The Media is Putting Lives At Risk 23 May 2013

WoolwichFollowing Wednesday’s horrific attack, the Muslim Council of Britain wasted no time in condemning the attacks as barbaric and completely against the teachings of Islam.  So did the Islamic Society of Britain, and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. In fact, I could dedicate a whole article to the plethora of condemnations that have been issued by British Muslim organisations, British Muslim scholars and the British Muslim laymen, all clearly stating these attacks are not in the name of Islam, or in the name of Muslims.

The important thing about the organisations above is that they are broad based, representative and authoritative. Together, they represent millions of Muslims through the various mosques, institutions and student societies that are affiliated to them. These organisations are not perfect, but as Islam has no priestly hierarchy such as Anglicanism, they are the method by which British Muslims express their collective voice.

Contrast this with Anjem Choudary. A lawyer by training, with no Islamic credentials. He has had a number of Muslim organisations to his name, al-Muhajiroun at one point, Islam4UK at another. Both now proscribed. He represents, at most, several dozen people. He is not authoritative. He is not a key voice in British Muslim life. He does not represent Islam.

Yet if you compiled the media attention given to the organisations I mentioned above, and weighed it against that given to Anjem Choudary, it would be the latter who is given more publicity by a large amount. In fact, he intentionally courts it. From the protests against the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad back in 2006, to a proposed-then-cancelled protest at Wootton Bassett, to the public burning of a Poppy in 2010 – it has all been a small, tiny group of firebrands and his small, tiny group of followers. Not an Islamic scholar, nor someone with authority or standing.

Now let me be clear, the media should not ignore him. They have a duty to report and they should indeed report. However, the relationship between this man and the media goes beyond reporting; it is a perverse relationship in which both parties serve each other’s needs – the media is given a fanatic bearded Muslim who fits every stereotype and he receives a medium by which to spread his views.

Yet this is a man the British Muslim community has thoroughly and utterly rejected. There is not a single mosque in Britain in which he would be allowed to preach. British Muslims have done all they can to ensure he is not given the space he needs to recruit followers. Yet he is readily given a platform to millions via appearances on Newsnight and The Big Questions, as well as countless articles in tabloid and even broadsheet newspapers.

The repercussions of the media’s decisions in this regard are not insignificant.

It is worth remembering that Michael Adebolajo, the man accused of murdering a British soldier in the horrific attack on Wednesday, was known to Anjem Choudary as ‘Mujahid’. Would Michael have given such a figure attention were his profile not massively expanded through the actions of BBC Newsnight and dozens of daily newspapers? Perhaps not I think. The efforts of British Muslims to sideline a figure with no scholarly credentials would otherwise be successful, and he would have very few means to reach new followers.

The media too play a role in the increasingly common anti-Muslim hate crimes that have been taking place in Britain over the past few years. Through biased reporting, over-representation of extremists, the disproportionate coverage of British Asian rapists, they are putting lives at risk.

As you might expect, Islamophobic attacks have been on the increase since the Woolwich murder. Fiyaz Mughal, from Tell MAMA, an anti-Muslim hate crime monitoring group, said ‘we have seen a spike in reports coming in over the last 24 hours. We have picked up over 50 incidences of anti-Muslim prejudice, 6 threats against mosques and 7 mosques that have suffered attacks. What is alarming is the scale of anti-Muslim rhetoric online’. One such incident in Essex saw a man walking into a mosque with knives shouting ‘where is your Allah now?’, alongside knives he also had an incendiary device. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the man was arrested.

But these incidents are not isolated. They are part of a bigger picture. I’ve previously written about mosques being burned down in arson attacks linked to the far-right. Earlier this month in Birmingham, an elderly Muslim man walking home from the mosque was killed in a suspected hate crime.

The situation is serious. The Leveson Inquiry has shown that the media industry is in crisis. What it hasn’t shown is the way the media promotes bigotry and hatred, the way its reporting gives oxygen to those who would prefer to see communities divided, the way it has put lives at risk – whether a British soldier in Woolwich or an elderly Muslim man in Birmingham.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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