Calling out the overt bias we see in reporting is just one form of resistance that consumers can take. Saeida Rouass shares five tropes to be aware of that often appear in panel discussions, op-eds and other formats that covertly subvert and undermine our ability to talk about the mainstreaming of the far right.
Many media outlets have predictably chosen to report on the Christchurch terrorist attack in ways that conceal or mask the perpetrators Islamophobic motives. ‘New Zealand mosque attack,’ ‘mass shooter,’ ‘backpack shooter’ ‘blond baby’ and ‘angelic boy’ have all appeared in headlines to describe the perpetrator. Terrorist is a word that flies so easily into our headlines and news streams when the perpetrator is Muslim, but is approached with caution or disregarded entirely when the perpetrator is white.
Evidence of bias and Islamophobic reporting is not just anecdotal. It has been investigated and documented for decades and it has real and devastating impacts on the daily lives of Muslim and minority groups.
In the aftermath of a terrorist attack like that committed in Christchurch our power as news and content consumers lays not just in our ability to call out bias and Islamophobic reporting, but in other choices we make. Choices around what we consume, buy into, give credence to, discuss and share on our social media platforms and in our lives has the power to shape and influence the national conversation about terrorism and the increasing threat of the far-right.
As someone working within the countering violent extremism space I have become acutely aware of the tired and tiring tropes that exist when discussing hate motivated violence. I have watched as those tropes enter mainstream conversations through the questions journalists ask, the selection and appearances of ‘experts’ on panels and the views expressed in opinion editorials. Many of these tropes subvert, divert or distract our ability to talk about the increasing risk and mainstreaming of the far right and Islamophobic thinking.
Below are five tropes we should approach with caution.
- Islamophobia: what’s in a name?
Since the popularisation of the term Islamophobia by the 1997 Runnymede Trust Report debate has raged over whether it even exists. More insidious than that are conversations around whether to use Islamophobia, anti-Muslim bigotry or anti-Muslim hatred. Attempts to speak about Islamophobia can be quickly steered towards conversations around whether the term is appropriate or accurate so that those conversations are seamlessly reduced to semantics. Attention is then drawn away from discussing Islamophobia and the impact it has on people’s lives and becomes an exercise in semantic hair splitting.
It is important to remember Islamophobia is a connotative word. It has secondary meaning, with emotions and associations linked to it. It is safe to assume that others engaging in a conversation in good faith about Islamophobia know what you mean when you use it. Attempts to challenge that meaning because it is not denotative (literal) or accurate on technical grounds, subvert our ability to acknowledge Islamophobia as real. It would be like being in a house that is on fire and engaging in a lengthy debate with the person next to you on whether the fire is blazing or raging.
Instead we can advocate for a public enquiry into Islamophobia and support those who are calling for independent inquiries within their spaces.
- The link between far-right violence and violent Islamism
There is a discourse within countering violent extremism that seeks to identify the commonalities and mutually reinforcing connections between the far right and violent Islamism. This is often referred to as reciprocal radicalisation, cumulative radicalisation or co-radicalisation. Research on how hate groups feed off each other is important. Knowing the psychology of hate is important to understanding how to build protective factors around people who may be vulnerable and offer them pathways out.
Media reporting of the Christchurch attack has begun to ask questions and discuss the similarities between the Christchurch perpetrator and violent Islamists. Yet, the media rarely asks the same questions or attempts to draw attention to far-right terrorism and violence when the perpetrator identifies as Muslim.
The bias means Islamist terrorism is treated as abhorrent violence in its own right, while Islamophobic terrorism is treated as abhorrent violence partly influenced by a section existing ‘within’ Muslim communities. There is a subtext that takes the most grotesque, distorted misinterpretation of the victim’s religion, an interpretation Muslims have long rejected, resisted and had to suffer under, and establishes it as significant in the actions of a far right terrorist who also hates them. We should be able to discuss far right violence and terrorism in and of itself.
When we give disproportionate attention to how Islamist terrorism influences far right terrorism we present a false reality of exclusivity, ignoring that far right movements exploit other tension points in our society. Far right groups exploit class, race, gender, sexuality, education, welfare provision, unemployment, immigration, housing, free speech and child sexual exploitation. To single out Islamist motivated violence, without giving due attention to the others is to assign disproportionate significance to those connections. It disregards the range of issues co-opted or exploited by the far right and shrinks our range of vision so that we fixate on the religion of the victims as an influencing factor. Thus failing to confront those issues on their own merits.
In the aftermath of attacks like Christchurch we should stand our moral ground and opt-out of these conversations. Every time a connection is drawn between the Christchurch terrorist and violent Islamist terrorists the subliminal message we send is that Muslims do it too. To have these conversations when families have not even buried their loved ones is to disregard their pain and tarnish their suffering with secondary guilt and blame.
- Unsolicited advice to Muslims
Media outlets have begun to publish unsolicited advice to Muslims around how they should be feeling after the Christchurch terrorist attack. Some of this advice is useful and practical. However, other advice has surfaced that carries with it a sinister undertone. Muslims have been advised to not give in to hate and in their rage to not silence legitimate conversations around immigration and Islam. Yet there is no basis to suggest that hate would be our default position.
As the Christchurch perpetrator entered the mosque with a gun in open view a Muslim man greeted him with “hello brother,” who he then shot. In a widely shared photograph paramedics are taking away a Muslim man on a stretcher. He has his right index finger raised. All Muslims know what that means. In fear of his life, he is reciting the Muslim testament of faith because it comforts him and it is the last words he wants to utter if he dies. The Imam leading the Friday prayer at Linwood Mosque when it was attacked has said “we still love this country…extremists would never ever touch our confidence.” These are not the words and actions of people moving towards hate, they are the words and actions of people living with fear.
To deny or mare with hatred Muslim’s capacity to respond to violence with defiance and resilience, a capacity given to cities around the world when hit with terror is to dehumanise them. It is to set the bar low for what we think their natural reactions will be and where it will lead them. It also carries connotations that because of these attacks Muslims may pose a greater danger to our societies and the values we hold dear.
In times like these we should be making the community affected feel safe and protected. The fear of copycat attacks is real for Muslims and police who have increased their presence around mosques and other faith institutions. Showing solidarity to the community affected and making sure those around us know we stand by them and are available to assist goes a long way to alleviate that fear.
- Speaking truth to powers
Technology has without doubt amplified and sped up the spread of hate. Only days ago Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web chose the 30th anniversary of the Internet to describe it as
“having given a voice to those who spread hatred,” and as “not necessarily serving humanity very well.”
We should absolutely be having conversations about the responsibility of tech companies to identify users and content, which incite hate and violence and the limits we want those tech companies to place on their platforms. We should also be holding tech companies to account for their failures to take action.
But, the solution to violent extremism is not singular and requires more than tech companies taking down content and closing down user accounts. The closure of user accounts and content will not magic our problems away and is akin to using a technical solution to solve a systemic problem. Government policies that alienate minority communities, the impacts of austerity, the hostile environment, institutional Islamophobia, fear-mongering Brexit campaigning, MPs courting far right sympathisers and media bias have all contributed to an environment where ethnic supremacy groups have felt emboldened and thrived.
When holding tech companies to account we should also not forget to hold others with authority and influence to account for their failures. By fixating only on the failures of tech companies, as the media is prone to do, we make them a scapegoat for the inaction and action of others. When we speak truth to power we should ensure those with power and influence do not manipulate where our truth is directed.
- Decoding hate
News platforms are deep into the process of decoding the perpetrator’s hate. As consumers of news we have to scrutinise the choices we make about what we share about the perpetrator and recognise that even when we share content we feel will demonstrate a counter argument to that mind set we may be giving it oxygen and facilitating its spread. The fact that violent extremists rely on the power of the media and the Internet to draw attention to and disseminate content that furthers their goals is a well established fact. Ensuring the media and we don’t become complicit to the spread of hate and cement the legacy he hopes to create is fundamental
Dr Joan Donovan, Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University advises the media on how to navigate the attention drawing and dissemination plans of terrorists who design attacks for the media in age of the Internet. She advocates for a media approach that quarantines hate through strategic choices around what it pays attention to. This involves journalists not decoding or annotating hate manifestos and materials. She describes those materials as “bait, loaded with keywords that lead down far right rabbit holes,” and the call outs to other far-right personalities in these materials as strategically placed and designed to create coverage and draw attention to the ideas. Instead, she suggests we focus on the impacts of Islamophobia and violent extremism.
By focusing on the impacts we humanise the debate and centre the victims, survivors and communities rather than the perpetrator. As news consumers we too can make strategic decisions. Through those strategic choices we can limit the reach of media coverage that fixates on the hate behind the violence or the ‘personal difficulties’ of the perpetrator and extend the reach of media outlets that honour the victims and emphasises the impacts of such devastating acts.
Saeida Rouass is a writer and countering violent extremism professional. She is also a 2019 Churchill Fellow through which she will travel internationally to meet and learn from women and communities impacted by hate motivated violence. Follow @SaeidaRouass