How our press fans the flames of Islamophobic hate
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The atrocity in New Zealand should prompt a reckoning for the Islamophobia which has infected our mainstream media, says Liz Gerard.
Labour is afflicted by anti-Semitism; the Tories by Islamophobia. Both are repugnant and should be stamped out. Yet one is unequivocally condemned at every opportunity by our media, the other mentioned only when it can no longer be avoided.
So it is, too, with wider society. Newspapers rightly chronicle a growing number of attacks on Jews, but the daily abuse and violence suffered by Muslims goes largely unreported.
It certainly can't be avoided now, following the deaths in Christchurch.
Cue the usual messages of sympathy and hand-wringing denunciations of violence from politicians, while news networks seek to 'understand' what motivated the killers and 'examine' the rise of the far right and the spread of extremism across continents.
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'Explanations' soon emerge: radical Islam, terrorism, ISIS, jihadis. No one is quite crass enough to say it while the wounds are so raw, but 'they bring it on themselves', 'Muslim communities' need to get their house in order.
Where innocent Jewish people who come under attack are seen as victims, innocent Muslims are often still 'perpetrators' by association; reaping what others who share their faith – but not their values – have sown.
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How can it be that millions of people trying to go about their daily lives should become such objects of hatred and fear? We don't have to look far. Politicians and the press are both culpable. David Cameron spoke of Muslim ghettoes, Boris Johnson likened women in burkhas to letterboxes. Donald Trump wanted to ban all Muslims from the US and tweeted about the UK's 'massive Muslim problem'. Then there was Rupert Murdoch tarring everyone with the same brush in this tweet from 2015: 'Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible'.
With such examples, it's not surprising that newspapers felt they had carte blanche to go on the attack. Of course, they didn't wait for these leaders' approval, but such open expressions of intolerance surely emboldened them.
Affronts to 'British' society have been boundless. We've had Muslim-only swimming pools, Muslim-only kitchen utensils, Muslim-only loos and Muslim-only curry treats, not to mention Trojan Horse schools, outrage over halal school dinners, non-halal plastic banknotes and a refusal to use anti-bacterial soap in hospitals.
But the serious damage is done with the 'serious' journalism. The surveys that 'find' high levels of support for terrorists among ordinary Muslims and shocking levels of ignorance of the 'British' way of life. In November 2015 – ten days after the terror attacks that killed 130 in Paris – the Sun led on a survey it had commissioned, claiming one in five British Muslims had sympathy with jihadis.
Four months later, the press regulator upheld a complaint about the way the data was interpreted and the paper was required to carry a correction. It was not the first time the paper had over-interpreted the results of such a survey. The previous February it carried a story headlined: '1 in 4 Muslims: Hebdo justified'. The source was a BBC poll. In fact, the one in four felt sympathy with the motives behind the Charlie Hebdo murders.
There is a world of difference between understanding why someone is upset and endorsing their extreme response, but why make that distinction when there are papers to sell? Especially when you have a columnist to extrapolate that into 800,000 people 'backing' the Paris attacks, starting with the (misquoted) declaration: 'Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims'. Which – as we saw last week – they patently aren't.
This was the same columnist – Kelvin MacKenzie – who was outraged that a newsreader in a hijab should present a bulletin that included a report on the Nice lorry attack in July 2016; an opinion presented under a headline that referred to a 'Muslim' – as opposed to jihadist – terror attack. How many headlines this week have referred to the 'Christian' shootings in New Zealand?
A complaint about that column was rejected by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) on the grounds of free speech, but MacKenzie's likening of a mixed race footballer to a gorilla was deemed beyond the pale and his days in the Sun are over. But his was not a lone voice. There are plenty of commentators in the same office and across Fleet Street willing to share 'unpalatable truths' about Muslims.
In 2012, Trevor Kavanagh declared that Muslim leaders needed to rebrand their religion for the 21st century. He was responding to a report that Lynton Crosby had told Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, to stop chasing the votes of 'f****** Muslims'. Kavanagh saw this as evidence that the 'Islamic community' – rather than the electoral guru – should 'polish its image'.
Kavanagh has returned to the theme several times and last year, when an Ipso board member, he went so far as to refer to 'The Muslim Problem' – with three capitals – and then expressed surprise that anyone should see any similarity to what the Nazis called 'The Jewish Problem'.
Meanwhile, the likes of Charles Moore, Rod Liddle and Brendan O'Neill – among others – have been busy arguing that there is no such thing as Islamophobia. It's not a phobia because it's rational to dislike Islam, says Liddle. It's just a money-making ruse, says Moore, who argued this week that there should be no law against it because, unlike being Jewish, being Muslim is a choice. It's a myth, says O'Neill.
'The idea that there is a culture of hot-headed violent-minded hatred for Muslims that could be awoken and unleashed… is an invention,' he wrote after the Hebdo attacks. The British press was out of touch and more concerned with the possibility of Islamophobic violence than the reality of anti-Semitic violence.
An interesting perspective. A search of a newspaper cuttings library found more than 30,000 stories about anti-Semitism since David Cameron was elected in 2010 (a random starting date), but less than a tenth of that number about Islamophobia. Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader there have been dozens of splashes about the failure to tackle anti-Semitism and countless stories about bullying and victimisation of Jewish party members. The disgraceful treatment of Luciana Berger has been well chronicled and she has been the subject of features and interviews across the press. This is all as it should be: newspapers ought to be aiming their torches into dark corners.
Meanwhile Baroness Warsi has been whistle-blowing on Islamophobia within the Conservative party for years, but no one seems to be listening: not the leadership – chairman Brandon Lewis insisted there were no outstanding complaints, in the face of evidence that there were cases that had been sat on for months – and certainly not the Tory press. BuzzFeed has, however, been on the case and reported this week that 25 people had been suspended from the party over anti-Muslim posts on Facebook.
If there is a dearth of stories about Islamophobia in the mainstream press, there are plenty about Muslims. Some are about what great patriots they are, how they contribute to society, how the niqab is a fashion statement – features supposed to show Muslims in a positive light but which merely reinforce the perception that they are a breed apart from the rest of us. Most, however, are about isolation, terrorism, oppression and abuse. Time and again one wonders what readers would think if the words 'black', 'Pole', 'English' 'Catholic' or 'Jew' were substituted for the word 'Muslim'.
Take this from the Times in 2017: 'Christian child forced into Muslim foster care'. Oh the scandal of a little white girl being taken in by a loving Muslim family. But she wasn't 'taken in'; she was 'forced'. And she wasn't allowed to eat her mum's carbonara and her crucifix was taken away and they didn't speak English. Except they did speak English, the necklace was put in safe keeping and who would be so insensitive to send a bacon dish to a Muslim household? Indeed, how insensitive is it to send any food parcels to the family looking after your child? Oh yes, and eventually, after the emergency placing, the child went to live with her grandmother – who is Muslim.
But enough of all that, let's just stick with the headline. Imagine it was reversed. Would we be outraged if a Muslim child were sent to a Christian family? And how unusual are such cross-faith placings? It turns out that at least a hundred Christian children are with Muslim foster families and that one in five Muslim fostered children are placed with non-Muslim families. But the Times didn't trouble to research such statistics.
Of course it is important that a child's safety, national security, social cohesion are addressed in public debate. Of course we should examine the roots of terrorism and radicalisation. The problem comes in the tenor of that debate, the calumnies and tropes, the easy blaming of 'the other' – be they Muslims, immigrants or the EU – for all our ills. We see this in particular with the repeated assertion that leaders of the 'Muslim community' must act to stamp out extremism. Just as we see demands for privileged white men to come together to stamp out sexual predation in the workplace. Or not.
What's more, so much of what is written about Muslims is just untrue. Like the Sun story that claimed the driver of an empty train had gone through a red light and crashed because he'd been fasting for Ramadan. The paper was called out by Miqdaad Versi, head of the Muslim Council of Britain's centre for media monitoring, and required to carry a correction. Versi has been watching coverage of Muslims across the media for nearly three years and has logged some 30,000 mentions. He reckons more than half are negative – a conservative estimate, since other studies suggest the proportion is as high as 70% or even 90%.
Newspapers have always traded on fear, and the terrorist attacks since 2001 have provided ample ammunition. But with this hostile coverage, our media are playing the terrorists' game. The whole idea of terrorism is to divide and threaten society. Ordinary people who happen to be Muslim are not the foot soldiers in some holy war, as much of the press would have us believe. They are the collateral damage. Their faith is traduced. They have to put up with being shouted at and spat at just walking down the street – there are something like 7,000 hate crimes against Muslims every year – and then we wonder why they aren't 'integrating' as we'd like and demand that they somehow stop atrocities that have nothing to do with them.
In 2016 Cambridge University researchers concluded that the media were fuelling a rising hostility towards Muslims in Britain. They put forward a ten-point plan to improve the situation. It included appointing community relations reporters to improve the balance of reporting of issues affecting minorities. It suggested that such roles should be taken on by non-minority journalists to avoid the 'ghettoisation' of such issues.
If such appointments were made, there would be little choice but to implement that last provision, since newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white. Of course there are national newspaper journalists from minorities, but very few Muslims. When you work alongside colleagues with a different background – be it educational, cultural or religious – your own outlook is broadened. People are people, whatever their colour, faith or sexuality. Some are affable and some a pain in the neck; there's no obligation to like someone just because they are from a minority and it's not racist to dislike someone because of their personal behaviour.
But you can't help but become more aware of what their lives involve; you are affronted on their behalf when they or their faith are subjected to generalisations, unfair allegations and abuse. As a journalist, you might think twice about writing something that would be offensive to those around you – or at least check with them that you've got the basics right.
If there are few Muslims in the office, you are less likely to see the world from their perspective, less likely to care about them, and more likely to fall back on lazy, damaging stereotypes.
And so we give big headlines to a Romanian who mugs an elderly woman at a cashpoint, yet manage only a small single column when an 81-year-old Yemeni on his way to the mosque is kicked to death by a couple of louts shouting 'groomer'. When Islamist terrorists strike at Westerners, the focus is first on the victims and then on the 'maniac' killers. When white terrorists strike at Muslims, whether in Finsbury Park or in Christchurch, the focus is immediately on the killer and what turned an 'angelic child' into a monster.
The 'explanation' is a key element – as with the Telegraph heading after the Finsbury Park attack in 2017: 'Terror suspect 'turned against Muslims' after London attack.' At least it used the word 'terror'. White British killers – including the man who murdered Jo Cox – are rarely described as terrorists. But they are frequently 'lone wolves'. So, naturally, we cannot expect 'white community leaders' to stop them.
Rather, such horrors can be used to push a different agenda. After the Jo Cox killing, the Mail surmised that her murderer had been fearful that immigrants were going to take his home. The Christchurch massacre was 'Facebook's shame'. For the Sun, Brenton Tarrant was the 'Facebook terrorist', while the Telegraph headlined 'The first social media terror attack'. Newspapers don't like the internet giants because they are competition – unregulated to boot. If you have to choose between focusing on victims for whom you have shown years of contempt, an extremist killer whose enmity you may well have helped to foment, and a commercial rival, it's a no-brainer.