by Irfan Raja
Op-Ed May 22, 2020
Red buses pass the Bank of England in the financial district of London, May 14, 2020. (EPA Photo)
Europe has survived several epidemics and will hopefully get through the coronavirus too, just like the rest of the world. But many say that the post-coronavirus world will dramatically change. The question is how will it change? Will there be increasing poverty? Will there be more closure of businesses? Will there be increasing social inequality? Will far-right populism get more strength? What will happen to democracies? Will authoritarian rules survive? And most importantly, will there be racial riots and social disturbances across Europe and beyond?
The Red Cross warns that coronavirus riots could “erupt at any moment” in European cities. So many predictions are floating around as the pandemic crisis deepens.
But it is not all bad news. In fact, we count many glad tidings as well. Ramzy Baroud envisages many theories in a lengthy article including a healthier and purer environment and the forming of “communal societies.”
On the other side, Lizzie Dearden writes in The Independent that far-right groups in Britain are spreading fake news, using backdated footage showing that mosques are still open during lockdowns and that this could cause the spread of coronavirus. She warns that once the lockdown is lifted “dangerous” conspiracy theories could trigger “waves of Islamophobic attacks” that were initially traced by the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group.
Almost, 2,000 U.K. mosques are fully closed as many have moved “Ramadan into a virtual world,” while imams are still in contact with thousands of British Muslims through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Muslims are not alone. Of course, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs are also ordained to attend prayers and ceremonies at places of worship that have also followed similar COVID-19 online movements. But certainly, mosques are at disadvantage, primarily because of bad press as self-appointed and self-declared scholars often report about “hate mongers.” Hence, ordinary readers with little or no knowledge of Islam often get confused and think that it is perhaps imams and mosques that spread hate.
In the last few decades, a list of distasteful events involving extremists and fundamentalists have constantly stirred hatred against British Muslims. Obviously, any victim could respond with resentment, particularly one with a lack of knowledge of Islam.
Back in 2004, The Guardian wrote, “British hostility to Muslims ‘could trigger riots,’” which then happened in 2011 in Birmingham when Muslim teenagers were brutally murdered.
Think of the July 7, 2005, London bombings, the 2017 London Bridge attack, the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 and other similar violence that fuels hatred against British Muslims. Correspondingly, there have been waves of increasing attacks on British mosques, hijab-wearing women and bearded men.
According to a report in The Guardian, following British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comment about the “burqa,” there has been a record 375% rise in anti-Muslim hatred. The point is that this established hostility will increase if not gotten under control.
Past experience with disease
History tells us that in events such as the Black Death in the 14th century, the spread of smallpox in the 16th century and the Spanish flu of 1918, vulnerable groups suffer the brunt of these pandemics.
Looking back, we find that the Jewish community in Europe was blamed for the occurrence of the plague and other global pandemics.
Samuel K. Cohen unfolded historical events following other similar crises in Europe. He branded the continent’s pandemics as “waves of disease, waves of hatred.” Correspondingly, Cohen’s study traced “long-held assumptions that epidemics sparked hatred and blame of the ‘Other,’ and that it was worse when diseases were mysterious as to their causes and cures.” More worryingly, he found that “Europe’s most deadly and devastating disease, the Black Death of 1347–51, unleashed mass violence: the murder of Catalans in Sicily, clerics, beggars in Narbonne and especially the pogroms against Jews.”
Long before the spread of COVID-19, several leading studies, articles and investigative reports disclosed the distasteful fact that after every epidemic there has been a search for a scapegoat.
Donald G. McNeil Jr. reminds us that the Black Death in medieval Europe was labeled the “Jewish Death” and that the Swine Flu eruption of 2009 brought racism and physical attacks on the Mexican community. McNeil Jr. noted that a Mexican football player was called “leper” and “germ warfare,” whereas “Argentines stoned Chilean buses, saying they were importing disease. When Argentina’s caseload soared, European countries warned their citizens against visiting it.”
As COVID-19 continues to cause death and mount anxiety, the same old bad thoughts are floating around us. Again, it’s a dangerous blame game. U.S. President Donald Trump used the malicious phrase “Chinese virus” and many others are finding scapegoats to cover up their delayed or inadequate responses to overcome the disease. Around the globe, Chinese have been spit on, attacked and labeled as virus exporters while also facing biased reporting.
Sad though that investigations have revealed a rise in xenophobia. Matthew Henderson asks, “Who is to blame?” As the disease grows, people are raising questions about inequality in the U.S. and Britain, nations that proudly stand for equal rights.
For our safe future, it is also worth listening to scientists to be careful of our wildlife-driven appetite. What seems clear is that external threats, as they have in the past and today, continue to show in underlying social tensions.
Currently, Muslims across the globe have found themselves in the crossfire as far as COVID-19 is concerned and have been incriminated in spreading the disease in countries such as India and mainland Europe.
The question we need to ask ourselves is what will be the socio-economic and political impact on Muslims be once the current crisis ends? Will Muslims be subjected to harassment, victimization and violence in a post-coronavirus world?
It is already happening in the current COVID-19 crisis as Muslims are blamed for the spread of disease from India to Europe. On Twitter, the hashtags #coronajihad and #NizamuddinMarkaz accuse the global Muslim preachers’ group Tablighi Jamaat of spreading COVID-19. A Buzzfeed News report reveals how “200 million Muslims are being vilified” in India.
So what is the outcome of such destructive media campaigns? A Muslim man committed suicide after he was wrongly blamed as a “corona-spreader.” Many Muslims, including a heavily pregnant Muslim, have been refused admission to hospitals.
A Google search of “Tablighi Jamaat” brings up dozens of articles, news stories, features and editorials published in Indian mainstream media channels that are mostly hostile and biased, demonizing the entire Indian Muslim community. Pity though, Indian Muslims are still haunted by the damage and bigotry resulting from the “Citizenship Bill,” an anti-Muslim law that makes them outsiders.
A New York Times report said “coronavirus fans religious hatred” in India and Time wrote, “It was Already Dangerous to be Muslim in India: Then Came the Coronavirus.” It is evidence of the violence nurtured against the poor Indian Muslims deprived of coronavirus aid and hospital treatments.
These stories are just a few warning shots as history repeats itself. So are we prepared to face a bigger challenge ahead? Will these underlying tensions come to a head?
Evidence shows that governments have always covered up their failures when meeting crises head-on. For this purpose, there have always been groups portrayed as “outsiders,” “threats” and as an “enemy within,” so it can be argued that as soon as the COVID-19 crisis is over, the established notion of the “enemy within” will be used to blame Muslims for most failures, be they economic, social or political.
Imagine, a post-coronavirus world in which some people will be angry, distressed and sad at having lost much-loved family members, greater economic equality and employment. All this may well fuel their anger and stir hatred of Muslims. Be careful of far-right groups that according to a Newsweek report are planning to blame Islam and Muslims for the spread of COVID-19. Sadly, despite Europe facing the dangers of the epidemic, there is little solidarity among its states.
The benefits of sharing such thoughts in advance will allow governments and the public to prepare for the presumed consequences from the COVID-19 crisis, informing them of how fake news and conspiracy theories could potentially deepen the underlying rift in the social fabric of society. So let’s act anow.
* British-Pakistani political analyst and human rights activist based in the U.K.
About the author
*British-Pakistani political analysts and human rights activist based in the U.K.