On Monday June 19th, the UK once again awoke to tragedy. A white van ploughed into Muslims who were leaving the Mosque at Finsbury Park; one died, and 11 were injured. The driver was restrained, and local resident Imam Mohammed Mahmoud intervened to ensure he was uninjured by the angry crowd. At time of writing, the police have arrested one suspect — Darren Osborne, a 47-year-old from Cardiff who reportedly stated, "I want to kill all Muslims – I did my bit." As tragic as these events are, they've started something of a national conversation here in the UK — one that dovetails with discussions of media bias in the US.
The Discussion In This Case Needs To Be Different
The most outspoken figure has been J. K. Rowling, author of the #HarryPotter novels, who's always more than happy to express her political opinions. She initially launched a scathing attack on the right-wing Daily Mail, furious that they didn't refer to this as a "terrorist attack," but has since backtracked. In a series of tweets, Rowling explained:
"To those asking: I deleted my tweet about the Mail not calling the Finsbury Park attacker a terrorist because many rightly pointed out that the headline was written before charges had been brought against him... I fully accept that, in the immediate aftermath, it isn't reasonable or responsible for a newspaper to rush to judgment without knowing the facts."
The crucial difference between Finsbury Park and other attacks that have recently happened in the UK is this: the suspect is still alive, and will face trial. There's a real risk that unwary, hyperbolic reporting could actually prejudice a trial, allowing the suspect to escape changes on a technicality. Worse, if media coverage were found to prejudice the trial, then the papers involved could be found in contempt of court — with reporters and editors even facing jail terms, if they're found guilty. As one prominent journalist explained:
An Important Conversation Still Needs To Happen
In spite of the restrictions on reporting, Rowling has still been able to refocus the national conversation on a very disturbing point. Whilst the risk of radicalization within Muslim communities is frequently reported on, we tend to overlook the grave risk posed by far-right extremists. Last year, a far-right extremist killed a British Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, over her views on Brexit. Arrests for so-called "Domestic" terrorism (not linked to international terrorism or to Northern Ireland) more than doubled last year — from 15 in 2015 to 35 in 2016.
Rowling has rightly challenged that, just as the UK needs to discuss the causes of Islamic extremism, the country also needs to address the causes of far-right extremism. She's set her sights on controversial Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins:
In May, after the Manchester Arena attack, Hopkins was reported to police after briefly tweeting about the need for a "final solution" to Islamic terrorism — and there's no way a professional writer like Hopkins would have been unaware of the term's usage during the Holocaust. This led to her losing her LBC radio show, although at the of writing, Hopkins still writes for the Daily Mail.
Meanwhile, other celebrities have focused in on different parts of the coverage. The Mail's first headline, for example, took pains to remind readers that extremist Islamic preacher Abu Hamza had once preached at the Mosque in Finsbury Park. This led to some parts of the media discussing this as a "revenge attack." Nick Jack Pappas was particularly scathing of this harmful reporting:
Meanwhile, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actor Riz Ahmed spoke up, linking events in the UK to recent tragedies in the US:
Ahmed raises a very valid point. The UK is currently reeling from another tragedy — a horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in London that's claimed a still-unknown number of lives. The fire happened in the early morning on June 14th, at a time when most Muslims in the area were awake observing Ramadan. As a result, Muslims were among the first civilians to respond to the blaze, and many have been praised for their heroism and compassion. Disturbingly, this aspect of the tragedy has been sparsely covered in either the British or global media.
Ahmed goes on to say that we need to recognize violence in all forms as a threat, and work on it as a single problem.
It's time for the Right-wing press to take responsibility for the part they play in the national conversation; they're using fear of Islamic extremism to fuel a whole different kind of extremist rhetoric.
There are no simple solutions to the challenges facing the UK, but these comments from a handful of celebrities act as a fascinating window into the issues. We have to find a way, within the confines of the law, to discuss the causes of extremism in all its forms. There are positive signs; throughout the last General Election, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke as though extremism only happened in Islamic communities, but after Finsbury Park, she's been forced to change her rhetoric. Ironically, this horrific attack may yet serve some good, especially as the British Government is sure to focus on the battle against extremism in their new political agenda.