Pandora’s Brexit Box

Rosie Carter - 20 09 19

While Brexit itself is about membership of a European institution, not religious discrimination, Brexit has fuelled anti-Muslim hatred. The politicisation of immigration through the Leave campaign latched onto existing anti-Muslim prejudice to fuel anxieties about immigration and make links between this and EU membership. 

Our polling has consistently shown how attitudes to Muslims remain distinctly different, and more negative, than attitudes towards other ethnic or religious groups[1]. The Leave campaign weaponised images of refugee flows through Europe and linking EU membership to Turkey. Following the referendum, hate crime incidents targeting Muslims surged[2].

Anti-Muslim politics has acted as a far-right springboard towards the mainstream, as modernising arms of the far right distanced themselves from biological racism to adopt a more ‘palatable’ platform that tapped into broader societal prejudice against Muslims[3].

Far right figures have also been capitalising on Brexit and the sense of democratic betrayal that has accompanied the stalling process, to further an anti-Muslim agenda. Activists from across the UK far right held a ‘Brexit Betrayal’ demonstration in December 2018, with a view to forcing the government to adopt a unilateral withdrawal from the European Union ahead of the Government’s vote. Billed as a ‘cross party’ demonstration the event was organised by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson) and UKIP’s increasingly isolated leader Gerard Batten. The speeches pertained less to the political process of Brexit and its potential outcomes than to the ‘threat’ of Islam and Muslims ‘taking over Britain’. In one of the speeches, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon openly claimed that Brexit wasn’t really his area of interest before launching into a tirade of anti-Muslim bile. 

It is not only that the EU referendum opened Pandora’s Box on anti-immigrant rhetoric, and created a more hostile environment for ‘othering’. The seeping of anti-Muslim politics into the mainstream, the conflation of migrant and refugee flows with Muslims, Islam, a decline in ‘Western values’ and global terrorism, are piggybacking on anger and frustration around Brexit. This shaping of prejudiced anti-Muslim narratives on the wider public are clearly being felt by Muslims in Britain.

Our new polling of 1,000 BME Britons conducted in late August by PanelBase to be released soon, finds a huge 70% of people of Pakistani ethnicity (the vast majority of whom identify as Muslim) think that the state of race relations in Britain has gotten worse over the last five years. People of Pakistani ethnicity are among the most likely of all BME groups to say they have witnessed or experienced all forms of racism. 73% say they have witnessed or experienced racism on social media, 68% have witnessed or experienced racist comments being made in public, and 34% have witnessed or experienced violence or threats of violence.

The feeling that the Brexit vote was feeding anti-Muslim hatred was experienced first-hand by HOPE not hate activists when they canvassed a predominantly white working class estate in Bradford. In what many of our activists, some with 15 years of history with HOPE not hate, claimed was their worst experiences of anti-fascist lives, many residents vocalised their racist anger towards Muslims. In two instances on the same street, residents singled out their Muslim neighbours: “We voted Leave, but why are they still here?” shouted one woman, literally pointing at the Muslim family across the street.

A focus group we ran in another area of Bradford with a mixed aged group of men of Kashmiri origin spoke about a racist upsurge, with many saying they had experienced greater racial prejudice since the 2016 vote. A taxi driver spoke about young people coming back from nights out in the back of his taxi saying that they voted Leave as they thought this would mean all the Eastern European and Asian people in Bradford would ‘go home’, but that these people were even angrier now they realised this wasn’t a reality.

The links between anti-Muslim hatred and EU membership may seem tenuous, but Brexit has set the conditions for anti-Muslim hatred to spread across the lines of acceptability, merging anxieties with frustration and creating space for conspiracies to spread through a process that many feel has not been transparent. 

[1]Carter. R and Lowles. N (2019) Fear and Hope 2019: How Brexit Changed Britain, Hope not hate

[2]Tell Mama (2017)  How race and religious public order offences rose after EU vote,

[3]Mulhall. J (2019) Modernising and Mainstreaming: The Contemporary British Far Right, HOPE not hate commissioned by the Government Commission for Countering Extremism 


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