Knee-jerk Islamophobia: why Trevor Kavanagh is wrong about British Muslims

This kind of evidence-free, stereotype-laden assault on the British Muslim community has got to stop, says Rob Ford.

On 6 August, after an extraordinary night in the Olympic Stadium, the Sun's Oliver Harvey was moved to write: "A ginger bloke from Milton Keynes, a mixed race beauty from Sheffield, an ethnic Somali given shelter on these shores from his war-ravaged homeland. This is what Britain looks like today. Three Britons from wildly different backgrounds that gave this generation its 1966 moment." His colleague Anila Baig added: " We’ve heard a lot about belonging and loyalty and allegiance, Muslim first or British first. On Saturday Mo Farah gave us the answer: British Muslim and proud proud proud."

What a difference four months make. As summer sun gives way to winter snow, Sun Political Editor Trevor Kavanagh has posted an editorial painting a rather different picture: "Yes Africa is a terror hotbed, but fanatics are here too." There is no evidence of any British Muslim involvement in, or support for, the atrocities taking place in Algeria, but Kavanagh isn't going to let that inconvenient fact stand in the way of a broadside against the British Muslim community whose most prominent athletics representative his paper was recently lionising.

Out come the usual myths and misrepresentations. We are told Britain is home to hundreds of thousands of Muslims from all over the world, but warned "not all are grateful. Indeed, some are outspokenly defiant". We are not told what they are supposed to be grateful for, or what they are defiant of , which complicates any effort to analyze this bizarre claim, but how about this for starters: Do Muslims identify with Britain? Are they proud of British democracy and institutions? Are they integrated into British political and social life? Yes, yes, and yes.

As my colleagues and I have shown in a report for the government's Migration Advisory Committee, Britain's Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage populations (the bulk of the British Muslim population) are more likely than white native born Britons to say they belong in Britain, and more likely to express trust in the British Parliament. Other research has shown that British Muslims rate being British as central to their identities, and are more likely to express pride in Britain than other groups, something Kavanagh's own newspaper noted "shatter[s] the myth that Muslims are not patriotic". In Kavanagh's world, British Muslims are resentful and defiant. Out in the real world of evidence, a world reported by his own news desk, Muslims are proud British citizens, often more attached to British culture and institutions than other groups.

Then there is the vexed issue of integration. Kavanagh, echoing the notorious comments of Trevor Phillips, raises the spectre of segregated, Muslim-dominated inner city districts: "One London borough is so staunchly Muslim it has become known as the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets." Really? I don't know who  refers to Tower Hamlets this way (and Kavanagh doesn't enlighten us) but it strikes me as an odd way to characterise a borough which the most recent census recorded was 32 per cent Bangladeshi, 31 per cent white British, 12 per cent white other, and 25 per cent from a host of other heritages including African, Caribbean, and Chinese. Tower Hamlets is not an "Islamic Republic". In fact, Muslims constitute just over a third of the population, and are massively outnumbered by those who are either Christian or state no religion at all, as Kavanagh would have known had he bothered to visit the Tower Hamlets website before smearing a whole London borough. The community Kavanagh demonizes as a ghetto of Muslim fanatics is in fact a proud melting pot of multiple ethnicities and faiths, where no group dominates. It is (to quote the Olympics-era Sun) "what Britain looks like today".

Even if segregation were a problem (which it generally is not), it is not clear what would satisfy Kavanagh as a solution. Maybe Muslims could integrate by moving away from areas where they are concentrated towards more homogenously white areas, something University of Manchester census analysts have shown all ethnic minority groups have been doing? This won't do for Kavanagh, who attacks it as Muslims "colonising the suburbs". Leaving aside the absurd labelling of people often born and raised in Britain as "colonisers", it is not obvious what Muslims caught in Kavanagh's Islamophobic catch-22 are supposed to do. If they stay in the inner city areas to which their families first migrated, they are attacked as setting up segregated "Islamic Republics". If they set out for the suburbs they are attacked as "colonisers" looking to impose their values on others. No matter that neither bears any resemblance to the everyday truth of ordinary, hard working Muslim families looking for decent, affordable homes, good schools and regular contact with friends and relatives, just like everyone else.

This kind of evidence-free, stereotype-laden assault on the British Muslim community has got to stop. In an era when all the relevant evidence is available at the click of a mouse, it is not acceptable for a senior journalist at the nation's most read paper to make demonstrably false claims about one of its largest minority communities. Kavanagh's article is irresponsible rabble-rousing of the worst kind. What a shame he didn't think to talk to his more informed colleagues from the Olympics press-pack before launching into this ugly tirade.

Rob Ford is a lecturer at the University of Manchester politics department

Members of the Muslim community shopping in Whitechapel in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Rob Ford is a lecturer at the University of Manchester politics department.

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA