‘I was called “Mr Taliban” by a colleague’: one social worker’s experience of Islamophobia

    Social work is not immune from the Islamophobia that afflicts wider society and needs to prioritise tackling it, according to a practitioner who has experienced this form of racism within the workplace

    Islamophobia image
    Image: bakhtiarzein/Adobe Stock

    Have you ever witnessed or experienced Islamophobia against you or a colleague within your workplace?

    • Never (39%, 49 Votes)
    • Yes, I have experienced Islamophobia (26%, 32 Votes)
    • I have heard of it happening (23%, 29 Votes)
    • Yes, I have witnessed Islamophobia (12%, 15 Votes)

    Total Voters: 125

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    As a practising Muslim, I’ve faced Islamophobic abuse on many occasions, including during my social work career.

    For instance, I was allocated a case that had been removed from another social worker after they received sexist and racist comments.

    Except, when the person needing support emailed calling me a “Bin Laden social worker” and sent me death threats, my pleas to stop working with him for my safety were ignored by social work managers for more than two months. Why the stark contrast in reaction?

    I was called ‘Mr Taliban’ by a colleague, asked by a social worker on MS Teams to switch my camera on because, ‘We already know you look like a terrorist’, and mocked about having an ‘imaginary friend’ by a manager whilst I was going to the mosque.”

    After more than 10 years in the profession, I realise my experiences are not isolated but a reflection of deeply rooted Islamophobia in Britain, including in social work.

    Do you have any stories, reflections or experiences from working in social work that you would like to write about for Community Care? Take a look at our guidelines on writing for the site and then email your idea to our community journalist, Anastasia Koutsounia, at anastasia.koutsounia@markallengroup.com

    In a report in 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims defined Islamophobia as “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. These include names, skin colour, a beard or hijab as well as solidarity with the Palestinians.

    A poll last year revealed that more than two-thirds of working UK Muslims had experienced Islamophobia in the workplace. Muslims in the UK also faced the highest levels of religious hate crime in 2021-22, accounting for 42% of cases.

    Stifled career progression 

    Alongside my experiences of Islamophobia, I’ve also faced barriers to progressing my career.

    By the time I left my last council, after a decade’s service, I was the longest serving full-time social worker in the team without progression.

    This was despite having a successful record of taking on the most complex cases and having co-led a project to design a new assessment model in adults’ services, for which the team had been shortlisted for an award.

    On numerous occasions my career progression was stifled by the council using agency workers to fill vacancies, instead of advertising the post so internal candidates – myself included – could apply too.

    Inequalities faced by British Muslims

    This also seems reflective of wider trends.

    Of all religious groups, Muslims were, as of 2018, the least likely to be in management and earned the lowest, while the 2021 census showed they also had the lowest employment rate.

    Moreover, 40% of the Muslim population of Britain were living in the poorest fifth of areas, as of 2021, found a Muslim Council of Britain analysis of census data.

    I joined the social work profession to tackle injustices such as this.

    Lack of representation in social work

    However, not only have I experienced these inequalities within the profession but social work’s ability to tackle them is blunted by the under-representation of Muslims within it.

    Only 3.6% of social workers in England identify as Muslim, compared to 6.5% of the population of England and Wales.

    It’s time for social work to prioritise tackling Islamophobia, within the profession and how it relates to Muslim communities.”

    This should start with the regulator, Social Work England, supporting the APPG definition of Islamophobia and marking a date regularly to raise awareness.

    In light of a social worker’s statutory role in identifying signs of radicalisation, Social Work England has a responsibility to educate its workforce about the distinction between normative Muslim beliefs/practices and extremism.

    Support and solutions in tackling Islamophobia

    Since its launch in 2012, the annual Islamophobia Awareness Month (#IAM) has gained momentum, offering valuable resources that showcase the positive contributions made by Muslims in Britain. The #IAM theme for November 2023 is #MuslimStories.

    My own experiences have given me better insight into the impact of recruitment practices, like the preference of agency managers, which is why storytelling is so powerful.

    The Islamophobia Response Unit, whom I’ve personally received help from, provide a platform to confidentially report Islamophobic hate crime and discrimination at work, and offer free legal support.

    From my own experience at my current council, I can also only emphasise the importance of a faith network, which brings employees together to celebrate their faiths and be a collective voice.

    Calls for faith-based inclusivity in organisations must also be matched with accountability, but religion still largely appears a novelty in equality reports.

    I would also stress the importance of leaving a toxic workplace sooner rather than later.

    Through appropriate representation, at all levels, I hope social work will finally play an active role in responding to the overwhelming evidence demanding better outcomes for Muslims in Britain.

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    17 Responses to ‘I was called “Mr Taliban” by a colleague’: one social worker’s experience of Islamophobia

    1. Shana September 8, 2023 at 9:42 am #

      Nobody should ever experience abuse at work or anywhere else. It is sad to hear about abuse received from residents, but more so that you felt unsupported by management. Hopefully you are still in the profession and in a role that you find rewarding.

    2. Kayisa September 8, 2023 at 10:21 am #

      Its no surprise to read the experiences of our colleague whilst trying his hardest to maintain his religious identity and working in a rather very bias and toxic work place. I am a muslim and proud to be one. I can say my local authority treats me well, with dignity and respect and has given me all the opportunity to progress into management role. At no time did I feel different or disrespected for who i am. I hope other local authority and services will emulate the good work of this London Authority. Wishing everyone the very best.

    3. Dianna September 8, 2023 at 10:39 am #

      My teeth were literally clenched together while reading this article. My heart goes out to you – the job is difficult as it is and then having to deal with discrimination and abuse too. I’m absolutely disgusted at how these low vibrational beings (the abusers) think they can get away with treating people like this – not for long though, Karma is real.

    4. Muslim Social Worker September 8, 2023 at 11:45 am #

      This is really horrible but not surprising, as Social Work has a massive racism problem already and Islamophobia is another layer which Social Work England has failed to grasp.

      Look at Social Work England’s website and their social media platforms, not even a mention of Islamophobia once – and apparently this is an ‘anti-racist profession by disposition’?

      Despite all the data showing how deeply structural Islamophobia is in the whole country, the profession is in denial of anti-Muslim hate within its own ranks.

      Will Social Work England mark Islamophobia month?

      Will Social Work England adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia?

      Or will Social Work England continue to prove its equality agenda is based on white liberal priorities and political agendas?

    5. Adam September 8, 2023 at 5:32 pm #

      It is a disgrace that Muslims or anyone else could be treated in such a prejudiced and bigoted way. These are supposed to be the enlightened, civilised institutions they want us to respect, what a joke. I have experienced the same, being called a terrorist by a colleague, followed around work office buildings by other members of staff because they perceived me to be a threat, whilst just going out my working day. Also one of the longest standing members of staff with no progress, after 16 years of exemplary service, I have had to argue for years just to get refresher training, so that I can carry on fulfilling my role. People say that racism and discrimination doesn’t exist, wake up and look around you. So many people are in jails, jobless, underpaid and left at the bottom of the workforce, after generations we are still held back in parts of society and the workplace. More work needs to be done to change this culture and discrimination. I hope that you get the recognition and progress you rightly deserve, don’t give up, this is what they want from us.

    6. KU September 8, 2023 at 6:33 pm #

      It’s awful to see such behaviour- especially in a work place that is in place for the welfare of its community. If they treat their employees in this manner and without repercussions, how can the same people then support Muslims in the community that need to use their services? How can they hope to understand and empathise with their needs? @Social Work England- when will you take note and adopt the APPG definition of Islamophobia? It’s just not good enough. At all.

    7. Truth Seeker September 8, 2023 at 7:33 pm #

      Sadly, this sort of Islamophobic behaviour is not only condoned in Social Work but it is part of the Prevent duty that social workers have a statutory duty to adhere to. This is why Social Work England, an arm of the government does not – and cannot- give a damn about adopting the definition of Islamophobia.

      We may be shocked by a Muslim social worker being mocked as a ‘terrorist’ because of his beard but keep in mind, these are the same social workers who sit in a professional forum (i.e. the Prevent Channel Panel) and discuss whether a Muslim – often a child – is going to potentially become a terrorist just because s/he has started to practice their faith by wearing a hijab or praying daily.

      Imagine, a forum where social workers discuss black kids with expensive clothes or the latest smartphone as suspected criminals, just because black people are ‘likely to steal’. Of course, this is pure racism, yet this is perfectly acceptable somehow in Social Work when it comes to Muslims.

      According to research by Medact, Muslims are reported 8 times more than non-Muslims to Prevent and many of these referrals are based on discrimination and false positives.

    8. HB September 8, 2023 at 7:56 pm #

      Sad, but not surprised. Social Work England need to step up and do their job in ensuring equality for all. With regards to not being given the chance to progress, this is all too common in many sectors – people don’t like to see the ‘other’ in higher roles than them or the don’t like to be managed by those who they think don’t really belong in this country.

    9. Fary September 8, 2023 at 8:20 pm #

      This is ridiculous, and in social work too!
      It’s a disgrace that we as Muslims are under so much scrutint and these are the kinds of people in power that have absolutely no shame. I am disgusted by these comments,
      Such people should be named and shamed because they are not doing anything positive for social work at all!

    10. Sophie September 8, 2023 at 9:29 pm #

      As a social worker myself, my heart goes out to you – it must have been really difficult to deal with the demand of the job yet not have the support yourself to ensure that you are okay.
      It’s horrible what you had to go through and I encourage you to take action against everyone that discriminated against you and your religion and made you feel this way.
      I would also be worried about their practice and would question how they are meeting the service users needs especially those from ethnic minorities or identify as Muslims.
      It is sad that in the year 2023 where everyone has the right to be whomever they want to be, Muslims continue to be marganriled, discriminated against and abused simply for being who they want to and choose to be.
      It really is concerning and I fear for the welfare of the service users who are probably discriminated and abused by these same people.
      What a shame and I’m glad you have spoken out about this as you are definitely not the only Muslim that this is happening to.

    11. jay September 8, 2023 at 10:10 pm #

      What a disgrace. This is 2023 and you’d expect better!!

    12. Hafiz M Habibullah September 9, 2023 at 5:14 am #

      It is a disgrace that Muslims or anyone else could be treated in such a prejudiced and bigoted way. These are supposed to be the enlightened, civilised institutions they want us to respect, what a joke

    13. Ian September 9, 2023 at 9:25 am #

      “ On numerous occasions my career progression was stifled by the council using agency workers to fill vacancies…”

      This is the oldest trick in the book to bypass equal opportunities and block an existing employee/s from promotion.

      Some directors in social care use this trick really well. No names mentioned (!)

    14. Catherine September 9, 2023 at 2:21 pm #

      I’ve previously worked in 2 local authorites in the South and currently work in Yorkshire. Prejudice and racist cultures are ingrained in those and from friends, in other authorities also. It’s not just directed against those with religious beliefs though. I have been harangued and told I am a sinner destined to burn in eternal hellfire because of being an atheist and a lesbian. Social work cultures are toxic and greatly driven by those with strident religious beliefs and identity based politics who are rarely challenged by weak management. It’s time social work got back to being a profession based on universal values not the “I am, so should you” ones.

    15. John Brennan September 11, 2023 at 6:42 pm #

      Sorry to hear about your experiences, myself I am Irish, a social worker, a revert to Islam. During my career, I have had many experiences of this type of carry on. From being called a “thick Paddy” to “all the Irish want to do is drink and get drunk”.
      I even in the last 2 years had a mother say to me about mental health services as being “Irish” stupid services! I did confront the person on this and they tried to back track, but I have had experiences of service users and their family’s pass negative comments on Muslim’s. When I mention to them that I am also a Muslim, most do not believe me or say well you are the same as us. Which is in fact not true at all, even if I was not a Muslim and remained an Irish Catholic I would not be the same as my Irish identity is very different from being British. I also feel that being Irish we are expected to take the old institutional racism from jokes of being Irish as we are white and apparently “we do not mind a good joke”. Hmmmm never ending.

    16. Monia September 13, 2023 at 12:23 pm #

      Heart breaking reading this disturbing account of our colleague’s traumatic experiences just because he dared to be a Muslim. Sadly, I’m not surprised and can relate to the systemic discrimination against Muslims in the work place. As a female Muslim who wears the Hijab, my health was impacted as a direct result of similar experiences. The hostility, the bullying, higher workload, disrespect, treated with suspicion, denied promotions, denied acknowledgements for excellent work, inappropriate questions as to why I chose to wear the hijab, are the usual daily grind.

      How does any one get home after a stressful day at work with all this on top. They talk about resilience as though it is you who is the problem and not your hostile working environment, oh yes we are very resilient, but the traumas from discrimination and islamophobic behaviours at work can really damage your health and wellbeing.

      When you have a prime minister who describes Muslim women as letter boxes and bank robbers,
      You get the fall out of that in society and in the work place which reflects society.

      Social Work England, it is urgent that you lead on making our work environment a welcoming one. It is urgent that you put the politics a side and do the right thing by us Muslim social care staff who make the same contributions as everyone else if not more for having double the struggles due to Islamophobia at work. Your silence on this is no longer tenable. Adopting the APPG definition of Islamophobia is long overdue.

      To the LA involved in abusing this great social worker, shame on you for encouraging, colluding and causing his suffering. You would do well to learn about basic leadership qualities starting with Zero Tolerance policies that are tested on the ground and not just a paper exercise.

      Thank you to Our colleague for sharing his painful experience and shining a light on the horrors of Islamophobia in Social Work. May you heal and succeed in a leadership role you so deserve.

    17. Ryan Webb September 15, 2023 at 7:58 am #

      Social work has for many decades arguably been at the forefront of cherishing the principle of equal treatment both for its employees and its service recipients. Despite social work being an 85% female profession, can it be said to be a “safe” environment for people from diverse backgrounds?