Thursday, 24 September 2015

It’s time the media treated Muslims fairly by Miqdaad Versi

Published in The Guardian Comments
All Rights Reserved, Copyright
Wednesday 23 September 2015

Hats off to the Mail on Sunday for finally apologising for its incendiary headline: “Muslim gang slashes tyres of immigration-raid van”. In the piece in question, an attack on an immigration enforcement van in east London was blamed on the “Muslim community” and “Muslim youths” – even though the faith of the perpetrators was not known, nor relevant. This fact has now been acknowledged by the paper, and it has rewritten the story and issued a correction both online and in print.

In the media, using Islam or Muslims as descriptive terms when referring to criminals remains all too common, even in cases where faith has little or nothing to do with the crime. The Times ran a front-page story in March with the provocative headline “Call for national debate on Muslim sex grooming”. There is nothing in Islam that could justify such heinous acts, and none of those involved in this particular crime cited Islam as their motive. So why was this story headlined in this way when articles about other cases of paedophilia made no mention of the perpetrators’ faith or ethnicity?

When tens of innocent pilgrims tragically lost their lives in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, the Mail Online linked their deaths to Osama bin Laden and 9/11 in its headline: “At least 87 people killed … after giant crane ‘operated by Bin Laden firm’ collapses … on anniversary of 9/11 attacks”, references that mimicked a plethora of rightwing bigots on Twitter. The newspaper did eventually remove the 9/11 reference, and later the Bin Laden link. But the damage was done: the odious headline had already spread across the internet like wildfire.

Should Muslims – and society more broadly – just accept this bigotry? We know sensationalism sells, especially online, where news sources use clickbait headlines and copy to attract readers in a crowded marketplace. And what better way to get people to read an article than by linking it to the far-right narrative that Islam is evil, and that its adherents need to be civilised to become “good Muslims”? It’s a narrative that many Muslims feel is often reflected in government rhetoric as well.

According to an Islamophobia Roundtable in Stockholm, held in June last year, and featuring world-renowned experts on the topic, the regular association of Islam and Muslims with crime and terror in the media and on the internet is vital to the spread of Islamophobic rhetoric.

The real-world consequences of the spread of one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry affects the very cohesiveness of our society. According to the largest survey of its kind in the UK, over a quarter of children aged between 10 and 16 believe Islam encourages terrorism, and almost a third believe Muslims are taking over the country. In addition, 37% of British people who were surveyed admitted they would support policies to reduce the number of Muslims in the country. Is it any wonder that more and more Muslims feel alienated?

This “othering” of Muslims has also manifested itself in a growth in hate crime: a 70% rise in the past year according to the Metropolitan police. We now live in a country where most Muslims know someone who has suffered from Islamophobic hate or abuse.
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Of course, the media should not be held responsible for violence against Muslims – that is the liability of the attackers. But with over 90% of reports about Muslims taking a negative angle and playing up faith, even when irrelevant, it is not reasonable to deny that the media plays a key role in the development of anti-Muslim hatred.

So what can be done?

First, build awareness. According to research presented at the Muslim News’ Conference on “Reporting Islam and Muslims in Britain” last week, there have been improvements in the language that is being used, but religious illiteracy remains rife within parts of our newspaper elite. Until recently, a managing editor of a major national newspaper did not know that “jihad” had multiple meanings, and that “fatwa” did not just mean a death warrant. The lack of comprehension on a topic that is part of the bread and butter of newspapers today is deeply distressing and its role in editorial decision-making cannot be understated. I would like to think that this is due to sheer ignorance rather than pure malice, which is much harder to tackle.
Second, diversity. There is an under-representation of all minority groups, but particularly Muslims, within the media – especially within senior positions – and greater diversity will improve coverage and help combat misreporting. This requires greater outreach on the part of media organisations to bring in talent from all backgrounds through diversity programmes, paid internships and fast-track schemes to proactively close this gap.

The final piece in the jigsaw is regulation. Clause 12 of the Editors’ Code of Practice says: “Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion … must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.” The problem is that this protection only extends to individuals and not to groups, which is why Katie Hopkins was able to get away with her infamous comments comparing refugees to “cockroaches”.

The arguments about censorship and free speech are complex – but Jonathan Heawood of the Impress Project, an independent monitor of the press, believes the Editors’ Code should incorporate Lord Leveson’s suggestion that this clause is broadened to include groups. This would allow representative groups to hold the media to account for using “Islam” or “Muslims” where it was not “genuinely relevant” to the story.

We are equal members of society and demand fairness, not favours. Avoiding daily smears, group libel and the violent consequences is not too much to ask of the nation’s editors.

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