Saturday, 28 January 2012

Why Mehdi Hasan is wrong about Islamophobia in the media

On Thursday I sent a tweet – slightly intemperate, I admit – drawing attention to a piece by the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan on Islamophobia in the British media, and the fact that I thought it was a problem on the streets, not in the press.

Mehdi, to his credit, politely invited me to read the submission to the Leveson inquiry which prompted the article and a letter to the Guardian signed by various luminaries (almost all on the left), which I agreed to do (the document is 86 pages long, but luckily only the first 16 are relevant. I read all of them, like the true pedant I am). I know this piece is a little long, but it was important to answer properly.

The issue is this: are Muslims being singled out in the British media? I’m afraid I find the evidence rather unconvincing, although there is one exception to this, which I'll explain later.

The evidence to Leveson was given by Inayat Bunglawala, representing the Muslim advocacy organisation Engage, which is a “a Muslim advocacy organisation which seeks to encourage greater civic participation on the part of British Muslims in our democracy”. Well, I’m all for that. Good.

Bunglawala then lists five examples of what Engage see as Islamophobic headlines or extracts which they referred to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

  1. Lord Ahmed described as “Muslim peer” (newspaper not mentioned). Lord Ahmed had a car accident, and was referred to in an article as Muslim peer Lord Ahmed. Personally I don’t like such habits of referring to people via religion or ethnicity, if they’re not relevant to the story, but then again, this is hardly the stuff of skinhead marches.  The PCC did not uphold it, partly because he is often referred to as “Britain’s first Muslim peer”, which he undeniably is. In this case a contraction to “Muslim peer” (even though there are now more than one) seems borderline at best, and so the PCC judgement seems right to me here.
  1. Poppies banned in terror hotspots (Daily Star). The Daily Star prints something which is entirely untrue (quelle surprise), that poppy sales have been banned in areas with a high Muslim population. At a stretch, we might concede that in those areas they didn’t have quite as many people volunteering to sell poppies, and perhaps parts of those communities were annoyed with the “Establishment” over Iraq and didn’t line up to sell poppies. But the idea that they were banned was clearly nonsense, and offensive. Complaint made to the PCC, and a one-paragraph correction was made by the Star.
  1. Christmas is banned, it offends Muslims (Express headline) – this was a story about a council renaming Christmas “Winterval”, to reflect that some people were celebrating other festivals at this time. Personally I don’t care what they call it, but in this case it was changed, so the “ban” was technically true, but the implication that even one Muslim had complained about it, though, was not. If the headline had read, however, Christmas is banned, the council thinks it offends Muslims, it would have been entirely true. Engage claim they never had a “satisfactory response” from the PCC, however I cannot find this in the case search on the PCC website, and suspect one was never formally opened. For the record, here Engage’s rather overplayed framing of this point also led Leveson himself to intervene, saying “That’s not quite fair, is it?”
  1. Muslim plot to kill Pope (Daily Express headline). There was a suspected plot to kill the Pope which turned out almost immediately to be a non-story. However, six men were arrested and questioned and later released, all of whom it seems were Muslims. This in itself is hardly a huge surprise, in the current climate of terrorist threats, and neither does it imply Islamophobia. But the use of the word Muslim rather than, say, Islamist, is not nice. It implies that ordinary Muslims, as a matter of habit on a Saturday afternoon, tend to gather and plot the elimination of major public figures. Here I think the criticism is entirely deserved.
  1. Engage: “Extremist Islamist group” (Daily Mail, Melanie Philips). The final item was rather clever, as it dealt with comments about the Engage group itself and, in the process, the organisation could handily attempt to assert its own non-extremism in a public forum. We’ll see later why it might want to do that. The question was whether it was an “extremist Islamist group”. Do I like Melanie Philips? I do not. She is a dreadful, populist right-wing reactionary, on a wide range of issues, and on top of that she had to leave the Spectator after making a false allegation on her blog there. Is Engage an extremist Islamist group? I would say no: it mixes moderate and extremist views. So this was wrong, technically at least.
On the other hand, it is now time to talk about Engage. Does Engage have links to extremist Islamist groups? It clearly does. It actually has a lot. One of its trustees, Mohammed Ali Harath, is a founder of radical group the Tunisian Islamic Front, and CEO of the Islam Channel, recently censured by Ofcom for its medieval views on such subjects as wife-beating and the unacceptability of women who wear perfume. Harath is a known friend to Hamas and visited its leaders in Gaza. Engage also campaigned against the exclusions of hate preachers Zakir Naik and Raed Salah from the UK. It criticised police over deportation of legitimate terror suspects. It defended the comments of Paul Flynn MP on the suitability of the Israeli ambassador to be Jewish, while the rest of the country condemned them. Last July, it was dropped by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia after the resignation of the chair and vice-chair of that group in protest at its associations and behaviour.

What conclusions can we draw from all this? I believe they are as follows:

One. That the PCC is fairly useless and toothless, but we knew that. It does not protect religious groups, or members of the public in general, from misleading reporting and even downright lies. That is largely the point of Leveson in the first place.

Two. There does not seem to be compelling evidence of a general problem in the British media’s reporting of Muslims. Indeed, I would say that serious media (Times, Guardian, Independent, not to mention the BBC and ITV) are scrupulous in reporting fairly on Muslims. Even at the Daily Mail, a paper which I have no time for, it is difficult to identify a serious problem if you do a search on the word “Muslim” at their website.

Three. However, there are two newspapers, the Star and the Express, who have the same owner (Express Newspapers), now withdrawn from the PCC. They, and specifically they, have sailed close to the wind with their comments on Muslims, and their withdrawal from the PCC makes it more likely that this will get worse, not better. Hope Not Hate, a fine organisation campaigning against bigotry of all kinds, have noted this and written to the Star’s editor. This is all yet another argument for mandatory regulation, as it seems likely that Leveson will advise.

Four. Engage has presented a reasonable, moderate face to Leveson, and has actually made some useful points in the process. But the idea of it being a reasonable, moderate organisation throughout is seriously open to question. Indeed, it seems extraordinary that Leveson would take it seriously at all after its dropping by the APPG and given some of the connections it has. But I have been careful not to dismiss its points through a mere ad hominem, because it is quite clear that we can treat the points it made quite seriously and still come to a different conclusion. That said, that does not mean that we should accept Engage as what they purport to be, representatives of moderate Muslims.

One has to conclude that, if that is the best that an organisation founded to promote Muslims’ profile in the media can do in terms of raising complaints, reporting of Muslims in the media is hardly a problem on the scale that the Guardian letter would suggest. And, on this evidence, the specific issue that does exist regarding Express Newspapers is one that in any event would almost certainly be solved by a mandatory regulatory framework, along with a lot of other press issues like the profile of other religions, public figures and ordinary people.

It is also evident that senior politicians have failed dismally to sign the Guardian letter, not surprising when you look at the usual suspects in the list of the signatories: figures in Stop The War Coalition, Respect as well as the unpleasant Islamic Forum Europe and our old friend Sarah Colbourne of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). What I find a little more disturbing, however, is that some of these organisations have a real agenda: an interest in demonstrating that the British media is against them, because it helps them then dismiss their criticism if, like the PSC, they often do things which are indefensible. It is an old tactic of the hard left, to blame the media as twisting the real truth.

Finally, Bunglawala made the following comment in his opening remarks:
“I think the same standards should be applied to Muslims as to any other faith group or any other minority group community.”
I truly hope that he will remember that commitment to even-handedness, next time he sees some highly objectionable piece in the Guardian, such as this extraordinary puff-piece on unpleasant Holocaust cartoonist Latuff.

, perhaps, he will not need to look further than his own website.


  1. IMHO there IS Islamophobia in the British press (more tabloid than broadsheet) and in society. Fourth Estate first, look at the crap written, by the red tops. It is not just "The Sun" et al but now firmly entrenched in the Torygraph/Voice of the BNP. As to the UK as a whole, yes, it is now acceptable to witter on about "ragheads". Thanks Prince Harry (Afrika Korps) look back at the 30s and it was the "refujews".

  2. Back in 2006 I made a Radio 4 Analysis programme about this issue when there really was a problem with Islamophobia in the media (in the wake of the London bombings) but even then it was clear that the journalists were cleaning up their act.
    Apart from the Express and Star I really don't think there is a systematic problem. It's a bit like reporting gender. Yes there is a lot of mild sexism and some hostility to feminism in the media but that is not the same as systematic misogyny.
    That's free speech for you. The media will always reflect public opinion to a degree as well as shape it. We have a responsibility not to offend but it is also important not to avoid tackling difficult issues and to represent offensive opinions.
    My research back in 2006 showed that one of the big problems was the failure of many Muslim organisations to be properly engaged and accountable to their own community and wider society.
    I think that has changed a lot since then, as has media representation of Muslims in Britain. But like life, it ain't perfect.

  3. Here's a link to that 2006 programme just in case anyone's interested!

  4. Thanks for that, Charlie, I heartily concur.

    I think that the view is rather reflected in the lack of mainstream support for the letter to the Guardian. The media needs looking at in various aspects (hence Leveson, quite rightly). But an institutional problem in the media it is not.

    I shall take a look at your programme!

  5. Ciaran, I think we agree about a rise in Islamophobia on the streets of Britain - recent studies have shown a rise in both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Where I disagree, and the point of the piece is that it doesn't seem to be reflected as a general issue in the press, apart from Express Newspapers. I'd be interested to see recent examples from the Sun, if you've got them.

  6. Christmas shouldn't "offend Muslims" any more than Ramadan should "offend Christians" or others, for that matter!

    The Christian celebration of their alleged day that "Jesus was born" is THEIR celebration. While we all have our own opinions of the birth of Jesus/Isa, why would WE be upset at THEIR celebration?

    There are so many other things that deserve our focus, mainly, our worship of ALLAH & practice of Islam!!

  7. Good piece, and congratulations for using "ad hominem" correctly. It's so misused as "personal attack" or even "disagreement" that it's become almost totally useless.

    I would say, in defence of Inayat Bungawala and his mates, that I thought that the bigging up of Anjem Choudary by the Daily Telegraph and even the BBC, who sometimes used him as a Muslim representative, could be grounds for complaints. Choudary is not the head of a large movement and if he calls for a demo, about 20 will show up. He's a one man wind-up merchant and should be ignored - but he has managed to use the media rather well, causing much ill-will towards Muslims.

  8. Thanks, and apologies, your comment seems to have got stuck in moderation. Don't know that much about Choudary, but I can't find much compelling evidence of Islamophobia with th DTel or BBC (in fact with the BBC it's often quite the opposite). In the DTel, unlike the Express, the most controversial things about Muslims are usually said by Andrew Gilligan, and in his case - though it pains me to admit it - they're usually true.


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