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How mainstream media fuels the UK's Islamophobia crisis

Recent survey shows that nearly half of Tory party members oppose the idea of a Muslim leading Britain
A vehicle parks outside the London Evening Standard offices in 2017 (AFP)

Islamophobia has hit crisis levels in the United Kingdom. This is the only conclusion one can draw from a recent poll, which found that nearly two-thirds of members within the ruling political party believe Islam to be a “threat to Western civilization”.

As improbable as it is to believe, the findings get even more alarming: 43 percent of Tory members oppose the idea of a Muslim leading Britain, and more than half believe the anti-Muslim conspiracy theory that there are parts of the UK governed under Sharia law.

“These are far-right beliefs and yet they are mainstream in the party of government,” observes Owen Jones, a columnist with The Guardian.

Hostile coverage

These negative views about Muslims, amounting to institutionalised Islamophobia, did not form in a vacuum. They have been shaped and nurtured by mainstream media coverage that has become increasingly hostile towards adherents of the Islamic faith, because peddling fear and loathing of a foreign “other” helps to sells more newspapers.

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In ordinary times, the previous sentence could be construed as a lazy discursive analysis of media headlines, but a new study published by the Centre for Media Monitoring demonstrates that these are no ordinary times.

Nothing, it would appear, is as profitable as the vilification of Muslims and Islam

Based on an analysis of more than 10,000 newspaper articles published in mainstream British newspapers between October and December 2018 - and using five key metrics (association with negative aspects or behaviour, misrepresentation, generalisation, lack of due prominence to a Muslim voice or identity, and issues with imagery or headlines) - the authors of the study produced startling findings.

According to the report, 59 percent of all articles analysed associated Islam with negative behaviours; nearly a quarter misrepresented Muslims; and 14 percent made generalisations. Terrorism was the most recurring theme in the media relating to Muslims and Islam.

Ugly truths

These findings reveal the ugliest of all truths about the corporate-owned, mainstream news media: that the pursuit of truth and accuracy comes a distant second to the pursuit of profit - and nothing, it would appear, is as profitable as the vilification of Muslims and Islam.

“Over the past decade or so, reporting on Muslims has gone from dog-whistling to fearmongering, to complete fabrication without consequences. To observe it doing so has been to watch a race to the bottom of standards violation,” observes British columnist Nesrine Malik.

The mainstreaming of fascist, far-right beliefs in the media and political discourse, however, is having deadly consequences for Muslims in the streets.

Banners mark the anniversary of the Finsbury park attack in London in June 2018 (AFP)
Banners mark the anniversary of the Finsbury Park attack in London in June 2018 (AFP)

In March, Neil Basu, the country’s counterterrorism chief, declared that mainstream newspaper coverage was radicalising far-right extremists into carrying out acts of terrorism.

“The reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms,” Basu warned, noting that such material “has a potential reach of tens of millions. We must recognise this as harmful to our society and security.”

Basu referenced the 2017 terrorist attack on the Finsbury Park mosque as an example of an individual who had been “driven to an act of terror by far-right messaging he found mostly on mainstream media”.

Rightwing propaganda

Last year, religious hate crime rocketed upwards by 40 percent in England and Wales, representing a record high, with more than half targeting Muslims. Seventy percent of Muslims reported that they had experienced religion-based prejudice in the last year, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Worryingly, a newly published study conducted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue suggests that popular discourse regarding Muslims is becoming significantly worse, as the kind of extreme rightwing propaganda that inspired the Christchurch mosque terrorist has entered the mainstream media and political discourse.

Britain needs a full inquiry into the poison of Islamophobia inside the Conservative Party
Read More »

Researchers found that the anti-immigrant conspiracy known as the “great replacement” theory, which was referenced by both the Christchurch attacker and the Pittsburgh synagogue gunman in 2018, has moved from the far-right blogosphere into mainstream social media channels “to the extent that references to it online have doubled in four years, with more than 1.5 million on Twitter alone, a total that is rising exponentially”, according to a report in The Guardian.

Julia Ebner, one of the report’s co-authors and an expert on violent extremism, told The Guardian: “It’s shocking to see the extent to which extreme-right concepts such as the ‘great replacement’ theory and calls for ‘remigration’ have entered mainstream political discourse and are now referenced by politicians who head states and sit in parliaments.”

Today, even video game producers are capitalising on Islamophobia and amplifying violent, far-right extremism, as evidenced by a first-person shooter game that uses footage of the Christchurch mosque attack and rewards players for killing Muslims inside a mosque.

Clearly, the British government has a responsibility to condemn Islamophobia in all its forms in both the media and political discourse - but the current government not only refuses to recognise a proposed workable definition of Islamophobia, but also allows anti-Muslim bigots to fill its ranks, evidently.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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