Islamophobia: Camden’s success in tackling prejudice and hate
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘phobia’ as an “extreme or irrational fear or dislike of a specified thing or group”.
On September 11, 2001, thousands were killed in New York City by terrorists acting in the name of Islam, an atrocity which inflamed a phenomenon that continues unabated in society today.
Now Islamophobia is back at the forefront of public consciousness after the brutal killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last month.
What followed the death was a deluge of anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media websites and, more ominously, a handful of revenge attacks on mosques and Islamic centres across the country.
The fear of retribution was felt keenly in north London earlier this month with the destruction of a community centre for Somali Muslims in Muswell Hill, an arson attack linked to supporters of far-right group the English Defence League (EDL).
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In Camden, former council leader, Cllr Nasim ‘Nash’ Ali, took to the streets in the wake of the Woolwich murder to ensure calm remained between faith communities – handing out a 24-hour council phone number which residents could call if they sensed unrest.
“What we did in Camden after Woolwich was to go around the communities to make sure people were coming together,” says Cllr Ali, who represents Regent’s Park ward.
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“No one can say the [killers of Lee Rigby] are really Islamic because once you do something like that you are taking yourself away from the Quran.”
The point he makes is that the actions of rogue individuals do not reflect the ideology of a global religion followed by billions.
Much has been done in Camden – a borough with almost 27,000 Muslim residents, according to 2011 census figures – to ensure the Islamophobia of far-right groups such as the EDL is sidelined.
One group working to ensure tolerance and understanding is the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), a charity based in Kentish Town.
3FF worker Debbie Danon, 28, has taken the charity’s message into Camden secondary schools, including Maria Fidelis and Acland Burghley, with workshops that give pupils the opportunity to question visitors from Islam, Judaism and various other faiths.
She says the chance to come face to face with a Muslim and ask questions very often exposes misunderstandings and prejudice.
But she notes that, while Camden is not exempt from Islamophobia, the borough has done well to curb its influence compared with other London boroughs.
“I have heard stories of Muslim kids, and kids with parents who are marching with the EDL, coming to blows in the classroom,” says Ms Danon.
“But our anecdotal experience is that Camden has devoted a great deal of investment into community relations and is reaping the benefits.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Cllr Ali.
“There’s a lot of work that has gone into Camden over the decades,” he says. “Had we not put that investment into our community centres, into our youth centres and into our schools we would perhaps not be having this conversation.
“We might be having a conversation about Muslim people in Camden being abused, shouted and spat at.”