Last week, a terrorist drove his white van into a crowd of people leaving a Mosque, in Finsbury Park, leaving one dead and nine injured.
Darren Osborne, who has since been charged with terrorism-related murder, is alleged to have shouted ‘I want to kill all Muslims’ and ‘this is for London Bridge’ in the wake of the attacks, as he drove into worshippers.
We are quick to question radicalisation when it comes to Islamist terrorism, so why aren’t the mainstream media pouring over the concept of radicalisation, from the other end of the spectrum? We need to talk about what it was that radicalised the Finsbury Park attacker? We also need to discuss the scaremongering of Islam and immigrants perpetuated by the far-right and right wing press as addressed in this BBC documentary. In this programme, Iain Hislop directly takes on former Sun columnist Katie Hopkins and looks at how hatred has been used to sell newspapers in Britain for over a century.
There has been sustained and consistent scapegoating and stereotyping of Muslims in the tabloids. Perhaps it is an ideology that has been both legitimised and normalised after ‘Brexit’ and Trump’s election, but the singling out of minorities is hardly a new phenomenon in our press. Many people were quick to call the Finsbury Park attack a ‘hate crime’ but shied away from using the term ‘terrorism’.
Why was this attack any different?
For years, communities and activists up and down the country have been working to ensure hatred towards Muslims is taken seriously. Muslims are often seen to be ‘playing the victim’ or ‘pulling the race card’. This is dangerous, it deters people from reporting harassment, abuse or attacks out of fear of that they will not be taken seriously.
According to Tell MAMA, anti-Muslim hate crimes have been steadily rising over the past ten years, with significant spikes after terror attacks. Figures rose 500% after the Manchester attack on 22nd May, with 141 hate crimes being recorded, compared to the daily average of 25. Additionally, data collected independently by the Metropolitan Police depicted a sharp increase of 40% in racist incidents after the London Bridge attack, with figures only expected to rise.
The tabloids often propagate a specific discourse that makes it far too easy for people to make assumptions and generalisations, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them mentality. A headline for The Sun in 2015 read as ‘1 in 5 Muslims have sympathy for Jihadis’. It was accompanied by a photograph of Jihadi John, misleading connotations that are as equally as damaging as they are dangerous. As a young British Muslim I find any claims that tabloids do not encourage anti-Muslim violence or play a part in radicalisation of the right unjust. I’ve been forced to see front pages, such as these from the Daily Express which read ‘Now Muslims get their own laws in Britain’ and ‘Muslims tell us how to run our schools’, as though, by virtue of my religion, I belong to a homogenous group of people. In recent years, I’ve become numbed to seeing such headlines and front pages, however, this still doesn’t make it easier to absorb.
Coverage of the Finsbury Park attack was on a par with this superficial standard, with the Daily Mail deciding that whether an attacker was ‘clean shaved’ or not was a more important detail than calling it an act of terror. Did we ever find out what aftershave he uses? Was it Gillette? As that’s obviously quite important to establish.
Backlash over the Mail’s headline was prevalent enough for them to release a comment piece last week, directed at The Guardian for a cartoon which depicted the van at Finsbury Park with the words: ‘Read Sun and the Daily Mail’ on the side of it. The headline read ‘fake news, the Fascist Left and the REAL purveyors of hatred’.
The internet means people are exposed to the influence of those who have large platforms, like Katie Hopkins, who called for a ‘final solution’ in a tweet that has since been deleted. Said tweet meant that Hopkins was immediately fired from her role at LBC, but she still writes a column for the Mail Online. How is it that comments that indirectly incite acts of violence or spew hatred are allowed with no questions asked?
Similarly, ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson caused controversy last week when he tweeted the following: “Before people start aiming hate or threats at me about this revenge attack at your mosque tonight, I’ve warned for yrs what u will create”. Robinson has since apologised and explained that he wasn’t justifying the attacks but has since been challenged on Good Morning Britain by Piers Morgan.
Robinson is a critic of radical Islam with a huge following on social media; however, not all of his followers will be able to differentiate between being a Muslim and radical extremism, thus feeding the homogenous and misinformed narratives that pervade our national conversations, under the guise of freedom of speech.
So where do we draw the line? Doesn’t freedom of speech stop being just that when it starts leading to incidents as these? Casual chatter of ‘immigrants stealing our jobs’ and ‘you need to go home’ can hurt people. Subtle incitements to violence are often defended as simple commentary, ironic considering extremist apologists often use the same excuses.
On the back of the attacks last week, Theresa May made a statement in which she declared that extremism has many forms, including Islamophobia, neither of which will be tolerated, marking a stark change of rhetoric. I was pleased to see our Prime Minister, finally, departing from a previous reluctance to call a spade a spade. This is all the more relevant as there is a growing trend of far-right and nationalist activity in Britain, with groups such as Britain First and Pegida regularly holding demos across the country.
Neo-Nazi group National Action also became the first group to be banned by the Home Secretary last December, after celebrating the murder of the MP Jo Cox. Support for the anti-Semitic and white supremacist group is now a criminal offence and carries a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment.
As a British Asian and Muslim woman, I’m glad incidents as such are beginning to be taken seriously, as the double standard has been allowed to go on for far too long. The fact that May finally called Islamophobia what it is truly is, is very important – it’s a sign that a line has been crossed and hatred of all kinds will not be tolerated. I’m not ‘visibly Muslim’ and I do not wear a hijab, but friends and family who do, often tell me how unsafe they feel when travelling on public transport or at night, and they shouldn’t be made to feel that way. To hear people insinuate that anti-Muslim hatred or bigotry doesn’t exist is both ridiculous and unfair.
I don’t want people to tell me that it’s small issue or that it’s a small drop in the ocean, and I most certainly don’t want people to tell me its ‘revenge’. No one should feel they need to stand up and condemn the Finsbury Park attacker, as some say all Muslims should stand up and condemn terrorists that have hijacked the religion for their own gain, but we need to discuss what radicalised him and those like him, as that is just as important – We can’t just brush this under the carpet.
When we think of terrorism, we often think of acts of violence committed by groups such as the so-called Islamic State, failing to note that the threat of far-right is just as important to acknowledge and counteract.
The right need to take note of their culpability at the ascension of such incidents, and they need to do so now, they must be held accountable for the scapegoating that inspires attacks such as these. Words have consequences and words lead to actions – the sooner people realise that the better.