The CAGE controversy over the past few weeks highlights the need for Muslims to strategically boycott certain media outlets and platforms, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.
Unless you’ve been living on another planet you must have noticed the seemingly co-ordinated media attack against CAGE after they attempted to argue that Muhammad Emwazi’s actions were partially caused by security service harassment.
CAGE’s Asim Qureshi has taken the brunt of the onslaught, having been labelled an “apologist for terror.” His argument that MI5 was complicit in turning a pleasant, young man into a monster has been drowned out by the cacophony of condemnation.
But the media hasn’t stopped at attacking Qureshi’s arguments. No, they’ve gone further by playing the man and not the ball with egregious personal attacks against him continuing unabated.
For example, photographers have been camping outside Qureshi’s house and his personal life has been probed in the most intrusive way. The media have also put pressure on CAGE’s former funders and the Charity Commission to ensure that it isn’t allowed to continue its work.
Unsurprisingly, The Daily Mail has led this onslaught but several other supposedly more respectable newspapers and broadcasters have basically sung from a similar hymn sheet.
Lessons to be learned
Going forward, there are several lessons that British Muslims – and CAGE itself – must learn from this media debacle.
Our starting point is obvious – we all know that the British media is institutionally Islamophobic and some sections of it are outright racist.
The Daily Mail, The Daily Star and the Murdoch papers have targeted the community so often that Muslims now take their Islamophobia for granted.
But the supposedly liberal – or at least more neutral – media platforms such as The Guardian, the BBC and Channel 4 also regularly jump on the Islamophobic bandwagon, just in a more subtle way.
So this is the reality that we face and the question is “how do we deal with it?” My answer is as follows: Advance our narrative on our own terms and don’t fall into traps that are laid for us or give ammunition to our enemies.
Unfortunately, many activists now exist in a sort of “Muslim bubble” where their opinions and strategies are simply re-inforced by fellow activists.
This, of course, isn’t always a bad thing because it’s essential that we encourage and support each other, especially when we’re being attacked. But it can also lead to lazy group-think and to mistakes which cannot be rectified easily after the damage has been done.
So while our intentions may well be to advance our narrative and counter Islamophobia, the wrong media strategy may well end up damaging our narrative and feeding Islamophobia.
Here are my recommendations, therefore, based on my 17 years experience in the mainstream and alternative media:
1. Understand the psychology of your audience
Arguments that may wash in the Muslim community may well gain no traction in the majority non-Muslim community in which we live.
So when we go on national television and say: “Muhammad Emwazi was radicalised by the security services” (which would be a controversial argument within the Muslim community itself), the majority audience will think: “How does that justify him beheading all those people?”
When we say he was “a beautiful young man” they will think: “why is he praising a bloodthirsty killer?”
And when we refuse to condemn Muhammad Emwazi for committing those crimes on the basis that his actions have nothing to do with us, the majority audience will hear: “He’s evading the question because he really sympathises with him.”
So by humanising a serial killer and by refusing to condemn him for justified-yet-complicated reasons, we are allowing ourselves to be put on the back foot.
And instead of spending the little airtime that we have talking about what we want to talk about – such as the role of foreign policy and the security services in radicalising Muslim youth – we spend all of the time trying to fend off irrelevant questions about whether we are apologists for terror.
2. Only participate in shows where you are guaranteed to be treated equally to all other participants.
I am an advocate of Muslims pursuing a two-track policy when it comes to the media – we should organise our own media first and foremost, thereby building strong foundations AND we should engage with the mainstream as much as possible.
But I don’t believe that all publicity is good publicity.
So we should realise that when The Daily Mail rings us up for a quotation on – let’s say – a “Muslim grooming” story, they are only using us for a bit of balance in an article that will otherwise bash the community. So in helping them we are just giving credibility to their story.
And we should be aware that when Andrew Neil or Nicky Campbell invites us onto a “debate”, we will be harangued with irrelevant “do you condemn stoning to death” type questions, while other participants will be allowed to speak freely without pressure.
On the other hand, if the interviewer is fairly neutral and if the format allows us a fair crack of the whip then we should definitely engage in debates on the hot issues of the day, even the most challenging ones.
3. Do not be a performing monkey in the “good Muslim, bad Muslim game”
The media loves to play “the good Muslim, bad Muslim game.”
On the one hand you have the “good Muslim” – Maajid Nawaz most often – who blames everything on “Islamic extremists.” So much so that the viewing audience ends up thinking all Muslims are extreme.
And on the other hand you have the “bad Muslim” – very often Anjem Choudary – who castigates Britain and non-Muslims so much that the viewing audience will begin to hate Islam.
Either way, Muslims lose.
Receiving a media invitation from a big broadcaster can be really hard to turn down, especially if we have big egos and want to publicise our work and ourselves. But ultimately, we have to put the community before our careers.
So let’s not fall into these traps that are laid for us and give credibililty to the media narrative by playing along with their silly games. Instead, let’s try to change the way the media behaves by changing the rules of the game.
What will this achieve?
Now I’m not pretending that my recommendations above will solve our problems overnight. After all, the mainstream media has been Islamophobic for a long time and that will take a long time to fix.
So even if the community unites and implements my recommendations to the letter, the Islamophobic stories and TV programmes will continue.
But having worked in the mainstream media myself, I know that researchers and producers want to mount the best programme they possibly can. And if they know they’re being systematically boycotted and accused of Islamophobia and racism they might just decide to shift to a debate where they can book decent guests.
Or at least they’ll note the community’s displeasure and think twice the next time they want to stitch us up.
Of course, some will say to me – if responsible members of the community refuse to appear on these shows then the media will simply book someone else.
To that I would say: they probably will in the short-term and will look foolish for doing so, but as long as the boycott persists they will have to change the way they approach things in the long-term.
In conclusion, all I know is that the media strategy that we are currently employing is not working and that we cannot simply wait around for the mainstream to become less Islamophobic.
So at the very least, isn’t it worth a try?