There has been a rise in online anti-Muslim hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic and many Muslims are fearful things could get worse in the run-up to Ramadan, an independent monitoring group has said.
It comes as counter-terror police say they are working closely with police forces from across the country to investigate far-right groups who are "exploiting the pandemic" to gain "support for their ideology", with conspiracy theories circulating online about mosques being open despite the lockdown and claims Muslims will be breaking the lockdown during Ramadan.
Iman Atta, the director of Tell Mama, which measures anti-Muslim hate crimes across the U.K., told Newsweek that her organization had noticed a "rise in online anti-Muslim hate incidents" during the coronavirus pandemic.
She said: "Muslims are being linked to the virus as though they are maliciously spreading it or doing it because they are not listening to the government and congregating en masse.
"This is just patently false and a ruse by far-right and anti-Muslim bigots to once again inflame tensions and hatred towards British Muslims."
Iman said that a number of false narratives had been spread online about Muslims flouting lockdown rules including the claim that "Muslims were congregating outside mosques and thereby spreading coronavirus".
A number of posts on Twitter claim mosques are still open during the lockdown or have circulated old videos of Muslims praying to show they are breaking lockdown rules.
"Mosques are likely to remain closed," Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) spokesperson Miqdaad Versi has said.
"Most closed before the government asked them to and not a single mosque is known to still be open."
Other narratives included blaming Muslims ahead of Ramadan for arranging family meetups which could help spread the virus.
Iman said: "There is this constant promotion of Muslims being 'virus spreaders' and thereby a threat within."
Newsweek has found the same video posted as early as March 3, well before social distancing guidelines were in place.
Ahead of Ramadan, Iman expressed her fears that further claims about Muslims would continue to spread.
She said: "We are concerned that these narratives will be used to catch those who are unaware that they are false stories and turn anger towards British Muslims.
"All of us are scared and worried at this time, and this emotion can be turned to anger pretty quickly if people believe that others are not listening and doing things that can supposedly spread the virus.
"The sad reality is that many people do not fact check such stories if they see them online."
With Ramadam approaching the U.K. on April 21, further misinformation is expected by authorities.
A spokesperson for counter-terror (CT) police said: "Terrorists and radicalizers will always look for opportunities to exploit in support of their ideology, and COVID-19 is no exception.
"We have seen reports of fake videos and information being shared by right-wing extremists which can instill fear and hate amongst our communities.
"[We] investigate material that breaches U.K. Terrorism Laws and where possible, seek the removal of the content by working with the relevant internet hosting company.
"CT Policing continues to urge the public to act as counter-terrorism citizens. If you see or hear something suspicious, trust your instincts and ACT. For information and advice, head to www.gov.uk/ACT. Your actions could save lives."
Meanwhile, the Muslim Council of Britain called on the government and media commentators to "actively dismiss dangerous conspiracy theories that only seek to dismantle community cohesion."
Secretary-General of the MCB Harun Khan said: "In the U.K., Muslims have been accused of flouting the rules and continuing to pray in mosques, despite the majority of mosques suspending all activities a week before the government's recommendation and ahead of other faith communities.
"In India, where violence against Muslims was already rampant, we have seen conspiracy theories blaming Muslims for the epidemic followed up by yet more attacks on Muslims.
"As we approach Ramadan, we have seen the mainstreaming of accusations of Muslims preparing to break the law, despite there being no evidence to suggest this, and even evidence on the contrary: a number of polls show that Muslims are more law-abiding than the general population."
Harun added that the rise in Islamophobia during the coronavirus pandemic "whitewashes over all of the incredible work being done by Muslims and Muslim communities" including "doctors and nurses on the frontline, key transport and delivery workers, and volunteers helping the vulnerable."
The government is keen to call for calm in these unprecedented times:
"This Government has a zero tolerance for the fake news that seeks to blame the British Muslim community for the spread of the COVID-19 virus," Conservative Communities Minister Stephen Greenhalgh told Newsweek.
"Deliberately spreading false information in order to undermine our respect and tolerance for each other is disgraceful and goes against all we stand for.
"I would like to thank Tell MAMA for the fantastic work they are doing to counter this fake and misleading online content."
The ruling Conservatives have been accused of Islamophobia and Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to launch an inquiry into all forms of discrimination before the end of 2019. The scope of that inquiry has not yet been published.
Social media companies are keen to stress that they are working on taking posts down that are in breach of their guidelines.
A spokesperson for Twitter said: "We are committed to protect and serve the public conversation as we navigate this unprecedented global public healthcare crisis. We do not tolerate the abuse or harassment of people on the basis of religion.
"We take down content that is in violation of our Twitter Rules including dehumanizing language and we have expanded our safety rules around COVID-19.
"We have also increased our use of machine learning and automation to take a wide range of actions on potentially abusive and manipulative content."