Proof that vilification leads to violence?
For the last few years the Daily Express, in the UK, has been running a front-page hate campaign against Muslims, continually harping on every petty concession they hear Muslims have received from some council or other, and crowing about every purported move to “get tough” on Muslims, as with the cover story on the most recent Sunday Express. My contention has been that media vilifications of ethnic or religious groups can lead to violence, and said as much in my letter two months ago to Standpoint, which they finally got round to printing in the most recent edition. While they printed most of the letter, they omitted that bit, despite the low hum of violence which has sounded for the last few years: an imam blinded in London, another suffering brain damage, a mosque being destroyed in Basildon, a man threatened with a chainsaw in Bolton, and this past weekend, a Muslim cemetery vandalised in Southall, west London.
Recently, a pro-Israeli group paid various newspapers in “swing” states in the upcoming American Presidential election, including Ohio, to distribute a propaganda DVD called Obsession, which features interviews with one anti-Muslim “expert” after another and essentially portrays Muslims as Nazis. Some editors have refused to distribute it, and have faced accusations of “censorship”, as if newspapers did not have to make judgements from day to day (or week to week) on what to publish and what to hold, and as if the film cannot be downloaded for free off YouTube. It’s such a coincidence that last Friday night, a mosque was attacked in Dayton, Ohio. The thugs - terrorists, to some minds - who did this did not just pour petrol through the letterbox at night and set fire to the place; oh no, they sprayed a “chemical irritant” into the building while people were praying their taraweeh.
It can’t be proven, of course, that this happened as a direct result of someone watching Obsession, given that there have also been various hate attacks on mosques and individual Muslims since 9/11 (and even before that, particularly after the Oklahoma City bombings, which were initially blamed on Muslims). Perhaps the perpetrators were more influenced by garbage they had been listening to on the radio. After all, it is highly likely that the people who vandalise cemeteries, burn mosques and attack Muslims in the UK have never heard of, much less watched, this video. What is likely is that they had seen what the Daily Express had spewed on its front page, or similar sensationalist anti-Muslim stories which appear in the Sun from time to time.
They routinely call for crackdowns on free speech. In the USA, that is impossible because of the First Amendment. In the UK, we have no Constitution, and no equivalent of the American Bill of Rights, and the right to free speech can be torn up with a majority of one in the House of Commons. After the 2005 bombings, Tony Blair promised to ban Hizb-ut-Tahreer and al-Muhajiroun; in the event, it did not ban the former. What they have banned, as a result of the vexatious antics of a small minority of idiots who are given prominence out of proportion to their numbers by the popular press, is speech “glorifying” terrorism, a law which has not greatly reduced the rantings of the former Muhajiroun, but has put the chills on theatre companies who want to put on plays about the subject, for example.
Nobody reading this could have missed the reports about a down-turn in the global economy, banks going bust, being bailed-out or being nationalised. It tends to happen that at times of crisis or hardship, people look for easy targets for blame and it becomes easier to foment hate. Admittedly, Muslims are not generally associated with finance, as Jews were in the early 20th century, but we have a political party in the UK, the British National Party, which aims to take advantage of any crisis in order to gain influence and advance its agenda of hate and fascism. Despite a few murmurings on talk shows such as Eddie Nestor’s and Big George’s last night on BBC London about why those who have wrecked companies are getting seven-figure bonuses while ordinary people who had done such a thing would get the sack, and why big banks who go under get bailed-out while small companies are allowed to die, it is unlikely (albeit possible) that there will be a wave of public anger against the financial system. The trend since the 1980s has been for the public’s anger to be focussed downwards, on “benefit scroungers”, single mothers, and allegedly noisy ethnic and religious minorities. It would be only too easy for violence to be occasioned by a front-page story about some misdeed by a Muslim, or group of Muslims, at a time of widespread economic hardship.
Even if this does not happen, it is unjust that a minority should face restrictions on free speech and the free practice of religion because of public hostility stirred up by a profit-making newspaper. To borrow a slogan from the mid-1970s: who governs Britain? The answer should be: the government. It should not allow its hand to be forced by the gutter press. While I am sure many people would prefer to see a proper constitutional guarantee of free speech introduced in this country, and nobody wishes to see censorship (including me), while we do not have such a guarantee, it is in the government’s gift to clamp down on rabble-rousing newspapers. Therefore, in the interests of public safety, and particularly that of my own community, the government should do such in the case of the Daily Express (and put the Sun on notice).
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