Sections of the British press are encouraging Islamophobia and publishing “brazen lies” that exacerbate community tensions, one of the UK’s leading Muslim journalists has said.
In a controversial attack on his fellow journalists, Mehdi Hasan – The Huffington Post UK’s political director and a columnist for the New Statesman magazine – has claimed that the country’s leading newspapers publish stories about Muslims that they would not dare publish about any other minority group.
In the wake of terrorist attacks such as the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, the UK press has been “given free rein to effectively target, distort, misrepresent and demonise the Islamic faith and its 2.7 million adherents in this country,” Hasan told a packed crowd at the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire on Saturday evening.
As a practicing Muslim and as a working journalist, Hasan said “I love my job… but I find myself awkwardly straddling the divide between British Islam and the British media.”
“I get pretty exhausted of having to constantly endure a barrage of lazy stereotypes, inflammatory headlines, disparaging generalisations and often inaccurate and baseless stories,” he said.
“We have seen in recent years, recent months and, even, recent weeks, a “hailstorm” of press stories that are “unbelievably negative about, hostile towards, distrustful of, Islam and Muslims,” he said.
British Muslims, Hasan pointed out, are singled out as ‘The Other’ by a series of inflammatory front page newspaper headlines. “Dangerous and counter-productive” coverage of Muslim issues, such as the Spectator‘s front page, pictured above, “basically stigmatises all Muslims,” Hasan said – and in particular Muslim children – as violent extremists.
Hasan isn’t alone in his view on the “hysterical” front page – the magazine’s imagery prompted a furious backlash, with critics, including former cabinet minister Baroness Warsi, branding it “appalling” for “stigmatising children and alienating communities.”
Nick Lowles, from the anti-racist campaign group Hope Not Hate, wrote that the front page was simply “unadulterated hatred… we wouldn’t put up with it against any other religion.”
But in the UK and in relation to Islam, Hasan said, we do put up with it. Muslims are expected to “suck it up” and put up with this “awful, discriminatory, hysterical press coverage,” he claimed.
But one man in the audience asked Hasan that these type of headlines highlight exactly why we shouldn’t trust Muslims and that the entire community needs to “explain themselves more” in order to be trusted – that they should “prove” they can be integrated into British society.
“Why do I have to prove to myself to you?!” Hasan responded. “In that sense, you should have to prove yourself to me!”
The press, meanwhile, isn’t willing to address or tackle the issue, Hasan added. “There’s a lot of denialism around,” he said. “There are lots of heads in the sand, both amongst producers and consumers of news.”
But, Hasan pointed out, this sensationalised style of reporting is nothing new. Back in 2011 Baroness Warsai said Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry had become “socially acceptable” in the UK, while Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph‘s chief political commentator, backed her claims saying: “Over the decades, Britain has learnt through ugly experience not to insult and discriminate against almost every other minority: blacks, Jews, homosexuals, Irish.”
“For some reason,” he said, “Muslims are still seen as fair game.”
Hasan asked the audience at Wilderness to try substituting the words Jew, black or gay for some of the headlines cited earlier. “We just wouldn’t tolerate it. But we tolerate the Islamic stuff.”
But this type of “fear-mongering” is common across the print press. Hasan referred to a “shocking” study conducted by Cardiff University in 2008 which discovered that two-thirds of published stories between 2000-2008 identified Muslims either as a source of problems, or as a threat to Britain.
References to radical Muslims, the report found, outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by a whopping 17 to one. “That’s the type of coverage we’re getting in this country,” Hasan said.
The conclusion of Lord Justice Leveson’s November 2012 report into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press, meanwhile, had similar results. “The identification of Muslims… as the targets of press hostility,” wrote Leveson, “was supported by the evidence seen by the inquiry.”
“This isn’t about political correctness gone mad or restrictions on free speech,” Hasan told the audience – it’s about not singling out a community’s beliefs and practises and treating it as “somehow different, distinct, alien even, from the rest of Britain, from the rest of British society; treating it as basically ‘The Other’.”
But how do you counteract this issue, an audience member asks Hasan, what’s the solution? “It’s like alcoholism,” Hasan says, “the first step is to stop the denial.”
“What really worries me is that people in the centre of politics are just ignoring the issue. We must acknowledge it, recognise that we have a problem… and not accept it.”
“If you want to listen to what David Cameron and Theresa May say about following British values – counteracting this issue is an important British value.”
The media has a moral responsibility, Hasan added, not to heighten cultural divisions in the UK. Otherwise, portraying Muslims as “different” and “dangerous” can have serious repercussions, he warned.
It can not only leave Muslims feeling further “alienated and disillusioned with the mainstream,” he said but also, in more extreme cases, to bomb attacks and arson attacks on mosques, headscarf-clad Muslim women being assaulted or spat at in the street.
To pretend that this “relentlessly hostile coverage” of a minority has no effect on community relations or on integration “is naive, if not disingenuous,” he argued.
“From a moral point of view it is wrong… to smear or stereotype minority communities, to pretend or give credence to the idea that the actions of a minority within a community are somehow representative or the fault of the majority of members of that community. That is the very definition of bigotry.”
“It has to change, it has to stop and, frankly, it’s un-British,” he concluded.