Priti Patel’s legislative changes forced me to postpone my anti-Islamophobia protest

Time and time again, divisive words about Muslims are plastered across the headlines. We are made to feel vulnerable, marginalised and unaccepted by society. We see the world turn a blind eye to those of us even less fortunate around the world, devastated by violence and death at the hands of brutal regimes. And time and time again, we must swallow it, and move on.

For once, I wanted this issue at the top of the agenda. But Home Secretary Priti Patel’s abrupt legislative changes, clamping down on our freedom to stand for our human rights during lockdown, was a devastating blow.

The conflation of Muslims and Islam with violence has become distressingly commonplace, including in the UK. Yet the recent politics in France took this to new heights. The isolated actions of a killer were made the responsibility of an entire community. Emmanuel Macron’s response in early October was immediately to condemn Islam as being “in a crisis all over the world”, his words followed by his administration’s proposed actions – closure of mosques, regular workplace and home raids, objections to selling Halal meat. At the same time, two Muslims were stabbed under the Eiffel Tower, and yet the media remains silent on this. The attackers were charged only with assault, rather than attempted murder.

What is so harmful in France is that instead of condemning murder as a common evil for everyone to unite behind, it is tied to Islam, and used as a justification to oppress Muslim lives.

This is the same Islamophobia that normalises horrific abuse faced by other Muslims across the world, highlighted by the camps in Uyghur and persecution in Rohingya.

So I began to organise a protest in my home city of Bristol. Though I am chair of the Bristol University Student’s Union BAME Network, I wanted the protest to be a neutral cross community space, where people from all backgrounds could unite in solidarity for the rights of Muslims in our society. The slogans – “Anti-Islamophobia, March for Muslims” – were designed to ensure the purpose was simple but unequivocal:to stand for the rights of all Muslim lives, from Europe and Nigeria to Kashmir and Palestine.

Muslims are not one race, yet we have been racialised as one, treated with the same discrimination and opposition. It is real, and it happens every day. I should be able to take my prayer breaks and wear my hijab with pride, celebrate the spirituality that comes with reading the Quran, without worrying about my job prospects, or being associated with harmful stereotypes. And it is far worse for other Muslims, who face fears for their life or safety every day for simply existing.

The expressions of a faith that form the fundamentals of my identity should not be viewed as an automatic attack on anyone else.

Violence and injustice have no religion. This is why this protest was so urgent and essential. However, two days later, Boris Johnson announced a month-long national lockdown for England on Sunday 1st November for the following Thursday. I then had a choice to make.

Public health guidance is crucial to follow – as a medical student who has also worked as a nursing assistant on the frontlines, I fully understand the devastation of this virus. Everyone must stay at home as much as possible under a national lockdown. Covid-19 has damaged so many, especially those from BAME communities, and we must all do our part to minimise the risk.

However, there are exceptions to the general guidance, and this protest was also a necessity. Even under lockdown, we needed to demonstrate solidarity and action against Islamophobia. Furthermore, previous protests for minority groups, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, saw no rise in Covid cases afterwards, and their cause remains crucial even in lockdown. To mitigate risk as much as possible, I arranged extensive stewarding, PPE provision and encouraged strict social distancing in all communications.

I faced a great deal of resistance, rumours of counter-protest and accusations of causing health risk. Endless calls were flying in from police and community figures who were facing pressure to advise me to cancel. But it was a decision taken with the overwhelming support of Muslim students, and non-Muslim activist allies, with around 400 predicted to attend.

But then two days later, I received a very different phone call from the police. Priti Patel had removed, with ruthless precision, the legislation allowing protests to be exempt from the legal consequences for public gatherings. She briefed chief constables on this and said they were expected to enforce the rules.

As such, I would be liable to be charged £10,000 for organising this, and other charges for attending. It was a heavy blow, but I took the decision to postpone because though I was willing to face attacks on my reputation and professional standing for my cause, I am unable to face monetary cost.

I have always felt an obsession from society to pit my beliefs against each other: the desire for both a university education and the years out to raise children, the value I place in free intellectual debate and respect for the sanctity of my religious figures, and now I have the worry about carrying the duty of a doctor to public health alongside my belief in the importance of protest. Not all Muslims have the same goals or come from the same walks of life, but we desire the right to our own choices, restricted only by the same laws which apply equally to all.

For once, I tried to empower myself and my fellow Muslims by standing up to the injustice we face and was stifled. And with this Tory government’s continued oppression of numerous communities, many are rightfully anxious about these legislative changes.

Being forced into inaction on injustice is crippling. The danger that the guise of this being a temporary public health measure will allow it to become the new norm. Though I hope to reorganise the protest for the first Sunday following lockdown ending (the 6th December), it concerns me that my ability to demonstrate for a very important cause was postponed with such brutal efficiency.