Islamophobia and violent extremism: tackling the twin-menace head on

Faith and conviction cannot be burnt by the flames of hatred.

"We should not allow the murder of Lee Rigby to come between Londoners. The unified response we have seen to his death across all communities will triumph over those who seek to divide us", said Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, matching his determination with a decision to increase 24-hour police patrols around potentially "vulnerable" locations.

This has reassured London’s wary Muslim population and given a pointed message to potential perpetrators of further attacks on Muslim places in our great city of London.

This decisive step comes after fire-fighters were called to a Darul Uloom boarding school in Chislehurst in south-east London in the early hours of 9 June, the second suspicious fire within a week; almost 130 pupils and staff were evacuated from the religious seminary.

The first fire on 5 June flattened an Islamic centre, run by the Somali Bravanese community in Muswell Hill in north London. The centre was used by the younger generation as a place for learning, as well as by members of the local community for social interaction and physical and spiritual development. Since the shocking incidence the community has been deeply touched by the overwhelming messages of support from local neighbours, politicians, community associations, faith, interfaith and non-faith organisations, as well as numerous individuals.

In our recent visit to the burned down centre we were heartened to see a unique community spirit that has brought people together. The Chairman, traumatised by the destruction of the complex, was full of praise for the London Fire Brigade who took appropriate steps to prevent the fire spreading to neighbours and the Metropolitan Police for laudably reassuring the local community with their physical presence. He was resolute when he said: “Together we will not let this tragic incident divide us. We have lost an important building in our community, but we will remain strong and steadfast and, with the help of all those who have supported us, we will rebuild our community centre. It will once again become a beacon for cohesion, social action and friendship."

Faith and conviction cannot be burnt by the flames of hatred.

With Lee Rigby murder on 22 May our country faces two major political and social challenges of our time that need tough handling by all of us, the government and citizens, with resolve and wisdom – one, the utter criminality cloaked under the guise of politics or religion by a few deranged individuals in the periphery of the Muslim community who are putting the whole community on the dock; and secondly, the violent response from far right activists that frightens Muslims and divisive narrative by some columnists that poisons ordinary people’s mind against the Muslim community.  Both are dangerous and they need to be challenged head on; they feed on each other.

Lee Rigby’s killers were known to be linked with the extremist group (Al-Muhajiroun) that was banned a few years ago. The group re-emerges in variant forms with the same message of hate and as far as I am aware, mosques and Islamic centres up and down the country are a ‘no go area’ for this group; the Muslim community has ostracised them, but sadly some of our national media provide them with disproportionate oxygen of publicity for probably offering sensational news to people.

On the other hand, the far right group (English Defence League) that emerged in 2009 with some football hooligans had organised series of violent protests against mosques across the country. Thankfully, they have also been ostracised by the mainstream society and the political establishment.

In order to defeat this twin-menace w e need to be careful on our words and language; they matter, especially if they come from senior public figures. Our former Prime Minister Tony Blair who has a strong ideological view on Muslim issues (“There is a problem within Islam...”) has recently made a ‘brave assault on Muslim Extremism after Woolwich attack’; this has the potential of further undermining the positive work done by the Muslim community and also giving ammunition to the far right group. Tony Blair took us to a disastrous war against the will of majority British people in 2003; he, according to Prof John Esposito from Georgetown University in Washington, has misread Muslim terrorism.

The root cause that separate people in any society is ignorance that leads to fear of unknown. The local communities across the country generally get on well with one another, due to the fact that there is a lesser amount of ignorance among them and more public interaction in their daily life. They are served by the local police, religious or community centres and other civic organisations.

But, nationally and regionally, we very much need to find creative ways to bring our diverse people together. Pragmatic political decisions by our politicians, more constructive role by our media and judicious comments by powerful individuals are what we need today to spread the message of realistic hope and allay fear of others; we all have a duty to dispel myths surrounding other communities. This needs a clear strategy and inclusive approach by people in authority - political and civil, Muslims and non-Muslims, religious and non-religious.

Downplaying the seriousness of violent extremism or retaliatory anti-Muslim prejudice by any will be a grave mistake.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant.  Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari

 

Fire officers outside the burned down Islamic centre in Muswell Hill, north London. Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant. Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times