Islamic State fighters in Iraq. Photo:Medyan Dairieh / VICE News
Four days after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, my team and I asked the audience of my BBC Asian Network phone-in show a question, as we do every day. This time, it was: "Will the Paris attacks make life more difficult for British Muslims?"
It had been less than a week since the terrorists of Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State, had gone on their murderous rampage. So, to some, it may have seemed insensitive to be asking so soon how British Muslims were feeling when French hearts from all backgrounds were broken and a manhunt to catch the surviving perpetrators was still ongoing.
Our reasoning was that what IS wanted was for discord to fester—for Islamophobia in the West to become deeply embedded, with the subsequent hatred and mistrust leading to more eager recruits being seduced into their death cult. So it was important for us to gauge whether or not they were succeeding in their aim. We also wanted to discover what it felt like on the ground for the average law-abiding, tax-paying, house-tending, car-driving, life-living British Muslim—or indeed British Asian, being that the average Islamophobe isn't going to ask a potential victim to fill in a questionnaire clarifying their religious viewpoint before attacking them.
The calls, emails, and texts largely portrayed a depressing picture. I remember a British Muslim caller talking about how his sister had told their mother to not go to the bank that morning because "white people may attack you." And this was not an isolated case of fear.
There are those who are in utter denial over the issue of increased (or indeed the very concept of) Islamophobia, and yet the statistics seem to challenge the belief some hold that we live in a tolerant, multicultural society. In the week following the Paris attacks, according to the government's working group on anti-Muslim hatred, Islamophobic hate crime rose by 300 percent. Women having their headscarves ripped off, people being called terrorists, and facing aggressive behavior from strangers, being spat on and abused in front of their children. This is a reality for many British Muslims who have communicated with me on my phone-in show.
It is against this backdrop that The Sun newspaper printed its recent front page headline, "1 in 5 Brit Muslims have sympathy for Jihadis"—a conclusion the journalist responsible made after seeing the results of a poll that never mentioned the word jihadis. The survey's 1,003 respondents were asked if they had any sympathy for young British Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria. Did that include members of the British Kurdish community going to Syria to fight IS, or joining the Free Syrian Army who are battling Assad and IS?
On the Sunday night before the print copy of the paper hit the newsstands, some had already seen the front page online and tweeted about how irresponsible and inflammatory they felt it was. A British Muslim member of the public, who also happens to follows me on Twitter, tweeted "All 5 Muslims in our household despise extremists. Either me or @TheSun is lying. Only one of us lies habitually."
On Monday morning as people awoke to this headline, my debate show team knew that our listeners would want to discuss the impact it would have. We asked "Is today's Sunheadline a wake up call to British Muslims or irresponsible journalism?" Many sided with the latter part of the question, as did others in the media. That same day there were articles in other newspapers questioning the methodology and the very basic journalistic shortcomings of the piece, and it was beginning to look like a blatant piece of hate-mongering to some of my listeners.
The Sun replied to the criticism by stating that they had "published the poll's findings clearly and accurately, including the questions in full." A non-Muslim emailer called Karamjeet wrote, "The reporting in The Sun certainly doesn't surprise me, but the way it is reported is totally irresponsible and inflammatory." Another listener texted, "The Sun is very conniving... they were asking very leading questions, the answers of which could be easily manipulated." With more than a hint of frustration in her tone, another listener said, "Like those three monkeys, the media by and large chooses to stay blind, deaf, and dumb to those voices who speak out against extremists and terrorists. What do they want? That I renounce my faith? That I take up non-Islamic practices? Will that then assuage them?"
The fact that British Muslim callers have described how their work colleagues no longer treat them with the courtesy they once experienced, or that they are fearful for the futures of their kids, should act as a wake-up call to politicians and journalists that ill-conceived headlines have repercussions for people who just wish to practice their faith and go about their business. We all have a responsibility to confront hatred and bigotry wherever it exists, and at the very least do nothing to unnecessarily exacerbate the situation.
You only have to see the ridicule and backlash that The Sun has faced this week to realize that we are a tolerant nation. But for some of my British Muslim listeners, the fear is that those headlines will be read by some as gospel, tainting the way some of their fellow Brits view them. Instead, we must all unite and show solidarity, for that will only infuriate IS and help to quell the number of Europeans making the journey to Syria to join the terrorists.