Name the problem: White Bigotry

Still of a woman wearing a black headscarf and niqaab, with only her eyes showing, on the left and a white woman with her hair clipped at the back, wearing a black jacket, on the rightThere are some themes which will be familiar to anyone who follows or is involved in feminist discourses about rape and other violence against women and children: that the perpetrators often go unnamed while victims are blamed; that the crimes are treated as if they were inevitable or natural occurrences, rather than the choice of some men to hurt women; that the attitudes which lead to male violence are not being tackled; that reporting or discussion of violent or sexual crime does not “name the problem” which is male violence. I was reminded of these arguments while listening to the reporting on both Radio 4 and BBC London this morning about hate attacks against Muslims, which according to Metropolitan Police statistics rose by 70% in the past year and which Tell MAMA claims mostly target visible Muslim women, during which someone from Tell MAMA, the organisation set up to “monitor anti-Muslim attacks”, claimed that the spike in attacks followed terrorist attacks by ISIS such as the shooting in Tunisia. This analysis fails to acknowledge contributing factors closer to home. The issue was also featured on the BBC’s Inside Out London programme this evening.

This morning’s Today programme and BBC London’s breakfast programme (with Paul Ross and Penny Smith) featured an interview with a woman who had been attacked in the street by a woman who later turned out to have a knife, while others walked by or turned away from her rather than come to her aid (they did not name the woman who attacked her, but they said she had been prosecuted). They also interviewed a white convert lady who was in the process of moving from Penge, south-east London, to Whitechapel, which is where it is most common to see Muslim women in veils, to escape the constant abuse she receives when out in public, even with her children. (Both these women, and another who wears the hijab, are interviewed here.) They interviewed someone from the Jan Trust, who also confirmed that visible Muslim women were the most common victims.

A front page from the UK Daily Mail, with the headline 'Sharia Lessons for Pupils, Six'None of the reporting, however, examined the reasons behind why these attacks are taking place beyond linking them to ISIS attacks. This rather suggests that hate attacks on ordinary people in London somehow follow terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world as inevitably as night follows day, rather than being a choice some people make to attack someone in the street who is minding their own business and not threatening them in any way. The source of the attacks is mostly white British people who have been fed a diet of propaganda over the last decade and a half by media controlled by white, usually British (Rupert Murdoch being the obvious exception) people, occasionally fed into by mostly white British politicians, most notoriously Jack Straw in the case of the niqaab but most recently David Cameron. This has taken the form of repeated stories about Muslims demanding or getting special treatment (bans on piggy banks, Christmas being renamed, swimming pools having “Muslim sessions”, a mixture of the trivial and the twisted), opinion polls (always tiny) suggesting that Muslims support terrorism or turning Britain into an Islamic state, some Muslim leader or other being filmed giving unfashionable opinions, front-page articles in tabloids calling for a ban on the veil (on the basis of their poll), Muslims refusing to integrate in one way or another or establishing ghettoes or mini-Pakistans, and the hyping of fringe groups like al-Muhajiroun, the use of stock images of ordinary Muslims to illustrate stories about unrest or terrorism, and obsessive media coverage of child marriage and FGM with a heavy focus on Muslims (last year, there was even an attempt to blame Muslims for large-scale abortions of baby girls!). The BBC has not been above peddling these scare stories: in 2006, as I wrote here at the time, Vanessa Feltz (the London station’s morning talk show presenter) recycled a story from the Daily Star about a “Muslim swimming session” in Croydon that was in fact a paid-for private session. The Inside Out programme examined anti-Muslim hate on social media and among the Far Right, but also did not take the media to task or seriously question the “link” between foreign atrocities and British hate crime. They even called it the “ISIS effect”.

When Muslims kill people, of course, white western politicians are always quick to condemn the “grievance culture” and exclaim that war and oppression are not the root causes; rather, a “fascistic fundamentalist ideology” must be. The same was true of such explanations for the 2005 London bombings; to suggest that the bombings were the result of British and American warmongering was compared by Norman Geras to saying that a murder or rape victim was foolish to behave in the way they did before the attack on them (his article here). So why then is it assumed that there is a causal link between Muslim atrocities abroad and attacks on innocent Muslims independent of any influence from politicians or the media? The attacks need to be put in the context of the society they come out of, the attitudes within that society, the influences that society is subject to. Those in power talk of challenging extremist attitudes and the “us and them” mentality which they claim feeds them, but attitudes that feed Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence need to be challenged: that it is OK to attack someone for the actions of someone they do not know; that women can be blamed and should be punished for the wrongdoings of men they do not know; that a woman in niqaab “poses a threat” (a claim frequently made in the media and on phone-ins) when she is in fact actually threatening nobody. We need to look at who is attacking people on the streets of London and other major cities; it is not ISIS. We need to look at where they get their attitudes from: it’s not the ISIS YouTube or social media channel. We must name the problem rather than dancing around it: bigotry in mainstream, white British society and its lazy, amoral media.

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