Reflections on Britain’s ‘Punish a Muslim Day’

From mid-march, a series of anonymous letters began arriving through the letterboxes of Muslims across the United Kingdom: in the cities of Birmingham, Bradford, Cardiff, Leicester, London and Sheffield. Declaring 3rd April 2018 “Punish a Muslim Day”, the letters called on the British public to commit random acts of violence against Muslims using a points based system depending on the severity of the act. These ranged from a mere 10 points for verbally abusing a Muslim or 50 points for throwing acid in their face through to 1,000 points for burning a mosque or a whopping 2,500 points to “nuke Mecca” (‘nuke’ being slang for dropping a nuclear bomb).

While the letters seemed to be sent indiscriminately, those sending them also targeted a number of prominent British Muslims. These included five Muslim Members of Parliament (MPs): Rupa Huq, Sajid Javid, Afzhal Khan, Mohammad Yasin and Rushanara Ali. In addition to the letters, each MP also received packages that contained what police later referred to as an irritant substance. This resulted in Huq being taken to hospital as a precaution after opening the package and Khan’s office being evacuated. Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) — an organisation set up to monitor Islamophobic hate crimes — also received a similar letter and package.

In spite of the significance of the letters and packages, the response of the British authorities was somewhat mixed. As regards trying to identify the perpetrators, the North East Counter Terrorism Unit begun an investigation. While so, there has yet to be any breakthrough about who might be behind the campaign. The approach of the police sat in stark opposition to that of the British Government. Despite the letters spreading fear among Britain’s Muslim communities, neither the Prime Minister Theresa May nor any of her ministers made any public comment — let alone condemnation — about the ‘Punish’ campaign. Choosing not to reassure the public, the lack of recognition afforded was indicative of the Government’s approach to Islamophobia and the expression of anti-Muslim bigotry.

In the weeks and days prior to the 3rd April, the letters understandably caused significant distress among Britain’s communities. This was particularly evident on social media. While some spoke about being too scared to go out for fear of what might occur, others spoke about the need to stand up to the letters and send out a message that Muslims will not be intimated. Most positioned themselves somewhere in between as indeed did the Metropolitan Police, warning that while British Muslims should indeed carry on regardless they should be especially vigilant on the day.

Maybe unsurprisingly, the day passed without there being any evidence of a concerted or organised programme of events to substantiate the ‘Punish a Muslim Day’. Neither did any groups or individual came forward on the day or since to claim ownership of the campaign. From interaction with the police and organisations, it would seem that on the day there was only a very small increase in the number of Islamophobic incidents reported. While unwanted, it is likely that this was due to more people being aware of the need to report their experience on that particular day than evidence of an increase in hate crimes per se.

Aside from the fear and anxiety the letters caused, two less obvious impacts are worthy of consideration.

The first emerged from conversations had with community workers in Birmingham. As they explained, some young Muslims — especially young men — saw the letter as a direct threat to them, their communities and their religion also. Accordingly, their response was one of protection, of needing to ‘defend’ those who sought to ‘punish’. Because of this, community workers said there were some extremely hyped young Muslim men on edge on the day, some even seemingly waiting for something to ‘kick off’. As they explained, in such scenarios it is extremely easy for things to be misread and misunderstood that duly result in unwanted consequences. While the evidence remains anecdotal, some of those spoken to suggested that there were a number of times on the day when they had been required to act to quickly to diffuse potential flashpoints and calm emotions.

The second relates to who the letters were actually written for. While the letters were sent to Muslims, the text — as indeed the points based system — did not speak to Muslims, a point that has so far been overlooked in much of the analysis attributed to them. Opening with the line, “They [Muslims] have hurt you, they have made your loved one suffer…” the letters are written entirely with Britain’s non-Muslim population in mind. As the letters put it, the country’s “white majority”. Reiterating far-right tropes that are evident across much of today’s Europe, the letters infer that both the country and continent are under threat of an Islamic invasion and that now is the time to resist and respond. Asking the “white majority” not to be “sheep”, the letters conclude by stating that now is the time to ‘punish a Muslim’.

These two less obvious impacts are not only significant in their own right but so too significant in that they are also self-serving. Had those young Muslims have — out of fear and the perceived need to ‘defend’ — misread a situation and found themselves in a violent situation, so it would have been presented by those on the political right and indeed parts of the media as ‘evidence’ that Muslims are a ‘problem’ in British society. In turn, this could have reinforced the message to the “white majority” that the claims made in the letter have credibility and credence. With more non-Muslims coming round to this way of thinking, so Muslims and their communities would find themselves increasingly feeling threatened and anxious thereby catalysing the need to not only be more vigilant but more worryingly, needing to put up some defence. Each impact therefore, serving to reinforce and validate the other

While it is easy to dismiss the ‘Punish a Muslim Day’ letter as a hoax — maybe even one that got blown out of proportion — the letter was far less simple and straightforward than it maybe appears on first reading. A means through which to instil fear and anxiety in Britain’s Muslim communities, it also sought to exploit tensions between different communities in order to reinforce the insidious and divisive ideology of those behind it.