We need to get a handle on anti-Muslim hate before it is beyond our control, writes Iman Atta
Anti-Muslim hate has been a growing business. Many now see the lure and the appeal of becoming famous in this world of social media frenzy by actively embracing anti-Muslim rhetoric. The James Goddards and Tommy Robinsons of this world have become the face of anti-Muslim and anti-migrant movements: social phenomena that we saw coming when Tell MAMA started its work in 2012.
Between 2009 and 2016, social media was the ‘wild west’ of the digital world. Literally anything went. Antisemitism, racist memes, anti-Muslim hatred, calls for mosques to be firebombed and anti-Roma and anti-Gypsy hate were everywhere, while social media platforms like Twitter actively made efforts not to remove the material. Complaints to Twitter were ineffective: they simply batted away appeals by hate cime agencies. The position that Twitter took, which was bizarre, was that the ‘market of ideas’ would win and that ‘good would eventually overcome evil’. It presupposed that there were more good people than bad and completely misjudged how extremists had already started to manipulate the platform to spread their poisonous messages. The groundwork had therefore already been laid and with austerity, the pervasiveness of the digital world, and Al-Qaeda and Daesh inspired terrorism, it was a matter of time before anti-Muslim hate began to gain momentum.
Take, for example, the fact that when we started in 2012, we had around 550 anti-Muslim hate incidents reported to us. Fast forward to 2018 and the number has risen to about 1,300 cases, with Tell MAMA assisting over 2,000 people in the year. While we acknowledge that more people will be aware of our service, the sharp peaks and troughs show a significant turbulence in levels of anti-Muslim hatred or Islamophobia in our country. We have also noticed that whilst over 75 per cent of the initial cases that came to us in 2012 were online, today, fewer than 25 per cent of them are online and the figure has now reversed to over 70 per cent being street level cases. Simultaneously, we have also noticed more aggressive hate incidents with most of them taking place in public spaces and on public transport.
Over the last six years of work at Tell MAMA, two things have remained consistent. The first is the three-way intersectionality between race, religious and gender hatred. Indeed, many cases reported to Tell MAMA highlight the fact that perpetrators abuse all three elements of the identity of Muslim women; sometimes the gender hatred shows itself in sexualised language that is targeted against the woman in an attempt to humiliate her. In other cases, the racialised language is mixed in with anti-Muslim rhetoric and gender hatred. Such cases show that the perpetrator carries within them multiple prejudices that emanate from the fact that they themselves are not comfortable with their place and space in society and may well reflect their sense of insecurity and underachievement.
The second thing that has remained constant has been the age of the perpetrators. They are mainly clustered within the 13–25 age range and this, we believe, reflects a demographic that is ‘connected’ and open to greater internet influence. For example, when the English Defence League was at its height between 2010–2012, key terms that they distributed as slogans were repeatedly disseminated through social media platforms. In 2012, that terminology was then repeated time and time again to victims, showing a bleeding outwards of the rhetoric into the offline world and into the public domain.
Today, the one thing that binds far-right extremist groups is their dislike and hatred of Islam and Muslims. In an age where we are all grappling with the digital world and what is ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, anti-Muslim hate will continue to be an industry that grows before we get a handle on it to reduce its levels. The reality is that we need to get a handle on it sooner rather than later. The longer we leave it to influence young minds, the more divided our society and communities will be.
Iman Atta is the director of Tell MAMA – a charity that reports anti‑Muslim abuse
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