The press must be free to criticise Islam

The Muslim Council of Britain’s new report on the media is highly questionable.

Tom Slater

What do the Daily Mail Australia, Joanna Lumley and the BBC’s Bodyguard drama have in common? Well, according to a new report by the Muslim Council of Britain, they have all misrepresented, generalised about or otherwise showed bias towards Muslims and / or Islam.

The MCB’s new Centre for Media Monitoring has analysed almost 11,000 articles, news clips and TV shows this quarter, and the prognosis doesn’t look good. Apparently, 59 per cent of the content assessed associated Muslims with negative behaviours, and one third misrepresented or generalised about Muslims. When you get beyond the summary pages, however, a different picture begins to appear.

I was expecting to see example after example of dangerous misinformation or clear-cut anti-Muslim bias. Such as when, in 2015, a Mail Online article by Katie Hopkins wrongly suggested that an east London family were extremists linked to al-Qaeda. Though the MCB wasn’t involved in that case, one of the organisation’s spokespeople, Miqdaad Versi, has been focusing on correcting stories about Muslims in recent years, and gaining a lot of coverage himself.

But in this report, such cases are largely conspicuous by their absence. The worst examples cited here amount to questionable sensationalism. One headline described a woman who converted to Islam to be with her toyboy as ‘brainwashed’, without making clear this was a quote from her jilted husband. Another headline misleadingly implied there was a problem of ‘Muslim-only pools’ in Sydney. Many more of the articles cited, however, are barely problematic at all.

Several examples amount to relatively minor errors. A Mail headline said a London mosque was linked to ‘terrorists’, when they were actually ‘terror suspects’. A Mirror headline said that during an Islamist knife attack in Melbourne, the attacker shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (eyewitnesses had claimed this, but police later disputed it). These are not wilful distortions to the end of pushing some dodgy agenda.

Many examples are, frankly, ridiculous. Joanna Lumley is criticised for saying, in an ITV travel show, that Kyrgyzstan has a ‘less strict Islamic feel’ than other Muslim countries she has visited. Bodyguard gets called out for suggesting women who wear the hijab are ‘oppressed or subservient’, seemingly because a character in the show, a would-be suicide bomber, fits that description.

At the back of the report, an academic who ‘contributed to the oversight’ of the project, has a short essay deconstructing a story in the Express about Ramadan advent calendars being sold in Morrisons. She says the article is ‘inoffensive’ and ‘could be described as an example of fair reporting’. But because it features in ‘a conservative newspaper that regularly features articles with negative representations of Muslims’, it nevertheless ‘feeds into an idea of Muslims as a cultural threat’.

There is no available archive of the stories assessed, and the BBC write-up of the report notes that it was ‘not open to academic scrutiny’. We can only really go on the examples cited in the report itself, and assume these were among the most shocking the authors had at hand. On that basis, we should be highly critical of the claims being made here.

Indeed, such claims could chill discussion and reporting of serious stories and issues. At one point, the report criticises a number of outlets for publishing a picture of Westminster Bridge attacker Khalid Masood in Mecca. The MCB says the photo ‘subconsciously links Muslim practice to terror and terrorism’. But Masood was, in his demented, muderous head, doing God’s work. His beliefs are not an irrelevant little detail, not least because Islamists have been responsible for the vast majority of terrorist murders in Britain in recent years.

Stories about Muslim anti-Semitism are another focus of the report. ‘A common theme amongst Jewish Publications is of the “anti-Semitic Muslim”’, says the MCB, quoting pieces from the Jewish Chronicle about cases of Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe. ‘However’, it goes on, ‘several reports show that anti-Semitic attacks have risen across Europe, not due to Muslims but due to a rise in far-right activity’.

For an organisation apparently so committed to accuracy, this line is pretty misleading. The implication is that Muslim anti-Semitism is a marginal concern. It isn’t. A 2018 EU survey asked people the most serious incident of anti-Semitic harassment they had experienced, and who it had been perpretrated by. Thirty per cent of respondents said it was ‘someone with an extremist Muslim view’, while 13 per cent said it was the work of ‘someone with a right-wing political view’.

No one should use such stats to smear all Muslims. But the MCB’s evident touchiness about any discussion of these issues ironically does precisely what it is accusing others of doing – that is, generalising about Muslims or lumping them in with extremists. The message you take away from this report is that criticising the actions of the latter can’t help but offend or otherwise impact on the former.

This can only chill discussion of regressive attitudes and practices, which is particularly bad news for ex-Muslim and reformist voices. Indeed, at one point in the report, a BBC video is singled out for giving a ‘one sided view on the hijab’. It is an interview with Shaparak Shajarizadeh, an Iranian woman who took part in the recent anti-hijab protests – one of the ‘Girls of Revolution Street’. She was arrested, interrogated and forced to flee for removing her headscarf. The MCB laments that the ‘counterbalancing view’ is not provided.

We should be vigilant against anti-Muslim bigotry, in our press or anywhere else. But that noble concern cannot come at the cost of chilling discussion about and reporting on Islam and Islamism. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were built on the freedom to blaspheme and to criticise religion. And the MCB cannot claim to be campaigning for a truthful, accurate media while pushing its own dubious claims.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Photo by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Andy Gil

23rd July 2019 at 4:45 pm

Everybody should be free to criticise Islam, not just the press. It has clearly proved to be a divisive ideology, and a net negative for social cohesion in the West. If we are not free to criticise it there is no incentive for Islam to reform.

We should support those brave Muslims who seek peaceful co-existence and reject the intolerant aspects of their religion.

There are probably more than we realise, but the regressive left have pretty successfully marginalized them.

Martin Bishop

18th July 2019 at 9:01 pm

Is this another version of identity politics with the press as the victim?

cornelius bonkers

14th July 2019 at 5:22 pm

The question for Islam in relation to the West is not “can we live together?”; clearly we have bent over backwards to do this. But rather “can Islam live with the West?” To make a judgement such as this we have to analyse QUOTIDIAN Islam – the way of life adopted by “ordinary” Moslems. It’s too easy to make sport of crazy RADICAL Moslems; this is the mistake many folk made about Hitler and the National Socialists – they were mad so not the norm and so an aberration and so human and historical. Well, Islam is a-historical, not an aberration, and Moslems’ are not mad (except those who clinically are). Most crucially, unlike Socialism, Marxism, Christianity and Judaism which are discourses which are thoroughly THIS WORLDLY and so to some extent debatable, Islam is entirely OTHER WORLDLY and so closed to debate from outside of itself, beyond criticism and in any case disinterested IN ANYTHING BUT PARADISE. Really….go to your local mosque and you will find out…It’s we Westerners who are “the other” and the material world which we value so much a total irrelevance. In other words, we are fighting for different prizes – the means of winning are of no consequence…

Mark Lambert

13th July 2019 at 8:42 pm

I’ve seen Miqdaad Versi popping up on various political and current affairs programs for years, pushing these notions. The problem is that they take him seriously.

What have we had recently?
The public witch-hunts of journalists, radio presenters and politicians after the New Zealand attack, claiming they were “complicit”.

Miqdaad Versi and his numerous claims of bad press.

An imam telling three LBC presenters not to use the words “Islamism” or “Islamist”. All three were taken aback because they thought they were *really* being nice by not saying “Islam”. They were all curious as to how they can report specifics. But one said, “I will change my words”.

And Sayeeda Warsi of course and her claims of “Islamophobia” in the Conservative Party. Outside of “member’s comments” on social media, what does she have on the main party itself? Boris and his less than favourable view of a frock? Or Michael Gove writing a book about Islamic extremism, or ordering a report into the “Trojan Horse” affair?

Plus the APPG “definition” of “Islamophobia” which they are desperate to get everyone to sign. One very glaring problem with that definition is the “test” of deciding if criticism of Islam is “fair and reasonable” and if deemed not to be, it is “Islamophobic”. Spot the get-out clause.

There is a real concerted push going on which to my mind is a full-on attempt at a de-facto blasphemy law, bang in the middle of a rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Surely someone has spotted that?

Coram Deo

13th July 2019 at 8:28 pm

Thank you for speaking out.
So few these days will.
More please.

Esau Bloggs

13th July 2019 at 6:50 am

The recent attempt by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Muslims to stifle criticism of Islam by falsely claiming that Islamophobia is “a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” provides a salutary lesson on the one-sidedness of the concern for press impartiality on the part of the MCB (and 750 other Muslim organisations).

I have written four linked articles on the subject but perhaps the last one gives an adequate idea of the situation. It is also the shortest!

William Murphy

13th July 2019 at 11:19 am

Excellent set of articles. Step by step, they demolish the fraudulent concept of Islamophobia and expose the hopelessly muddled thinking and cringing of our politicians.

William Murphy

12th July 2019 at 2:36 pm

The dispute in two Birmingham primary schools over introducing LGBTQ lessons to Muslim children gave rise to some hilarious BBC articles where they desperately tried not to offend anyone, especially by not mentioning Islam.

The wretched Guardian has disgraced itself again. Owen Jones was a recent glorious example. Not only did he conflate dislike of Islam with racism. His article was not enabled for comments, when numerous articles on Trump, Boris, etc permitted readers to contribute.

Hana Jinks

13th July 2019 at 3:27 pm

The guardian closed my account because some loons were telling me that there is no such thing as race and l disagreed. I’d had a few suspensions up until then, but that was the final straw for them.

Amelia Cantor

12th July 2019 at 9:41 am

Cis-gender white males have no right to dismiss the lived reality of communities of colour, especially an intersectionally oppressed community of colour like the Muslim community.

Fortunately, the Muslim community is growing rapidly in numbers and influence, while cis-gender white males are on their way out. The lies and gaslighting aren’t going to work for much longer, Slater and all your fellow cis-gender white males.

Jeb Jeb

12th July 2019 at 9:48 am

Oh god.

Amelia Cantor

12th July 2019 at 9:58 am

A typically rationality-rich and stats-heavy response from (I assume) a cis-gender white male. I realize now that the Muslim community is in fact shrinking by the day, even as it hastens to agree with Spiked on issues around the non-existence of hate, racism and Islamophobia.

Neil McCaughan

12th July 2019 at 2:45 pm

Oh, poppet. You missed out “patriarchy”, and forgot to whine about compensation. You also failed to mention a few folk clipping bus tickets helping to rebuild Britain. Lastly you forgot to mention the contribution of the Abbotopotamus to arithmentic, and the Tottenham turnip to English history. As race baiters go, you’re nearly as inept as the notorious troll “telemachus”.

And there might by a reason for that, eh?

Amelia Cantor

15th July 2019 at 9:53 am

Cis-gender white males like you are ageing and dying out. The Muslim community is growing fast and is increasingly skewed towards youth. Would you care to place a bet on whose vision of Britain is heading towards oblivion and whose is heading towards full and flourishing implementation?

Jeb Jeb

12th July 2019 at 9:40 am

Our freedom to criticise,ridicule or insult any religion or any practice by its adherents is enshrined in section 29j of the The Public Order Act 1998 I believe.Also the 2006 Race Religious Hatred Act also does not prohibit similar insult,ridicule,criticism of any religion or practice of its adherents.Interestingly Ive only seen this freedom exercised en masse against the Dalai Lama when he visits the UK by fellow Buddhists who strongly disagree with his advice about a certain practice and they protested in the name of religious freedom peacefully but very loudly and persistently.
Section 29J Public Order Act was cited in the House of Lords (in response to Lord Pearson’s question ‘Can we talk about Islam?’) as the safeguard to free speech(within the law of course)
Pondering the MCB’s pushing for the definition of ‘Muslimness’ (ably assisted by Wes Streeting MP),I assert that it is an attempt to take down the freedoms granted by s29j by the back door.
Naturally,it must be resisted by all who purport to uphold freedom of speech within the law.
Alarmingly,the MCBs et als definition is apparently being adopted any way I understand by Sadiq Khan in his jurisdiction and I wonder where else it has sneaked under the radar to become ‘policy’.

Neil McCaughan

12th July 2019 at 8:58 am

Why only the press?

Jeb Jeb

12th July 2019 at 9:46 am

Yes indeed why only the Press?My first thought when reading the headline.

Mark Lambert

11th July 2019 at 7:14 pm

Christopher Hitchens in 2006(?)
“……Islamist militancy is proposing a serious menace, not just to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but quite a lot of other freedoms too”.

We are seeing this played out. And the media (BBC etc) run with the people who are doing it.

Mark Lambert

11th July 2019 at 6:32 pm

Hmm. I saw the Guardian link to this sent out by someone the other day on Twitter.

I clicked, thinking “will I see the face of Miqdaad Versi?

Of course, front page of the article.

He’s on a mission to scare and/or shutdown media in any criticism of Islam.

And he has increasing friends on that.

Adrian Morgan

11th July 2019 at 6:09 pm

Very well-argued post. The Muslim Council of Britain – like Hope not Hate and Sayeedi Warsi’s group trying to identify what Islamophobia really is (something about “expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” apparently) – are currently desperate to find something to take the limelight away from all the attention that is currently being given to Antisemitism in the Labour Party. I will be more tolerant of the views of the Muslim Council of Britain when it finally ditches its pernicious labelling of Ahmadis as not being “true” Muslims. I think after recent terrorist attacks, the British public have shown that generally they are a tolerant bunch. This pettiness and whining about “media bias” is a tired tactic. Maybe the MCB should look at what they published about how schools should be run, in a report (“Meeting the beeds of Muslim pupils in state schools”) they piblished, co-written by Tahir Alam, the former school governor who was banned for life by Ofsted after the Trojan Horse schools scandal. Tahir Alam who was a key figure at the Deobandi-run Birmingham Cenrtal Mosque has stated he supports the protests currently being levelled against the curriculum of Parkfield community school in Birmingham. The problem with the MCB is that it wants society to adapt to its own foibles and prejudices, and yet is not prepared to adopt a more tolerant attitude to the society of Britain as a whole.Accepting the Ahmadis as Muslims could go a long way towards making their “representation” of UK Muslims a bit more believable. The MCB schools report (which says Muslim pupils should be excused from art and music, and sports that require them to shower) was soon withdrawn after ridicule, but it needs to be read to be believed:

Gerard Barry

11th July 2019 at 4:37 pm

The issue of anti-Semitism among Muslims is a touchy subject. I got into a discussion with a Muslim colleague at work about this a couple of years ago and he seemed to imply that any media coverage of the subject somehow had an Islamophobic agenda behind it, reminding me that it was important to keep an eye on the source of such media reports to determine their credibility (my sources were pretty mainstream). He went on to cite a ridiculous story he had heard about a Jewish man who walked around a Muslim neighbourhood in a French city wearing the kippah as an experiment and was not attacked, as if this was some sort of mighty feat of tolerance on the part of Muslims.

Linda Payne

11th July 2019 at 4:33 pm

How can we deal with terrorist Islamic attacks when we can’t even discuss the religion associated with them? Like it or not ISIS claim to follow Islam and its no use others saying it is nothing to do with their religion or not in my name because the link is there, they are taking literal features from the Koran to do their wanton murder. The press in this country is weird, you can be moderated out of existence for pointing out any truth that offends certain protected groups but when it comes to attacking mentally ill people with unpopular diagnosis, it is open season, just look at some of the comments allowed in the Guardian on this issue

Mark Lambert

11th July 2019 at 6:34 pm

Well said

gershwin gentile

11th July 2019 at 3:33 pm

“‘several reports show that anti-Semitic attacks have risen across Europe, not due to Muslims but due to a rise in far-right activity’.”

The far right activity of far right Muslims, maybe?

Did the MCB condemn the MDL throwing bricks at children?

Jerry Owen

11th July 2019 at 3:12 pm

Anyone that criticizes Lumley of Islamophobia is on a loser right from the off.

gershwin gentile

11th July 2019 at 3:34 pm

This is the problem of the left, they fail to see the bigotry of their own side, yet feel qualified to point it out in those who disagree with them.

Hana Jinks

11th July 2019 at 2:33 pm

We shouldn’t be offering these kinds of people anything but scorn and ridicule, and that means all of the diversity nonsense of the left, and yet even nominally-conservative governments are indulging it.

Andy Bolstridge

12th July 2019 at 4:58 pm

Absolutely right, but the governments seem quite keen on it, its almost as if its all planned and organised in some sort of Bilderbergesque way to keep the population distracted and oppressed. The Islamics will happily go along with it as it gives them the special privileges and power they want, I’m unsure how it is expected to end (besides the obvious rise of a communist regime to “fix” the social problems they deliberately caused).

Meanwhile Austria has banned “political Islam”, we shoudl do the same. Make the distinction between the dealth-cult version of Islam, the political powergrabs by the likes of the MCB, and ordinary Muslims. If we can stop treating all 3 of these types as the latter one, then we might have a chance to fix all the abuses from the first 2.

Hana Jinks

13th July 2019 at 3:41 pm

Bilderbergesque is right.

And I’d love to hear exactly how those that have inflicted this upon us imagine exactly how this will play out.

I don’t believe it’s possible to be a moderate muslim. They’ve been conditioned to believe the diabolical lies of their teacher, the devil, and side with islam as a matter of course.

The mosques need to be destroyed. There is no place in the west for an ideology that is so hostile to the west.

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