As Hate Crimes Rise, British Muslims Say They’re Becoming More Insular

Birmingham, England — Alum Rock, a neighborhood of Birmingham, looks the way Pakistan might, if Pakistan were under gray northern skies and British rule.

The streets are lively but orderly, with shops that provide the largely South Asian population with most of its needs. The huge Pak Supermarket, with its 10-kilogram bags of spices and rices, is matched by the nearby Pak Pharmacy. Nearly every face is South Asian, and people wear a vibrant mixture of clothing, from Western styles to head scarves, knitted caps and full-face veils, or niqabs.

But the Muslims of Alum Rock, Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook, who make up most of the more than 21 percent of Birmingham’s population who declare Islam as their religion, are newly uneasy, they say. The backlash from the killing of a white soldier, Lee Rigby, in London in May by two fanatical young British Muslims, combined with anxieties about the flow of jihadis between Britain and Syria and the sometimes harshly anti-immigrant tone of leading British politicians have combined to create a new wariness among British Muslims.

“It is a less comfortable country than it used to be,” said Sadruddin Ali, 35, born and raised here.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes are up, the police and Muslim advocacy groups say. In response, many British Muslims say they are becoming more insular and more reluctant to leave their areas of Britain’s big cities, where they are among other Muslims and South Asians.

To many Muslims and non-Muslims, that is a worrying trend in what is considered to be a generally tolerant country as it heads toward the 2015 general election. A divided Conservative Party has a populist, anti-immigration party to its right in the U.K. Independence Party, and even the opposition Labour Party is supporting restrictions on benefits for immigrants.

“There is more hostility and more aggression,” Mr. Ali said.

He mentioned the firebombing of a nearby mosque after the Rigby killing, as well as the fatal stabbing in April of Mohammed Saleem, 82, as he left a local mosque. His attacker was a recent Ukrainian immigrant, who also placed three small bombs outside mosques. In June, a police officer and three other people were stabbed outside another Birmingham mosque.

In other parts of Britain, Mr. Ali said, “I feel a bit intimidated and don’t feel welcome, to be honest.” When he travels, he is often pulled aside at the airport for special questioning, he said, adding that this happened “even when I was cleanshaven.”

Mohammad Naseem, chairman of the Central Mosque in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest, is 89. Born under British colonialism, he served as a doctor in the British Army and came here in 1959. He said he understands why Muslims are uneasy and defensive these days.

“When you go outside the boundary, you’re not sure where you stand,” he said. He said he sees the new fashion for Islamic head covering and veils less as religious than as a reaction to outside pressure. “When you’re being downgraded or threatened,” he said, “there is a natural reaction to hit back and say, ‘This is my identity.’ ”

In London, anti-Muslim episodes rose from 318 in 2011 and 336 in 2012 to 500 by mid-November in 2013, the police reported. The Greater Manchester Police recorded 130 offenses in 2013 compared with 75 in 2012. The West Midlands Police force, which covers Birmingham, reported in response to a freedom of information act request that there were 26 anti-Islamic hate crimes in 2011, 21 in 2012 and 29 through October 2013.

Tell MAMA, an advocacy group that monitors anti-Muslim episodes nationwide (MAMA stands for “measuring anti-Muslim attacks), said that such episodes had almost doubled in a year, with a surge after the Rigby killing, to nearly 1,000 cases. But the group does not separate online attacks from physical ones.

It is not clear how the current tensions will affect what some analysts say has been a slow but gradual trend of greater racial understanding in Britain, though periodically interrupted by racial and ethnic eruptions of hostility. News media attention to immigration from within the European Union has also helped dilute the focus on Muslims.

“Islamophobia intensifies after big events like 9/11, 7/7 and the Lee Rigby murder, and anti-Muslim hate crimes spike,” said Humayun Ansari, a professor of Islamic history at Royal Holloway, University of London, referring to the July 7, 2005, bomb attacks in London. “Then it actually fades away and dies down to a much lower level of intensity.”

But younger Muslims, like Sameera Hussain, 19, a student who wears a head scarf, said she sometimes got insulting or aggressive comments when she traveled outside her community, things like, “We’ll take your scarf and wrap it around your neck.”

Mohammed Wagas, 18, said he feels he is treated differently by the police, who in his opinion stop Muslim drivers “with nice cars” more often than other people. “Oh, you know, he’s brown, he’s going to be doing drugs, that’s why he’s rolling in a big car.”

Somaya Cheraitia described moving to a predominantly white area; casual insults intensified when she started to wear the niqab two years ago. “I was very different to what they knew, and I was an easy target,” she said. Stones were thrown at her family house and lit firecrackers put through the front mail slot teenagers grabbed her mother’s groceries and spilled them on the ground, yelling: “You’re rubbish anyway.”

Then a group of young women attacked her, she said, some trying to untie her niqab while another set her dog on Ms. Cheraitia, saying, “You’re both of the same breed.” When they managed to uncover her face, she remembers, one said: “Oh, she’s ugly anyway, look.”

She was shaken, and decided to stop wearing the niqab. “It was too much,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t belong, even if it’s your home. It was emotionally draining.” She said: “I wasn’t safe anywhere. I wanted to be strong in my worship to Allah,” but her fear “was too strong,” and she moved back to more comfortable East London less than a year ago.

Mr. Naseem noted that anti-Muslim fear and hatred went back to the Crusades, with pubs called “Turk’s Head” or “Saracen’s Head,” but he attributes most anti-Islam and anti-immigration commentary to political language devised to win votes.

But for all the problems, he said, Britain is seen by many Muslims as offering security and liberty.

“Here, there is a trust in the law, and it is a lawful country, no matter how deceiving the government may be,” he said.

Muhammad Shakeel, 29, is among the many Muslims who are happy to be here. He came from Pakistan five years ago and works in a chicken factory alongside other immigrants, mostly Asian and Polish. Married to a Pakistani woman who has been here 10 years, he thinks Britain is fine.

“It’s not safe in Pakistan,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.” Here in the “Balti triangle,” as the neighborhood known, he feels he can construct a decent life. “There are good rules in this country,” he said. “Some people have prejudice, but mostly they are very nice. This is a safe country.”