Nahid Almanea was a post-graduate student from Saudi Arabia when she was killed in a brutal attack in Colchester, Essex last week. The Muslim woman was stabbed 16 times by her attacker as she walked through the town; police are still looking for her attacker. She was buried in her hometown, Al-Jouf in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where thousands of mourners gathered to pay their respects.
Studying at the University of Essex, Nahid was one of the many thousands of students who arrive in Britain every year from the Middle East. Estimates from the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that there were at least 22,365 Middle East students at British universities in 2012/2013. Of those, at least 9,440 were from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the University of Essex has more than 200 students from the kingdom, who have their own student union society.
As news of her murder broke the Guardian reported that the Saudi ambassador had taken an active role in the case. "Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf expressed in a telephone call on Tuesday to the brother of the deceased his sincerest condolences to her family, affirming the embassy's speed in taking all the procedures for the transfer of the body of the deceased to the kingdom," said an embassy statement. "He also asserted that the case is receiving his personal attention."
Concerns about the nature of the attack and the reasons behind it fuelled much of the discussion in the media. Newspapers reported that the student had been wearing a hijab and abaya, making her clearly identifiable as a Muslim. The Essex police investigating the attack have not yet identified the attack as Islamophobic, but there are clear concerns being raised that this could be very much a part of the wider problem of Islamophobia in the UK. A number of Arab media outlets reported on the murder within the context of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain; indeed, one news outlet, arabnews.com, reported the story as such. Other Arab media claimed that the links between increased British reporting on the Middle East and Islam in a negative way often contribute to Islamophobia, including physical and verbal attacks on Muslims.
A quick scan of the Arab press revealed concerns about how Islamophobia in Britain could affect Muslims and Arabs visiting or studying in the UK. Earlier this year, the #London_is_not_safe hashtag was taken up after families from the United Arab Emirates were targeted by thieves. This time the hashtag was used as Arab students raised their concerns about studying in a country where they feel that Muslims are not safe.
Although the British government has pledged to tackle Islamophobia, with Baroness Sayeda Warsi establishing an anti-Islamophobia cross-party working group, reports by a number of institutions, including some police forces, have reported that the phenomenon is on the rise. See, for example, mend.org.uk. In some regions of England and Wales there have been reports of a 100 per cent increase in anti-Muslim hate crime, and in London alone there was a 69 per cent increase in reported Islamophobic crimes from April 2013 to April 2014.
This worrying trend is clearly not unnoticed by the Arab media and as incidents such as Nahid's murder make the headlines there will be little to ease their fears. Sadly, her killing has echoes of the case of an Emirati student who was attacked in Kent shortly after the London 7/7 bombings; his attackers were reported to have made remarks about the bombings before assaulting him. Recent reports have suggested that such Islamophobic attacks are often exacerbated at times when issues to do with Islam and the media are higher up the political, and therefore news agenda. Post 7/7 the British media's focus was on the Muslim identity of the perpetrators and this is being repeated in the current reports of British citizens fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Whether or not it is established that Nahid's murder was motivated by Islamophobia, it is likely to have an effect on links between Britain and the Middle East, particularly the Gulf countries, which have invested heavily in the UK over the past few years. Business links with the Middle East continue to thrive for the time being but if the Arab media continue to highlight threats to Arabs in Britain, students, tourists and investors may look elsewhere.
The murder of Nahid Almanea was a tragic, devastating event that has changed her family life forever. It would be an even wider tragedy if anti-Muslim, anti-Islam hatred is allowed to flourish, threatening not only visitors and investment from the Middle East but also the three million Muslims for whom Britain is a much-loved home.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.