How Covid-19 Exposes Britain’s Islamophobia: An Oxford Study on Conspiracy Beliefs

Muslim women
Credit: Mostafa Meraji / Unsplash

Rumors and conspiracy theories blossom lavishly in an era of low confidence and low trust.  It is, therefore, not surprising that myriads of stories have mushroomed with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic on account of the lack of any authoritative scientific consensus on the virus, its spread and containment, and  the long term social and economic impacts of the pandemic. 

As the Covid-19 crisis exacerbates, a global misinformation pandemic reigns the world. There have been bizarre yet interesting stories that have been circulating as to how Covid-19 originated. Here are some top ones: it was suggested that the 5G network activates the virus, that U.S. army imported Covid into China, that the pandemic is being manipulated by the deep state to undermine Trump, that the pandemic is a plot and hoax controlled by big pharma, that the virus is a bio-weapon released intentionally by the Chinese, that the virus escaped from a Chinese labrotary, that Bill Gates is using it as cover to launch a global surveillance regime. While some might ignore these stories as having little effect on real-world behavior, recent events such as the destruction of property, racially fueled attacks against Asian Americans, and demonstrations espousing resistance to public health orders have indicated that such conspiracy theories might yield harmful consequences.

Admittedly, the virus has fueled anti-Chinese sentiment especially in the U.S. and Europe. Media’s chief focus has been Sinophobia so far. However, the spread of ambiguous conspiracy theories during these troubled times have also heightened the intolerance and discrimination against Muslim communities. 

The coronavirus that is infecting people in almost every country and territory on Earth, has been weaponized by the far-right to attack Islam and Muslims especially in the UK. In a recent study conducted by Imran Awan, Professor of criminology at Birmingham City University and Roxana Khan-Williams, Support and Development Officer at ‘HOPE not hate’ concluded that “Islamophobic online ‘cyber hubs’ were being formed which linked Muslims to the spread of Covid-19 in the form of spreading anti-Muslim memes and sharing fake news stories.” The upsurge of fake news and the spread on social media has resulted in an increase in the already existing myths produced by the far-right. While the world is in an adamant combat against the pandemic, hate speech related to the virus is spreading online almost as fast as the virus itself.

The far-right activists in the UK stigmatize Islam and Muslims as the spreaders of the virus, as this would fit well within the broader known far-right ideology delineating Muslims as ‘parasitical’ to the society — foreign, alien and ‘disease-like.’  The founder and former leader of the English Defence League (a far-right, Islamophobic organization), Tommy Robinson, had posted an old video showing worshippers leaving a mosque in Birmingham during lockdown. Such misinformation and baseless narratives that fuel  anti-Muslim prejudice are generating a negative impression on the viewers who are more involved in online news and debates now than ever before.

Outstanding far-right journalist  Katie Hopkins has recently tweeted that “like India, UK too should physically assault British Muslims praying in public.” These examples of right-wing extremists who have been demonizing British Muslims for all the problems in the UK ranging from virus spread to terrorism, indicate how fast the internet can act as an echo chamber and how easily such narratives have the ability to be widely accepted in mainstream society. According to a Time report, more than 300,000 tweets used the hashtag #CoronaJihad  from March 28 to April 3 and this was seen by by 165 million people on Twitter.

Tom Stafford, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield wrote in ‘BBC Future’ that the “illusion of truth” is created from frequently hearing a statement repeated. “Repetition makes a fact seem more true, regardless of whether it is or not. Understanding this effect can help you avoid falling for propaganda.” He added, “‘Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,’ is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels.”

Nearly half of the people in England believe in conspiracy theories about Covid-19, according to a survey carried out by psychologists at the University of Oxford, with nearly 20 percent agreeing that Muslims were responsible for spreading the virus.

From 4 to 11 May 2020, 2,500 adults, representative of the English population for age, gender, region, and income, took part in the Oxford Coronavirus Explanations, Attitudes, and Narratives Survey (OCEANS), Nearly 20 percent of those asked also agreed to some extent with the statement that “Muslims are spreading the virus as an attack on Western values.”

The scapegoating of Muslims is not a novel phenomenon; it is deeply embedded in a historical context of Britain’s colonial past. Brexit has enabled and legitimised prejudice towards migrants and ethnic minorities especially Muslims. Contemporary Islamophobia has been on the rise and poses a threat to the Muslim community in the UK. Let’s remember  Boris Johnson’s statement: women in burqas looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.  The poll, carried out by YouGov for the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate  found that Nearly half of Conservative party members would prefer not to have a Muslim prime minister.

The promotion of brazen falsehoods and fomenting misinformation by high profile figures during the pandemic is unethical and irresponsible. A report commissioned by independent members of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group (AMHWG) has warned that such claims could lead to a spike in attacks when the lockdown lifts.

In light of this, it is crucial that media and political figures take responsibility and be held accountable for endorsing and fuelling Islamophobic rhetoric that could potentially endanger already vulnerable communities.

At a critical time when the world is focused on combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, dangerous Islamophobic narratives undoubtedly threatens social cohesion and harmony. Social media platforms and politicians must tackle hate speech and fake news online to safeguard minority communities in such precarious circumstances in the UK, Europe and U.S. where the pandemic is being weaponised to vilify Muslims.

Serkan Aydin is an independent journalist and a lecturer at the university of Leeds, UK.