Anti-Muslim hate is now widespread in the UK—and the media is helping normalise it

The “punish a Muslim” campaign is only the tip of the iceberg

March 30, 2018
An open day at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, London. Photo: PA
An open day at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, London. Photo: PA

Anti-Muslim hate has now been normalised.

When I speak of the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim hatred, I am not referring to the most powerful country in the world, where President Trump said “I think Islam hates us,” re-tweeted anti-Muslim propaganda videos and appointed a National Security Advisor who wrote the foreword to a book written by people banned from the UK for their extremism.

Nor am I referring to mainland Europe, where the German Interior Minister feels able to declare that 'Islam does not belong' in the country, or where almost 40 per cent of the French population voted for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and where a sign saying “pray for an Islamic holocaust” was proudly displayed in a demonstration in Poland.

I am referring to our country here in the UK.

According to surveys, half our nation thinks Islam is a threat to Western liberal democracy, a third thinks that Islam promotes acts of violence in the UK and 31 per cent of young children believe Muslims are taking over England.

#PunishAMuslimDay hate mail has been sent across the country in recent weeks, including to Muslim MPs, and we continue to see the vile bigotry on social media faced by the most famous Muslim public figures such as the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Bake-Off Winner Nadiya Hussain.

Such attitudes are reflected by our leaders. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former Co-Chair of the Conservative Party, said that “there was a simmering underbelly of Islamophobia” in the ruling party, where bigotry against Muslims is tolerated. Examples include the re-selection of Zac Goldsmith as an MP despite his Islamophobic campaign for mayor; David Davies’ victim-blaming when he claimed that the Islamic tradition requiring women to wear face and head coverings was “an excuse for sexual violence against women”; or, most recently, Bob Blackman re-tweeting an anti-Muslim post by Tommy Robinson, hosted an anti-Muslim bigot in Parliament and shared an appalling story from an Islamophobic website on Facebook.

Where is this prejudice coming from?

Bigots will rely to the ‘no smoke without fire’ proverb to blame Islamophobia on the tiny fraction of terrorists whose acts are condemned by Muslims themselves. Yet, polls tell us that the majority of people find out about Islam and Muslims from the media, where over 90 per cent of reports are negative.

In late 2015 after the now retracted front-page inaccuracy "1 in 5 Brit Muslims' sympathy for Jihadis" (The Sun), I realised the scale of the issue and in 2016, embarked on a systematic campaign to identify false claims about Islam and Muslims in the national mainstream press, and elicit corrections through raising complaints and proactively engaging with editors and managing editors.

In the past year and a half, national newspapers have agreed to retract or amend over 40 of their stories due to complaints from me; that excludes the many more they refused to change.

Some may cast my campaign for greater accuracy on reporting of Islam and Muslims through the usual stereotype of Muslims wanting to limit “free speech.” Nothing could be further from the truth. As a firm believer in the importance of speech and its value in a democratic society, my chief objection is there seems to be mounting evidence of a deliberate campaign to misrepresent Muslims from a hostile vantage point.

Consider for example the entirely false news stories from right-wing tabloids such as “Gunman screaming 'Allahu Akbar' opens fire in Spanish supermarket” (Mail Online), “Schoolchildren BANNED from singing Silent Night over fears it will OFFEND other religions”, (Express) and “RAMADAN TRAIN WRECK Muslim train driver crashed after going without food or drink for 15 hours during Ramadan” (The Sun). Such tabloids also host controversialists such as Rod Liddle who belittled the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Trevor Kavanagh who used Nazi-like language about “the Muslim Problem” and Douglas Murray who claimed “less Islam” is a solution to terrorism (by which he means “fewer Muslims” as he makes clear in his article).

However, what demonstrates the breadth of the prejudice is the inaccurate stories and narratives about Muslims in establishment centrist papers such as the Times: “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75 per cent Muslim”, “Islamist school can segregate boys and girls” and worst of all its race-baiting front page story: “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”. The paper is yet to admit the last example is false but it is only a matter of time, given the Judge has laid out the inaccuracies in a remarkable public statement.

It’s not just news: the Times also provided platforms for anti-Muslim bigoted views in its opinion pages, from Niall Fergusson suggesting Muslims are “colonising” Europe to Richard Kemp casting suspicion over those brave Muslims serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces.

The depth and breadth of the anti-Muslim normalisation within large swathes of mainstream media should not be under-estimated, nor should its real-world impact.

Most of these stories have been shared by far-right extremists to feed their anti-Muslim narrative and academics have drawn a clear link between media reporting on Muslims and rising hostility towards Muslims and hate crime.

Worse, the main press regulator IPSO has failed to ensure the press lives up to the “highest professional standards” on these issues, and has failed to launch a standards review or issue a single fine to a newspaper since its inception. Little wonder that the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee highlighted her embarrassment at the press regulator, in particular after its Chair said that he accepted “The Jewish Problem” was Nazi-like language and hate speech but, astonishingly, refused to accept “The Muslim Problem” was also hate speech.

Whilst diversity amongst editorial decision makers and commentators is vitally important, whilst greater religious literacy would help and whilst a stronger regulator would be ideal, we have to be honest that evidence of this breadth and scale cannot be explained away by mere errors of judgement.

We know that certain journalists at specific newspapers are making intentional choices to fuel anti-Muslim bigotry. So what are the vast majority of brilliant journalists at these newspapers going to do about it?