Is the media responsible for the far-right backlash following acts of terrorism? *[Please refer to the mini gallery on the right for the relevant graphs.]
In 2016 the different types of far-right extremism and its new, lowest-common denominator, anti-Muslim hate incidents, have taken leaps and bounds toward the mainstream. Many of those advancing what can be usefully called Islamoprejudice—rather than fear suggested by the term Islamophobia—clearly revel in offensive imagery and rhetoric or, at the very least, don’t care enough to see that racially or religiously stereotyping others offends fundamental liberal principles of tolerance.
This is an ugly business, but in dark times engaged citizens do not have the luxury of merely shielding eyes from ugliness. Instead, there is a greater need than ever to confront bigotry anywhere and everywhere it is found.
Exclusionary rhetoric is back in fashion, not only from the far right and what can be usefully called the “near right” in the tabloid press and at the fringes of mainstream politics. For example, only five years after anti-Muslim prejudice “passed the dinner-table test” in Britain in the words of Baroness Warsi, a Channel 4 news presenter can be abused without penalty by the country’s leading newspaper for wearing the hijab.
This comes at a time of increased hate crime for all minority groups in the UK: LGBT and disabled people, non-native Britons, the black and minority ethnic (BME) community and, most visibly today, hate incidents against Jews and Muslims. An attack on one of these groups must be construed as an attack on all everyone, and an attack on the very pillars of individual freedom.
Relevantly for our new age of President Trump, this is what the director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had to say yesterday about the suggested Muslim registry in the United States: “As Jews, we know what it means to be registered and tagged. As Jews, we know the righteous and just response.” He has justly pledged to register as a Muslim in solidarity should such an unconstitutional, counter-productive and hateful checks come to pass.
Hate Crimes Against Us All
Seen from this perspective, hate crimes are an assault upon all of us. Yet in Britain, hate attacks are on the rise by just about every indicator there is. National records for England and Wales showed an 18% spike in hate crimes in 2014/2015, and another spike of 19% last year, bringing the annual hate crimes to a vexing 62,518 recorded incidents by April 2016. Due to a persistent underreporting that, again, everyone must all do what we can to address, the real number is much, much higher—and getting worse. In the month following Brexit, a 41% spike in hate incidents were recorded, and levels of hate incidents remain as elevated as they are shameful.
Bearing this out is UK data analyzed over the last three years by the research unit I co-direct at Teesside University, the Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist Studies. A major strand of our work is the analysis of hate crimes, especially as it relates to the far-right and anti-Muslim attacks. The raw data is imperfect and, based on self-reporting, is not, and cannot be, a representative sample of the country as a whole. That said, these figures remain the most wide-ranging we have for the roughly 4% of the UK population that is Muslim.
Take the first figure (graph 1) from the 2012/13 total of 584 cases reported to Tell MAMA—an anti-Muslim-attacks reporting service launched by Faith Matters in spring 2012—in their first year of operation: Of the 130 hate crimes taking place offline, most took place on the street— meaning that it is likely many might be considered opportunistic attacks that may have been prompted by circumstance, context or swift radicalization.
While this is in keeping with our understanding of crime more broadly, the next figure (graphs 2 and 3) certainly isn’t: More women than men are victims in public, and most public victims were women wearing “visibly Muslim” clothing at the time of the attack. Put simply, hate crime overwhelmingly tends to be male on male, with the exception of anti-Muslim attacks, the majority of which are male on female. As usual, fully 78% of reported offline perpetrators were male.
Above all, our first report showed that 300 of the 434 reported online attacks had some kind of link to the far right—which excluded the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in this report—an English Defence League (EDL) hashtag, reference to the British National Party (BNP) or National Front, hotlink to the transnational counter-jihad website, and so on.
While some people minimize online incidents as merely keyboard warriors expressing unpopular opinions on social media, evidence strongly suggests otherwise. Nearly two-thirds of reported online hate attacks threatened offline action (graphs 4 and 5). This can extend to doxxing posts with personal information like a home address or details of family members to threats of real world violence.
Finally, our data from the first year suggests that far-right participation in anti-Muslim attacks is oversized—especially online. The organized far right in Britain remains comparatively small in terms of the population as a whole: less than 5% nationally. But offenders related to far-right groups account for four times this amount in offline attacks, and a staggering 14 times this amount for online attacks. This suggests that, especially online, there is a small, hard core of far-right offenders— perhaps serial or repeat offenders.
Our second report, released in July 2014, had a different emphasis: cumulative extremism. This term is used to refer to the cyclical ratcheting up of violent activity between opposing communities, with acts of violence perpetrated by a sub-group, however small, of a given community against members of another community, triggering acts of violent retribution.
This process is seen to be self-perpetuating, akin to a downward spiral, with each act of violence prompting a response that leads to further violence. In the 10 years since this term was coined, the idea of diametrically opposed groups goading each other into more extreme acts—most often in the scholarly literature referring to jihadi Islamist terrorists and far-right extremists—has become an important part of policy and community cohesion discussions.
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To date, the most detailed evidence to support the cumulative extremism thesis came in the wake of the appalling murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two Islamist terrorists on May 22, 2013. This led to four times more online and offline reports—a spike of 373% recorded in the Tell MAMA data—in the week after the attack than in the week beforehand. Hate incidents were highly elevated for months afterward—a significant and troubling finding (graph 6).
Nor was this only words, troubling as that is: In the three months after Rigby’s murder, Tell MAMA documented 34 anti-Muslim attacks on property, most notably in places of worship, ranging from graffiti to arson (graph 7). There were also 13 cases of extreme violence recorded, resulting in a victim’s hospitalization. Our second year, in short, suggested that anti-Muslim attacks were getting worse, not better.
Our final report covered the 12-month period between March 1, 2014 and February 28, 2015, with online hate incidents covering 402 of 548 attacks, or again about two-thirds of all reports to Tell MAMA. In keeping with our previous two reports, the majority of public attacks were perpetrated by white men against “visibly Muslim” women.
But we also added a degree of nuance to our previous analysis of cumulative extremism. In the case of Rigby, the aftermath of an outrageous daytime stabbing attack on an off-duty soldier in London was captured on a smartphone, and then swiftly disseminated around the world, with the murderers shown with still-bloody hands and unanimously associated with jihadi Islamist terrorism. While in terms of guilt attribution the incident had no relation to the nearly 3 million Muslims in Britain going about their daily business, this nonetheless added up to a perfect storm of elements leading to a sharp rise in anti-Muslim attacks, both online and in person.
Yet in terms of cumulative extremism, our findings suggest that crucial variations can exist. This is exemplified in the varied responses to apparent jihadi Islamist attacks recorded in the seven days following 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Sydney. Briefly, the Paris attack on January 7, 2015 saw a mass shooting at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, followed by a related anti-Semitic murders at a grocery store. In all, 17 victims were murdered and three gunmen killed; it so rocked France that millions took to the streets on 11 January, including dozens of European leaders assembling in Paris, under the banner “Je Suis Charlie.”
A month later, another jihadi Islamist terrorist assaulted a public event in Copenhagen, followed by a shooting outside the city’s Great Synagogue, which left a total of two dead and another five injured. Although similar to the Paris and Copenhagen attacks perpetrated by an adult male with a violent criminal past, with assailants ultimately killed by police, the circumstances of the 18-hour Sydney hostage standoff were somewhat different. There, while Man Haron Monis claimed ISIS affiliation, he was swiftly identified as having a history of mental illness and criminality, thus providing an alternative frame for the ongoing media coverage. Alongside the fact that Monis’s siege was less violent than that of Paris and Copenhagen it also seems important that the event broke on social media in the middle of the night in the UK (graph 8).
Role of the Media
This raises searching questions about the role of the media in mediating and framing news coverage that seems to be a vital pre-requisite for cumulative extremism. Acts of jihadi Islamist terrorism come to the attention of far-right groups via the “near right” media, filtering through a complex network of blogs, social media pages and forums before reaching their final audience. In turn, it may be that the severity of the cumulative extremism cycle is, in part, determined by the level and tone of mainstream media coverage.
Where media outlets might single-mindedly stress the jihadi Islamist, or even Muslim, nature of an attack, devoting significant coverage to this interpretation, a violent response is likely to be greater than in cases where the religious background of the attacker is downplayed, or rejected in favor of an alternative explanation—as with the Sydney attacks, where the attacker was identified as mentally unwell and with a violent criminal past.
Similarly, where a terror attack receives greater or more sustained media attention—as with the 60-hour, multisite coverage of the attacks in Paris in January 2015, or the domestic significance of Rigby’s murder in broad daylight in Britain’s capital—it is likely to generate a more hateful reaction than where the media offer lower levels of coverage as in Copenhagen and, especially, Sydney.
The dangers of uninformed rhetoric can be noxious indeed. Without doubt, the frame presented by some of the tabloids following these terrorist attacks sometimes carried bigoted messages. This fact was noted by an August 26, 2016 report on the UK by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in a section dedicated to “hate speech and hate crimes.”
International concern over the mainstreaming of racism and Islamoprejudice was still more explicitly spelled out in a lengthy study European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, released on October 4, stating that “hate speech in some traditional media continues to be a serious problem, notably as concerns tabloid newspapers” in Britain, “including inflammatory anti-Muslim headlines” that “associate all Muslims with extremism and terrorism. As observed previously, this has led to a large increase in hate speech and violence against Muslims,” especially following ISIS-inspired attacks.
While it is naturally important for the media to present honest and impartial coverage, granting greater voice to more nuanced or alternative explanations of extremists’ motivations may do much to reduce the ferocity of the cumulative extremism backlash—ensuring that the wider Muslim population in the UK remains trusted, heard and protected.
And if this is the case with cumulative extremism, so too with “trigger” events more generally, which, as was made plain after Brexit and, more recently, the aftermath of Trump’s election, need not be a terrorist attack at all. We need to be especially vigilant in the wake of these events, which, if caught unaware and unprepared, can unleash the furies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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