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How Islamophobia haunts Southeast Asian Muslim students in the UK

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On Nov 9, 2016, Putri Viona Sari, a student at the University of Edinburgh went to a grocery store. It was any other day for the PhD candidate originally from Bekasi, Indonesia. But in America, property-developer-turned-reality-star Donald Trump had just been elected as its 45th president.

As she exited the store, a young white man shouted to her: “Make America great again!” before proceeding to laugh in her face.

She was stumped. This isn’t America – What did he mean by shouting that? And why shout at her? Weren’t there others around her?

Then it dawned on her: “Oh, it must be because of my hijab.”

To be singled out for such racist vitriol because of her hijab isn’t normal for Putri. But after a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe, anti-Muslim sentiment is palpably on the rise. And with it, more verbal and even physical acts of Islamophobia.

Putri thinks Edinburgh is generally welcoming towards Muslims. Source: Putri Viona Sari

Today, religious hate crimes are up nearly 30 percent, according to Home Office data. Scotland Yard recorded a further increase in hate crimes following the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack on 22 March 2017. In London, reported anti-Muslim hate crimes has soared by almost 40 per cent in the past year.

For Putri and other Muslim students in the country, these figures mean they now live in a climate of fear.

One in three Muslim students in the UK had experienced some type of abuse or crime at their place of study, with one in five experiencing verbal abuse in person. Most believe they are motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice.

On the streets, one in three feel fairly or very worried about being physically or verbally abused. For hijab-wearing women or those in clothing that makes them ‘identifiably Muslim’, this fear is several times more.

It didn’t use to be this way. Spending a few years at a British university used to be as close to a fairytale as possible to almost every Malaysian or Indonesian teenager back home.

Citizens of both countries exalt British higher education and its renowned universities. Together, they export among the largest numbers of citizens to the UK, surpassing countries with populations several times bigger, like India or Pakistan. Of the £20bn (US$28.38) the UK earns from international education, a significant portion comes from these Southeast Asian nations’ coffers.

But while its universities continue to open their doors to them, British society is slowly shutting them close. Intolerance is brewing, with Downing Street requiring schools and universities to report students who are “vulnerable to radicalisation,” a move criticised for causing more stigma on Muslims than to solve radicalisation. Muslims are 40 times more likely to have been referred to Prevent last year than someone who is not Muslim.

Certain politicians play witting or unwitting roles in fostering this racist climate. When British-Pakistani Sadiq Khan stood for the mayoral elections in 2016, Conservative Party politician Zac Goldsmith’s blatantly racist campaign tried to link Khan to Islamist extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism.

The media isn’t exactly very friendly to Muslims either, to say the least. Actual headlines include: ‘Terror in Spain: Gunman screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ opens fire in supermarket’; ‘Muslim loonies hijack elections’; ‘Muslim plot to kill Pope’; ‘Muslims tell British: Go to hell!’.

Unsurprisingly, all these prejudice and hate have real consequences. In the real world, they result in real threats of violence and intimidation, scarring these students’ otherwise pleasant experience studying in the UK.

The ‘Make America Great Again’ event wasn’t the only racist encounter for Putri and she isn’t the first Muslim student to have experienced such things in the UK.

Azzam Anwar, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics at King’s College London, said he was verbally abused when he went out one day donning a ‘jubah’, a traditional Muslim dress usually used for pray.

“A van passed by us, and in the van was a driver. He passed us, and as he did, he shouted the phrase “F****** Pakis” in our direction. He threw an empty yogurt pot at us as he did so, which fell onto the floor.”

Azzam thinks he would not have acted any different from his abuser had he gotten the same upbringing and environment. Source: Azzam Anwar

Though Azzam didn’t find this “particularly traumatising,” it’s a world very much different from Muslim-majority Malaysia. Malays and a number of indigenous groups, deemed the “sons of the soil”, are born to a plush set of special privileges, thanks to an affirmative action plan penned several decades ago to lift them out of poverty. Although the government touts its shift towards a more needs-based approach, race-based quotas for public universities, government jobs and discounts on property purchases remain.

And while Indonesian Muslims do not receive quite the same level of state-sanctioned gift of privileges, being part of the religion that makes up 87.2 percent of the population means you still receive certain luxuries other religions don’t. Javanese patterns of thoughts, behavior, and standards dominate the archipelago, thanks to years of Java-centric policies and the country’s history of transmigration.

Travel several thousand kilometers to the UK, however, and these privileges are flipped 180 degrees. And while once the biggest concern of these Muslim students while studying abroad were finding halal branches of Nando’s or prayer rooms, today it is their safety that ranks top of their list of worries.

Ayman Hazwani is an ambitious and outgoing Malaysian reading law at the London School of Economics (LSE). The student in the running to head the United Kingdom and Eire (Ireland) Council of Malaysian Students, generally finds British society “undeniably friendly” and describes her fellow students and staff as “quite tolerant”. Putri and Azman speak just as highly about their UK universities, staff and surrounding community.

“Coming to study in the UK provides a whole different set of challenges because, for the first time, I no longer live in a Muslim-majority country,” Ayman said. Source: Ayman Hazwani

When Ayman is not at UKEC meetings, the extroverted student is either at outdoor concerts, meeting friends or having dinners in London’s many restaurants.

But on “Punish a Muslim Day” this month – declared so by anonymous letters saying points will be awarded to those who harm Muslims – Ayman’s friends refused to let her leave their home.

Their fears were not unfounded. A Muslim had been stabbed in Sheffield after the threatening flyers went viral. They weren’t risking letting Ayman outside, even to return to her own residence. Instead, they ordered delivery and Ayman spent the night at their place.

“I do not know the credibility of the news and I have not done the fact-checking myself but we were scared,” Ayman said.

“It was better to be safe than sorry.”

PART 2: What UK universities can do to counter Islamophobia

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