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'I smell Islamophobia': British Muslims decry lockdown imposed hours before Eid

The coronavirus lockdown in northern England did not include the closure of pubs or restaurants, which Muslims criticised as irrational contradiction
UK Muslims were allowed to perform congregational Eid al-Adha prayers on Friday, after places of worship reopened in July (AFP/File photo)

A local coronavirus lockdown in the north of England announced by the UK government late on Thursday night, hours before the festival of Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday, has caused outrage among British Muslims. 

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted a thread just after 9pm announcing that households in Manchester and surrounding areas could not meet other families indoors, citing an increasing rate of coronavirus transmission in the area.

"Based on the data, we decided that in Greater Manchester, parts of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire we need to take immediate action to keep people safe", Hancock wrote. 

The health secretary said that the spread was due to households meeting and not abiding by social distancing. 

"From midnight tonight, people from different households will not be allowed to meet each other indoors in these areas," he announced.

"We take this action with a heavy heart, but we can see increasing rates of Covid across Europe and are determined to do whatever is necessary to keep people safe."

The announcement was met with fierce criticism on social media, with many linking the timing with Eid al-Adha, which began on Friday. 

One user said that she "smelled Islamophobia" in the decision. 

Several towns and cities now under lockdown, including Oldham, Bolton and Bradford, have high proportions of Muslims according to the most recent UK census. 

"It may well be the right decision but the timing is really poor," Furqan Naeem, a community organiser for Citizens UK in Greater Manchester told Middle East Eye.

"Thousands of families would have made plans to be with each other, and some probably would have been in bed asleep when the government announced its message late last night," Naeem said. 

Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, said that announcing measures affecting potentially millions of people late at night on Twitter was "a new low for the government's communications during this crisis". 

Several critics pointed out that a similar decision would likely not have been made had it been Christmas Eve. 

"With the first day of Eid being today, for Muslims in the affected areas, it is like being told they cannot visit family and friends for Christmas on Christmas Eve itself," Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said in a statement on Friday. 

"The UK government has failed to provide clarity on the shockingly short notice and the reasoning behind the new rules that British Muslims deserve - any such clarification would be most welcome," Khan said. 

Muslims in the north of England noted the contradiction that while they were not allowed to meet family members inside households, restaurants and pubs were still open.

Syed Rahi, a geography student from Rochdale, Greater Manchester, said he couldn’t understand the decision. 

"I can't get my head around it. No one can see me in my house, but they can see me in another enclosed area like a pub or restaurant," he told MEE.

"If we're going to do a lockdown, it should be a proper lockdown. Close the shops, close the pubs, don’t just isolate a minority group and make us seem like we're causing a second wave."

Adding insult to injury, Conservative member of parliament Craig Whittaker doubled down on the decision, telling radio station LBC that "it is the BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] communities that are not taking this seriously enough". 

Social media users were quick to point out that BAME communities were not responsible for breaking social distancing when pubs reopened in London, during Victory in Europe (VE) day celebrations and on beaches during the heatwave in May. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to condemn Whittaker's comments during a Downing Street briefing on Friday. 

The local lockdown did not affect Eid prayers, which went ahead as planned across the UK with social distancing in place.

The MCB published advice last week on how to celebrate Eid safely, including avoiding hugging and shaking hands, and performing congregational prayers outdoors.