I recently participated in an ESRC Conference held at the University of Warwick on 7th & 8th March 2013. Entitled, “Whose Security? Migration-(In)security Dilemmas Ten Years After 9/11″ I had been invited to present a paper on the way in which Muslim communities had become increasingly seen as ‘suspect communities’ and how this had begun to play out in the public and political spaces. My paper was titled, “All Muslims are the Same: from external Others to homegrown bombers and beyond”.
From the title alone, you might be surprised to see how the image of Zayn Malik from One Direction is relevant to the paper. Well so that you can find out, I’ve pasted a rough transcript of my paper below including relevant links where appropriate:
“All Muslims are the Same: from external Others to homegrown bombers and beyond”
Events over the past few weeks have reminded me just how important the discussions taking place in this conference continue to be.
Following the conviction of three men from Birmingham who were found guilty of plotting a series of bomb blasts across the city, I was approached to participate in a Radio 5 Live ‘Your Call’ phone in with Nicky Campbell. The question up for discussion was “Why do they want to blow us up”. Whilst I turned down the very kind invitation I did listen in. Far from being disappointed for not being a part of the debate, I was however surprised by a term that was used: both Campbell and others spoke about the ‘self-taught’ jihadis in our midst.
I’ve not heard it since, thankfully, but clearly the fundamentalist, extremist, Islamist, radicalised, jihadi Muslim was still posing a threat.
There’s a great scene in Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11 where he incorporates a montage of different television news reports. Using it to illustrate the notion of ‘fear’, the montage includes everything from killer bees to Marilyn Manson, from bird flu to asylum seekers. For him, fear of everything that is different and unknown is nowadays seen to be a threat to us and our way of life quite irrespective of what absurd forms that ‘threat’ might take.
The LA Times picked up on this before Michael Moore however. Back in 2001, Frank Furedi tells us that the LA Times reported that fear was going to be the ‘next big thing’. As he went on:
“the defining feature of this culture is the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence”.
Clearly, we live in a time when fear is a part of who we are.
The most dangerous aspect of this is that fear feeds itself, creating the disposition to speculate and exaggerate about other, ever greater fears and threats that seem to always be lurking just around the corner. And lurking just around the corner of the recognition of the Los Angeles Times were the events of 11th September 2001: of 9/11.
The day after 9/11, British newspapers were emblazoned with headlines that asked ‘Is this the end of the world?’ or went one step further and declared, ‘Apocalypse’. And with this, 9/11 initiated a new era when the global threat changed. Through the ensuing ‘war on terror’ and the ‘axis of evil’ amongst others, it was clear where the threat was coming from: the Muslim enemy was external, over there and one of them.
It was the Other, who we were going to in retaliation and reaction to 9/11.
This changed on 7 July 2005 (7/7), when four young men set off a series of bombs on the London public transport system. With newspaper headlines reflecting those that followed 9/11 – including some that referred to 7/7 as ‘our 9/11’ – the debate shifted onto the fact that these were not only four young Muslim men, but that they were British born Muslims. ‘Four lions’ – to coin Chris Morris – who were now internal, within and now potentially one of us.
Notions of the ‘home-grown bomber’ entered the social and political lexicon, so too have other negatively loaded terms where ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ joined the earlier and more globalised ‘fundamentalist’. Sadly, all became mere substitute terms for ‘Muslim’, where the fear attributed to those Muslims ‘over there’ became attributed to those Muslims ‘in here’.
Feared without differentiation, the old racist adage that ‘all blacks look the same’ changed when it came to Muslims. In addition to all looking the same – as though they might be ‘homegrown bombers’ – so too were all Muslims attributed with the same characteristics and capabilities: from all looking the same to all being the same.
This can be seen in the way in which Muslims and Islam became represented in the media, both influencing and shaping social and political discourses whilst reciprocally also being duly shaped and influenced by them.
A year after 7/7, research published by INSTED offers some insight into how this process became embedded.
In less than a decade, the number of stories and reports about Muslims or Islam in the British press was shown to have increased by around 270%. In a ‘normal’ week, it was found that around 70% of press reportage focused on Muslims or Islam as presenting a ‘threat’. Not just a run of the mill threat, but one that presented a direct threat to Britain and its values. As the report put it, it’s “what people in Britain think is normal”.
The casualness of this being ‘normal’ can be seen in one of the examples highlighted in the report. An article in The Observer newspaper entitled ‘The bomber will always get through’ wrote about how there were many others in Britain “living very much the sort of lives as the four young men who perpetrated the [7/7] attacks”. In setting out the ‘sort of lives’ these potential home-grown bombers had, the article suggested they might be ‘attending Friday prayers’ or had ‘grown beards’. Given that both are things that many Muslims do in Britain every single week, its conflation with radicalisation or ‘homegrown terror’ was not only grossly misleading but also had the potential to influence the way in which people interpreted very normal Muslim activities.
The research concluded that it was likely that through such coverage, Islam and Muslims would be widely seen as the antithesis or Other to ‘who we were’, having few if indeed any similar beliefs, actors, characteristics, attributes, qualities or values. It was noted that given the prevalence and voracity of this message, it was highly likely that audiences would begin to see such negative messages as ‘truths’, applicable to all Muslims without differentiation.
Research undertaken by Cardiff University a year or so later reinforced many of these points.
As well as confirming that news coverage about Muslims had increased significantly, the Cardiff research noted how the issue of Muslim and Islamic ‘difference’ – accounting for 22% of all coverage – was seen to be particularly problematic. It went on to note how in 2008, the “volume of stories about religious and cultural differences (32% of stories by 2008) overtook terrorism related stories (27% by 2008)”.
It would be crass to suggest that all of this news coverage was Islamophobic or anti-Muslim. However, such a critical mass of coverage would establish the recognition and identification of Muslims as different, as a homogenous Other as a normative discourse. Not only this, but with normalisation comes greater receptivity to anti-Muslim attitudes and ideas as also greater justification. In essence, such discourses would increasingly be seen to make sense.
Research by Matthew Goodwin that was recently quoted by Baroness Warsi adds to the picture being presented here.
Extracted from a nationally representative survey of British public attitudes towards Muslims and Islam his research showed how just 23% of people believed that Islam was NOT a threat to Western civilisation and that a mere 24% thought Muslims were compatible with the British way of life – with nearly half of people disagreeing that Muslims were compatible.
More worryingly, 49% agreed that there will be a clash of civilisations between Muslims and native white Britons.
In reiterating where we started this ‘clash of civilisations’ resonates with Furedi’s observation that fear is “the defining feature of…the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence”.
And those powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence – our values, our institutions, our way of life, of who ‘we’ are – are Muslims without differentiation.
As noted previously, ‘all Muslims are the same’.
To highlight the absurdity of this, I want to focus on how even the most innocuous and seemingly unthreatening of Muslims are attributed with the same characteristics and capabilities as the homegrown bomber, the self-taught jihadi, the radical, the extremist, the fundamentalist, the Islamist, the preacher of hate and so on.
Last year, Debbie Schlussel – an American Conservative political commentator, radio talk show host, columnist, and attorney who describes herself as having “unique expertise on radical Islam/Islamic terrorism” – published an article about One Direction’s Zayn Malik. In it she claimed Zayn was:
“pimping Islam on your kids” through his Twitter account, something she claimed was further reinforced by his Arabic tattoos and frequent donning of the keffiyeh, what she describes as “the official garb of Islamic terrorism”.
She accuses Zayn of seeking to “proselytize Islam”:
“He not only tweeted about fasting for Ramadan, but told fans that allah is the only god and that only Mohammed is G-d’s true prophet. Not the kind of thing you expect your kids to hear sandwiched in between cheesy, saccharin-sweet songs…But that’s what’s happening”
She goes on:
“He’s no dummy. He knows the power he has over these mindless girls and is using that influence to preach the Islamic faith to them and try to convert them. It’s dangerous”
“Keep your daughters away from Zayn Malik’s enticing jihad. With the boy band One Direction, it’s all about pimping Islam amid the deceptive visage of angelic, effeminate boys in a band. Yup, for them there is definitely One Direction: facing Mecca”
Whilst the example relating to Zayn Malik takes this to the extreme, what becomes clear is that through the public and political discourses about Muslims – whether here in the UK or elsewhere in the world, whether overtly Muslim or just Muslim by birth – all are attributed with the same characteristics and capabilities where all Muslims are the same. And because they are all the same, so all Muslims are part of that powerful destructive force that is perceived to threaten our everyday existence.