As a British Muslim woman and journalist, it is always concerning to watch dangerous rhetoric being played out in the media from people that hold positions of authority. In the current climate, when political unrest, racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism are at their peak, vulnerable communities are the ones that have to bear the brunt of hate and discrimination the most.
A prime example of this is the fact that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375 per cent in the week after Boris Johnson compared veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes”. Yet, despite there being a clear link between the words of those in power and the acts of those on the far right, commentators continue to hide behind the guise of freedom of speech and are continually given a platform to do so.
Any form of assertion that their words have helped to rally others to take action in a negative way is dismissed. In fact, commentators lauded by the alt-right find it inconceivable that the impact of their inflammatory language can have a detrimental effect on the wider society. Johnson himself dismissed remarks about the dangerous language he was using by calling it “humbug”. If our prime minister is allowed to get away with such language, what hope do we have in bringing other commentators to account?
Just days ago, Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked, had been flagged up for his comments on BBC Politics Live encouraging people to “riot” over Brexit delays. This kind of statement is unacceptable and could potentially cause destruction on the streets if people were inspired enough to take him up on the challenge. Commentators cannot guarantee how a viewer may react to such inflammatory comments as we have seen with MPs such as Jess Phillips, who this week received death threats that quoted Johnson’s words about Brexit.
A few months ago, I was a guest commentator on BBC Scotland’s The Nine, debating against O’Neill, at a very sensitive time following the Christchurch attacks on Muslims in New Zealand. A far-right-inspired terrorist had killed 51 worshippers and I argued that it is the impact of the type of rhetoric from people like Donald Trump, Johnson and commentators from the right that has played a significant role in spurring the level of hate against minority groups that we see today. O’Neill, predictably, disagreed.
The terrorist who carried out the attack on Christchurch had been inspired by Trump statements and even mentioned his support of Trump in his manifesto. Despite getting my points across, O’Neill still failed to acknowledge the fact that anyone’s words had an impact on spurring hate and this is what was most frustrating. Commentators who offer succour to the alt-right need to acknowledge the fact that their words can cost lives. This is not an understatement. It has happened in the past and it could potentially happen again if no one is brought to account.
When we have respected journalists such as Naga Munchetty being unfairly reprimanded for allegedly breaching editorial guidelines by talking about her lived experience of racism, it’s alarming that commentators who make far more inflammatory comments do not seem to be held to the same standard. But, given our prime minister’s ability to dodge responsibility for his own list of inflammatory comments, is it really surprising?
Words have an impact, they have the ability to influence people into taking some form of action, especially when many followers of the far-right take inspiration from what they see and hear in the media. When more and more lives are being lost and when religious intolerance and political unrest is at its highest, it’s time to call it out and have a platform where legislative measures are in place to counter these dangerous narratives.
The headline and text of this article were changed following a complaint by Brendan O’Neill, who requested it to be made clear he is not an alt-right commentator.
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