On Friday morning, as the news from Christchurch was still rolling across radio bulletins, Sir Mark Rowley, the former head of counter-terrorism at the Met, was commenting on the horror on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Fifty Muslims had been brutally murdered, and 48 seriously injured. For 17 horrifying minutes, a white supremacist terrorist unloaded round after round of bullets into men, women and children.
Islamophobia was undoubtedly real and on the rise and being propagated online, said Rowley. But, he went on to quibble, Islamophobia wasn’t racism. To conflate the two was, he claimed, “clumsy thinking”.
The remark was treated as a random aside, made off the cuff, and left entirely unchallenged. Why? Because, it would seem, even on a morning when we’re reeling, devastated and trying to process terrorist violence in mosques, it is fair game to diminish the lived reality of Muslims. Which isn’t me being dramatic; it is simply a fact.
Islamophobia is racism: it’s not a coincidence that the majority of Muslims are not white and have roots in formerly colonised countries. It’s not an exaggeration to say that racist stereotypes abound to the point where you don’t even have to be a Muslim to be attacked as one (just ask a Sikh navigating the world post-9/11).
Islamophobia does not simply exist on the unpalatable mass of the internet. It’s not the preserve of rightwing extremists whom we write off as online nutters. It leaks across public life, in our institutions and our media, to form a pernicious feedback loop and almost nobody cares. If in doubt, consider the lonely figure cut by Sayeeda Warsi, whose calls for an inquiry into the documented Islamophobia within the Conservative party are blithely ignored by government.
Remember a referendum campaign won on lies, fear-mongering about mass immigration from refugees, from Turkey, from anyone with “a funny tinge”. Bear in mind the dogged work of Miqdaad Versi, of the Muslim Council of Britain, politely lodging complaints against thousands of Islamophobic stories in the press, often upheld by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and barely anyone batting an eyelid. Given the hysterical state of national debate, it is either disingenuous or profoundly stupid to claim that the daily drip-feed of Islamophobia, which is now so normalised in Britain as to be hardly remarkable, doesn’t significantly shape the way Muslims are perceived and treated.
Words matter. So do images. It’s not for nothing that the atrocity in Christchurch was preceded by a 74-page manifesto published online and then streamed on Facebook Live. If a white supremacist can understand this power, it’s not beyond the editor who chose to publish a picture of him as a toddler on its front page, rather than using that space to humanise his victims.
It certainly can’t escape the commentators who have made their bread and butter demonising and dehumanising Muslims and are expressing shock and grief at how their bile manifests in the real world.
Both the Daily Mail and the Mirror chose to gorge on the terrorist’s brutality, and broadcast his footage to their audience until they were shamed into removing it. This callous lack of humanity simply would never occur were the victims not Muslim and their lives already so othered, so seemingly disposable and without value. How did this angelic little boy grow up to be a mass killer, asks the Mirror. What did his grandmother think of her “good boy” grandson, probes the Daily Mail. Frankly, I don’t care. I don’t want to glorify his name. I’m not yet ready for Newsnight choosing to give a platform to a white fascist to discuss the massacre, under the hollow pursuit of free speech.
It’s an exhausted cliche to point out the hypocritical differences in the way the Christchurch terrorist is being covered by our press and what we learned about, say, the killers of the British soldier Lee Rigby. Or the 7/7 bombers.
While it is, of course, a legitimate journalistic endeavour to understand how and why the gunman did what he did, humanising a mass murderer desperate for notoriety should not be the main focus of our attention. If he weren’t an angry white man, it wouldn’t be. It’s not too much to ask that care and empathy be focused on the victims. Their families. Their lives.