Yesterday, IPSO compelled The Sun to apologise and publish a correction for a deeply misleading story it published that claimed 1 in 5 British Muslims had some sympathy with those who had fled the UK to fight for ISIS. I don’t need to go into the reasons why this shameful article, specifically articulated to mislead and marginalise, should never have made it to press. The Sun’s article was typical of a cruel-hearted tabloid, and the right-wing media’s determination to pour scorn on multiculturalism, migration, diversity and difference. This is hardly the first time one of these hideous tabloids have stood rightly accused of deliberately misrepresenting, or even wholeheartedly fabricating, stories that attacked Britain’s marginalised minority groups. What made this story so deeply depressing was that a polling company would have commissioned such a pointless and meaningless poll in the first place. The Sun’s despicable lies have taken centre stage in this argument so far, but we must also focus on what this poll would have told us if it had been accurately reported by the paper; absolutely nothing.
That the polling company Survation agreed to conduct this polling is shameful, and highly embarrassing. It doesn’t take an academic genius to work out that this research question is catastrophically flawed, the question is so vague as to be totally meaningless, forcing the answerer to make sweeping assumptions in order to offer a view. It makes no mention of who the “young Muslims” might be fighting for or against in Syria. And the word “sympathy” is deeply ambiguous. Put these two things together, and Osama Bin Laden and Caroline Lucas might find themselves agreeing with the same statement. Needless to say, this is totally ridiculous.
Unfortunately for The Sun, in a fit of hysterical hypocrisy they seem to have ignored even their own basic level of nuance on this issue. In fact, they have repeatedly offered “sympathy” for “UK Muslims” who go to Syria, on the issue of schoolgirls brainwashed into heading to Syria to become ‘Jihadi brides’. In one of many perfectly non-judgemental articles on this subject the newspaper writes, “young women are being duped online with glamourous descriptions of life in Syria only to suffer a miserable existence when they arrive”. It is clear The Sun sees these girls as victims, not perpetrators. Gender scholars would have a field day over what this says about Britain’s views of men and women, but it is difficult to see why The Sun expresses sympathy for brainwashed women who go to get the glory of being the wives of fighters but not the brainwashed men who go to be fighters to get glory and wives. Nevertheless, The Sun appears to have been so hell-bent on proving the evil within Britain Muslim society that it has forgotten the nuance of its own views on this subject.
The problem for any media organisation is how to present extremism to their readers, and condense an extremely complicated issue into a presentable form. Some more reputable news organisations do an admirable job of what is ultimately an almost impossible task; they present a multitude of opinions, offer historical context, and attempt to dedicate serious column inches to in-depth discussion. Others, like The Sun, can’t be bothered with any such formalities. Instead, they merely spin a narrative so basic and lacking in nuance that a child could understand it, providing they don’t bother to ask any further questions. Unfortunately, this uncomplicated narrative is often picked up by the public, and, worse still, encouraged by politicians. It creates an ‘us and them’ attitude that this Sun article perfectly demonstrates; the view that expressing sympathy implies terrorist intent. You’re either one or the other, you can’t waver in the middle. There’s only bad and good.
This view is brought into sharp focus by the revelation that a poll by the same company only a few weeks before the one featured on The Sun front page revealed that 4.3% of non-Muslims expressed “a lot of sympathy with young Muslims who the leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”, while 9.4% expressed “some sympathy”. These combined totals are less than 5% different to the figures for Muslims, and the “a lot of sympathy” category is virtually identical. This fact, that the views of Britain’s Muslims are inconveniently in line with the views of non-Muslims, unsurprisingly didn’t make it into the pages of The Sun.
But should we surmise from this polling; that 13.7% of non-Muslims in Britain support terrorism? Of course not. It’s startling when presented with these polling figures that you realise how much nuance non-Muslims are permitted in public discourse compared to their Islamic counterparts. While I am free to hold a balanced and nuanced view of Islamic extremism, Britain’s Muslims are held to completely different standards. They are either with us, or against us. In this day and age, being a Muslim means you’re either a terrorist or a hero of UK government propaganda. You either think the Prevent strategy is the greatest political program since sliced bread, or you’re packing your bags for Syria. You either support bombing ISIS or you’re preparing a bomb in your basement. And heaven forbid you ever criticise British foreign policy.
This exclusion of the grey area is extremely damaging. It is reflective of a society that refuses to take seriously the idea that there could be some validity behind the suggestion that Britain’s own actions could be responsible for resentment held by many Muslims. It is also indicative of a nation that refuses to accept that its treatment of Muslims at home could play a large part in their disillusionment and anger with British society. This blatant ignoring of reality has led to Britain’s continued foreign policy bungling in the Middle East, further angering and frustrating many people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It leads to counter-productive policy pronouncements like lessons for Muslim women in English that amount to less than £100 funding per person, but are attached to a threat of deportation. It leads to the McCarthyite Prevent strategy that has resulted in paranoid teachers reporting pupils to the state for supporting Palestine, wanting to hold a Syrian charity fundraiser, or – in one particularly ludicrous incident – for writing that they lived in a ‘terrorist’ rather than ‘terraced’ house. Nobody is watching non-Muslim pupils with the same level of scrutiny, even though we know full well that White British right wing extremism poses an equal threat to our society. When we create a culture of panic, of suspicious, and of fear, Muslims in Britain are silenced, their views ignored and marginalised. It is this process that creates the perfect breeding ground for extremism.
In order to understand terrorism, we must look beyond the basic, the predictable, and the downright racist. Violence, terror and hatred do not appear as if by magic, they are not innate to a single culture or group, they cannot simply be explained by the existence of a holy book. To shed light on Islamic extremism, we must bring Muslims of all walks of life into the debate, but also refuse to except shoddy polling and vindictive tabloid press coverage. Muslims are not the only people who should be doing some soul searching. Determined to pass the blame, and see ourselves merely as defenceless victims, we are unwilling to look into our own culture, society and behaviour, to seek to understand why it is that Muslims might feel this way, and how we can draw those who are not already too far gone back into the political mainstream. This means tackling Islamophobia and racism in schools head on, with comprehensive lessons on Islam and extremism that involve everyone equally in the conversation. It means David Cameron speaking to Muslims, not for them. Tackling extremism is not about defeating the perpetrators. It is about addressing our culture as a whole, to foster political inclusion and representation, and to ensure that tabloid vindictiveness is not the force running the conversation.