The opinions of far-right preachers are often distilled and reproduced by national newspapers, irrespective of how wildly inaccurate or inflammatory they may be – and it"s effective
Just after midnight last night, a white man drove a van into a crowd of worshippers leaving the Muslim Welfare House mosque in Finsbury Park whilst allegedly shouting, “I’m going to kill all Muslims”. One person has died and a further 10 have been injured. The Metropolitan Police have stated that they are treating the incident as a terror attack.
This has happened on the same day that a 17-year old-Muslim girl in America was kidnapped and beaten to death with a baseball bat as she travelled home from late night Ramadan prayers at the mosque.
Attacks targeting Muslims are happening at an alarming frequency, with the anti-Muslim hate monitoring organisation Tell Mama reporting that hate crimes against Muslims increased by fivefold since the London Bridge terror attack. It’s imperative that we start asking questions about how these individuals become radicalised in the same way that we do after other terror attacks.
The attack in Finsbury Park cannot be seen as the twisted actions of a “lone wolf”, isolated and disconnected from that which motivated him. A narrative of hostility towards Muslims has been building gradually in the UK for many years now.
Many on social media have been pointing towards celebrated Islamophobes such as former EDL leader Tommy Robinson and right-wing columnist Katie Hopkins. Twitter users have circulated a video where Robinson describes random British Muslims as “enemy combatants”. In another video he asserts that if the government do not act soon, the British public will “take matters into their own hands… militias will be set up… who will end up cleaning out this Islamic problem”. His Twitter page also features a stream of anti-Muslim, anti-Islam propaganda and rhetoric.
Similarly, Hopkins – who had a radio show on LBC until recently and a column in the Sun – borrowed Nazi terminology when she called for a “final solution” against Muslims after the Manchester terror attack, which resulted in her being fired from LBC. She often uses hate speech and anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant propaganda, once tweeting that there are “celebrations in prayer houses country-wide” after a terror attack in Belgium. Last month, Hopkins urged “Western men... Stand up. Rise up. Demand action”.
“The press exacerbates people’s fears in regard to British Muslims and their supposed complicity in terrorism”
It’s clear how many people could feel inspired to take action against Muslims whilst reading these kinds of sentiments. Katie Hopkins has a substantial twitter following of over 782,000, whilst Tommy Robinson has around 302,000 followers. Both of these figures have essentially forged a career in Islamophobia, and have amassed a huge amount of support from many in the UK and beyond. Groups like Britain First also reproduce the same types of sentiment that serves to prey on people’s anxieties over the threat of terrorism.
However, I believe that these “fringe” individuals are often scapegoated and portrayed as ‘wacky’ and extreme, when it’s essential to understand that they are only given legitimacy within a wider narrative of xenophobic and Islamophobic discourse that is produced and reproduced by both politicians and the right-wing press. After all, why was Tommy Robinson being interviewed by the press following the Westminster terror attack, if not to legitimise his views and stance on Islam? Amplifying the voice of a hate preacher following an attack is plainly troubling.
The press exacerbates people’s fears in regard to British Muslims and their supposed complicity in terrorism. Instead of looking at the root causes in the spread of extremist ideology and how our destructive foreign policy has contributed turmoil in the Middle East that has left many areas vulnerable to the expansion of terror groups – the lens is focused inwards towards ordinary British Muslims who are actually on the frontline when it comes to combatting extremism.
The call for Muslims to “do more” in denouncing terrorism is often made by those who have very little interaction with anyone in the Muslim community, and helps to spread the misconception that most Muslims stand idly by while extremists take over the community. The reality is that Muslims denounce terrorism constantly. Many of these go-to TV extremists like Anjem Choudary only have a tiny following themselves and are rejected by all mainstream Muslims and institutions, yet they’re given huge platforms and amounts of attention by the media.
“The tactics are clear – to immediately associate Muslims with extremism, even in the face of tragedy”
The Daily Mail published an article just after today’s attack with the headline, “White van driver injures at least 10 people after ploughing into a crowd outside London’s Finsbury Park Mosque where hate cleric Abu Hamza once preached as Muslims finished their evening prayers”. Not only was it a different mosque from the one that Abu Hamza used to preach outside, the tactics are clear – to immediately associate Muslims with extremism, even in the face of tragedy. It alarming to see Muslims portrayed as the perpetrators even in violent attacks against them.
Many right-wing publications seem to thrive off of demonising Muslims – the Islamophobia industry itself is extremely lucrative across Europe and America with many considered “experts” and “analysts” for reproducing Islamophobic stereotypes that lack any real insight or nuance. Reporting Islamophobia does not seem to generate the same publicity and interest.
IPSO complaints, petitions and social media campaigns have all attempted to undermine the hegemony of the right-wing press and their unrelenting bias against ordinary Muslims, however the process is on-going and difficult.
In the mean time, British Muslims are reporting unprecedented levels of hate crimes and abuse in the current climate, with a rise of 326% in 2015. In a post-Trump, post-Brexit era, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim discourse has become legitimised and celebrated in wider society. People are no longer scared to express such views once deemed bigoted and unacceptable.
Muslim women have been verbally abused, spat on, had their headscarves pulled off. Mosques have received threats and graffiti abuse. The same year that British soldier Lee Rigby was killed, a 75-year-old Muslim grandfather named Mohammed Saleem was stabbed and killed on his way home from the mosque in a suspected Islamophobic attack. Whilst the murder of Lee Rigby garnered a huge amount of press and public interest, the murder of Saleem was virtually ignored and immediately forgotten. Politically motivated terror attacks on Muslims are largely underreported and evoking far less sympathy in public discourse.
Abuse and terrorism against Muslims must be taken seriously and seen as a threat to our society and co-existence. Those responsible for upholding a narrative of bigotry have to be held to account, or we are at risk of such attacks becoming the norm.