July 30, 2015

The insidious effect of Islamophobia on the Web

16 March 2013, Saturday / RABIA SPIKER, LONDON
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How big a problem is Islamophobia? Sayeeda Warsi’s comment a couple of years ago that Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test”, meaning that it had become so socially acceptable that it could even be found in the most civilised of settings, was dismissed by some who denied any problem existed.

Whether or not it is acceptable to express Islamophobic views at the dinner table or not, the Internet has become an arena for some of the crudest expressions of Islamophobic sentiments, unfettered by fear of any repercussions and often posted anonymously.

A report published this month analysing YouGov survey results by Dr Matthew Goodwin found that Islamophobic attitudes promoted by far-right groups are widespread in society in general. The report, entitled “The Roots of Extremism: The English Defence League and the Counter-Jihad Challenge”, published by Chatham House, analyses YouGov survey results from fieldwork carried out in October 2012 in the UK using a sample size of 1,666 adults. The survey found that only 24 per cent of those surveyed agreed that Muslims are compatible with the British way of life, 57 per cent disagreed with the statement that Islam is not a danger to Western civilisation and 51 per cent disagreed with the statement that the growth of Muslim communities is not a threat.

Meanwhile, a report by the University of Essex in July 2012 found that 83 per cent of UK Muslims are proud to be British citizens, compared with 79 per cent of the general public, and 77 per cent of Muslims strongly identify with Britain, compared with only 50 per cent of the wider population.

Discussing the findings of his paper in a podcast on the Chatham House website, Goodwin said: “One of the things we’ve seen since 2001 in particular is the emergence of groups that are overtly hostile toward Islam and Muslim communities ... focussed heavily, if not exclusively on, as they see it, the perceived threat from Islam and settled Muslim communities. ... What we find is that the counter jihad scene, if you like, is operating amidst a wider reservoir of public sympathy for its ideas and its values.”

Goodwin found a generational divide in attitudes, with older respondents more likely to hold anti-Muslim opinions. He said: “Those who are over the age of 60 are far more likely to endorse ideas that we should reduce the number of Muslims in the country or that Islam is posing a danger to Western civilisation, but when we drill down and we look at the 18 to 24 year olds, they are far more at ease with the role of Islam and Muslims in British society, far more accepting, less hostile.”

The report comes as the Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) project releases its first annual figures for anti-Muslim and Islamophobic incidents. Since March of last year, 632 anti-Muslim hate incidents have been reported to MAMA, with Muslim women being particularly targeted by perpetrators. The project has also found that a huge number of anti-Muslim hate incidents take place online, and according to the director of the Tell MAMA project, Fiyaz Mughal, this is a worrying trend, the repercussions of which should not be underestimated.

He told Weekly Zaman: “In the online world, there is a form of broadband extremism that is targeted towards Muslim communities and Muslim individuals. On Twitter, when two people are having a conversation, if they happen to be Muslim, they may be targeted with very nasty anti-Muslim, abusive comments. People will interfere or interject in their conversations.”

Another problem is the propagation of misinformation about Islam on the Internet. “People will post up anti-Muslim articles, blatant untruths, blatant mis-facts, promoting the idea that Muslim communities or Muslims are, for example, inherently paedophilic, inherently evil, twisted liars. That kind of narrative is there on the Internet,” Mughal said, adding, “It is a very real and inherent danger to cohesion in communities, and I don’t think people realise the strength of anti-Muslim prejudice on the net.”

Mughal pointed to the systematic use of the Web by some groups to promote Islamophobic ideas. “The far-right have realised there are two ways to spread this hate,” he explained. “One is through Twitter because of the pervasiveness of Twitter, but the best way they have found is to use YouTube. People want to see videos. They use YouTube quite consistently. The British National Party [BNP], for example, uses YouTube and the EDL [English Defence League] uses YouTube. These are groups who are not stupid. They know what they’re doing and they’re trying to influence the online world, predominantly by building up mass action by promoting this filth.”

Mughal asks that individuals report online incidents of Islamophobia to Tell MAMA, but also that they report hateful content directed at Muslims to social media providers. “There are reporting in functions for Twitter, and people need to be diligent. If they can’t find the link in one go, they need to look for it and find it. They need to tell Twitter, ‘I would like a takedown of that account because it is promoting hate or because it is promoting violence.’ There’s also a reporting function on YouTube so people can flag up particularly hateful videos.”

Warning of the negative repercussions of a culture of Islamophobia on the Web being allowed to flourish, Mughal said: “Give it five years and the Muslim community will find itself significantly marginalised if it does not take action to rebut some of the nonsense online that’s taking place right now.” Stressing the need for action from the Muslim community, Mughal explained that there needs to be an increase in the “volume of reporting and volume of holding to account. Some of this [expression of Islamophobia on the Internet] is happening because the Muslim community is completely laissez-faire about this issue. But we’re very clear if this trend carries on, there are going to be more incidents, more attacks and more hate.”

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