Definition of Islamophobia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:24 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:24 pm, 16th May 2019

It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Naz Shah. I congratulate my hon. Friend Wes Streeting and Anna Soubry on securing this debate, and I commend them and their colleagues in the all-party group on British Muslims for making history by putting together the first definition of Islamophobia. This definition is the culmination of almost two years of consultation and evidence gathering. It is a concrete definition that takes into account the views of organisations, politicians, faith leaders, eminent academics, victims of hate crime and communities up and down the country. I hope that the Secretary of State will have listened to the comments made by Mr Grieve, who has also urged the Government to adopt the definition.

To tackle Islamophobia, we need to address a number of different issues, one of which is the role of the media. In Australia, where the Christchurch killer was born, raised and possibly radicalised, there has been a lot of debate on the extent to which the media—particularly that owned by Rupert Murdoch—contributed to sowing the seeds of hate that were unleashed in Christchurch. A study published in Sydney tallied up the number of negative stories that five Australian newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch produced in 2017. It found that almost 3,000 such stories referred to Islam or Muslims, alongside the words “violence”, “terrorism” or “radical”. Authors of the study reported that

“once every second day in 2017 there was a front page that demonised and spoke negatively about Muslims”.

Yes, it was on social media where the killer spread his ideology, but we need to recognise that white supremacy and other ideologies of hate predate the internet. So while we are right to pay attention to the sheer speed and global reach of the internet, we need to talk about how hateful ideologies come into being and what allows them to flourish.

The print and broadcast media are not without their share of responsibility. Recently, in an open letter to a newspaper, Neil Basu said:

“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, 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.”

He cited the 2017 terror attack in Finsbury Park as an example of where a man was

“driven to an act of terror by far-right messaging he found mostly on mainstream media”.

It is time we accepted that a large proportion of the British press incites hatred against Muslims to millions of people every day. This is not about freedom of speech; it is plain, downright lying published in our media, day in, day out. For example, a Daily Express front page has proclaimed: “Muslims tell British: Go to hell”. The Daily Star printed the headline: “UK mosques fundraising for terror” then later apologised. Or let us consider the front page of The Sun, which declared that “1 in 5 Brit Muslims” had sympathy for jihadists, accompanied by a picture of “Jihadi John” wielding a knife. Months later, it acknowledged that its claims were misleading, but such retractions are always just two sentences occupying a tiny space at the back of the newspaper.

Such inaccuracies are not restricted to the tabloid press. The Times, for example, claimed Muslims were “silent on terror”. On another occasion, it issued a correction for a story headlined “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”, which turned out to be a complete bag of lies. The Daily Mail then picked up on that story and showed a picture of a woman wearing a veil, suggesting that this was the lady who had adopted the child. That was a lie as well, because although the woman in question was a Muslim, she did not wear a veil. The Spectator published a piece claiming that

“there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Conservative party”.

It is not just misleading stories that are the problem. We consistently see articles that conflate Islam with criminality: “Muslim sex grooming” or “Imam beaten to death in sex grooming town”, for example. The latter resulted in the chief constable of Greater Manchester police writing an open letter criticising the newspaper.

A study from Lancaster University highlighted that for every mention of “moderate” Muslims in the media, there are 21 references to “extremist” Muslims, and that Muslims are collectively homogenised and portrayed as a threat to the “British way of life”. A study conducted by the University of Alabama found that Muslim extremists received 357% more coverage than non-Muslim extremists; in contrast, far-right terrorists are rationalised, understood to be lone wolves, or excused because they are suffering from poor mental health, instead of recognising the hatred that actually drove their atrocious actions. We saw that in the Daily Mirror’s coverage of Christchurch, describing the killer as an “angelic boy” in an attempt to humanise him, and focusing on Muslims as victims. I do not think we have seen such a description given to any terrorist who happens to be Muslim.

In opinion pieces, the problem is even more apparent. The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh ended one column with the question:

“What will we do about the Muslim problem then?”

We all know what that means. In July 2016, Fatima Manji reported on the Nice terror attack for Channel 4. Kelvin MacKenzie attacked her in The Sun, asking why a woman in a headscarf was reporting on a terrorist incident. Musing on why Channel 4 chose Manji for the slot, MacKenzie asked,

“Was it done to stick one in the eye of the ordinary viewer who looks at the hijab as a sign of the slavery of Muslim women by a male-dominated and clearly violent religion?”

Those are just the tip of the iceberg of lies in the media about Islam.

That should lead us to ask why this is happening. The answer is simple: stories that play on public fears and feed prejudices are popular, especially in times when, according to polls, more than half of British people see Islam as a threat to western liberal democracy, and others may not see Muslims as threats but feel softer dislike and that Muslims and Islam are not compatible. The fact is that most people in this country have probably never met a Muslim person and know nothing about Islam, but their reading and understanding of Islam are derived from the media. That is why so many of them, when surveyed, express views that clearly show that they have been affected by what they read.

Research by Cambridge University showed that mainstream media reporting on the Muslim community was contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility toward Muslims in Britain, corroborating the findings of an Islamophobia roundtable in Stockholm. Do the Minister and the Government accept that the media have played a role in the growth of Islamophobia and that that is no longer tenable?

This is not a matter of freedom of speech; it is about the choice of editors to tolerate, if not encourage, bigotry in our papers. We live in a country that rightly cherishes freedom of the press, and that must be respected, but freedom comes with responsibility, which must be upheld. To publish inaccurate stories helps the rise of the far right; the “othering” of Muslims has real-world consequences. The National Union of Journalists understands that and has demanded an inquiry into Islamophobia in the media. Done properly, that could have the impact that the Macpherson report had on the police and encourage a sea change in attitudes. Will the Minister commit today to set up a Government inquiry into Islamophobia in the media?

These are not just my concerns. Respectable academics and think-tanks are concerned about what is happening. Last year, in the Home Affairs Committee, the new owner of the Daily Express said:

“Each and every editor has a responsibility for every single word that’s published in a newspaper. Cumulatively, some of the headlines that have appeared in the past have created an Islamophobic sentiment which I find uncomfortable”—