one ‘desecrated with ISIS symbols’

Travel several thousand kilometers to the UK, however, and these privileges are flipped 180 degrees. And while once the biggest concern of these Muslim students while studying abroad were finding halal branches of Nando’s or prayer rooms, today it is their safety that ranks top of their list of worries.

Ayman Hazwani is an ambitious and outgoing Malaysian reading law at the London School of Economics (LSE). The student in the running to head the United Kingdom and Eire (Ireland) Council of Malaysian Students, generally finds British society “undeniably friendly” and describes her fellow students and staff as “quite tolerant”. Putri and Azman speak just as highly about their UK universities, staff and surrounding community.


“Coming to study in the UK provides a whole different set of challenges because, for the first time, I no longer live in a Muslim-majority country,” Ayman said. Source: Ayman Hazwani

When Ayman is not at UKEC meetings, the extroverted student is either at outdoor concerts, meeting friends or having dinners in London’s many restaurants.

But on “Punish a Muslim Day” this month – declared so by anonymous letters saying points will be awarded to those who harm Muslims – Ayman’s friends refused to let her leave their home.

Their fears were not unfounded. A Muslim had been stabbed in Sheffield after the threatening flyers went viral. They weren’t risking letting Ayman outside, even to return to her own residence. Instead, they ordered delivery and Ayman spent the night at their place.

“I do not know the credibility of the news and I have not done the fact-checking myself but we were scared,” Ayman said.

“It was better to be safe than sorry.”

What UK universities can do to counter Islamophobia

“Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!”; “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!”; “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!”

These were the three videos shared by US President Donald Trump last November to his 43.6 million followers. Originally tweeted by ultranationalist group Britain First, they purportedly show regular Muslims committing acts of violence, without any context. In some cases, without any attempt at accuracy.

International outrage ensued.

One of the voices was Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor and the first Muslim to hold that position in a major European capital. In a tweet, Khan condemned Trump’s use of Twitter “to sow division and hatred in our country,” demanded an apology and asked for his upcoming visit to be canceled.

It was swift, decisive and very clear in stating racism has no place in London or the UK.

It’s the type of reaction Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim students in the UK hope more government figures and universities would emulate.

“I’m not so sure about the UK government as a whole, but as for London, I do see that the good mayor is doing a lot to stop any kind of Islamophobic and prejudicial attacks that are increasing nowadays, such as putting a lot more men on patrol,” Siti Aminah Muhammad Imran, a Malaysian PhD student at Imperial College London said.

The city’s zero-tolerance approach to all forms of hate crime takes many forms: the #LondonIsOpen campaign, the introduction of specially-trained investigators to deal with hate crime in every London borough, the creation of an online hate crime hub to identify, prevent and investigate online abuse.

Beyond Khan and London, however, the fight against racial bigotry appears tepid, if it exists at all.


Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London carries flowers outside the Houses of Parliament on the anniversary of the terror attack in London. Source: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Speaking to the BBC, Shakira Martin, the president of the National Union of Students called out UK universities’ poor performance in dealing with racism on campus. Commenting on the recent spate of racist abuse in several UK universities earlier this year, Martin said more needs to be done to make sure every student is safe on campus:

“They’re not prioritising it and taking it seriously … universities are more concerned about their reputation than the wellbeing of their students.”

“This is something that we need to tackle, not because it’s in the headlines of the media, but every student has the needs to be safe on campus.”

One way to do so could be through the creation of helplines on campus, suggests Qurratuain Ihsan, an Economics student at the University of Warwick. Aynn, as she wishes to be known, is grateful she’s never had to encounter an Islamophobic attack in the UK but told us she was the unfortunate victim of one in Europe. She now takes martial arts classes to learn how to defend herself better.

When asked what universities could do, Aynn said:

“For those who have experienced these incidents, the university should encourage them to go to a counselling session so that these incidents won’t affect their academic performance or wellbeing.”

Hate crimes cause lasting damage, both on the victim and their community. Beyond physical wounds, they can cause emotional harm on victims, through evoking despair, anger and anxiety.

When Putri was targeted for verbal racist abuse, it left her confused and disturbed. The overwhelming perception about Muslims is negative, she says, and universities can do more to counter this:

“I think they can start making an explicit statement about their stance against Islamophobia – not as a response to a particular incident, but as an initiative.”

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said:

“The University is intent on promoting a positive culture for working and studying in which all members of the University’s community treat each other with dignity, respect and where inappropriate behaviour – including any form of discrimination, harassment and bullying – is handled accordingly. ”

“We would treat any claims of anti-Islamic sentiment on campus extremely seriously – should they arise – and act very swiftly if ever we are alerted to incidents of any kind.”


Failure to tackle racism towards Muslim students, including those from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, means isolating close to 10 percent of the international student population. Source: Shutterstock

A five-year study by the University of Sussex found empirical evidence that hate crimes leave “serious consequences” on communities as a whole. Simply knowing or reading a victim is enough to cause harm – making people feel vulnerable, anxious, angry or ashamed – and compelling them to change their behaviour such as avoiding certain situations or places where they may be more at risk of abuse.

A National Union of Students survey published this year found similar findings at the campus level. Muslim students are less likely to participate in the activities of or seek a high-profile position in their student unions. Two out of five respondents (43 percent) who reported having been affected by Prevent said this experience made it harder to express their opinions or views, especially on issues like racism, Islamophobia, Muslim student provision, terrorism, Palestine or Prevent.

Instead of preventing radicalisation, Shaffira Diraprana Gayatri, who graduated with a Masters in World Literature from the University of Warwick in 2015, believes the Prevent duty only serves to perpetuate Islamophobia and xenophobia.

“Academic institutions should be independent and protect their students, instead of unnecessarily putting teaching staff in an uncomfortable situation as a tool of the state, and causing students (especially Muslim students) to be paranoid and feel unsafe in their own campus,” Shaffira said.

Malaysian and Indonesian students make up more than 20,000 of the international student body in the UK. Failure to tackle racism towards Muslim students, including those from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, means isolating close to 10 percent of the international student population.

Shaffira remembers how then-Home Office secretary Theresa May’s strict immigration policies – regarding visa length, visa requirements, ease to get work post-study – added to feelings of antagonism felt. These policies, in addition to the Prevent duty and growing anti-Muslim sentiment, are “bad news” and can be costly for UK universities in the long run, she says.

“From my experience, it’s important for UK universities to make their students (in this case, especially international ones) feel safe, respected and valuable if they want to compete or stay competitive in the international market.”

This article originally appeared on our sister site Study International

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