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The Unrepentant Islamophobia of the Media and the Blood On Their Hands

By Petr Navovy | Politics | March 18, 2019 |

By Petr Navovy | Politics | March 18, 2019 |


It was always going to happen, and it’s going to happen again. This is perhaps the most depressing thing about the awful, unforgivable events that took place in New Zealand last Friday. That we knew it was going to happen, or at least something like it, we just didn’t know when. Such an unthinkable act is a direct consequence of the daily cruelty and dehumanisation that propagates our culture. The murder of over fifty Muslims by a White Supremacist intent on sowing fear and discord counts as one of the most shocking acts of racist terrorism in recent memory, and while ultimate responsibility lies with the individual who committed this sickening act, any conversation about this atrocity must include the societal standards and mechanisms that enabled him.

There has been a lot of focus on the part that the internet, and social media in particular, had to play in radicalising the man responsible for the horror at Christchurch. And justifiably so. YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, 4Chan, and others all have to answer for their complicity in it. Their platforms are riddled with far-right content—content so often under the guise of substance-less trolling or an ostensibly blameless ‘just joking’ mentality that nevertheless incites real-world acts of violence. The tone doesn’t really matter. The message exists, and it has consequences. A generous reading of this proliferation of extremist rhetoric on these platforms is that the firms are simply overwhelmed by the content they host and lack the resources to act when confronted with evidence of dangerous material. A less generous interpretation is that they are aware and capable, but wish to tread softly so as not to infringe on their users’ ‘freedom of speech’. The most damming—and indeed most likely—explanation is the simplest one: Far-right communities are increasingly active, they draw attention and more users, and that brings in the clicks, which keeps the money flowing. We can speculate on the political beliefs of the individuals in charge of these platforms as much as we want; whether someone like Jack Dorsey actively harbours white supremacist beliefs or not almost becomes an irrelevance in the face of cold, hard reality: Cash. Capitalists enabling fascists is a tale as old as time, and the line between being an active member of the Nazi party and a German industrialist circa 1935 seeing opportunity in the rise of Nazism is a blurry one indeed.

But while much justified blame has been laid at the feet of social media, the mainstream media must not be allowed to be let off the hook. ‘Old’ media—the TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers that comprise it—is just as, if not more so, complicit in the attack in Christchurch, as well as others the many that have come before it, and others that will come after. Because while social media platforms give extremists areas in which to link up and share material, the mainstream media often provides the actual material. It is easy to point to nakedly fascist fringe sites such as Stormfront and others of its ilk and decry them, but while they provide fodder for those already well along their way to radicalisation, it is the mainstream media that feeds a steady stream of islamophobia to the wider public, in the process legitimising it, normalising it, and spreading it. And that applies to the full spectrum of the media. That spectrum is of course, more often than not, simply an illusion, providing a superficial impression of variety rather than the actual thing, and its depiction of Muslims and Islam is a powerful example of that. Whether it is rag tabloids bellowing cartoonish hate from their front pages or austere publications providing fawning cover for the bombing of Muslim countries or kowtowing to far-right rhetoric, a dangerous consensus prevails.

Whether in the UK or the US, the examples are almost too numerous to mention. The constant, all-pervading background hum from all quarters of the media has an all-too predictable effect: A sowing of seeds of misunderstanding, distrust, and hatred of Muslim communities and the religion itself. These take root and spread virulently throughout a population. The base level of hate rises. Through such a full spectrum othering of a group of people, the ground is made fertile for outliers—those people who most viscerally feel the hate—to put their hatred into action. White Supremacist radicalism and terrorism is on the rise. And the incredibly normalised Islamophobia that pervades our culture—stoked by an actively complicit mainstream media—means that unfortunately there will be more Muslims who pay with their lives for the words so callously thrown around in the public sphere.

You might think that when faced with such a horror as Christchurch, the media—filled as it is with so many ostensibly bright and educated people—might engage in a bit of health self-reflection. There is plenty of evidence out there to implicate them after all. To assume that would be to give them too much credit. As always with the closed, overwhelmingly white and privileged mainstream media, however, when confronted with the consequences of their actions, they remain profoundly incurious and defensive, rather than open and willing to change. Much as with the supreme international crime that was the Iraq War—a crime that the full spectrum of the mainstream media fell over itself in championing and which significant parts of which have since has quietly accepted that they ‘made a mistake’ over but which nevertheless hasn’t caused them to re-evaluate their approach to any other Western imperial atrocities—they remain stuck in their usual methods and ways of thinking. In a rare example of someone on the inside of the bubble using their privilege for good, British left-wing writer Owen Jones is one of the few mainstream journalists who has been calling out the dangerous levels of Islamophobia within the country’s establishment media. Predictably, the response from those being called out has been to circle the wagons.

It is of course worth reminding ourselves that non-mainstream media journalists—especially those from the Muslim community themselves—have been sounding the alarm about the systemic and shrugged off Islamophobia in the mainstream press for years. It is good that Owen Jones is now using his position to shine a light on the issue and to try help centre Muslim voices, and he has done so before, but it’s a terrible thought that it took yet another tragic loss of Muslim lives for this issue to enter the conversation in the way that it has right now.

Islamophobia is a particularly virulent and damaging form of racism because one of the most prevalent myths about it is that it is ‘not actually a form of racism’. It is. A coherent argument against that simply does not exist. Islamophobia is an instituationalised, internationally exported, widely consumed form of racism that transcends the barriers between the state and the media, with a barrage of negative, anti-Muslim stories feeding into anti-Muslim policies and vice versa. The examples in this article have been mostly from the UK, but things are just as bad in the US, where Islamophobia is also normalised to dangerous levels and reflected in everything from the presidency of a man who promises to enact a Muslim travel ban to the cross-party hounding of one of the country’s first Muslim senators. It pervades our narratives and is revealed in popular culture—think of how many otherwise ‘progressive’ stories still rely on ‘bad Muslim’ tropes. Islamophobia is accepted to such a degree that atrocities like the one in Christchurch are almost guaranteed to happen again. If such heartbreak is to be prevented, then one of the first institutions that needs to stand trial for the blood on its hands is the mainstream media. It holds immense sway over the public’s consciousness, and in its closed-circle privilege, in its spread of falsehoods, and in its whipping up of hatred, it is complicit in the horrors that we continually see and that devastate our Muslim communities. Something has to change.

As Nesrine Malik says:

To carry on explaining these associations - between populist politics, the complacency of the debate-hosting media and the activity of its anti-Muslim wing- is to assume that these associations are not obvious and already forged in strong, established ways. To still think that there is some productive debate to be had, some way to successfully challenge these views by inviting them into the mainstream and “exposing” them, is to be lulled into a false sense of security. The horse hasn’t just already bolted: it is armed with intent and livestreaming its rampage on Facebook.

It is time to stop pleading. It is time to call things what they are and not temper or apologise for the strength of the allegations, to call people racists, opportunists and complicit hatemongers even if they do grace our prestigious publications and seats of governance. It is time to do what they always accuse you of doing anyway, and “shut down the debate”.

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