How we have, and haven’t, moved on

Ben Macintyre wrote yesterday in the Times that, despite the occasional talk of a Muslim “fifth column” in Britain, there has been no scare remotely comparable to those surrounding German spies in the early years of World War II and the “Red Scares” of the 1950s:

The contrast with an earlier fifth column scare could not be more acute, or more telling. In the run-up to the Second World War, Britain was seized by a spy panic of astonishing virulence, inflamed by the press and politicians. Fifth columnists, terrorists and saboteurs were spotted everywhere, and nowhere; so many reports of suspicious doings flooded in to MI5 that the organisation came close to collapse. “There is a well-defined class of people prone to spy mania,” wrote Winston Churchill, who was not immune to the mania himself. “War is the heyday of these worthy folk.” Many reports were bogus and xenophobic; some were hilarious. One avid amateur spy-catcher reported seeing a man with a “typically Prussian neck”, and Robert Baden-Powell, the original Scout master, insisted you could spot a German spy from the way he walked. The spies were said to be poisoning chocolate, recruiting mental patients in asylums to act as a suicide squad, and sending agents into the countryside disguised as nuns, butcher’s boys and women hitch-hikers. One secret service officer became convinced that spies were communicating by leaving empty cartons of milk and other detritus in public places — a theory that was, in every way, a load of rubbish.

As a Muslim who has been paying close attention to the media since Sept 11, I’d beg to differ that society has moved on much since then. The key difference is that Britain is not facing an invasion from a regular or well-equipped army, as Britain did from Germany or the Spanish Republic did from the Nationalists who first coined the term “fifth column”. The situation is more of a small, international criminal syndicate capable only of occasional, but devastating, acts of terrorism. Most British people know, whatever the media is telling them, that most Muslims couldn’t possibly support such a thing.

While “official pronouncements on the threat of Islamic extremism have been deliberately nuanced, and carefully measured”, the same cannot be said for the media treatment of the situation, which has been marked by ignorance and by sensationalism across the board. Newspapers have routinely given space for bigoted and inaccurate articles written by people with an agenda, notably Amir Taheri and Patrick Sookhdeo, who have often used the space to lay into ordinary Muslims, not just the extremists.

Connections are commonly drawn between perfectly innocent actions and extremism, even when it is well-known that one does not necessarily have anything to do with the other. The use of niqab (the female face covering) as a handy shorthand for extremism is one example. The Observer, this March, produced an image of a woman in niqab next to the caption: “‘Tolerance is not a positive thing’: Europe’s Angry Young Muslims on the World Service”. The World Service is a BBC radio station and a set of radio broadcasts, so the picture could not possibly have been related to the programme unless the BBC had used a similar picture to illustrate it. It was clearly a library picture, used as a convenient symbol for hardline Muslims. A similar example appeared on the front of last Thursday’s Evening Standard: the caption “The Great Muslim Debate”, accompanied by two eyes looking from behind a black veil. Quite apart from the fact that face veiling is a long-established tradition among Muslims, although it is not universal, it does not have any link with extremism: not all those who wear it are extremists, and not all women connected with extremists wears it. Despite the fact that most of those actually involved in terrorism are men, they choose to illustrate their “great debate”, brought about by these extremists’ activities, with a stereotype about our women!

Newspapers routinely insert “scare facts” into stories to add spice despite those facts not always being relevant. For example, if someone comes from the same town as one of the 7th July bombers, this may well get mentioned even if the two did not know each other. If someone was involved in the Tablighi Jama’at, this will be mentioned, despite the TJ being such a vast operation that one can easily be involved at a basic level and never meet any of the people who attracted the suspicion. And how can we forget the routine outrages about concessions to Muslim sensibilities - the recent fuss over the so-called burka gown, invented by a non-Muslim who saw a gap in the market in gowns which don’t really provide for much modesty, and the manufactured controversies about bans on Christmas and piggy-banks?

These tactics are used across the board, from tabloids and heavies of both left and right. Complaints about such behaviour often go unaddressed - as with my complaint about the inappropriate picture in the Observer in March. I could not really say how much of it is down to ignorance, how much to laziness and how much to a straightforward desire to sell papers regardless of whose toes have to be trodden on, and how much is representative of something more sinister. If it does not amount to a mid-20th-century “fifth column” scare, it’s probably because we’re not in the mid 20th century any longer; the fact is that it has become fashionable, and acceptable, to malign an entire religious community in the press.

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