The UK's Islamophobic press grows more damaging every day

The UK's Islamophobic press grows more damaging by the day
6 min read
01 Sep, 2017
Comment: This week's story about a foster family in Tower Hamlets has seen a wave of profoundly Islamophobic reporting in the UK press, writes Shenaz Bunglawala.
The London borough of Tower Hamlets is in the city's East End [AFP]
It's difficult to know where to start with the media storm sparked by The Times' lead story earlier this week about a young girl residing with Muslim foster carers in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. 

The article says that reports seen by the newspaper suggest she has been "very distressed" about her placement with a Muslim foster family, and that she has made claims about her Christian cross being removed, not being allowed to eat a spaghetti carbonara due to its bacon content, being encouraged to learn Arabic, and expressing discomfort at the carers' apparent lack of spoken English.

Among other aspects of the case reported in The Times, is the claim that the young girl told her birth mother "Christmas and Easter are stupid" and that "European women are stupid and alcoholic", views that are assumed to have been picked up while in the care of Muslims.

The story has been followed up by other outlets, all betraying similarly emotive language, and has taken predictable turns. References to 'entryism' and incompetent local bureaucrats who are afraid of being labelled Islamophobes were rife, along with suggestions that the welfare of vulnerable young, white British children was put at risk as a result.

This sort of reporting is analogous to the paradigm of cultural conflict reporting seen in child sex exploitation cases. An op-ed by Trevor Phillips in The Sun this week explicitly mentions the grooming scandals and takes aim at incompetent bureaucrats, apparently too concerned about their 'pro-Muslim' credentials to recognise their responsibilities to young white British girls.

The language used then and now is clearly betrays the binary worldview that permeates aspects of our public discourse in which British Muslims are cast as perpetual foreigners with poor English language competency (ergo, not 'integrated'), and whiteness is equated with Britishness.

The consequences of entrenching Islamophobia in our discourse are devastating.

British Muslims are cast as perpetual foreigners with poor English language competency (ergo, not 'integrated'), and whiteness is equated with Britishness.

We're told that the young girl was "was born in this country, speaks English as her first language, loves football, holds a British passport and was christened in a church". Are we to assume that the Muslim foster family in Tower Hamlets doesn't also have members that were born in this country, speak English, love football and hold a British passport?

In the Daily Mail this week, we see another angle in the story, with MPs challenging the 'Muslim community', asking how they would feel if the case involved a Muslim child placed in the foster care of a Christian family.

The fact that this already happens is irrelevant to the argument on display: The community should find its collective voice and say something about this. Is that Muslim community singular, or Muslim communities plural - we don't know which since the terms are projected onto us when it's convenient, and in the form chosen by those who want to hold 'us' responsible for things we have little to do with.

It is by virtue of the court report released this week, that we know the young girl's grandparents are of Muslim heritage, and her maternal grandmother not entirely linguistically competent in English. The notion that the young girl has been confined to a "alien cultural, religious and linguistic environment" is perhaps not all that it seems.

We also know that the council has not been lackadaisical in its handling of the case, with the court documents noting the absence of a "culturally matched foster placement available at the time" and the interim measures taken by the council to safeguard the child during a busy summer period.

The Times
and The Sun's op-ed by Trevor Phillips make much of the fact that the case occurred in Tower Hamlets, with various references to the London Borough's demographics and political history. The former Mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman earns a mention and the council disparagingly described as "dominated by an Islamist clique".

The Times in a further article this week referred to an Ofsted inspection report in April which investigated the council's provision of services for children in need of help and protection, citing the report's observations about the inadequate grading of services and recommendations for improvement.

The paper refers to the "highly critical report [which] rated the council's children's services as inadequate"  but omits this detail: The Ofsted report compares the current status of services with the "last inspection of children's services published in 2012, when the local authority was found to be good overall with outstanding features."

Why the omission of past performance and the deliberate evasion of the period in which the last inspection was carried out? Then, Lutfur Rahman was head of the local Council (from 2008 - 2010) and later the Borough's elected Mayor, but then these details don't fit the cultural conflict paradigm where Muslims in public office are 'entryists' and not professionals trying their best to do a job.

There is something deeply ironic about the pedestal sections of the media have assumed in relation to this story. Lest we forget that Trevor Phillips gave evidence to the Home Affairs select committee in January 2011, warning against "casual stereotyping" of minority communities, and how the "political and media classes have to catch up with the maturity of the ordinary person's dialogue" when it comes to discourse about minority groups.

These details don't fit the cultural conflict paradigm where Muslims in public office are 'entryists' and not professionals trying their best to do a job

While concerns about the wellbeing of the young girl and scrutiny of council services in relation to child safeguarding services are entirely legitimate, one can't help but wonder how many of those journalists wading into this debate have given a second thought to the welfare and wellbeing of the thousands of young British Muslims children who regularly endure the British media's Islamophobic tendencies?

For all the talk about local bureaucrats sat behind "big desks in our town halls" imperilling the wellbeing of young children, very little is said about the foghorns blowing out their bluster from behind news desks and its impact on wellbeing of young British Muslims.

In 2012, a foster couple in Rotherham challenged their local council when their political tendencies as Ukip supporters were cited as reasons undermining their suitability for fostering young children. At the time, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, criticised the notion that we test foster carers for their views on multiculturalism to see if they held the correct ones, and rendered the council's actions "arbitrary, ideological and indefensible".

How many will say the same about the way the media has carried on this week about Muslim foster carers in Tower Hamlets?

Shenaz Bunglawala was formerly head of research at MEND (Muslim Engagement & Development) where she led research into Islamophobia in the British media, racial and religious equality and the impact of counter-terrorism legislation on British Muslim communities. She is a director of the Byline Festival Foundation for inclusive journalism.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.