It's time to confront the fact that anti-Muslim prejudice is now global and mainstream

While the causes of incidents like Christchurch are complex, attacks like these don't happen in a vacuum

March 19, 2019
Two young men sit together on an open day at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, London. Photo: PA
Two young men sit together on an open day at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, London. Photo: PA

For many Muslims around the world, the seminal moment in the aftermath of the horrific massacre in Christchurch was Australian news anchor Waleed Aly’s powerful editorial on current affairs program The Project where he castigated those who have previously tried to “tear people apart, demonise particular groups.”

A sombre-looking Aly, his voice cracking with emotion, looked straight into the camera and said, “Of all the things I could say, that I'm gutted and I'm scared and I feel overcome with utter hopelessness, the most dishonest thing would be to say that I'm shocked … There is nothing about Christchurch that shocks me.”

And why should it, really? For years, Muslims have watched helplessly as Islamophobia has been increasingly legitimised. No longer just confined to the fringes of society, this hatred has become alarmingly mainstream on a global scale.

In Europe, it is most visible in the xenophobia from political leaders and the press in response to the recent influx of refugees from Muslim countries. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has branded them “Muslim invaders,” while David Cameron famously described them as a “swarm.” Katie Hopkins, in a column for The Sun so vile that it prompted a rebuke from the UN, referred to the refugees as “cockroaches” and suggested using gunships on them.

The muted response from the international community towards China’s forced “re-education” program is another more recent example of this. In a blatant violation of human rights, over a million Uighur Muslims and other minorities, including Kazakhs, are reported to be extra-judiciously held in internment camps, supposedly to eliminate alleged extremist tendencies. Late last year, the Guardian warned that despite the scale of this crisis, the “world remains largely unaware”—or else “unwilling to speak out.”

Complicity at home

The complicity of the British press in enabling this global climate of hate cannot be overstated. A 2007 study commissioned by then-London Mayor Ken Livingstone revealed that research into one week’s news coverage indicated over 91 per cent of articles regarding Muslims in British newspapers were negative in nature. Almost a decade later, nothing much has changed.

Sensationalism and inaccurate reporting when it comes to Muslims are still widespread in the British press. Recently, the Times was denounced for running a series of “distorted” articles about a white Christian child allegedly forced into Muslim foster care. Those stories, filled with errors, were widely picked up by the rest of the media and shared by hate groups like Britain First and Tommy Robinson.

Elsewhere, columnist Melanie Philips has called Islamophobia “a fiction to shut down debate,” while the Sun’s Douglas Murray has suggested that we respond to terror attacks with “less Islam.”

Similarly, despite Nazir Afzal—the Crown Prosecution Service’s lead on child sexual abuse—arguing that there was no religious basis for the horrific child abuse reported in Rotherham, the press coverage still amplified the Muslim faith of the defendants.

In fact, one of the guns apparently used in the New Zealand attack was marked, “For Rotherham”—no doubt influenced by such reporting.

A global connection

While it can be easy to dismiss the massacre in New Zealand as an isolated act of a deranged individual, then, it is important to understand that incidents like this don’t occur in a vacuum. The phobia of non-white residents in western countries systematically overtaking and replacing the white populations forms the basis of the “Great Replacement” theory that was apparently a motivator for the attack.

While there are many who have condemned the killer's actions, there are those that sympathise with his reasons for doing so. After the attack, Fox News analyst Walid Phares claimed that what the shooter was trying to do was “very understandable” on a “political level.”

The Muslim community, like many other minorities, has long implored prominent media organisations to exercise caution when it comes to providing platforms to hatemongers and extremists. These pleas almost always fall on deaf ears. In fact, the BBC invited a far-right leader in the immediate aftermath of the New Zealand attack—going to show that media organisations have still not learnt any lessons about the dangers of giving airtime to such individuals.

At the very least, the tragedy in New Zealand has demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that despite what people like Phillips might claim, Islamophobia is very real. It is imperative that media organisations listen to the voices of those most affected by it.

As Waleed Aly eloquently put it, “Now, now we come together. Now we understand this is not a game. Terrorism doesn't choose its victims selectively. We are one community.”