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British Muslim firefighters face 'institutional racism' at London Fire Brigade

An independent review finds a widespread culture of racism, sexism and anti-Muslim abuse at the London Fire Brigade
A fire truck seen parked on a roadside in London, on 16 April 2021 (Reuters)

British Muslim firefighters suffer anti-Muslim abuse at the London Fire Brigade, according to an independent review of the public institution, where a culture of racism, bullying and misogyny is widespread. 

The wide-ranging report, conducted by the former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England, Nazir Afzal, was established after a trainee firefighter took his own life in August 2020.

It found numerous occasions where racial slurs were casually directed towards people of colour working at the LFB. 

'In the public consciousness, Muslims are associated with issues of national security and with terrorism, and that's the problem here'

- Tarek Younis, senior lecturer, Middlesex University

One Muslim worker said he faced constant abuse at the hands of his colleagues who bullied him over his religion, according to the report. In one instance, he said, bacon and sausages were placed in his coat pockets and a terrorist hotline number posted on his locker. 

The abuse faced by ethnic minorities, people of colour, and women was largely manifested through "constant mockery, baiting, and bullying", the report found. 

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The report found evidence of "clearly racist bullying", which has had severe impact on staff in some cases, with one black firefighter finding a noose placed over his locker. 

At least one Muslim firefighter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the abuse he faced at LFB.

Tarek Younis, a senior lecturer at Middlesex University focusing on the impact of anti-radicalisation policies in Britain, believes anti-Muslim behaviour at the London Fire Brigade indicates a wider problem in British society.

"Very few people in positions of power are even acknowledging the explicit instances, let alone understanding where Islamophobia comes from and how it operates," Younis told MEE.

"So rather than looking at the London Fire Brigade as its own individual thing, instead it's a very good example to think about broader issues of legitimising Islamophobia in wider society."

The report does not refer to anti-Muslim behaviour at LFB as Islamophobia. The UK government last month stopped working towards establishing an official definition of Islamophobia, with communities secretary Michael Gove abandoning the adoption of one by the Conservative government.

'Magic carpet'

The review highlights the case of the Muslim firefighter whose colleagues spoke to him in a mock Indian accent and frequently asked him about his "magic carpet".

When the Muslim firefighter was sent to regular training courses, some of his colleagues would make "racist remarks" such as "off to your rucksack training, it shouldn't be hard, all you have to do is pull the cord".

Upon his return from the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, according to the report, they asked him about his "al-Qaeda training".

The firefighter said his line manager regularly swore at him and cursed the Prophet Muhammad.

Following several instances of anti-Muslim abuse, the firefighter began suffering from depression and anxiety, and was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.

"Muslims being bullied about their religion is a very reductive way of looking at this issue. We have to also look at how Muslims are being addressed more broadly," said Younis.

"In the public consciousness, Muslims are associated with issues of national security and with terrorism, and that's the problem here.

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"In fact, the London Fire Brigade is no different from other public institutions where these general assumptions become part and parcel of the day-to-day culture, or what they call banter."

Calls for reforms

The review has sparked widespread criticism and calls for significant reforms. The report has also found "dangerous levels of ingrained prejudice against women" and discrimination against people of colour who are also routinely the target of racist abuse.

The Fire Brigades Union has expressed alarm at the findings of the report and stressed on the need for change within the institution where "staff fear the consequences of speaking out".

"There are elements of this report which confirm concerns raised by the Fire Brigades Union over many years. There are also elements of the report which will cause considerable concern and alarm," the union said in a statement.

The LFB is not the only public institution to face allegations of being institutionally racist. 

The London Metropolitan police has been dogged by investigations that have labelled it "institutionally racist" over the years.

As of August of this year, a poll found that at least 44 percent of Londoners found that the Metropolitan police is still institutionally racist, with only 29 percent believing otherwise. 

In September, when the Metropolitan police was challenged on whether the institution fails to give an appropriate service to some groups in society because of their colour, culture or ethnicity, the police commissioner declined to acknowledge the issue.

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