By Dr Ed Bracho-Polanco
If one analyses the media in Europe today it becomes evident that there has been a rise and acceptance of xenophobic, racist and anti-religion narratives. This has evidently run parallel to – and quite possibly has been one of the effects of – the surge of right-wing extremism movements and of ultra-nationalist groups in many parts of the region. Some media outlets have been echoing such narratives, thus reinforcing them. Media and journalists face a serious challenge in tackling these discourses of prejudice, intolerance and hostility towards the other and otherness.
These discriminatory and threatening attitudes have been focused on certain religious and faith groups in Europe. The most prevalent narratives to target a religious group seem to be Islamophobia, followed by anti-Semitism. These attitudes of intolerance and discrimination directed at religious or ethnic groups are to a significant degree the result of a dangerous socio-political trend in today’s Europe: that is, the rise of xenophobic nationalisms and of populist anti-politics. One only has to look at the relatively recent surge of the English Defence League in Great Britain, of the National Rally in France under Marine Le Pen, of Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, of the National Democratic Party in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece… the list goes on. Arguably, in no other country of the European Union has seen these narratives become more officialised than Orbán’s Hungary. Unlike most of Europe, in Hungary such hostility towards specific religious groups does not emanate from the so-called fringe political parties or from relatively marginal demographic sectors. It is the government which has become the main promoter of this intolerance and jingoism. The vast majority of media outlets have become – to varying degrees – mouthpieces of Orbán and of his nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-Islam discourse.
In today’s Europe media coverage of Islam has become indeed problematic, particularly because of the prevalence of the globalised discourse of the “war on terror” after the tragic events of 9/11, which for many, alternatively, means “war on political Islam”, or quite simply “war on Muslims”. Some scholars suggest that much of the media in Europe has been gradually imitating that of the U.S. in basing its reporting about Islam and the Muslim community on Samuel Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations, in which the author proposes that after the Cold War global tensions are determined by religion and culture rather than by ideology. The alleged clash, Huntington argues, is essentially defined by the dichotomy between the West and Islam. Yet, in his essay Fear of Small Numbers, author Arjun Appadurai offers a counterargument by formulating that possible tensions between majority and minority groups are not the product of Huntington’s notion of “clash of civilizations”, but rather the result of what is “a globalised civilization of clashes”. It is arguably in this context that one can best comprehend, for example, how anti-Semitism is incited by extremist right-wing collectives or by the anti-Israeli left or by other religious groups in Europe.
A survey conducted by the European Union’s fundamental rights agency between 2015 and 2016 in fifteen European nations (including the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary and Sweden) found that almost a third of Muslims were insulted during that period of time, and 2% were physically assaulted. Also, over 40% of Muslims consulted said they experienced unfair treatment when looking for jobs, accessing public services like healthcare or education, or renting property. A total of 17% expressed being generally discriminated solely for being Muslim – this represents an increase of 7% when compared to the 2008 survey of the same organisation. There was scant media coverage of these acts.
It is of note that a report published by the Germany-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation a year before found that between 27% and 61% of people in nine European countries esteem that the Islamic communities in their respective nations are too large and that entry to Muslims should be tightened.
In a similar vein, members of the Jewish community in Europe have expressed increasing hostile attitudes towards them. A recent study carried out by the Kantor Centre found that, although physical attacks to European Jews have not risen, it is evident that expressions of anti-Semitism have escalated. This is patent in street demonstrations and in daily narratives where the term “Jew” has become to be considered a swear word by some people, much in the way it was employed in late 1930’s Germany.
It also reports that over 325 significant incidents of violence and desecration against Jews during the past year were carried out – the majority of which have not yet been covered by neither the respective national or the international media. Around a third of these incidents were directed at individuals, 20% at memorial sites and cemeteries, and 17% at synagogues, according to the survey.
This report also highlights that, although governments in certain European countries have intensified security measures in synagogues and other key sites of the Jewish communities, such policies are “overshadowed by the many verbal and visual expressions, some on the verge of violence, such as direct threats, harassments, hateful expressions and insults”. These acts, as is the case towards some of the Muslim communities, take place in schools and other educational places, working spaces, near their religious buildings and homes, and in the streets during demonstrations – particularly those of extreme-right-wing and anti-immigration groups.
However, it is in social media that these expressions of intolerance and hate are most prevalent. Traditional media – particularly certain tabloid press – have been echoing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and xenophobic narratives, but it is mainly social media that serves as the most effective platform for the dissemination of these expressions of prejudice and hate. As an example, the Spanish-based organisation Citizens Platform reported that 70% of incidents of discrimination, hate and threats towards Muslims occurred in social media and also in certain websites. These contents have been increasing consistently. Often, they are presented as opinions or comments posted in micro-blogging sites, or as memes in platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, or as fake news circulating in various websites.
It is not rare to find threads of discriminatory or hateful comments in social media and in digital news or opinion sites which dramatically distort specific events in order to portray Islam or Judaism in a negative light. Often political parties or extremist partisans are behind such actions. A recent case of such machinations was Bob Blackman MP retweeting a message from the founder of the English Defence League against Islam and also sharing an Islamophobic post in Facebook while in the Houses of Parliament.
Other cases of use of social media for delivering hate speech abound across Europe. For example, few months ago the leader of Greek political party Recreate Greece, Thanos Tzimeros, posted in Facebook a hateful text against Muslims. In it he advocated for “mass deportation” of the Islamic community in his country while claiming that if his party was in power the Greek islands “would be clean (of Muslims) in a maximum of one month” and that he had “had enough of the organised invasion of Islam, the cancer of humanity”. In the same media platform he expressed robustly agreeing with Austria’s decision at the time to possibly expel at least 20 foreign-funded imams from the central European nation. Just as recently, the likes of Jérome Bourbon, director of French right-wing magazine Rivarol, produced various anti-Semitic tweets denying the Holocaust and calling for French children and youngsters at school “not to accept classroom stories about the Holocaust” and to “please react, revolt (against the Jews), and not be Judeo-submissive”. Some more extremist political individuals or groups in Europe have gone as far as sending messages via social media calling to boycott all stores owned by and products sold by Jews and other texts, of a similar discriminatory and dangerous rhetoric, have declared preparing for an armed war against Islam.
The European Union is carrying out its first steps in regulating to some degree certain spaces of the Internet, particularly hate speech and discrimination in social media. Yet, this is very much a work in progress that has yet not seen vigorous legal implementation. Also, as the “us” against “them” discourse gains ground in Europe, and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism become more entrenched, political figures who promote prejudice and hate towards religious and ethnic minorities face no disciplinary action. In mainstream media self-regulation is still ambivalent and deficient. Anti-Islam columnist Katie Hopkins worked for The Sun until she decided to switch to the Mail Online, and even though 300,000 people signed a petition requesting her sacking, she continued to write her discriminatory texts. More recently, politician Boris Johnson saw how press regulator Ipso rejected hundreds of complaints from the British public after publishing in The Telegraph his opinion piece which presented a derogatory portrayal of Muslim women.
If media outlets such as The Sun, The Telegraph, and The Daily Mail at times seem to entail – in varying forms – an anti-immigration and anti-Islamic slant, British communist newspaper The Morning Star has occasionally demonstrated having an anti-Semitic bias. In June 2018 it published a text blaming the crimes of the Israeli state for the anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents in Great Britain, while stating that Jewish organisations in the country are in some way complicit of Israel’s actions against Palestinians. The text was later removed by the media outlet and an apology was offered.
Another recent examples of religious discrimination, among many elsewhere in Europe, are those that seem to be part of the editorial agenda of right-wing Epoch Times Deutschland. Often columnists of this newspaper like Alfred Schlicht or Barbara Köster blame Muslims of “anti-German” attitudes, and promote the discourse of Islam being a religion that is not compatible with “Western values” – in many ways such opinions are a radical take on Huntington’s formulation against Islam.
As a European “civilization of clashes” grows and many of its components seem to intensify their nationalistic and xenophobic narratives, it is imperative that the media addresses this phenomenon with urgency. As a key element of fairness, resilience and inclusiveness the media cannot fall prey to prejudiced sentiments and actions. Instead, the present moment requires media practitioners to report on religious issues and communities – and indeed, on minority matters – in an ethical, inclusive, accurate manner; and to closely and responsibly monitor the media narratives of a continent in troubled times.