And he wasn’t even Muslim

A white woman wearing a Black Nike hoodie stands at a window holding her mobile phone to her ear; she has an angry expression on her face.

Last month a film-making group called “Error in Terror”, founded by a group of “highly-skilled film-makers” after the Westminster and Borough Market terrorist attacks in London to “create content which aims to tackle all forms of hatred, extremism and terrorism”, released a five-minute film on YouTube called “The Martyrs”, in which a woman calls in to a London talk radio show (clearly modelled on LBC) calling on people to “take action” and “make ourselves martyrs” despite the host’s attempt to talk reason to her, inspiring three different white men to attack Asian people (presumed to be Muslim) that they meet in the street or in a shop. Tell MAMA criticised it on Twitter, claiming that while they know of women who were frightened to walk the streets and some who have been physically attacked, “any film that highlights constant aggression towards Muslims will only fuel that fear & could give rise to copycat incidents on Muslim communities”. They also suggest that “some of those watching this film will leave angry, fearful and wanting to defend themselves”. I can see a host of problems with this film, although if there is indeed “constant aggression” towards Muslims, I see no reason not to highlight it.

The EIT website shows that the authors have a rather shaky grasp of history. They give four historic examples of terrorism; one of them is labelled “IRA — TROUBLES”, the cause for which is given as “division between Protestants and Catholics”. No; the reason was the oppression of the Catholic minority by the Protestant majority during the first Stormont era, the violent repression of civil rights protests in the late 1960s, followed by the British response of sending in troops who behaved towards the same Catholic population (who, unlike the Protestants, were native to Ireland) like an army of occupation. This could only have come from a very ignorant mainland British standpoint. The IRA was not the Troubles; they were not the only terrorists in or associated with Northern Ireland.

The film opens with overhead shots of buildings in the City of London, over which a presenter on “London’s Finest Conversation” announces that he is going to talk about “something extremely controversial” before introducing “Jenny” and saying “over to you”. Jenny is standing in the street with her mobile phone and shouts that “it’s the right thing to do”, that “British people” should bear arms, that there are “too many people here who are here for the wrong reasons”, who “don’t want to integrate”, that “it’s not safe, there are too many children that are at too much risk”. An Asian man stands looking in his mirror and tucks the cross and chain round his neck into his shirt. While she is ranting, two young white men in a car nod and say she is right, while a man wanders round in a convenience store drinking alcohol from a bottle, nodding at what the woman is saying (one presumes it is playing on the shop’s radio) as the Asian man walks in; he threatens the man as he tries to pay for his purchases at the same time. As the woman continues her rant, the same man walks to a car in which a Muslim woman wearing a hijab is sitting, tells her “what you wearing that for? It doesn’t belong here”, then rips the scarf off her; the woman then walks over to a car where another Muslim woman is sitting with her child and throws a liquid in her face. One of the two men in the car, challenged by the other, takes a knife and attacks the Asian man from the shop, stabbing him. An Asian man challenged the man harassing the woman in the car, saying “what do you think you’re doing?”, and punches him in the face and knocks him to the ground; the woman gets out of the car and pleads with him to stop, but he attacks her as well. We see a scan of her unborn baby on the floor, while the Asian man who was stabbed lies bleeding, his cross on display.

Two white men sitting in a car; one of them is looking towards the other (he is daring the other to "do something").

My first complaint about this film is that it provides no context to the woman’s rantings. We do not know why she is angry; the host does not ask and she does not say. Has she had a run-in with an Asian or Muslim person some time that day, or just been angered by something she has read in the paper? We do not know. But we do know that the Far Right do pose as “ordinary Joes” in order to insert their views into the mass media, and a woman (or a man) calling a radio phone-in with inflammatory rhetoric could be one of those people. Sometimes they manage to pull the wool over the eyes of people in the mainstream or intellectual media; I came across an article in 2008 by Brendan O’Neill in the New Statesman, who met a woman called Charlotte Lewis whom he described as a ‘ditzy’, unemployed woman with “a chip on her shoulder” from Croydon and who said she found it “distressing” to be the “only white woman on the bus”. In fact, Lewis was a BNP activist who had stood in council elections in a borough (Sutton) where she did not live, which is illegal. So, rather than showing her standing in the streets shouting into her phone, it might have been more apt to show her surrounded by her EDL/DFLA chums, or at least, in a room with some of their emblems or propaganda on the wall.

Second, it employs a trope which is a pet hate of mine: the “he wasn’t even a Muslim” trope. Despite his appearance, he wore a cross on a chain which only a Christian would do (Muslims do not believe in the crucifixion of Jesus, peace be upon him, and never use the cross as a symbol). Unbeknown to the racist attackers, they had attacked an Asian Christian when they thought they were attacking a Muslim. The truth about the man’s religion is portrayed as adding to the tragedy; the message is “don’t stab someone who looks Muslim because they might not be”, not “don’t stab someone” which rather undermines the group’s message that political violence never solved anything.

The film fails because it portrays racism and racist violence as the result of mere anger, of people being “fed up”; it does not name or even acknowledge the existence of any ideology behind that anger. Its only portrayal of the media consists of the talk-show host trying to reason with the woman. The white racists all appear ‘common’, mindless thugs; one of them is a drunk, and none of them wears a suit or shows any sign of being a political operative. Given that it has become fashionable to portray Muslim terrorism as being the product of ideology rather than anger, and doing the opposite leads to being branded an apologist for terrorism, it is rather hypocritical and unfair to portray white racist violence as being the result of exasperation and anger. There is a long history of racist attitudes being whipped up in the mainstream print and broadcast media and stoked by politicians, and this film did not even begin to acknowledge that.

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