While many were shocked by the Spectator‘s decision, last week, to publish an article that was deeply Islamophobic, the reaction followed a pattern that is now well worn, with Liddle claiming that the widespread horror at his words was another case of misunderstood “satire”. But while the Spectator has come to depend on shock-jocks like Liddle, it is not alone. The British media appears to tolerate and even amplify Islamophobia with alarming ease. This is only the most extreme example of a widespread problem.
After treating Rosie Duffield’s experience of domestic abuse as a punchline, Liddle asserted that “my own choice of election date would be a day when universities are closed and Muslims are forbidden to do anything on pain of hell, or something.” He has since, predictably, claimed that these comments were “satirical in manner”, “patently a joke” and “ripped out of context”. His editor, Fraser Nelson, echoed this. Where, precisely is the “joke” in proposing the disenfranchisement of Muslims? What exactly is being satirised? And why is mocking Muslims so often the material of such “satire”?
Liddle’s piece is an example of how, under the guise of polemic, publishers are making a conscious decision to monetise hate.
For too long, Muslims have been an acceptable bogeyman for a certain section of the British press. Despite concerted efforts by faith groups and politicians to call out this behaviour, nothing has changed. Substitute in another religious group, and the nauseating bigotry of the “joke” is immediately obvious to all. The manner in which Muslims have come to be reviled in a popular, mainstream weekly magazine needs to be examined closely.
This is because there is a clear correlation between this sort of article and the abuse of Muslim people. The monitoring group Tell Mama found a “significant spike” in hate crimes after the Daily Telegraph column in which Boris Johnson described Muslim women as “letterboxes”. Since 2013, three British Muslims have been murdered for their faith. Words have an impact. Articles which dehumanise a community and contest their right to vote, even if they are in jest, question the right of that community simply to live and flourish in our country.
Nelson’s statement that the Spectator piece was “too easily misrepresented and should not have been published in the form that it was” falls far short of an apology and fails utterly to recognise how harmful Liddle’s language is. Why is dehumanising Muslims dressed up as “satire”? Why must 3.5 million British Muslims be required to laugh these racists tropes off? We’ve learnt that looking the other way won’t work.
It was encouraging to see voices from across the political spectrum – and writers from Liddle’s own magazine – acknowledge that this article crossed a line. However, we can’t accept the fiction that this is an isolated incident. Dog-whistles are part of a concerted strategy to shift the boundaries of decency, probing and pushing what is considered acceptable. This tactic has been used with exceptional success in the United States to profoundly distort the body politic and normalise racism in the process. As we slide further towards dangerous extremism, we need to highlight each new attempt to coarsen our discourse with racism and fight it. That includes looking critically at the wider media.
In the same 24 hours that Liddle’s article was published, the BBC invited Douglas Murray, another Spectator columnist infamous for saying “we need less Islam”, onto Radio 4. On Sky News, former Ukip leader Malcolm Pearson, a peer, was given a platform on which to peddle racist myths about population replacement. Although both men were robustly engaged with by experienced, senior journalists, we question whether people who clearly hate an entire faith should really be platformed as acceptable participants in our national debate.
It is not censorship to say that these discriminatory beliefs should not be rewarded with prime-time slots. Three major media institutions chose to give voice to Islamophobes within a single day: what message does that send to Muslims up and down the country? What of the Muslims who are teachers, doctors, care workers, members of the armed forces – are they not valued members of British society?
It has to be asked if Rod Liddle and Fraser Nelson – who have, between them, appeared on Question Time 21 times – should be given space on the BBC to promote views such as these. The chairman of the Spectator is Andrew Neil, who fronts two of the BBC’s political programmes. When he is associated with content at vile as this, his role, too, deserves scrutiny.
More broadly, we need a conversation about the ways in which certain newspapers have come to view Muslims as acceptable targets. We also need to address the way in which overtly discriminatory attitudes are then normalised when racists are asked to appear by broadcasters in order to “provide balance”. Hatred towards Muslims is not balance; it is discrimination, pure and simple. A broad debate is vital but we need to be clear that hatred has no place in it.
Yasmin Qureshi is Labour MP for Bolton North East and Meral Hussein-Ece is a Liberal Democrat peer