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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.