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Muslim politicians in the U.K. have faced Islamophobia through Ramadan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, a huge chunk of humanity was looking skyward for a glimpse of the solar eclipse. And tonight, many in the Muslim world will be looking up, searching for a crescent moon signifying the end of a month of fasting and the start of the Eid holiday. But in the United Kingdom, tensions over the war in Gaza and rising Islamophobia mean that it's been a difficult month for Muslims, as NPR's Fatima Al-Kassab reports from London.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in non-English language).

FATIMA AL-KASSAB, BYLINE: This ornate hotel banquet hall in the posh area of Mayfair is decorated with lanterns and golden crescent moons. Some of the biggest names in British politics, entertainment and the arts are breaking their fast with an iftar meal. But the guests say that the mood is somber this year.

SAYEEDA WARSI: Every Ramadan iftar event that I've been to, there's no celebrations. I always say that when you wake up in the morning, you think about Gaza. When you do iftar, you think about Gaza.

AL-KASSAB: Sayeeda Warsi is the former chairwoman of the U.K.'s ruling Conservative Party. She says that, as a Muslim, she feels the pain of Palestinian suffering in Gaza.

WARSI: There is a collective sense of trauma that is happening because of what we are watching unfold in front - on our screens.

AL-KASSAB: She's worrying about the situation at home, too. In the U.K., Islamophobic incidents have more than tripled since October 7, when Hamas-led militants attacked Israel. Antisemitism has spiked, too. Death threats have been directed at Muslim politicians, especially the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. In between speeches at this iftar, he told NPR how all of this abuse leaves him questioning whether the job is worth it.

SADIQ KHAN: Why would you, as somebody, you know, who is of Islamic faith, want to be a politician knowing what politicians of our background go through? But also, if you're a parent, if you're an uncle, if you're an auntie, why would you encourage your children, your nephews and nieces to become politicians?

AL-KASSAB: Khan is the first London mayor to get the same level of round-the-clock security as the King and the Prime Minister. He's also the first Muslim to hold the job.

KHAN: You know, when my father first came to this country in the 1960s, there were signs on guesthouses and public buildings saying no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs. And by Blacks, they meant anybody who was a person of color. Within one generation, one of his children became the mayor of London, so we should be incredibly proud of the progress we've made.

AL-KASSAB: He's a member of the Labour Party. The U.K. government is run by the conservatives, and they've recently issued a new legal definition of extremism amid ongoing demonstrations over the war in Gaza. Khan and other critics say it is vague and could be used to cut off government funding to some of Britain's biggest Muslim charities.

KHAN: This conservative government can't even define Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred or racism. What the government's doing is using this to try and divide communities against each other.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Salaam aleikum. Ticketholders this way. Salaam aleikum. Peace be upon you.

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

AL-KASSAB: Here in London's Trafalgar Square, the clouds have broken, and it's pouring with rain. I'm looking at a dozen rows of people who are lining up the steps down onto Trafalgar Square. They're huddled under umbrellas, and the rain has not deterred them. And they're waiting to break their fast here. It's one of the last nights of Ramadan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

FAIZA JAVAID: Ever since everything in Gaza started, it's made me feel closer to the religion - definitely felt, you know, more connected.

AL-KASSAB: Faiza Javaid (ph) is one of those breaking her fast in the square. She says that, growing up, she never felt out of place as a Muslim in London.

JAVAID: I felt quite - you know, I'm from here. I belong here. There's no issue at all. For the first time, I feel like I need to hold my identity a bit closer and, you know, let it shine a bit. Yeah. It's made me want to hold onto the faith that people in Gaza are holding onto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

AL-KASSAB: At a time when many Muslims are feeling despondent, Faiza says it is her Muslim identity that gives her hope.

Fatima Al-Kassab, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]