Islamophobia and the press

No other faith group receives this inaccurate and malicious treatment in the national press.

Back in November 1998, the Sun carried a highly provocative front page story asking "Are we being run by a gay mafia?" in reference to some members of Tony Blair's government who happened to be gay. The story led to heated controversy with the Sun coming under heavy fire for what was widely viewed as an inflammatory and bigoted headline. Three days later, the Sun announced that it was adopting a change in policy towards gays and would no longer be seeking to "out" them.

The incident is telling for a number of reasons, including how our best-selling national newspaper had failed to keep up with changing public attitudes towards the matter of sexual orientation. However, when it comes to anti-Muslim bigotry, the story is very different.

"Muslim schools ban our culture", "Muslims tell us how to run our schools", "Christmas is banned: it offends Muslims", and "BBC puts Muslims before YOU!" are just some of the headlines which have been splashed across the front pages of our national newspapers in recent years. Our papers, particularly some tabloids, appear rather eager to stir up prejudice towards UK Muslims. Some of these headlines have been openly cited and utilised by the far right BNP and the English Defence League in their anti-Muslim campaigns.

Last Tuesday, I gave testimony on behalf of ENGAGE before the Leveson Inquiry, which is looking at the ethics and practices of the press. ENGAGE is a Muslim organisation that seeks to encourage greater civic engagement, political participation and media awareness amongst British Muslims. Our recommendations to the Inquiry centred around three areas.

Firstly, when newspapers make serious errors in their stories, the subsequent correction or apology should be given a prominence that is commensurate with their original story. This would surely encourage greater diligence and accuracy on the part of some of the worst tabloid offenders. At present, the situation is farcical. Back in December 2010, a Daily Express front page read "Muslim Plot to Kill Pope". Note the lack of any cautionary speech marks -- the story was presented to its readers as a clear fact. Pages four and five of that day's edition were also given over to the same story. Less than 48 hours later, all the six detained men were released without charge by the police. The Express's response? One sentence hidden away on page 9 noting their release.

Second, whichever body eventually replaces the discredited Press Complaints Commission, it should be given the power to ensure a swift resolution of complaints. Back in June 2011, the Daily Mail published a column by Melanie Phillips in which she described ENGAGE as an "extremist Islamist group" and claimed that they were funded by the government. As I pointed out to the Leveson Inquiry, Mel P has a very particular worldview. She is on record for repeatedly suggesting that the "litmus test" for deciding whether someone is a "moderate Muslim" is whether they "'understand that fundamentally Israel is the victim in the Middle East." I suspect most sane people would happily fail her "litmus test". Still, while her characterisation of ENGAGE may be idiosyncratic, her assertion that they were funded by the government is simply untrue. ENGAGE value their independence and have never received a penny from the government and indeed, have never applied for a penny from the government. It is now over seven months since the Mail article was published and they still have not published a correction. The Daily Mail's legal counsellor sheepishly promised to the Leveson Inquiry that a resolution to this complaint was "imminent" but one has to ask what value a correction will have many months after their original false story.

Thirdly, it is bizarre that serving editors of newspapers can also sit on the PCC committee that adjudicates complaints from readers. It is a clear case of a conflict of interest. The Inquiry has already heard proposals that they should be replaced by former senior journalists/editors who were no longer employed by our newspaper groups. It is a sensible suggestion and certainly one that improves on the current position.

Ultimately, we need to try to get to the point where our press apply the same standards to Muslims as to any other faith group or any other minority group community. Currently, no other faith group is treated with this barrage of inaccurate and often downright malicious misrepresentation in the national press. It is, of course, understandable that in view of the al-Qaeda terror threat we have seen in recent years that newspapers will often touch on the issue of Muslims and Islam in their reporting. That is, however, absolutely no excuse for their lies and incitement.

Inayat Bunglawala is the chair of Muslims4UK, and a consultant editor at ENGAGE. He blogs at Inayat's Corner.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad