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Finsbury Park coverage: Lazy stereotypes promoted by eloquent Islamophobes must end here Open in fullscreen

Shenaz Bunglawala

Finsbury Park coverage: Lazy stereotypes promoted by eloquent Islamophobes must end here

The media's obsession with Finsbury Park mosque's past is extremely harmful [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 June, 2017

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Comment: With every fresh news cycle that follows an extremist attack, the media goes a little further in failing Muslim communities in the UK, writes Shenaz Bunglawala.

Here we go again.

Is there no terrorist incident that is capable of breaking the cycle that predisposes the media tendency to fill our news channels and pages with vitriolic voices that only serve to further polarise communities?

In the wake of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, BBC One took the not unusual step of inviting Douglas Murray onto its Sunday Politics programme that week to rehearse his fluent and toxic repertoire of anti-Muslim bile.

Is it with a sense of compunction about the outrage its decision caused among Muslims, that the corporation explored the question of how the media should respond to terrorist incidents on the Today programme this morning, inviting Professor Fawaz Gerges to comment on the 'ritual' of the media cycle? I'd like to think so.

But even if it were so, the good professor's incisive remarks about media 'sensationalism' and the lack of 'proportionality' in the coverage will do little than make an indiscernible dent in the type and volume of output of which he complains.

Moreover, while the BBC may have displayed a pang of conscience in its choice of studio guests this time around, ITV's Good Morning reverted to type with the former EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, invited on to rail against the Quran.

ITV's Good Morning reverted to type with the former EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, invited on to rail against the Quran

That programme producers could be so ignorant as to overlook that Ramadan is the time when Muslims mark the arrival of revelation and the first verses of the Quran is remarkable.

Earlier this month I chaired a workshop at the Byline Festival exploring the role of the media in contributing to anti-Muslim hostility and its impact on local communities.

A local resident displays her solidarity with victims of Islamophobia [Getty]

I had consciously invited Mohammed Kozbar, chairman of the Finsbury Park mosque, to address the audience made up of journalism students and teachers, and activists because the mosque is the epitome of the way in which the British media fails Muslim communities in the UK.

It seems prescient to me now that Kozbar spoke of the media's obsession with the mosque's past and not its present, of a time when a faction led by Abu Hamza sought control of the mosque but were deterred by the local Muslim leadership with the assistance of the police and local council.

It bears echoes of the media's volte face after the jailing of Anjem Choudary, the bane of British Muslim communities.

While Muslims were decrying the media's obsession with a creature of their own making and the cost to their communities of his prolific outings on British media, the media itself was too busy crowing about his incarceration to take note of its own culpability in his ascent to fame.

The Finsbury Park mosque is the epitome of the way in which the British media fails Muslim communities in the UK

Kozbar's remarks about the media's persistent demonisation of his mosque such as to render the very name 'Finsbury Park mosque' synonymous with the problem of 'radical preachers' and 'radicalisation' appear to be borne out in the recent coverage which has often mistakenly conflated the location of Sunday night's terrorist incident with the mosque.

The Muslim Welfare House is a distinct institution not far from the Finsbury Park mosque, but such is the notoriety and catalogue of negative coverage that it is easy to frame the incident with reference to the latter, if only to unwittingly make space for the inevitable round of hysterical commentary about what goes on in British mosques and how, apparently, imams are part of the problem.

Read more: Why this Muslim is waiting for a white apology march after Finsbury Park attack

In fact, that stage was set last week with the recently retired Met Commander Mak Chishty writing in last week's Sunday Times calling for "a regulatory body... to offer guidelines on regulating Friday sermons within mosques around Britain to ensure that freedom of religious expression is in line with our British values".

The media was too busy crowing about Anjem Choudary's incarceration to take note of its own culpability in his ascent to fame

What better dart to puncture the presumption that imams in British mosques are not doing exactly that than the words of praise for Imam Mohammed Mahmoud, the imam of Muslim Welfare House.

Mayor Sadiq Khan extolled the imam's actions referring to him as "a good faith leader and a good Muslim leader" and the print media today is awash with references to his 'heroism'. It's not the recognition that bothers me as much as a sense that he is celebrated as the exception and not the norm.

Then there are the photos of the Prime Minister meeting with local faith leaders assuring them of her government's determination to tackle all forms of extremism without a hint of irony over the strategy of Muslim exclusion adopted in her time as Home Secretary and PM that has predictably contributed to the isolation of Muslims and Islamic institutions who do tremendously good work.

It has become all too easy to default to stereotypes and assumptions about British Muslims and Islamic religious institutions after years of baleful media coverage

The fact is, it has become all too easy to default to stereotypes and assumptions about British Muslims and Islamic religious institutions after years of baleful media coverage. Rather than treading with openness and a spirit of inquiry, Muslims have become accustomed to the media treating anecdotes as generalisations and hypotheses as facts when it comes to reporting on Muslims in the UK.

The individual and collective agency of Muslims and their work in local communities has been overly obscured by lazy stereotypes promoted by eloquent Islamophobes and a tendentious discourse promulgated by vocal opponents who themselves have little or no contact with grassroots Muslim communities.

Yet theirs are the voices that dominate our airwaves and our newspapers. 

That we can detect demonstrable fatigue with the 'ritual' of the media cycle surrounding terrorist incidents owes much to the decisions made on a regular basis by journalists, producers and editors in our mainstream newspapers and television channels and to the flaws in the current system of news production.

At a workshop in a tent in Ashdown Forest earlier this month, a group of journalism students heard the chairman of Finsbury Park mosque explain his difficulties in getting a fair hearing in the British press.

It shouldn't take a terrorist incident in his back yard for that to change.

Shenaz Bunglawala was formerly head of research at MEND (Muslim Engagement & Development) where she led research into Islamophobia in the British media, racial and religious equality and the impact of counter-terrorism legislation on British Muslim communities. She is a director of the Byline Festival Foundation for inclusive journalism.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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