See no evil, report no evil

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an Muslim radical makes death threats against a university audience in London, and the BBC does not report it, did it really happen?

There is a sense of unreality about the reporting of militant Islam in the U.K. The BBC is regularly chastised for its biases and omissions in reporting on Islamic militancy — while some tabloids are taken to task for whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. However, one can usually count on the corporation making mention of an incident.

Maybe not.

While I was researching background materials for an article, I happened to page through the website of the National Secular Society (NSS) — a humanist group in the U.K. I came across a 17 January 2012 press release entitled “Islamist stops university debate with threats of violence.” I had not heard about this incident, and when I googled the name of the lead actor in this drama I imagine you did not hear about this either as the Independent was the sole broadsheet to cover the story — and they buried the article in the crime section.

According to the NSS press release:

A talk on sharia and human rights by NSS Council Member Anne Marie Waters’ at Queen Mary University of London was cancelled at the last moment because of an Islamist who made serious threats against everyone there.

Ms Waters was due to give a talk on behalf of the One Law for All campaign on 16 January but before it started, a man entered the lecture theatre, stood at the front with a camera and filmed the audience. He then said that he knew who everyone was, where they lived and if he heard anything negative about the Prophet, he would track them down.

The man also filmed students in the foyer and threatened to murder them and their families. On leaving the building, he joined a large group of men, apparently there to support him. Students were told by security to stay in the lecture theatre for their own safety.

The Independent reported the same set of facts and interviewed a number of witnesses and Ms. Waters. The headline fairy seems to have been at work that evening at the Independent as the title of the story was sanitized. “Man threatens students at debate” is not likely to pull many readers interested to learn more.

The police are investigating the incident we learn, and the university is appalled by the incidence. Ms. Waters is made of sterner stuff, telling the Independent:

“This is the first time this has happened, it’s really very frightening and you don’t know what else it’s going to turn into,” she said. “I’m not worried about repercussions, but I’m worried about it happening again.”

While the head of the British Humanist Association stated:

“Free expression, the free exchange of ideas and free debate are hallmarks of an open society; violence and the threat of violence should never be allowed to compromise that, especially in our universities.”

No comments from Islamist groups, or from experts on censorship was appropriate, or an exploration of why someone would commit a criminal act in the name of Islam. Yet, I am not that worried about the brevity of the Independent story and am pleased that something made it into print that reported on this assault on free speech and civil liberties.

Let’s look at this another way — imagine if a professed Christian activist entered the Queen Mary University lecture hall and threatened death to those attending a lecture disparaging the Christian faith.  Do you think that this would not be spread across the British press? How many column inches would Polly Toynbee or Richard Dawkins take to denounce the incident and the belief system behind it?

But this is Islam — so we have silence.

In Peter Godwin’s wonderful memoir of life in Zimbabwe, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, he cites a phrase of Winston Churchill’s that speaks to this moral cowardice:

… appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last.

Perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps it was a cringing, craven self-censorship, perhaps the A-team of reporters was not back from the Christmas holidays. Whatever it may be, I can see no reason to spike this story.

Crocodile photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About geoconger
  • Mark Baddeley

    I agree there is no valid reason to spike the story.

    But I think there are a number of factors at work that make it seem like it is a good thing to not report this story.

    1) I think the “right” and “left” are in lockstep. The fact that “conservatives” think Islam is a threat tends to make the “left” want to downplay it. Both sides are defining themselves against the other, and this is one of several casualties of that. The fact that tabloids play this up in the UK makes the broadsheets (and especially the BBC) want to run a 100 miles from the story. I suspect it’s tied to the English class system.

    2) Apart from that, but certainly related, at this point in time the ‘left’ sees its primary opponents as within Western society, not outside of it. As Islam is considered to be not Western, highlighting Islamic violent threats increases the sense of an enemy ‘out there’ which would tend to unite the West around its ‘traditional’ values (or at least a common self-identity) in response. But the “left” is focused on questioning that inheritance and reforming it – which is harder to do when your society feels itself to be under threat from an external foe.

    3)I think many mainstream journalists and their editors believe that negative reporting on Islam is like calling “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. It’s similar to the push to introduce legislation against hate speech, restrict criticisms of same-gender sex, and the like. “Freedom of speech” is getting redefined to include freedom from offense or being made to feel like you were personally attacked.

    And that point ties into a Western concern for protecting minority groups from possible populist and democratic attempts to oppress them by the majority. Hence the double standard that Christians should be prepared to be offended (think ‘piss Christ’ as art) but Muslims should be protected. One is considered a powerful group and so should suck it up. The other is a vulnerable minority group and so should be given special considerations.

    From a classical free speech point of view it is corrupt (so I agree with you Geoconger), but it’s not setting out with that as its goal. I think it is trying to replace a classic commitment to free speech with something new.

  • R9

    I had a quick look around the Telegraph, Mail and Sky News site and didn’t find mention there either. So whatever we pin this on, it might not necessarily related to some agenda of the left. (if you buy the idea that the BBC is prone to such agendas in the first place. )

    The whole reporting on Islam thing is a bit tricky, of course. It’s the religion of an ethnic minority, one that can suffer racism, tends to get a bit defensive, and has problems with extremism.

    I think it’s inevitable reporters will tread more carefully as compared to the religion that is, while actively practised by a minority, still a part of the wider majority cultural background.

  • Ray Ingles

    How many column inches would Polly Toynbee or Richard Dawkins take to denounce the incident and the belief system behind it?

    It has been discussed – and decried – in quite a few secularist/atheist blogs.

    I kinda wonder if there might have been more attention if the planned speaker had been a Christian…

    • geoconger

      You confirm the point I was making. It was discussed on small circulation or specialty blogs only. It did not appear in the major newspaper blogs like Comment is Free at the Guardian.

  • sari

    It has been discussed – and decried – in quite a few secularist/atheist blogs.

    I kinda wonder if there might have been more attention if the planned speaker had been a Christian…

    My first thought, also.

  • Ray Ingles

    geoconger –

    You confirm the point I was making.

    Er, well, yeah. I was confirming that it wouldn’t be hard to find voices to comment on it, were any journalists looking…

  • Jes Lookin

    One thing I’ve always wondered about generic Christians and Islamists – who provides supervision and authority ? You never hear of their ‘church’ stepping up and saying ‘you are wrong and so you are outa here !’

  • R.S.Newark

    So too bad the BBC failed to report the “sectarian violence” in North Ireland in a similar fashion.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    I don’t believe it is ideology that is at play here, but actual fear. There is fear among news organizations that Islamists will retaliate for any negative stories (see the US organizations sanitize the Ft. Hood reporting, for example). These same organizations do not fear Catholics, Christians, Jews, or Buddhists, because there is a true record of non-violence, in spite of rank bias in news items as well as opinion pieces.

    To test this theory, why not write an opinion piece on this and submit it to the NYT? make sure you identify the protagonist as a Islamist, a protector of “Allah”. Want to make any bets the piece will NOT be accepted?

    So goes the “news of the world”…..ever fearful of telling the truth.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This is clearly a case that should be explored in depth. Either there was a credible threat to the lives of those involved, and this should be made clear in coverage, or the university staff are too quick to cancel public discussions on controversial topics because of rage from some, and this is also a worthwhile topic.

    I am inclined towards the later view. People who have twisted Islam into an excuse for violence are going to attack almost as certainly if they are not provoked as if they are. Giving in to their demands just makes them more likely to make the same threats down to line with even less reason to express their rage.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Has there been any attempt to arrest this man for making these threats?

  • John Pack Lambert

    The “right” and “left” in lock step theory just does not hold water.

    As we saw recently in links in the honor killing debate there are leftists who will attack radical Islam. Switzerland, which outlawed minarets and France which has passed all sorts of laws against Islamic clothing, are not exactly pastions of conservatism. On the other hand here on Eastern Michigan University campus I have had class mates who wore hijab and have seen women on campus wearing burkhas, and our Republican governor, Republican controlled legislature and Republican controlled state supreme court have not even discussed in any way restricting these practices.

    It is also worth noting that the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are not exactly Christian groups. The people attacked and objecting to this behavior are secularists, not Christians.

    I am reminded of a contrast between the New York Times and the USA today coverage of the rise of politicans affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia I noticed at some point in the last week. The NYT focused on the Islamists as a threat to secularists, and from that article you never would have guessed there was a single Christian in Tunisia. Since USA today was writing about the way that the fall of autocratic regimes from Tunisia to Iraq had negatively effected Christians, they focused on the 10% of Tunisia’s population that is Christian and how they have grave misgiving about the developments in their country.

    Thus both papers saw negatives in the rise of governments that claim more of a focus on Islam, but USA Today focused on how this affects the religious freedom of those not in the religious majority (although they made little if any mention to the fact that Muslims who do not accept the approved set of beliefs of the regime will often be punished as much, or in Pakistan’s case with the Ahmadi, more, than those who are non-Muslims) while the New York Times saw the issue as religion (with Islam used almost as a stand-in for any religion) attacking those who are not religious. I would argue that both papers moved too much to a binary, whether of secularism verses religion or of Christitanity verses Islam, obscuring the much more complexed nature of the principals involved.

  • Casper

    I agree. I am a fan but when it comes to Radical Islam the BBC does seem to have a persistent reticence to report newsworthy events.

    Have the BBC commented on why no report was made?