The great Islamophobia con

Long-read

The great Islamophobia con

The Muslim Council of Britain’s latest report is a chilling attempt to crush public criticism of Islam.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Free Speech Identity Politics Long-reads Politics UK

So now it’s racist to criticise ISIS? In its latest report on the British media’s coverage of Islam and Muslims, the Muslim Council of Britain describes me as ‘Islamophobic’. What racist speechcrime did I commit in the eyes of these self-elected spokespeople for the UK’s Muslim community? I once wondered out loud, on TV no less, why we are very quick to describe white-nationalist terrorists as neo-fascists – quite rightly – but less quick to use that f-word in relation to ISIS. ‘[It] is very rare’, I said on Sky News, ‘that you hear the word fascism used in relation to Islamist extremists’. This struck me as odd, given that Islamist extremists are hyper-violent and alarmingly regressive and are currently ‘a greater threat to our society’ than white-nationalist nutters are.

For that, for making a strong-worded criticism of ISIS militants who have murdered thousands of people, the MCB has defamed me as a promoter of ‘fringe Islamophobic ideas’. The MCB says the fact I was allowed publicly to muse over the possibility that ISIS is a tad fascistic highlights the ‘inherent danger’ of allowing voices like mine into the mainstream media. Let us take a moment to reflect on how preposterous and outright immoral this implication of racism is. I made those comments in the wake of ISIS’s mass slaughter of Christians in Sri Lanka in March 2019. Three churches and three hotels were targeted by suicide bombers. More than 250 people were killed. Entire congregations were wiped out as they celebrated the most important day in the Christian calendar. One of the bombers blew himself up among children who were attending Sunday school. Fourteen kids were killed. A 12-year-old boy had to be identified by his teeth. He, along with his classmates, had been literally incinerated for the crime of being a Christian. And the Muslim Council of Britain thinks I’m a racist for asking if the monsters responsible for this crime are possibly neo-fascists?

This isn’t only defamatory – it is depraved. One is forced to ask how an organisation that can take such a morally inverted view, that can publicly denounce a journalist for strongly criticising some of the most degenerate terrorists of the modern era, can be treated seriously by the media and by sections of the political class. Imagine if, following the racist act of barbarism carried out by Brenton Tarrant at two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand in March 2019, a political organisation here in the UK branded journalists as ‘anti-white’ or ‘whitephobic’ for referring to Tarrant as a fascist. Imagine if they had said, ‘I think you’ll find “fascism” isn’t the right word for this. Stop being prejudiced against white people.’ Imagine the uproar. Yet the MCB is essentially doing this in relation to me and my comments about ISIS’s mass murder of Sri Lankan Christians, and we’re expected to think this is normal.

It isn’t normal. Nothing about this latest report from the MCB’s Centre for Media Monitoring is normal. The report is titled British Media’s Coverage of Muslims and Islam (2018 – 2020). It is presented by the MCB as a cool, analytical study of the British media’s allegedly prejudiced reportage and commentary on the Muslim community. But in truth it is an Inquisitorial document, shaming media outlets if they ever cast Islam in anything less than a positive light and demanding a complete overhaul of how the free press talks about matters relating to the Muslim community. It uses the old, noble language of anti-racism, but that is massively misleading. This report is an insidious and authoritarian attempt to police what people may say about a global religion, not a principled stand against real prejudice.

If you only read the press-release summary of the MCB’s report, you’d definitely be shocked. You would think the British media are rotten to the core with ‘Islamophobia’ and anti-Muslim bigotry. The MCB boasts that it pored over 48,000 online articles and 5,500 broadcast clips from the years 2018 and 2019 and found that almost 60 per cent of the articles and 47 per cent of the clips ‘associate[d] Muslims and/or Islam with negative aspects or behaviour’. The ‘sheer scale’ of anti-Muslim commentary is shocking, the MCB’s press release declares. Yet anyone who digs into the report itself will find a rather different story. A story not of a media that is riddled with hatred for Muslims, but rather of an identitarian group – the MCB – that seems utterly unwilling to tolerate criticism of Islam.

It is surely a giveaway about the true motives of a report like this that my raising of the question of why we were not referring to terrorists who burnt Christian children to death as ‘fascists’ is cited as an example of ‘Islamophobia’. The report is peppered with such outlandish claims of prejudice, where perfectly legitimate commentary is falsely branded as ‘phobic’. The BBC is accused of ‘religious illiteracy’ for publishing a piece that described ISIS as promoting a ‘narrow, medieval version of Islam’. Seriously. This is ‘inaccurate’, the report says, because most Islamic scholars consider ISIS to be a heretical group. Take note, folks – never refer to ISIS as a medieval Islamic group or you might end up in a document like this among other sordid racists and phobes.

It gets worse. Media outlets are rebuked for referring to ISIS as an ‘Islamic death cult’. This is a misuse of the word ‘Islamic’, or something. Too often in British media reporting, ‘gunmen become “Islamic gunmen”’, the report says. Yeah, when they are Islamic gunmen! Does the MCB seriously expect media outlets to say ‘gunmen who claim to be serving the cause of Islam but really they aren’t because Islamic scholars do not consider ISIS to be genuinely Islamic’? Get real. One of the most shocking claims made in the report relates to the Daily Mail. That paper is rebuked for a report about ISIS’s crimes that prominently included the following line: ‘They called it Islamic law. They raped women, even young girls.’ Such commentary risks ‘perpetuating falsehoods about Islam’, the report says. But here’s the thing: those words were spoken by a Yazidi woman who was enslaved and raped by ISIS members in Iraq.

The great Islamophobia con

‘They called it Islamic law’ – this was said by Layla Taloo, a Yazidi woman who was kidnapped and sold as a slave for $6,000. She was held in captivity for two-and-a-half years. She was raped, impregnated, forced to have an abortion. When she finally got the courage to speak about her horrific ordeal, she said: ‘They called it Islamic law. They rape women, even young girls.’ And the Mail faithfully reported those words, and used them as a key quote. And now the MCB is implying very strongly that such comments, in the way they were reported, stoke up prejudice against Islam. It is reprimanding a media outlet for giving prominence to the comments of an enslaved and brutalised woman whose people suffered enormously under ISIS. This is simply extraordinary. I can think of no other situation in which it would be considered acceptable to cite the prominence accorded to the desperate, tragic memories of a former slave as an example of media prejudice and hatred. Maybe Yazidi women should just shut up and stop offending Islam?

It goes on and on. Channel 5 is told off for saying that the killers of Lee Rigby, the two men who tried to behead Rigby in broad daylight, had been radicalised into ‘the principles of Jihad, or holy war’. It is not accurate to use the word jihad for this act of terror, apparently. The report tut-tuts over the fact that there were 204 occasions on which media outlets referred to Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt from 2012 to 2013, as an ‘Islamist’. But he was an Islamist. He was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. He called himself an Islamist. ‘I hope the people will choose me, an Islamist candidate from the Freedom & Justice party and Muslim Brotherhood’, he said in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Maybe Morsi was Islamophobic too? Likewise, the report bemoans the 182 instances in which media outlets referred to Hamas as ‘Islamist’ or ‘Islamist Militant’. But again, this is correct. Hamas are Islamists. What is going on here?

The report says the use of the ‘heavily polemicised’ term ‘Islamist’ is ‘problematic’. Apparently it is frequently used to ‘delegitimise the actions or claims of the antagonist in the article’. The MCB’s implication that describing even Morsi and Hamas as ‘Islamist’ is somehow problematic is surreal, if not sinister. It looks like an invitation to deny reality, to avoid describing even Islamists as Islamists, lest someone, somewhere, find that term offensive. Indeed, the MCB has four recommendations in relation to the media’s use of the word Islamist, including these two: ‘Take extreme care in the terminology used, especially when using the term “Islamism”, to avoid misleading readers’ and ‘Religious terminology should be cross-referenced with authentic Muslim and Islamic sources for accurate use’. This is chilling. The MCB is essentially demanding that the media adhere to its preferred terms and religious interpretations. This is an effort by a religious organisation to make the free press bend the knee to the ‘correct’ way of thinking about Islam. It is a regressive campaign for religious obedience dressed up as an argument against ‘racism’.

Reading the report, you get the impression that the MCB just doesn’t want to see or hear any criticism of Islam or its adherents. This leads to a situation where the MCB expresses concern about the reporting of actual facts. So, the Spectator is reprimanded for showing ‘antagonistic bias’ by saying that ‘Muslim gangs [were] sexually abusing working-class girls’. ‘Muslim’ is irrelevant here, apparently. But it is true that in various towns in England gangs of men from predominantly South Asian Muslim backgrounds abused girls and young women. Erasing the word Muslim would be a denial of an important fact, of a matter of high public interest.

The Sun is rebuked for a headline about the horrific double murder carried out by Janbaz Tarin in Solihull in 2018. Tarin killed his ex-partner and her mother. The Sun referred to his ex-partner as his ‘Sharia-law wife’ and the MCB complained. Such a phrase, in a newspaper headline, risks triggering a skewed view of Sharia, apparently. But she was his Sharia-law wife. As the BBC reported, they ‘married in an Islamic ceremony in 2016 but their marriage was not recognised in UK law’. Facts be damned, if they paint an Islamic practice – Sharia – in anything less than a glowing light.

Most chillingly of all, the MCB complained when the BBC ran the following headline about the inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017: ‘Arena bomber “seen praying an hour before blast”.’ The MCB’s Miqdaad Versi said this detail about praying was ‘unverified, misleading, and frankly irrelevant’. Irrelevant? That an Islamist extremist may have been seen praying before blowing himself up and slaughtering 22 people at a pop concert? It is fully in the public interest that a worker at the Manchester Arena believes he saw Salman Abedi acting suspiciously and praying before setting off his bomb. It is intolerable in a free society that a religious organisation can assume it has the authority to issue diktats on how the media should cover certain affairs and even how it should report on the honest observations of citizens who found themselves caught up in one of the worst atrocities of recent times. An Islamist atrocity. Saying that is prejudiced now. This is where we’re at.

This report, more than anything else I’ve read, illustrates, unwittingly of course, how dangerous the idea of ‘Islamophobia’ is. It is beyond doubt now that accusations of Islamophobia are wielded to the end of protecting Islam, and even Islamism, from public discussion, criticism and ridicule. The Islamophobia industry is focused less on calling out anti-Muslim bigotry – which certainly exists – than it is on institutionalising an informal, unspoken blasphemy law that seeks to forcefield Islam from the kind of commentary and critique that every other religion and ideology is rightly subjected to. When even pointing out that Hamas is an Islamist outfit, that ISIS is an Islamic death cult and that the perpetrators of certain crimes come from a Muslim background is treated as ‘problematic’, and possibly even prejudiced, you know that this is about controlling political and social discussion, not combatting racism.

It is very odd, if not disturbing, that it is broadly considered acceptable for an Islamic outfit to issue condemnations of the free press for how it covers Islam. The left, in particular, frequently celebrates the MCB’s myopic monitoring of the media, overlooking the fact that the MCB is clearly driven by a regressive and censorious agenda. How can this be? It’s because the MCB has successfully clothed its intolerant programme in the language of anti-racism. This is perhaps the group’s most unforgivable tactic – it takes the great historic cause of anti-racism and bends it to the service of shielding a religion from perfectly legitimate questioning and commentary. This demeans anti-racism, stifles public discussion of Islam and Islamism, and makes the media beholden to a tiny religious interest group. This identitarian Inquisition needs to end. (Oh, and my surname is spelt with two Ls, MCB. I know it’s one of those funny foreign names, but make an effort.)

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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