Ann Leslie on how the media foments Islamophobia

Picture of Ann Leslie on Sunday Morning Live, a BBC programmeJust as I was writing my post about the validity of the term ‘Islamophobia’ yesterday morning, the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live programme were discussing it. A hotline called “Tell MAMA” (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) had published a report (not available online at present) that, of the 170 attacks they had recorded since March this year, 70% are against Muslim women who wear the hijab, that women who wear the niqaab are more likely to suffer repeat attacks, and that the majority of the attackers are men between 20 and 50. It also notes that there is a large contingent of EDL sympathisers spouting hate online. The panel was chaired by Samira Ahmed and featured Ann Leslie (whose foreign correspondent exploits were expressed, but at present she writes for the Daily Mail), Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation, and Symon Hill from the Christian think-tank, Ekklesia. Fiyaz Mughal, from Tell MAMA, was asked if he thought there was a direct connection between these attacks and media reporting and replied, “absolutely”. (You can watch the programme here if you are in the UK until the next episode on the 15th.)

Leslie took on the role of defender of the media and set about flatly denying any suggestion that the media were responsible for stoking Islamophobia or any other prejudice. When the issue of Christmas being renamed to suit Muslims came up, she said that a retraction had been issued for that story by the paper concerned and that it had been printed. That is all very well, but the story was repeated time and again for years, when a tiny bit of research would have demonstrated that it was false: “Winterval” was a promotional campaign for the redeveloped Birmingham Bull Ring shopping centre, it ran for two years (1996 and 1997) and has not done since, and prominently included Christmas. The Mail only published the retraction when the Leveson inquiry had put them on the back foot and after the government had found them a new target besides Muslims.

When Fiyaz Mughal had outlined the basic findings of his group’s report down the phone, Leslie put it down to a problem between men and women, and claimed that the only time she had “nearly been raped” was in a Muslim country “by a so-called devout Muslim”, and “violence against women is all over the world”. That much is true, and the upsurge in sexual harassment and assault against women in some Muslim countries, including Egypt, has been widely discussed, particularly in the light of sexual assaults by both the police and by gangs of men during the ongoing demonstrations. But really, women get raped (actually raped, not nearly raped) in this country too, quite frequently. What was being discussed was not sexual assault or harassment but hate crimes which are usually verbal or physical rather than sexual in nature. Ann Leslie was trying to shift the blame away from her profession by saying violence against women happens everywhere, but sexual assault is an entirely different issue from hate crime. The majority of women are not at significant risk of being attacked by gangs for their clothing or other obvious sign of their religion. Muslim women who display signs of their religion are.

Leslie also claimed she had lived near a quite Irish area during the Northern Irish troubles (making sure to mention that she had lost a friend in one IRA bombing) and that the Irish community there had been there “for yonks” and just liked to “drink their Guinness and sing Irish songs”, as if that’s all Irish people do (as opposed to, like, working), but were terribly discriminated against during the Troubles but now it’s all over, they have no problems anymore. The point, of course, being that this kind of treatment is quite natural when their people are bombing the majority population. While the backlash violence Leslie was talking about wasn’t natural but a product of ignorance (and the assumption that any Irish people must support the IRA, which the majority do not), the threat of violence from the “terrorist component” that exists now pales into insignificance compared to the ability the IRA had to cause death and destruction then. There has been one successful attack in the UK since the precursors of al-Qa’ida began its campaign in earnest after the first Gulf War. The perception that Muslims are terrorists must, therefore, come from somewhere else.

Mohammed Shafiq challenged her that her newspaper was quick to print anti-Muslim stories but not stories about Muslim women being abused in the streets. Leslie responded by talking about a man who had torn off a woman’s niqaab in a public place while stoned; she excused this on the grounds that he had taken cannabis which is “an extremely paranoid-inducing thing” (sic), that he was upset because his girlfriend had left him, and because “the niqaab is itself an aggressive act; it says ‘I want nothing to do with your society’”. Women wear niqaab in Muslim countries as well (indeed, some Muslim women wear it there and not here); does she really think they do it to disassociate themselves from that society? The fact that cannabis induces this kind of paranoia, and particularly the home-grown “skunk” variety of cannabis, is why the drug remains illegal. People know it is mind-altering before they take it. We do not excuse a drunk driver who causes a fatal accident because they were drunk; why should we excuse this man because he chose to take cannabis?

At that point, Symon Hill noted that various disability-related NGOs such as Scope had identified a rise in hate crimes against people with disabilities which correlated with newspaper stories about “benefit scroungers” claiming disability benefits they were not entitled to. There was then a down-the-line interview with someone from the BNP who stated that his party was trying to educate people about the “true nature of Islam” rather than supporting violence, and a Muslim woman who told how she had been the victim of such an attack in which she was beaten up by a gang of white men, urinated on by three of them and had dog excrement rubbed in her face. The police recorded the attack as a racist incident, rather than one motivated by hatred towards her as a Muslim.

At that point, Leslie claimed that she had worked in many Muslim countries (“many of them undercover”) and when there, had to wear “the full bin-bag outfit, you know”, and that when you wear a niqaab, “it makes people slightly alarmed because they think, these people” (at which point she was drowned out by other voices). The men who attacked the lady in this programme were clearly not “slightly alarmed” as there were one of her and eight or nine of them, all bigger than she was. The idea that this could have been the motive is ridiculous: it is more likely that they were saw one of the “terrorists” they had read about in the newspapers, or someone a lot like those pictured whenever there is a story about “extremists”, or just attacked her because she was different.

Ann Leslie’s stance is a round-about way of saying that women in niqaab who are attacked because of it have only themselves to blame. She is not alone in this; I have read an article (by a woman with a Muslim name) saying that there should not be legislation against niqaab because sooner or later, women will stop wearing it out of fear of hostility — in other words, the hostility is perfectly justified. This is an entirely unjustifiable stance in a democracy with the rule of law; we do not tolerate vigilantism and it is not for any ordinary citizen to dictate to any other, who they just met in the street or a shop, what they should and shouldn’t wear. Leslie is, of course, not personally responsible as a mere columnist for the decisions made by the editors and the proprietors, and I do not believe for a moment that they put her up to justify their own position, although clearly they have provided her with steady employment for almost her whole career. The level of hostile behaviour from women who wear niqaab is negligible, so anybody who sees a woman in niqaab and thinks she must be a terrorist (or a terrorist’s wife, or whatever) must have got that impression from the newspapers — there is no other logical explanation. The media must own up to the influence they have over their readers’ behaviour, and accept responsibility for it.

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