Shine A Light

After Woolwich: when racist thugs and tabloid media combine

In the aftermath of Drummer Lee Rigby's murder, state and tabloid targeting of Muslims fuels hate crime.

Linda Briskman and Scott Poynting
12 June 2013

Two hundred Islamophobic incidents in Britain since the killing of Lee Rigby make a nasty spike from a measurable and worrying base level of anti-Muslim attacks raising fear of sustained targeting of Muslim communities. On Saturday night, after a suspected arson attack on an Islamic boarding school, children were treated for smoke inhalation. Metropolitan Police chief Bernard Howgan Howe said that uniformed police officers would be posted at other potential targets across the London. The fears are well founded; the targeting has been long since happening. The spike is a symptom. The Woolwich atrocity was only the pretext; it was not the main cause.

While it would be tempting to see these hate crime attacks as prompted by the Woolwich crime itself, along with irrational imputation of the blame to whole Muslim communities, and an ugly urge to vigilantism, this would be wrong. Experience suggests that it is media targeting and blaming of Muslims (and others mistaken for them by hate crime perpetrators) that provokes surges in anti-Muslim racism, violence, vilification and discrimination. State targeting does likewise.

When ‘our brave lads’ were part of ‘the coalition of the willing’ in Iraq, over two decades and hundreds of thousands of deaths ago, there was an upsurge of anti-Muslim hate crime in countries of that coalition. Many of the mainstream media dutifully shoved microphones in the faces of ‘Muslim leaders’ in such countries, demanding that they declare their loyalty to their country of residence, and foreswear any criticism of the militaristic adventure or sympathy for those being slaughtered. No such declaration of fealty, of course, was ever enough to allay suspicion and labelling as a ‘fifth column’.

After the 9/11 attacks in the US, spokespeople from Muslim communities all over the world repudiated this violence against innocent civilians by a handful of perpetrators; this disavowal and condemnation, of course, could never be sufficient for either the tabloid media or populist politicians eager to buy support with Islamophobic rhetoric in ‘western’ countries. Much of the media colludes with the vengeance of prominent ‘ex-Muslims’ with a score to settle and their followers, among whom are well-known people who travel the world to propagate anti-Muslim vilification such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. The insidious Q Society which brought Dutch politician Wilders to Australia shares his vitriol against Muslims and are appointing Q Citizen Lobbyists for every electorate in Australia before the September election in their quest to ‘uphold Australian values’.  This will surely not go unnoticed by the media.

Every crusading campaign in the media against supposed Muslim militants or misfits was matched by a surge in hate crime on the streets. The experience of these effects has been reported by Muslim communities on several continents.

In the wake of the Bali bombings of 2002, which killed 88 Australians anti-Muslim violence erupted including fireballing of an Islamic center and vandalism of a mosque. Following the 7/7 transport bombings in London, anti-Muslim hate crime peaked again, as local Muslim communities were subjected to suspicion by media targeting, and the social ‘permissibility’ of Islamophobic violence was demonstrated by police and security raids against many innocent people. In Britain incidents such as assaults, arson and racist graffiti became commonplace.

This permissability was emphasised by the introduction of draconian anti-terror laws often designed to show that strong action was being taken, and highly publicised and demonstrative police and security actions that –whatever the official rhetoric to the contrary – in effect signal to hate crime perpetrators-in-waiting that scapegoating Muslims is acceptable. Outlandish, minority, dissenting views – hitherto regarded in the mainstream as perhaps unpleasant but to be tolerated for the sake of civil liberties – became widely represented as dangerous, seditious and intolerable. Every door-breaking dawn raid by armed police, with approbation from the media, served as a powerful model for hate criminals.

So now with the Woolwich killings, columnists from the Wall Street Journal to the Sydney Morning Herald berate ‘Muslim leaders’, the Koran and Islam generally for engendering such violence. We see a friend of the alleged killer arrested immediately after revealing on the BBC that the British security services had attempted to recruit, and been spurned by, one of the perpetrators. Was he arrested for being a friend or for the revelation? Is it plausible that a plotter of terrorist mayhem still at large would reveal his intentions on global television? We see a man arrested in Australia under the highly unusual charges of ‘threats against a Commonwealth official’ since the rhetorical call for revenge against soldiers of the ‘war on terror’ is so ideologically charged, prompting the headline, "Sydney man arrested after allegedly posting hateful material against Diggers". The page has since been removed from the Herald but is available here. Just a few nights ago Australian commercial television presented a program titled ‘Islam to rule over Australia’, likely to fuel already pervasive fears. 

The English Defence League, like perpetrators of anti-Muslim street crime generally, is not known for nuance and rationality. Tabloid shrieking for crackdowns encourage the EDL and their ilk to see ‘retribution’ through rough justice as justifiable. If recent history is any predictor, the populist media will continue to shovel their share of responsibility onto the shoulders of innocent communities.

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