A British Muslim woman says her faith and her own experiences with discrimination inspired her to step in and defend a Jewish family facing a man spouting a virulently anti-Semitic rant on London’s subway system.
Asma Shuweikh, a 36-year-old from Birmingham, told BBC Radio London that as a Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, she has faced discrimination on public transport herself ― including being spat on by a stranger and having no one come to her defense. She said that’s why, when she saw a man spewing anti-Semitic vitriol at Jewish couple and their three young children on London’s Tube on Friday, she felt compelled to intervene.
“Being a mother of two, I know what it’s like to be in that situation and I would want someone to help if I was in that situation,” Shuweikh said about the incident in an interview on Sunday. “To be honest I thought it is my duty as a mother, as a practising Muslim, as a citizen of this country, to have to say something.”
British Transport Police announced Saturday that they had arrested a 35-year-old man from the London borough of Hillingdon on suspicion of a “racially aggravated” public order offense. As of Monday morning, the man has been released on bail as an investigation continues.
In a video of the encounter posted to Twitter on Friday by an onlooker, a man holding what appears to be a Bible can be heard directing anti-Semitic rhetoric at a father and a child, both of whom are wearing Jewish skullcaps. The man with the Bible leans towards the child and points to a verse that appears to be from the Book of Revelation. He twists the scripture to suggest that the Jewish passengers are from the “synagogue of Satan.”
“He... said in the Bible [that] Jews killed Jesus and they are all slave masters,” Chris Atkins, the onlooker who filmed and posted the incident, told the BBC. “I’ve lived in London for 20 years and you’re used to people ranting on the Tube - it was only after a minute I realised, ‘hang on this is really, really anti-Semitic.’”
When a passenger out of the camera’s range objects to the vitriol, the man with the Bible responds by threatening to “smack” him.
Shuweikh stepped in seconds later, telling the man with the Bible, “There’s children here.”
Shuweikh, a mother of two herself, told Sky News that she could tell the kids were feeling scared. She said she tried to reason with the man to defuse the situation.
“I told him he needed to calm down, and take a step back and see where he is,” Shuweikh told Sky News.
The man apparently responded by directing his aggression toward her.
“I did start to panic when he came up into my face, but I managed to keep a calmness and keep trying to defuse the situation,” Shuweikh said.
The Campaign Against Antisemitism published a statement attributed to the Jewish father, who has not been identified.
According to U.K.-based advocacy organization, he said that the video captured by Atkins shows only small part of his family’s 15- to 20-minute encounter with the man. The father added that he asked the man with the Bible many times to step back and stop verbally abusing his three young children.
“The only thing I could think about was the safety of my children and the best thing to do at that time was to restrain myself and try to get my children to ignore the situation,” the father said according to the statement.
He said that after the video ended, Atkins switched seats with his son and another passenger started chatting with the children to try to distract them.
“This Tube journey has left me with mixed feelings about society. On the one hand my wife, my children and I were subject to vile abuse in a full Tube carriage, however I am grateful for those who stood up for me,” the father said.
He said that he is “extremely grateful” that Shuweikh stepped in.
“We are certain that without her intervention and distraction, he would have continued his abuse which could have escalated to physical violence,” the father said about Shuweikh.
The subway encounter comes amid an increase in reports of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.K, according to a charity that monitors the phenomenon. Studies have also suggested that anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes are also on the rise in the U.K.
Shuweikh, who was born and raised in London, told Sky News that she’s experienced Islamophobia personally. She claimed that years ago, a man on a bus verbally abused her and spat at her ― and that no one on the vehicle stepped in to help. She told BBC Radio London that she’s also been called a “raghead.”
“I have a lot of bad memories growing up. Before, if someone was racially abusing you, no one would do anything. But now people have a platform to talk. Britain as a whole has come so far,” she told Sky News.
Shuweikh said that her decision to intervene on Friday was driven by her faith as a Muslim. She said the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, taught his followers not to be passive bystanders when they witness evil.
“Anybody, as a human being, you see injustice especially towards children, you have to say something,” she said.
Shuweikh said that she and the Jewish father targeted in the attack reunited on Monday in Manchester. She said the father brought flowers and thanked her for her actions. The pair talked about their experiences and backgrounds, she said.
“It was very nice. It was lovely. We’re going to keep in touch,” she told Jewish News.
Shuweikh said the messages of support she’s been getting from Muslim and Jewish communities has been “overwhelming.”
“It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s lovely to see communities can come together and put aside our differences,” she said.