Media and politicians blamed for hate crimes

Researchers say that Muslims in London have become outcasts subject to casual abuse, name calling, arson and even murder.

LONDON // Inflammatory coverage by sections of the mass media is fuelling hate crimes against Muslims in Britain, according to a new report. The report, the first part of a 10-year Europe-wide research project spearheaded by the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter, also finds that violence against Muslims in Britain is widely underreported.

It calls on hate crimes to be taken much more seriously by the police, the government and the media. Written by Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Robert Lambert, a former antiterrorist officer with the Metropolitan Police, the report is a preliminary study to be followed by a comprehensive review of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim crimes in the UK in July. It shows how fear of, and prejudice against, Muslim communities can lead to violence, with the negative view of Muslims often fed by media reports or commentaries, as well as by politicians.

"These spread stereotypes and fears that stigmatise, alienate and isolate Muslims as threats to safety, security and social cohesion," the report says. Peter Oborne, a columnist for the right-wing Daily Mail, signifies his own concern at the situation by writing in the foreword: "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."

Mr Oborne adds that British Muslims now perform an "unenviable outcast role" in society, previously the preserve of "Germans, Roman Catholics, Jews and West Indians". Concentrating on an analysis of hate crimes against Muslims in London, the report says the community faces the threat of intimidation and violence from three groups. The most obvious is from "a small violent extremist, nationalist milieu that has broadly the same political analysis as the British National Party [BNP]", the report says.

"Secondly, from London gangs who have no allegiance with or affinity to the BNP. Thirdly, from a small number of Londoners and visitors to London who appear to be acting on prejudices gained via negative media portrayals of Muslims as terrorists and security threats." Mr Githens-Mazer, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter, said: "Anti-Muslim hate crimes in London have caused death and serious injuries and have generally inflicted suffering, fear and distress just like racist hate crimes aimed at other minorities in the capital.

"However, the motivation for anti-Muslim hate crimes is not as well understood by government, media or the police as racist hate crimes. Additional problems arise because a significant number of Muslim Londoners don't report crimes to the police, and that makes it difficult to assess or quantify the scale of the problem." The report, being followed up with research in other cities, says most people who attack Muslims "feel licensed to abuse, assault and intimidate Muslims in terms that mirror elements of mainstream media and political comment that became commonplace during the last decade".

Although the report does not mention by name any newspapers - although several right-wing tabloids have been accused of running unfounded scare stories in recent years - it does allude to the phrase "Londonistan", the title of a book by the columnist Melanie Phillips, a prominent Israeli apologist. "Islamophobic, negative and unwarranted portrayals of Muslim London as Londonistan, and Muslim Londoners as terrorists, sympathisers and subversives in sections of the media, appear to provide the motivation for a significant number of anti-Muslim hate crimes," the report claims.

"Interviewees with long experience of extremist nationalist street violence in London are unequivocal in their assessment that Muslim Londoners are now a prime target for serious violence and intimidation in the way that Londoners from minority ethnic communities once were. "Similarly, interviewees with experience of London street gangs that have no connection or affinity with extremist nationalist politics are adamant that Muslims have become prime targets for serious attacks."

The report says hate crimes against Muslims range from murder at the top end of the scale, to such persistent harassment as name-calling and spitting. Low-level hate crimes are perpetrated by individuals who belong to no particular faction or gang but who feel free to abuse Muslims because of attitudes they have picked up from the media, the report says. Writing in The Guardian, the report's authors say: "Politicians, ranging from the fringes of the UK Independence Party and the BNP, to serious mainstream politicians in the Labour and Conservative parties, not only feel that there is no social or political penalty for attacking Islam, but that not attacking Muslims enough risks being politically outflanked.

"Politicians are making regular political assessments that it's a vote-winner to call for the proscription of Hizb-ut-Tahrir rather than the [extreme right] English Defence League [EDL] - despite the fact the EDL has organised a string of marches which have led to police officers being injured and civil unrest. "This behaviour is egged on by populist commentators in the tabloids and beyond, who sensationalise stories to gain print space and airtime."

Muhammad Abdul Bari, the general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, sent a letter last week to Alan Johnson, the home secretary, highlighting some of the concerns in the report. "Amongst many British Muslim communities, there is a growing disenchantment at the lacklustre response from our political leaders to speak out against anti-Muslim hatred," he wrote. "Whether this exists in explicit form through the actions of far-right groups, or implicitly with hysterical headlines in our media, the policy response to any of these has been far from satisfactory.

"We ask you to take leadership in this matter, especially in a year where divisive elements may well flourish in the run-up to the next general election."