It’s so popular this ‘Search for Common Ground’ report…but for all the wrong reasons!!! Here’s another response to the report and it’s findings.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) claims to be “the most reasonable and most representative spokesperson for the British Muslim community”. Unlike most religious organisations, it is also explicitly political. The MCB has opinions on everything, from school uniforms to the NHS; from the recall of Parliament to the extradition to the US of Babar Ahmad. And it is not shy about lobbying for them.
Political Islam is relatively new to Britain. It’s an important development. The MCB complains of “demonisation” when journalists criticise it, yet the MCB’s response to its media critics seems often to be to “demonise” them. At least, it felt like that when it happened to me. I’ve been called an “Islamophobe”, a “Zionist” and an “enemy of Islam” by the MCB; a “kufaar” and “a low caste koolie journalist” on another Muslim website.
Why? In the wake of the 7/7 bombings, I made a BBC Panorama programme in which I was crystal clear that Muslim leaders had unreservedly condemned the bombings. But four leading Muslims also argued that the MCB’s leadership was in denial about the causes and the extent of extremism, which I suggested fed off a conviction that Islam is a superior faith and culture that Christians and Jews in the West are conspiring to undermine.
The programme subjected the MCB to the kind of questioning and inquiry to which the press has a duty to subject every politically significant organisation. But only last week, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, unveiled a report into media “Islamophobia” which he had commissioned and which was highly critical of the programme – a programme which the Mayor had condemned as “a witch hunt… of demonisation and spin” even before it had been edited.
Criticism of my Panorama programme made up a quarter of the report written by “nine leading academics, professionals from the media industry and experts on Islam”. Mr Livingstone believes the report demonstrates how “ignorance, prejudice and Islamophobia” is “stirred up by some sections of the media” has “overwhelmingly portrayed Muslims and Islam in a negative way”. His experts said the programme “did not facilitate or support the level of debate that is required”. In fact it provoked a great deal of debate. But the result wasn’t the one the MCB wanted: a year after the programme, Tony Blair ended the Government’s special relationship with the MCB as its interlocutor of choice for contacts with the Muslim community in Britain.
Who were the three “experts on Islam” who helped to produce the report? Surprise, surprise: they all turn out to be from the MCB. There has been some silly and offensive coverage of Islam in the press, but the report’s authors provided no evidence at all that the Panorama programme was part of it. Broadening out from the documentary, they claimed that in “a typical week”, over 90 per cent of the 352 articles in 20 national daily and Sunday papers that “referred to Islam and Muslims were negative”. But the week they chose – the second week in May, 2006 – was anything but typical. It was the week when the Government published its reports on the 7/7 bombing, and it was the week in which Iran announced it would continue its nuclear development programme. Those events probably go a long way to explain the number of “negative” reports, many of which were simply factual.
Mr Livingstone and his “experts” insist that the way Islam is covered in the media deepens divisions, causing Muslims to feel “vulnerable and alienated” and giving non-Muslims “increased feelings of insecurity, suspicion and anxiety”. Their solution? The Press Complaints Commission should have “new terms of reference” so that it can “consider distorted and inaccurate coverage of groups and communities as well of individuals”. Tougher rules and prohibitions on reporting will, they claim, produce more “community sensitive reporting about multi-culturalism and British Muslim identities” which will “increase… a sense of common ground, shared belonging and civic responsibility”.
Their advocacy of prohibitions suggests the aim of the “experts” is to put political Islam beyond the scope of media inquiry. For the result of those prohibitions would certainly be to introduce a new level of censorship into the coverage of Muslim affairs – and that would be quite wrong. While condemning violence here, the MCB has sent out mixed signals over political violence abroad and over integration.The press has a responsibility to highlight and explore these. That’s part of its role in helping people make sensible, informed decisions at election-time – something which most of us, including the vast majority of British Muslims, regard as essential. By discouraging the media from performing that role, Ken and his “experts” won’t help British Muslims or the cause of integration: they could seriously damage it.
John Ware is a reporter for BBC Current Affairs