Is Britain really the most tolerant country in Europe?

A young white man wearing an open-collared black shirt, with hands moving as he talks, sitting in a TV studio audience. A South Asian man is sitting in front of him.Last Thursday, on the BBC’s Question Time programme (a weekly late-night political panel show in which a panel of politicians and an academic, writer or other lay ‘expert’), there was a contribution from an audience member who claimed that Britain is “one of the least racist societies across Europe” and that one of the supposed benefits of Brexit would be that it would end preferential treatment for (white) European immigrants and allow more people to come from places like Malaysia and Singapore. One panel member (who was Black) countered that he had been stopped by police while just sitting on his mother’s front porch while a Muslim woman (wearing a headscarf) argued that he was a white man and that he wasn’t the person experiencing racism, such as being screamed at while in hijab or being stopped by police while walking across the street. I saw a Twitter thread explaining various measures by which Britain could be considered the least racist or most tolerant country in Europe, in terms of things like positive attitudes to Muslims or other minorities as expressed in opinion polls. But that does not tell the whole story.

As a Muslim, I’m well aware that none of the laws which restrict the observance of Islam by ordinary people in some European countries apply here. We have no bans on hijab in school (although individual schools can ban them or impose “hijab uniforms” which many Muslims consider not to constitute hijab), no bans on wearing niqaab in the street or anywhere else, no ban or restriction on halal slaughter and no requirement to register religious observance. There are enough of us that businesses will take our needs into account in designing things like staff uniforms, which is not the case in some places in Europe where no legal discrimination exists. Unlike in some Muslim countries, mosques can remain open all day and night and you will not face arrest or intimidation for growing your beard or praying the dawn prayer in the mosque. That’s the good news.

A young South Asian woman wearing a black headscarf and black glasses, sitting in a TV studio audience.The bad news is that there is a commercial press which regularly demonises minorities, in some cases explicitly (e.g. Muslims) and sometimes implicitly; we have politicians who make threatening noises at Muslims and send vans into areas with a high non-White population with “GO HOME” printed on them in big letters; we have police who stop and search Black men for no real reason, and immigration officers who accost anyone who “looks foreign” demanding papers that they are not obliged to carry; we have ordinary members of the public who harass and abuse Muslim women in the street because all they know about Muslims is stories about terrorism (mostly by men); we have many stories from people working in the NHS and elsewhere of being told they do not want to be served or treated by them, or that they should go home. It does not matter if the situation is better or worse in France or anywhere else; Britain is the only home most of us have and we cannot up sticks and move to France where we know nobody and do not speak the language. Black and Asian people moved here in the 50s and 60s because their countries were or had been part of the British empire, not the French or Portuguese one.

And as a white man who has no relatives in any of the groups that regularly suffer harassment, even though as a Muslim I find the media coverage and political noises threatening, I am not in the “front line” as it were. The young man in the Question Time audience clearly has no idea; frankly he sounds like he comes from a posh background and went to a “nice school” and probably thinks Britain is a country where success is based on merit, not privilege, and that if you get into trouble it is your fault. I wonder if he actually works for a political party or a think-tank. But whether he does or not, it’s offensive to counter stories of real racism with claims of how tolerant we as a country are, because laws and opinion poll results do not always reflect people’s everyday experiences, and comparisons with other countries are irrelevant.

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