First published in Jacobin
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick and Prime Minister Theresa May were quick to call Darren Osborne’s June 19 attack in London an act of terrorism. Osborne allegedly shouted “I’m going to kill all Muslims” as he drove a van into the crowd leaving the Muslim Welfare Centre, killing Makram Ali and injuring ten others. May explained that the attack was “declared a terrorist incident within eight minutes” of the first emergency call, and Dick commented that “this was quite clearly an attack on Muslims.”
Moreover, politicians and the media often depict Muslim extremists as representatives of the Muslim community, which subjects Muslims to collective suspicion and requires them to apologize for crimes with which they had nothing to do. On the other hand, white perpetrators — including those who commit violence in the name of a race or nation — receive a wait-and-see approach, often based on the assessment of their individual psychological state and social status. As a result, they’re often depicted as mentally unstable or socially inept loners, and therefore not representative of their communities.
In Osborne’s case, however, there was a clear divide between government and media rhetoric. The police and prime minister identified him as a terrorist, but the Times described him as a “jobless ‘lone wolf’” with “mental health problems,” the Guardian called him “aggressive” and “strange,” and the Telegraph reported that he had “tried to kill himself and asked to be sectioned.”
As is common in the British media landscape, the Daily Mail went a step further. It depoliticized Osborne’s attack and even found a way to blame Islamist extremism. Its June 19 headline read:
White van driver injures at least 10 people after ploughing into crowd outside London’s Finsbury Park mosque where hate cleric Abu Hamza once preached as Muslims finish their evening prayers.
The Daily Mail did not identify Osborne with his horrific act, but with his vehicle. Meanwhile, it linked the victims to the location’s history, not to the fact Osborne targeted them. The article described Osborne as a “clean-shaven white man,” pointedly differentiating him from a racialized Muslim with a beard.
The newspaper has since apologized, not for associating the victims with terrorism but because it got its facts wrong: the attack occurred outside the Muslim Welfare Centre, not Finsbury Park Mosque, which had already addressed the issue of extremism. The Daily Mail presented its headline as an error, not a reflection of its ideology.
Unfortunately, the reaction to the Finsbury attack fits into a larger media and political landscape that not only excuses far-right violence but also normalize the rhetoric that fuels it. If we want to address the twin issues of terrorism and extremism, we must address the role that far-right politics play.
Newspapers and politicians seem hesitant to link attacks perpetrated by white, British people to a specific identity group or political ideology.
The media trotted out the same talking points last June when Thomas Mair murdered Jo Cox. Nigel Farage, then-leader of the far-right UKIP and media darling, called Mair “one man with serious mental health issues,”Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill described him as a “warped killer,” and the Daily Mail said he was a “loner” seeking counselling.
The immediate individualization and exceptionalism of Mair means that other members of his group are not expected to identify with him, provide a collective alibi, or even apologize — as Muslims are regularly asked to do after a terrorist attack.
Muslim perpetrators do receive this more personal analysis, which plays a central in the government’s Prevent strategy and the wider discourses around radicalization, risk, and resilience. However, it typically comes at a later stage, well after the media has applied the label of terrorism and made Islam the central issue.
Further, even when a white perpetrator explicitly links his terrorist act to a specific ideology, the media continues to debate his identification with the far right. Mair’s case is especially egregious. He shouted “Britain first, this is for Britain” during the attack; he had campaigned for the far-right group Britain First and was previously associated with the Springbok Club; he owned white supremacist and neo-Nazi materials; and he identified himself as a “political activist.”
Following the murder, however, Britain First leader Paul Golding distanced his group from Mair and the attack:
Was he referring to an organization? Was he referring to a slogan? Was he just shouting out in the middle of an EU debate: “Putting Britain first”? You know, I’ve heard this almost every day.
Golding’s reaction to the Finsbury attack extended this narrative. He criticized observers who associated Osborne with the far right, tweeting: “Islamic Terror attacks = Islam NOT to blame / Revenge attack = The ‘far right’ and conservatives to blame #leftylogic #FinsburyPark.” The South Wales National Front leader, Adam Lloyd, espoused a similar line, stating, “Anyone with a right mind can see this is not a terrorist attack but a revenge attack.”
These responses differentiate terror and revenge, associating the former with a whole population and the latter with a single actor. Interestingly, however, they also identify the far right with Islam, in that members of both groups become victims of collective suspicion and guilt in the wake of a violent act.
Tommy Robinson of the English Defence League (EDL) and the British branch of Pegida (a far-right anti-Muslim organization) took a different tack at first, tweeting on June 19: “I genuinely hope the innocent people targeted tonight outside the mosque are ok.” He added, “the man who committed this is a terrorist, it’s a disgusting act.” However, Robinson also deployed the “mentally unstable loner” discourse that same day, claiming in another tweet that “Yesterdays attacker probably was a REAL lone wolf. No Network or visiting religious place preaching hate, no training, just a lone nut job.”
In his analysis, Robinson not only disassociated the far right from the “REAL lone wolf” but also from the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist radicalized in a “religious place preaching hate.” Like the Daily Mail, he blamed the attack on the incorrectly identified mosque: “The mosque where the attack happened tonight has a long history of creating terrorists & radical jihadists & promoting hate & segregation.”
While attempting to distance their groups from attacks like Osborne’s, far-right leaders nevertheless use these tragedies to promote their ideology.
When Robinson arrived at London Bridge, the media treated him as if he were a witness or expert. He explained: “This is the reality. The reality is these people are waging war on us.” He used the attack to as an opportunity to justify so-called lone wolves, explaining that inaction by the government “will only facilitate the creation of a disgruntled and angry population who will end up cleaning out this Islamic problem.” His comments rationalize far-right violence as an appropriate response to war while positioning Muslims — including those who would become Osborne’s victims just weeks later — as enemies of the state.
Anne Marie-Walters, founder of Sharia Watch UK and former Pegida UK leader, echoed Robinson in the wake of the Finsbury Park attack, tweeting: “Its called a war, and if not for Islam, none of it would be happening.”
Putting Far-Right Terror on the Agenda
In addition to immediately recognizing the Finsbury Park attack as terrorism, May went further in her public statement:
It is a reminder that terrorism, extremism and hatred take many forms and our determination to tackle them must be the same, whoever is responsible.… [T]here has been far too much tolerance of extremism in our country over many years — and that means extremism of any kind, including Islamophobia.… [W]e will establish a new Commission for Countering Extremism as a statutory body to help fight hatred and extremism in the same way as we have fought racism.
May’s swift response comes amid rising far-right violence. According to Home Office figures in June 2017, the number of people held for suspected domestic terror offenses has jumped nearly fivefold, from ten to forty-eight, in the past year.
In December 2016, National Action became the first far-right group banned as a terrorist organization. Currently, a quarter of counterterror interventions relate to far-right sympathizers, with far-right referrals outnumbering Islamist ones in some areas. Indeed, Finsbury Park led to another increase in referrals.
Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hate crimes as well as acts or incidents that are not defined as criminal have surged following the Manchester and London Bridge attacks. Police and Tell Mama recorded a massive rise in hate crimes and incidents against Muslims following the arena bombing — from twenty-five the week earlier to 139 the week after — as well as a spike in London prior to the Finsbury Park attack. The Met police say that these numbers have been rising for the last four years, with “343 incidents in the twelve months to March 2013, 1,109 in the twelve months to March 2016, and 1,260 in the twelve months to this March.”
This should come as no surprise, as Islamophobic sentiment generally increases following terror attacks, no matter where they occur. According to data compiled by Tell Mama, hate crimes against Muslims in the UK increased more than 300 percent following the November 2015 Paris attacks, and most victims were Muslim girls and women “in traditional Islamic dress.”
Other factors, such as the EU referendum, have made the situation worse. The Brexit victory saw rising levels of crimes that target Europeans, as well as black and minority ethnic peoples and Muslims. According to then–Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, police recorded more than 2,300 racially motivated offenses in London in the thirty-eight days following the referendum, compared to 1,400 in the thirty-eight days before. According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, these crimes increased 49 percent in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales in the month following the referendum.
While the government focus on the far-right threat and the role played by Islamophobia may be a step in the right direction, it must address two overlapping problems.
The Construction of Equivalence and Symmetry
We find extremism in many communities, and violence against innocent people is almost universally condemned. However, equalizing extremism and violence from all sides, as May does, serves a particular ideological function and conceals more systemic forms of inequality. The discourse of equivalence flattens out power imbalances and excuses the far right’s evocation of war.
The uncritical use of the term “terrorism” justifies counterterrorism policies without challenging their effectiveness or understanding their impact on citizens, particularly the Muslim communities they scrutinize and securitize. Indeed, May’s response to Finsbury Park is premised on the belief that the UK is a post-racial society.
It also denies and negates the mainstream legitimization of the far-right in the name of combatting of “Islamists.” Islamists do not have access to mainstream elite discourse to legitimize their politics, do not get a platform in the mainstream media, and do not have politicians campaigning for their vote, using their language and framing or pushing policies that they have called for (on Muslim and other refugees or migrants). May is thus correct that Islamophobia is a factor, but it is not limited to the far right as her statements and approach claim; it has become normalized by the media, politicians and policies. Ignoring this asymmetry through the construction of an equivalence of “evils” is thus not only inaccurate, it is dangerously negligent.
May’s blinkered approached is confirmed by her claim that new measures will be designed to combat extremism and terrorism in the “same way as we have fought racism — because this extremism is every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life and we will stop at nothing to defeat it.” May not only ignores that Islamophobia isn’t limited to the fringes, as it is increasingly enshrined within mainstream society, including in her own Prevent policy, but she also demonstrates a flawed approach to the matter by claiming that the fight against racism has been successful. Evidence to the contrary grows every day, as can be seen in the rise in far-right activity, the increase in hate crimes, the now-mainstream anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric and policies, the Runnymede Trust’s reporting of institutionalized racism and ongoing structural inequalities, and the Grenfell tragedy.
Conservatives and anti-antiracists use an outdated and ossified definition of racism consciously and maliciously to keep this post-racial fantasy alive. They pretend racism only exists when it takes the shape of Powellism or the National Front, as if the obvious revival of anti-immigrant, repatriation, and small-island nationalism after Brexit doesn’t contradict their arguments. Right-wing libertarian circles usually promote this cheap anti-antiracist rhetoric. For example, Spiked’s editor Brendan O’Neill recently declared:
There is a great disparity between the handwringing over hate crime and what Britain is actually like. The open racism even I can remember in the 1980s has all but vanished … The likes of the BNP and EDL have withered due to lack of interest.
Those who deny the persistence of racism usually deny Islamophobia as well. Spiked often refers to the “myth of Islamophobia,” and Douglas Murray describes it as “a crock,” a product of the “Islamophobia lobby.”
In July 2014, Tim Black argued: “Again and again, this seething, popular mass of anti-Muslim sentiment never actually shows its face. The not-very-racist reality has consistently failed to live up to the burning-and-bigoted hype.” After the November 2015 Paris attack, which saw a statistical rise in anti-Muslim attacks, Black argued that “the actual anti-Muslim backlash, the actual fulfilment of Islamophobia proponents’ wet nightmares, the actual mass assault on each and every Muslim.… It continues to lack reality.”
Unsurprisingly, O’Neill denied Islamophobia’s role in the Finsbury Park attack. In typically far-right populist manner, he claimed Islamophobia is a bigoted insult wielded against the British demos, none of whom could possibly be anti-racist, let alone Muslim:
The media’s wildly inaccurate depiction of Britain as a hotbed of anti-Muslim hate, which lurks “all over the country,” is of a piece with the Islamist prejudice against British citizens. What unites the extreme Islamist and the modern liberal observer is a profound discomfort with the demos, a deep fear of ordinary people and their emotions and beliefs.
Using democracy as a pretense, O’Neill deflects accusations of racism by reversing the situation, claiming that the liberal elite has placed Muslims in a privileged position while forbidding the common people from expressing legitimate concerns. In reality, the media has elevated far-right figures like him, legitimizing their discourse in the name of combatting the Islamist threat. Meanwhile, Islamists never appear on mainstream media outlets, nor do they have politicians campaigning for their vote, using their language, and pushing their favorite policies.
Media, Politics, and Mainstream Normalized Hate
The far right has gained power, and we need to address the risk it poses. Nevertheless, Joe Mulhall reminds us that “we must avoid … tricking ourselves into believing that anti-Muslim prejudice is the preserve of the far right.” He goes on:
The worrying reality is that in Britain there has been a creeping process of normalization of anti-Muslim rhetoric, with some mainstream media outlets such as the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Daily Express and some politicians adopting positions not dissimilar to those promoted by anti-Muslim “counter-jihadists.”
Shaista Aziz of Post Ref Racism and The Everyday Bigotry Project argued that “[w]e need to talk about Islamophobia, white supremacy, and far-right terrorism.” In the Guardian, Nesrine Malik suggests that
Hate crimes of any nature do not occur in a vacuum, and there is a particularly urgent need to examine the context in which this attack took place. For innocent people to become targets, two things must happen: first, incitement to hatred, and then normalization.
Malik looks at both far-right hate preachers and the mainstream media, arguing that they often intersect on the issue of Islamophobia. Indeed, the Finsbury Park attack provides us with a striking example to illustrate this process of normalization.
Within days, the media not only interviewed Robinson but also gave him a platform on the popular show ITV This Morning. More mainstream figures such as Douglas Murray, a regular guest on the BBC, claim that less Islam equals less terrorism, that Muslims do not report terrorism to the police, and that conditions for Muslims in Europe must be “made harder across the board.”
Then there is Katie Hopkins, the one-time Sun columnist who has appeared on ITV This Morning and had her own show on LBC radio. She called refugees “cockroaches” in the Sun and demanded a “final solution” following the London Bridge attack, which prompted LBC to fire her.
Following the Finsbury Park attack, The Muslim Council of Britain warned that media outlets “are spreading hate against Muslims and people might be responding to that hate, talking about less Islam, and [something like this attack] may be the result.” The Council had already reported on negative and inaccurate headlines that promote fear and hatred. Among the most inflammatory were:
Daily Star Sunday, “UK Mosques Fundraising for terror”
The Sun, “RAMADAN TRAIN WRECK Muslim train driver crashed after going without food or drink for 15 hours during Ramadan”
Mail on Sunday, “Isolated British Muslims are so cut off from the rest of society that they see the UK as 75 percent Islamic, shock report reveals”
ITN, “Half of UK Muslims would not report extremism”
The Sun, “MUSLIM CBB SHOCK TV boss defends inclusion of Anjem Choudary acolyte in new BBC reality show Muslims Like Us”
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) echoed this warning in October 2016, when it criticized the British media’s “reckless” reporting. Citing the Daily Mail, the Sun, and Katie Hopkins, as well as David Cameron and Theresa May, the ECRI concluded that:
in light of the fact that Muslims are increasingly under the spotlight as a result of recent Isis-related terrorist acts around the world, fueling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety.
Some might contest the connection between the media’s Islamophobic rhetoric and violence against Muslims. Others might protest that this argument blurs mainstream media and the far right, as if some clear, fixed boundary existed between them. If the response to Finsbury Park didn’t convince these skeptics, a more direct link between the media and violence appeared soon after.
A week after the Finsbury Park attack, a Muslim man was knocked unconscious, and his home was spray-painted with statements that echo Katie Hopkins, including “Pakis out. We need a final solution #Machester [sic].”
The Institute of Race Relations further demonstrated that the boundaries between the mainstream and far right — not to mention between Islamophobic rhetoric, government policy, and violence — no longer exist. Its report Racial Violence and the Brexit State showed that that perpetrators of hate attacks often repeat the same racial epithets that the media, far-right politicians, and government officials use.
Nigel Farage most obviously illustrates the fuzzy borders between the extreme and the mainstream, having navigated both sides and legitimized ideas that would have once been considered unacceptable in public discourse.
Tellingly, as he celebrated Brexit, he declared: “I, almost single-handedly, destroyed the far right in British politics,” echoing O’Neill’s claim that the far right belongs in history books. Farage ignored the spike in racist attacks before and after the referendum and omitted the campaign he forced on an apparently pro-EU prime minister. He also didn’t seem to recognize that much of UKIP’s strategy was founded on recognizable far-right tropes, as its controversial poster so forcefully showed.
Indeed, Farage has even gone further, justifying the use of violence to reach his goal:
It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.
Despite his use of this rhetoric, we cannot entirely blame Farage for the rise in hateful rhetoric, incidents, and crimes. Without the help of the mainstream media, ready and willing to offer him disproportionate coverage — albeit mostly negative — Farage’s ideas never would have spread beyond a few country pubs.
The media failed to effectively report on the rise of the far right, and cowardly politicians chose to engage with the small yet noisy minority of racists. After all, that’s easier than tackling the issues that have left growing part of the population deeply disillusioned with the system and distrustful of politicians.
If Britain wants to combat extremism and terrorism, it must fight mainstream and extreme racism together, addressing the relationship between them and not allowing the former to feed the latter.