Image: Matt Writtle/Press Association Images. All rights reserved
If you pick up any newspaper today, turn on any news programme, or check your regular news websites, you’re guaranteed to see a story about Muslims, or read about an issue of policy directly involving the diverse Muslim communities in the UK and Europe. The extent of coverage is substantial, and this coverage is often overwhelmingly negative. The total population of Muslims in the UK stands at 4.8%, just shy of 3 million. In Europe, France (7.5%) and Germany (5.8%) are host to the largest minorities on the continent. By any view, this is numerically disproportionate.
This kind of coverage is causing lasting damage in ways that are not fully understood now and which may well only become apparent when it is too late. False and misleading headlines and coverage are being challenged constantly, and they may often lead to corrections and printed apologies. But the damage they cause in the British psyche will take decades to reverse, if at all.
A Dangerous Distortion
The answer is not to attack the media. This is counterproductive, particularly as media reflection is akin to mirrors in fairgrounds, for the most part distorting rather than wholly inventing. And so this is a call to editors of all media and to their readership, the British public. On the current trajectory, we are failing to meet the highest possible standards in the coverage. And so in turn the British people must become more conscious consumers of the information produced.
Let’s be clear about one thing: there is currently a serious and pressing problem relating to radicalisation within Muslim communities in the UK and Europe in particular, and there is a clear sense that these communities are stubborn about wanting to integrate fully, to ultimately become an indistinguishable part of British society. More by omission than action successive Governments have allowed this sense of separation to flourish. But they have also attempted to address it through various means, some covert, others more public and more controversial, and in my view well-intentioned, programmes such as Prevent. The appointment of distinguished and conscientious individuals such as David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terror legislation, is a mark of a confident society seeking to strike the right balance. And there are a lot of individual journalists out there doing sterling work in this area.
However, to my mind, despite these positive actions taking place, all perspective appears to have been lost in the coverage of the issues facing the minority of Muslims in the UK, most of whom are busy living lives, running businesses and building a future. Not, as has been suggested living in parallel, but to the best of their abilities alongside their compatriots. But as the old advertising adage goes, sex and violence always sell. Today, Islamophobia and misleading articles and headlines are helping to boost dwindling sales of newspapers, to drive up ratings or to breathe new life into ill-thought through and poorly implemented government programmes. The picture is not universal. Recently, more balanced work by the BBC has sought to shed light on communities about which we know very little and understand even less.
But for everyone one of these difficult endeavours, we have many more doing the opposite. It is not surprising, but it should be alarming that, for example, Donald Trump’s popularity can surge when he says he will expel Muslims, and why LBC sees a cynical opportunity to boost ratings in hiring Katie Hopkins – someone who saw fit to compare migrants fleeing war to ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans'. Both will at best be mere footnotes in history, but they are unfortunately the reference points of the age today. At the heart of British media coverage and by consequence society itself, a gaping chasm is emerging, a ‘them and us’ mentality is slowly taking hold – and we need to act now to stop it. This, for me, is the real Prevent Programme.
The Bigger Picture
Apart from the likes of Nigel Farage speaking of the ‘fifth column’, politicians in the UK, as compared to the continent and across the Atlantic, have been quite measured in their public comment to date. Theresa May’s response to an inflammatory Sun headline, is a case in point. But just take these examples of the corrosive impact coverage is having right now.
British Muslims and most Muslim communities in Europe are the least well represented in top professions, politics and public life, and are disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment and general lack of opportunities. In most cases doubly so, both by ethnicity and religion. The cause may be rooted in a multiplicity of reasons, but the result has been to make these communities inward looking, seeking solace in their faith, insular and isolationist. And yes, sometimes with views which are backward and regressive.
One should therefore ask whether it is any wonder that some (thankfully a tiny minority) of individuals then go on to entertain and become victims of radicalisation and extremism? This phenomenon has coincided with a period during which the dissemination of poisonous ideology and misinformation is easily communicable and finds a willing audience. The coverage often lacks nuance or indeed any real analysis, preferring generality and basic conclusions. Note: this is not to suggest that the robustness of the coverage need be diminished, or that some behaviour ought to be ‘excused’, but rather a call for a higher standard of understanding. Anything less will have devastating consequences and crucially impede progress.
When the damaging and misleading headings are published, it is these same communities who are powerless and defenceless. It can be overwhelming, in some cases, even places of worship are not free from intrusive and misleading coverage. This further entrenches solace and inwardness. If it were not for the incredible work by the likes of Miqdaad Versi, amongst others, to challenge these misleading headlines, many may well be accepted as universal truths. It is also a mark of the faith in the system which remains undiminished. By that point, however, the damage is done. I observe the irony that, as a Shia Muslim (a minority group), so many of the Muslims and Muslim communities whose dignity and worth he seeks to protect would in many circumstances reject Miqdaad’s faith. But of course he is wise enough to see the bigger picture.
Another example is the impact of confusing an already confused identity picture. I recently shared a platform with a young Somali woman who is a community activist in South London. She spoke about how she saw the portrayal of Muslims in the media, and how it affected the way she saw her own identity. She made the striking point that whenever something atrocious occurred in Paris or Brussels, or some idiot gets caught, almost always men, it’s ‘always the visible sisters who pay the price’ and get abused on public transportation, often simply for the clothing that they choose to wear as an article of faith. They are the ones who get suspected at airports and who are often made to feel uncomfortable at work. And she added:
‘A brother may have a beard, but he could be a hipster – right?’
The natural consequence of this is that one element of her identity, that of a visible Muslim wearing a hijab, becomes so dominant and magnified, that it ‘takes over’ everything else. Never fully being able to explore her other identities as a person; of being a woman, of being black and African, or a Londoner or even one day a wife and a mother – ultimately leading to a warped sense of self. Think about this and its impact on a child growing up in Britain today, or a father having to explain why a Muslim family has been taken off a flight.
Two misleading conversations are taking place
And so, with that, far from coming closer together, breaking down barriers, as a society we are moving further apart. In my judgement, in the mind of the vast majority of the British public, most of whom are unlikely to meet many Muslims, the current coverage is sowing a perspective that is far from the truth: a reality that you should be suspicious of your neighbour and colleague, rather than the fact they are law-abiding citizens like them, worrying about the shopping, getting the kids to school on time, or whether they will have enough time to catch up with the latest Coronation Street.
For many Muslims, the feeling is that their faith is under attack, they’re not wanted here in Britain unless they ‘change their behaviour’ and the daily coverage is a constant reminder of that. This is similarly untrue. There is nowhere else in Europe, arguably the world, where it is possible to be a truly free Muslim. And that includes majority Muslim countries.
Ultimately, my plea to editors is to resist choosing short-term gains at the expense of the long-term damage cost. To strive for the highest possible standards, with an eye to the next 20 years and not tomorrow’s sales. Above all, to think about the very real impact on the ground, today, and resist innuendo and lazy assumptions. The BBC, a unique actor in my view, has the ability to set an example for all broadcasters and journalists. Our national broadcaster often comes under considerable attack, but it must strive to maintain a standard reflecting an evolving nation, offering considered work which does not seek to either pander or sensationalise complex topics.
My call to the fair-minded wider British public is to consciously engage with this issue of our time more proactively, to interrogate the statistical basis underpinning sensationalist headlines rather than just recoil at the distasteful conclusions presented. Once again, this is something the BBC was able to do so well recently by reviewing the survey purporting to show what ‘British Muslims really think.’ Finally I extend my hope that Muslims in all their diverse and rich tapestry can strive to address the real issues affecting their communities, in all its complexity, in an outward and honest way, but above all fight for equal and fair treatment, rather than special treatment and further isolation.
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