Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media
' Pointing the Finger' (edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson. Published by Oneworld Publications 2011) is a rehash of research done between May 2006 and April 2007 for the GLA and the then Mayor of London (Ken Livingstone) and in early 2008 by the Cardiff School of Journalism.
There is no new information even though the marketing blurb calls it “...a critical analysis of recent media coverage...”. [Reviews of the original research can be found here and here.]
I was angry at first realising I had spent £20 on a book the contents of which I knew already (and had indirectly paid for as a London tax payer) and which were freely available.
The largest chapter of the book (emulating the original GLA report!) is an attack on a BBC Panorama programme “A Question of Leadership” which heavily criticised the Muslim Council of Britain and its then General Secretary, Sir Iqbal Sacranie. The programme was broadcast in 2005 shortly after the July bombings.
Yes, that’s right, a single TV programme shown nearly seven years ago, and here we are in 2011, given it again as an example of how unfair we are to the MCB. It is not worth going over the Panorama programme even just one more time but a highlight was the accusation that Sacranie was playing politics with religion (following the bombings) and the impression he gave that he believed the Iraq war was a war on Islam.
What struck me reading it now was what a shame it was that he had not been pressed to explain how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a war on Islam.
In the chapters of (apparently) more recent origin the authors explain their belief that all criticism of Islam (well 99.9%) is out of place. It stigmatises all Muslims even those who aren’t religious. It is an attack on their identity.
“...Muslim identity is not necessarily or universally to do with holding distinctive beliefs or engaging in specific practices - it can be primarily to do with a sense of belonging, or of being perceived to belong, to a broad cultural tradition.” (p9)
You might wonder how a Christian can divorce himself from criticism of his culture, of the Catholic Church, for example; celibate priests, papal infallibility, anti birth-control, the Inquisition etc etc.
They produce a definition of Islamophobia which has nothing to do with Islam.
“A shorthand term referring to a multifaceted mix of discourse, behaviour and structures which express and perpetuate feelings of anxiety, fear, hostility and rejection towards Muslims, particularly but not only in countries where people of Muslim heritage live as minorities.” (p12)
The authors amplify this definition by describing other practices to which Islamophobia is similar but not identical. They identify seven such Islamophobic like practices devoting more words to some than to others. Here they are listed in the order presented in the book and showing the percentage of words devoted to each which it is reasonable to assume reflects the relative importance the authors attach to them.
• racism, xenophobia and xenoracism (sic)... (27%)
• prejudices against Arab and other Muslim cultures (which developed in the Iberian peninsula and south-east Europe ) from the eight century...(29%)
• demonising of military and economic rivals particularly since the first Gulf war...and in relation to political and military support for the state of Israel. (13%)
• fears, insecurities, scapegoating and moral panics relating to national identity which arises from globalisation and multiculturalism...(11%)
• pursuit, prosecution and punishment of terrorist organisations...(9%)
• critiques of Islamic theology jurisprudence and political philosophy...(3%)
• critiques of the human rights records of certain countries where Islam is a feature of the dominant culture. (7%)
The mind boggles. It is undesirable to mention tyranny, suppression of other religions, persecution of minorities, inhuman punishments, etc, in countries “where Islam is a feature of the dominant culture”.
But there you have it. Islam itself, its beliefs, its practices, its interpretations, are worth only a measly 3% of their attention. What planet are they living on?
In the authors’ worldview the causes of Islamophobia are next to nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with the West’s own history and failings. Islamophobia is brought about by globalisation and the unsettling of nation-states. People are anxious. They quote Tariq Ramadan who believes Europe is going through an identity crisis.
“...while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic - and it is scary.” (p19)
A remarkable chapter on the veil blames the present European debate about face covering and burquas on colonialism and imperialism.
“It is the contention of this chapter that the debate about the veil cannot be understood outside the broader context of colonialism and imperialism.” (p174)
And in the same vein in regard to Lord Tebbit's famous 'cricket test' they say:
“But the intention of the test was not really about accepting 'our culture' but reviving colonial supremacy.” (p200)
Dave Spart couldn’t do better.
The people who criticise Islam are a sorry lot. They suffer especially from closed-mindedness. For example they are prone to any or all of the following:
…won’t change their views in the light of new facts and evidence; deliberately distort, or recklessly over-simplify, incontestable facts; caricature the views of people with whom they disagree; over-generalise; use double standards; fail to understand other people's views and standpoints in their own terms, and where they are coming from and the narratives and stories with which they interpret events; claim greater certainty than is warranted (etc., etc.)
The British Media (the main object of the book) are as bad as the Islamophobes and encourage and peddle all the uncalled for criticism of Muslims. The press not only grossly exaggerates but makes up anti-Muslim stories. Another chapter from the GLA report is repeated detailing the truth behind four such stories published late in 2005 (after the July bombings).
Yet another chapter lifted word-for-word from the GLA report gives the results of in-depth interviews with six Muslim journalists. Interestingly, even the authors of this book as much as they seize on any criticism to illustrate the failings of the press, can’t hide the glimmers of light revealed by some of the journalists’ verbatim comments.
“If a story's there and it's the biggest story in town they have to cover it. If it's what your readership asks for, you will respond. …. If you are a news editor getting letters saying you need to be stronger on this stuff, you will ... Some of the reporting after the London bombs was very good. It was reported very well and very sensitively.” (p241)
“I think the press has been pretty fair to Muslims. They don't really need to stitch people up, they do a good enough job of that themselves. My view is Muslims have got to address issues themselves, things like anti-Semitism and homophobia that seem to be unchangeable within Muslim communities. As far as I'm concerned newspapers just report them as they are.” (p242)
“I take issue with many things done by British Muslims. If the media was doing its job it would help Britain 's two million Muslims to be able to develop a kind of reasoned, questioning attitude within itself. And you are beginning to see that a bit.” (p243)
These Muslim journalists don’t see any great failing in the media in regard to Islam or Muslims. Perhaps because they actually work on the front line and deal with real cases and real people they also know that the occasional press stupidity is the price of a free press.
The book’s concluding chapter repeats word-for-word the 10 findings of the five year old Ken Livingstone GLA report. Here are the first three. Enough is enough. You get the idea.
1) The dominant view is that there is no common ground between the West and Islam, and that conflict between them is accordingly inevitable.
2) Muslims in Britain are depicted as a threat to traditional British customs, values and ways of life.
3) Alternative world views, understandings and opinions are not mentioned or are not given a fair hearing.
Underlying causes of Islamophobia are again paraded: globalisation, Britain’s decline as a world power, Britain in Europe, the end of empire, the rapid advance of social pluralism etc.
You wonder if it ever occurs to the authors of this book that those (not all) who criticise Islam can change their mind in light of new evidence, they can understand things from different perspectives, they are well-informed knowing a great deal about Islam in its various forms.
That they are even young enough, less than 65 years, to be unmoved by British Imperialism, that they welcome the benefits of globalisation, and they are quite clear who they are.
That there are issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with racism and everything to do with Islam. Let us look at a few examples.
The toleration of halal slaughter in the UK makes a mockery of democratic processes. A lot of people might not be too bothered, some may have strong feelings, but a regulation, a law, exists for a reason. What is the point of having it if a large part of the population can simply ignore it?
I’m not too keen on the double yellow lines around where I live. If I park on them it doesn’t seem to cause any problems. So, I’m going to park on them whenever I feel like it. And I think farmers and country people should have dispensation from the fox hunting ban.
Sharia “courts” are divisive encouraging further segregation. Muslim women are pressured to use a sharia system totally biased in favour of men in divorce, distribution of assets, financial support, and the custody of children. They are ignorant and kept ignorant of the fairer treatment that British mediation and court services would give them.
There is growing evidence that these “courts” are involved in cases of domestic violence, a criminal matter, and are creating a system whereby Muslim men are treated with greater leniency than other males, and Muslim women are forced to live within violent husbands. According to the BBC a spokesperson for the Muslim Arbitration Tribunals headquarters claimed his organisation had held discussions with the CPS exploring “an alternative form of resolution” for domestic violence for Muslims in Britain. Disturbing discussions and news can be found here and here.
The men, and they are all men, who oversee these sharia courts are often uneducated foreign imams who have little understanding of Britain and wish to retain their power over Muslim communities by making them even more isolated. The head of the UK Islamic Sharia Council caused a public outcry recently saying rape cannot be committed within marriage. See here.
Many Muslims believe Islam provides a complete political system. This is the killer app so to speak and the reason why Muslims are viewed with suspicion. A conscientious Christian might say that Christianity is the basis of his politics but when a Muslim says the equivalent an alarm bell goes off.
Many, most even, in the West may be able mix their religion and their politics as Christians do. They want to bring a certain morality to politics, they don’t want to take it over. But we have examples all the time of Muslim figureheads and scholars extolling Islam as a comprehensive political solution.
And we have the slippery words of people like Sacranie and the over-the-top protests of the MCB when the BBC Panorama programme (p121) accurately quoted Sayyid Mawdudi an Islamist ideologue that many in the MCB admire saying ”in ideal Islamic state, private and public life would be inseparable. In this respect it would bear a kind of resemblance to the fascist and communist states".
As a political system Islam has always failed even allowing for periods in the past where it seemed to work for Muslims themselves for a while. Today the developments in Iran show clearly the tyrannical nature of an Islamic political system. This is just one example. There are many more.
It really is very simple. The key to progress and democracy is that people can peacefully get rid of governments that fail or they don’t like. Can you imagine any government or ruling class that believes it is the party of God, peacefully passing the reins of power to someone else?