The UK needs its minorities now more than ever

Harris Iqbal

Muslim-led charities in the UK, long recognised by parliamentary reports as “the fourth emergency service” are even more important now that the first three are so severely overstretched.

The Muslim community has more than stepped up during the coronavirus crisis. Many of those National Health Service (NHS) staff who have lost their lives to COVID-19 have been of immigrant – often Muslim – background, and mosques took the step of closing their doors well in advance of government advice.

None of this has prevented far-right figures – as well as some mainstream tabloid journalists – from stigmatising Britain’s minorities, especially the Muslim community.

The usual peddlers of Islamophobia are continuing to push dangerous conspiracy theories. Tommy Robinson, one of the UK’s most notorious online provocateurs, has been quick to seize the opportunity do so.

Robinson recently shared a video of Muslim men allegedly flouting social distancing rules by attending a “secret mosque” in Birmingham – fake news which was quickly dismissed by West Midlands police.

It is a particularly trying time for Britain’s faith communities. Many of them hail from minority backgrounds, and are disproportionately affected by the virus – particularly when it comes to those who need intensive care or lose their lives.

As places of worship are shut down during the lockdown, some of those mosques, dependent on weekly congregational donations, may not survive the pandemic.

This is a huge worry for all charities in the Muslim philanthropy space – a sector where well over 100 million pounds ($125 million) is raised every year in the UK during the month of Ramadan alone (which will start next week).

Without the physical space to hold fundraising events and solicit much-needed donations, some Muslim civil society institutions may find their operations are no longer sustainable after the outbreak.

In spite of this, and without clarity from Chancellor Rishi Sunak about how much of his 750-million-pound support fund for charities will reach them, Muslim-led charities have stepped up their work in serving the most vulnerable across the country, distributing millions of pounds worth of aid and welfare in response to COVID-19.

At my charity, Penny Appeal, we have established a hardship fund, distributed food and hygiene packs and set up a bespoke Coronavirus Listening Line, a service which offers support to people who are under particular strain at the moment.

We are not alone. Islamic Relief has already committed half a million pounds to partner organisations, particularly food banks. The National Zakat Foundation is offering cash grants to those under financial stress, while others are working with members of Parliament, councils and even directly supporting front-line NHS staff in hospitals. The Ummah Welfare Trust is donating a staggering one million pounds worth of personal protective equipment to front-line healthcare workers.

These contributions are just the tip of the iceberg. So much more is under way, most of which will remain under the radar of any media reporting, since many Muslims are reluctant to advertise what they see as a spiritual, rather than a public, duty.

All this flies in the face of what the far right in the UK are spouting – sentiments which sadly do not exist in a vacuum.

The “You Clap For Me Now” viral campaign seeks to highlight the fears of ethnic minority communities in the UK whose contributions to society are being celebrated in this moment of national need but worry that when the dust settles the post-Brexit climate of racism and bigotry – which has more than doubled since 2013 – will return.

Minorities should not only be welcomed in the UK at a time of need or when they are providing essential services. They should be as much a part of the country’s fabric as anyone else. Not least given how Muslim-led charities like ours play such an integral role in how Britain functions during crises.

Those who racialise British Muslims when they are linked with something negative should not make their faith and ethnicity invisible when they are such a crucial part of a national effort to survive a once-in-a-generation global emergency.

During World War I, 2.5 million Muslims travelled to Europe to fight for the UK. Similarly, after World War II, as part of the effort to rebuild the country, tens of thousands of Windrush immigrants were welcomed to Britain alongside subjects from across the former colonies in the Indian subcontinent and Africa, just because the country needed them. Generations later, they are still all-too-often treated as alien, and their culture as inferior.

The war against coronavirus must be different. This time, we must remember all the soldiers – whether they are charity volunteers wearing Team Orange t-shirts or medical doctors donning blue medical scrubs – and we must keep clapping for them when the war is over.

A time of upheaval creates unprecedented instability and fear, and history shows us how this can drive countries to lurch politically either to the right or to the left.

After the last world war, the welfare state was established. A welfare state that for years has been shrinking away and is now at breaking point, with the website for applying for Universal Credit (income support in the UK) crashing under the stress of new claimants.

Luckily for Brits, our welfare is protected not only by the government’s welfare system but also by the “fourth emergency service” – British Muslim-led charities. This is a duty mandated by our faith; to serve those in need regardless of who they are or what their background might be.

In return, we do not ask for special treatment or consideration. All we want is to be treated as equals when the dust settles.