With great power comes great responsibility

Fatima Junaid 14 February 2010

No quote is more apt for this piece than from that red-and-blue superhero.

It was with disappointment and irritation that I found the photo of Anjem Choudary on the cover of TCS a couple of weeks ago. The cartoon villain of our times was given a privileged double-paged spread publishing an interview with him. As head of the controversial Islam4UK group, recently banned by the government for airing ‘extreme’ views, the editors justified the interview on grounds that it was of interest to its readers, topical and relevant. All true, but only because any relevance had been generated from a sensationalist media frenzy.

Islam4UK is a laughable organisation that has next to no credibility in the British Muslim community. Mr Choudary himself even admits to seeking media attention. In his own words about the proposed march through Wootton Bassett: “It is a publicity stunt, you can call it that, to create awareness.” Our response, according to the Muslim Council of Britain, should be “to ensure we do not grant them the oxygen of publicity” Now, unfortunately, I too have become another culprit.

 Indeed, publicity is what Choudary and Islam4UK thrive on. With a few sensational sound bites and a poised greedy media body waiting in the midst and voila, Islam4UK get free advertising and Rupert Murdoch sells more newspapers. Everyone’s a winner, apparently.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The disproportionate attention given to the group perpetuates the stereotype in many people’s eyes that Muslims are extreme bigots, unwilling to adhere to ‘Western values’, segregating rather than integrating into society and seeking to overthrow the British system. A quick look at the Facebook group against the march to Wootton Bassett, show a mass of racist and Islamophobic comments. The winners of such media reporting are always to be far right groups such as the BNP and EDL. What the media must recognise is their duty towards the public and that while freedom of speech exists, so too does responsibility in exercising it.

 This is not a case of ‘moderate’ Muslims not striving to get their voice heard. Most imams and community leaders would publicly condemn extremism and advocate integration and community cohesion but let’s be realistic, which headline are The Sun or Daily Mail more likely to go with: ‘IMAM SAYS: ALL FILTHY BRITS MUST DIE’ or ‘Chapattis and Chai: Imam tells Muslims to open their doors to their neighbours’? The only way to describe the behaviour of the media towards Muslims in particular these past few years is feckless and negligent. The fact remains that for many people, such papers are their only source of news and they often take these words at face value.

A report written by a former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism officer, published two weeks ago, blames the increase in Islamophobic attacks in London on the ‘islamophobic, negative and unwarranted portrayals of Muslims’. In his foreword, the rightwing journalist Peter Oborne writes: “The constant assault on Muslims from certain politicians, and above all in the mainstream media, has created an atmosphere where hate crimes, ranging from casual abuse, to arson and even murder, are bound to occur and are even in a sense encouraged by mainstream society.”

 So where does TCS fit into this? Yes, it should continue to project a range of perspectives and I commend the recent interview with Mr Winter, a Muslim who strongly denounces terrorism and actively works to make a more harmonious and peaceful society.

There are indeed other Muslims who hold what are termed extreme views and it is well within the press’ right to interview and publish such opinions. What I object to is the disproportionate platform given to these groups by the media, and the perpetuation of the idea that they have any standing in, or hold any influence over, the British Muslim community.

Fatima Junaid