Islamophobia In UK’s Media & Law

Any nation’s government’s most important duty is to safeguard its citizens. Safety and security are two of the most basic rights the citizens of a nation can expect from their government. However, an important question in this regard is how best to provide that protection. Counter-terrorism measures are important but also have the power to stigmatize communities, aggravate resentment, and bolster support for terrorism-related movements. In the United Kingdom, it is an unavoidable fact that a majority of citizens who are suspected of terrorist activities are Muslim. Muslims in the UK have been treated as a ‘suspect community’ for a long time and are used to being targeted by authorities simply because of their religion. This makes it all the more difficult to make sure that the country’s counterterrorism measures are not counter-productive. Therefore, it is critical to understand the effects of counter-terrorism measures and whether they are able to protect human rights and not fuel discrimination, stigmatize groups, or increase repression.

Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000
The first counterterrorism measure that needs to be highlighted is the seventh schedule of the UK’s 2000 Counterterrorism Act wherein power is given to any constable, immigration, or customs officer to detain and question a person at a port or border area for up to nine hours, in case the officer has a reason to believe that the person entering or leaving the UK is a terrorist. The act explicitly states that an officer may exercise his schedule 7 powers “whether or not he has grounds for suspecting” that a person is a terrorist. The person detained can be strip-searched, photographed, and even have his fingerprints or DNA taken. According to a study by Durham University in association with the Equality and Human Rights Commission 2011, being stopped at the airport has become a routine experience for many Muslims, whereas non-Muslims had no experience of Schedule 7 stops. The individuals surveyed explained that during their interrogation, officials would ask them how many times a day they pray, their understanding of Jihad, the mosques they attend, and more.

Sections 44 to 46 of the Terrorism Act 2000
These sections of the Terrorism Act give power to senior officers of the UK Police to stop pedestrians or vehicles to search for items that the officers suspect could be used for terrorism-related activities. This power is controversial because of the many allegations of its overuse and misuse by authorities. There have also been concerns about whether this measure is actually effective in countering terrorism or not. According to the previously mentioned study by Durham University, numerous Muslims, particularly young men have been subjected to these sudden searches with absolutely no grounds. Section 44 and other policing powers have become many Muslim men’s most frequent contact with the police. Another important case that deserves attention is from Birmingham where cameras were installed in two Muslim neighborhoods in Birmingham to allegedly combat antisocial behavior, drug dealing, and vehicle crime in the area. Police sources confirmed that this project called “Project champion” was a first of its kind in the UK that sought to monitor a population that was seen as “at risk” of extremism.

Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE or prevent) Programme
The Prevent Strategy was unveiled in the UK in 2007 in response to the 2005 London bombings with an approach to counter Al-Qaeda’s domestic terrorism. This strategy significantly altered the government’s relations with Muslim communities and organizations. The Labour government wanted to “fundamentally rebalance their engagement” by funding projects like the Radical Middle Way project to give a counter-narrative to Al-Qaeda’s ideology and facilitating the creation of Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board to create a UK-style system of mosque regulation. Critics of this agenda argued that the focus on Muslims, the approach to community engagement through the prism of counter-terrorism, and the overlap between Prevent and Community Cohesion policies securitized state engagement with Muslims and cast Muslims as a ‘suspect community’. 

Mosques, Schools and Universities
Schools, Universities, and Mosques have remained under the UK’s radar of counterterrorism policies. Certain actions of the UK police and other security forces have led young Muslims to believe that they are under close watch. In 2021, a video surfaced online wherein a group of Muslim students was forced to pray outside their school, Oldham Academy North, in the winter cold. It has been claimed that the students’ teacher demanded them to leave the school building to conduct their Friday prayers. In response to the public outcry regarding this case, the school came out with a public apology.

This case is an example of the deep-rooted anxieties people in the United Kingdom have about Muslims. Counterterrorism measures are not experienced in isolation but, in fact, contribute to Muslims feeling as though they are a ‘suspect community’. Such measures can and are resulting in Muslims feeling alienated from the rest of British society. There is a disconnect between the kind of importance that is given to key social issues in Muslim communities and the emphasis on terrorism, and the attention these receive by UK’s policymakers which requires dire change.

Islamophobia in Media

As Edward W. Said said in his book, Orientalism, “In newsreels or news photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences.” “…Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad.” (Said, 1978). According to a report by Hope, not Hate, UK-based advocacy, an anti-fascist group, more than one-third of the UK’s citizens believe that Islam is a threat to the “British way of life”. According to another report by the Muslim Council of Britain, most coverage of Muslims in British outlets has a negative connotation. The analysis concludes that all news stories in the mainstream media contribute to Islamophobia. Facts cannot deny the existence of Islamophobia in UK’s media sources, be it television shows, movies, books, or newspapers.

After the Cold War, it has been argued by many scholars that there was a sudden and very negative shift of British media onto Islam and unfortunately Islamophobia in UK’s news coverage has not stopped ever since. The region has a bad habit of applauding right-leaning journalists such as Peregrine Worsthorne and media outlets such as The Daily Telegraph and The Times that practice blatant Islamophobia and very overtly so. An important example that highlights the seriousness of anti-Muslim sentiment UK’s media coverage is Boris Johnson’s infamous article on Muslim women wearing the face veil, where he referred to them as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, leading to a 375% spike in incidents of islamophobia.

According to Said, the long-term exaggerated image of Arabs as terrorists and violent in Western media, which is not only limited to newspapers but also movies, radio, and television, has been of much importance to the new wave of anti-Arab racism that exists in the world today after 9/11. (Said, 1978)

For an instance, the 2010 UK-based movie “Four Lions”, a supposedly comedic movie based on four British Muslims who wish to become suicide bombers, faced heavy criticism for trying to humourize terrorism and perpetuating the “suicide bomber”, “Muslim means terrorist” stereotypes. Another example is the 2018 British show called “Bodyguard” which drew criticism over inclusion and representation. The season finale of the show faced backlash for the way it represented characters that belonged to a minority background when a Muslim woman was revealed to be the mastermind behind a suicide bombing.

According to Said, the “orient” and the “occident” were built as a result of Western European culture’s need to create a counter to itself. And the “other”, as he calls it, would grow into a dangerous distinction that the world will see in today’s modern society as well. (Said, 1978) Unfortunately, media has played a major role in enforcing these orientalist notions as the prejudices that are put forth due to it only adds to the already existing racism and discrimination against certain races and ethnicities. And unfortunately, that is the role UK media has played in provoking more Islamophobic thought in the region, without any fear of consequence.

i Bajwa, Ali Naseem, and Terry McGuiness. “A Necessary Evil?” Counsel Magazine, 30 Sept. 2013, www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/necessary-evil.

ii Choudhary, Tufyal, and Helen Fenwick. “The Impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Muslim Communities.” Equality Human Rights, www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-report-72-the-impact-of-counter-terrorism-measures-on-muslim-communities.pdf.

iii Lewis, Paul. “Surveillance Cameras in Birmingham Track Muslims’ Every Move.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 June 2010, www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/jun/04/surveillance-cameras-birmingham-muslims.

iv O’Toole, Therese, et al. “Governing through Prevent? Regulation and Contested Practice in State-Muslim Engagement.” Sociology, SAGE Publications, Feb. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4735676/.

v Thomas , Paul. “Responding to the Threat of Violent Extremism.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=PtNvm5rFjUUC&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&ots=5V0n5LTUGh&sig=OO-o75NfQoUq1X4rDRF0Av3AWbQ#v=onepage&q&f=false.

vi Choudhary, Tufyal, and Helen Fenwick. “The Impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Muslim Communities.” Equality Human Rights, www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-report-72-the-impact-of-counter-terrorism-measures-on-muslim-communities.pdf.

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