the Finsbury Park attack was a wake-up call

Around six months ago, on the 19th June 2017, the 48 year old Darren Osborne is accused of having driven a van into a crowd of Muslim worshipers outside a mosque, injuring nine people and killing one 58 year old man. Though the suspect has not yet been convicted, the tragedy has opened the eyes of the public to the urgency of the problem of combating Islamophobic propaganda and of rethinking the way in which a narrative can be created about a community that is not only divisive, but potentially deadly. 

Though it might have been Osborne who is responsible for the tragedy, this should in no way detract from the bravery of the victims, in particular that of the imam Mohammed Mahmoud who prevented any retaliation by shielding him from a crowd beginning to show signs of shock-induced aggression. Despite being lauded as a perfect example of someone loving their enemies and even being labelled as the ‘hero imam’, though, Mahmoud rejects this characterization on the basis that it implies that he is the exception to the rule. In an interview for The Guardian, he eloquently explains:

“We can’t escape the fact that Muslims are portrayed in an unfavourable light in the media…to conclude or theorise that [Osborne] would have been killed if [I wasn’t] there, that’s based on a narrative that’s put forward that Muslims are savage and don’t respect the law”.

Instead, he calls attention to the fact that he was helped by many others, that aggression is the natural response to such a barbaric act of cruelty. The London mayor Sadiq Khan similarly spoke out about the horrific events, asserting:

“This is a good community. They pull together, they work closely with each other and the actions of Imam Mohammed are what I would expect from a good faith leader and a good Muslim leader.”

Why, then, must it take a disaster such as this for people to recognize the power of common moral principles, of shared dignity and humanity? Why must it be necessary for a tragedy such as this for a Muslim man to be called a ‘hero’ for the work he does and for the outpouring of support that came in the wake of the attack even though Islamophobia is increasingly being felt by British Muslims on a daily basis? The Independent has published figures that show that instances of anti-Muslim hate crime targeting mosques have more than doubled between 2016 and 2017, Sadiq Khan also pointing out that Islamophobic attacks have increased fivefold since the London brige attack.

statistics
Source: YouGov

Undeniably, the media has a huge role to play in the unfair demonization of Islam, the press being responsible to much of the kind of hateful, extremist content that motivated this act of terror. Osborne’s partner, Sarah Andrews, described to the BBC in an interview how “He seemed brainwashed and totally obsessed with the subject [of Muslims]” prior to the attack. She cites programmes such as the BBC’s Three Girls and the social media accounts of nationalist parties such as Britain First and the English Defence League as contributing to his paranoia, it being fair to say that a clear line can be drawn between hate crime and the way that Islam is presented in the media. An article in the Guardian draws attention to graffiti on the Sutton Islamic Centre which reads “Terrorise your own country”, ironic when the terror suspect in this instance is British and attacking fellow Brits.

islamophobia
Source: NewStatesman

This kind of bad press disproportionally targets and affects those most vulnerable, it being convenient to create a scapegoat for society’s ills that can shoulder the blame for everyday hardships. It dehumanizes entire communities and encourages a tribal way of thinking where those who may be of an unfamiliar race or religion do not ‘belong’, or even pose a threat to the existence of one’s own tribe, even though this is an entirely ludicrous and unhealthy way to look at the world.

All of this only highlights the growing need for the government and the police to combat Islamophobia and to put the same kind of efforts into eliminating the issue as they do towards extremist Islamic propaganda. Both of these are terror-related, and must be treated with the same degree of urgency and dedication for they both pose a threat to what we might like to imagine a peaceful Britain to be . It seems completely absurd that schools might summon a boy who simply converted to Islam into a meeting to check if he was being targeted by Islamic State (as they did at mine) but authorities wouldn’t investigate a man (Osborne) who had made inflammatory and threatening statements at a pub – “I’m going to kill all the Muslims, Muslims are all terrorists. Your families are all going to be Muslim. I’m going to take it into my own hands” – and publicly announcing his intentions to kill members of the Labour party such as Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn.

Fundamentally, the debate comes down to issues of identity and belonging, Osborne harboring the ideology like many others that those of other ethnicities, cultures and religious faiths don’t ‘belong’ in Britain. At the heart of this is a certain dangerous conception of what Britain was and should be i.e. a predominantly white and Christian country. Though this Britain may never truly have existed, as this country has for thousands of years been composed of countless different cultures and ethnicities, the dream persists, more accurately described as a nightmare for the potential hatred and division it feeds and facilitates. I for one would rather belong to a community made up of members who honour justice and mercy, such as Mohammed Mahmoud, than those who take the law into their own hands and fail to recognize the humanity of others as Osborne has demonstrated. Now, rather than divide us, this tragedy should teach us that we must actively nurture compassion and understanding rather than hatred and division, or the society that we would like to live in might never come to fruition.

when the news got social

You would have to have been living under a rock to have missed the way that news coverage has moved to feature in social media feeds, so ubiquitous now that it barely merits a second thought. This union has proved to be both beneficial and problematic, though the advantages, efficiency but one, are difficult to overlook. Rather than having to visit a separate website, tune in to the radio, switch on the TV or pay for a newspaper, all one has to do is log in to their social media account to access the same content, often in real-time. Leaving this to one side, this marriage can have important consequences when it is one’s only way of accessing the latest news, particularly in a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. In a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism it was revealed that 1 in 10 people favour their social media in briefing them on the latest news, a figure likely to be higher almost two years on from the study.

The media industry is under a lot of pressure to adapt to the rapid change that society is currently undergoing, some even referring to this transitional period as a ‘technological revolution’. Over the last decade, there has been a massive decline in the number of people consuming printed news, preferring other sources such as television and radio and, increasingly, online coverage. It is fairly recent, however, that the news has bled into social media platforms and on such a scale, this phenomenon corresponding to the rising popularity of companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. It seems only natural that in such a climate news organisations would be willing to adapt in order to reach the largest audience, only made possible by embracing these new networking tools. According to the Pew Research Centre, 67% of Americans admit to accessing some of their news coverage on social media, says a report published in 2017. Now, Facebook has a built in feature that mimics a news bulletin. Snapchat hosts the stories of many of the major players in media, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with others such as The Sun and The Daily Mail. Much of today’s political debate takes place within what has become known as the ‘Twittersphere’. Social media has become impossible to ignore, it being entirely logical to see why many well-known news organizations have jumped on the social media bandwagon, it being too important a ride to miss.

Today’s problem, though, is that of the spread of ‘fake news’, to use the famous term coined by Donald Trump. When social media becomes one’s main or only source of accessing news, they make themselves more vulnerable to be exposed to sensationalist or misleading information which feeds off the freedom and scope of these platforms. At its heart, social media is intended to be a personal, social space hence when one introduces news coverage, it too must become social and personal for its target audience, there then being a fine line between what is real ‘news’ and what is actually an ideology dressed as ‘fact’. In this sense, it’s no surprise that social media platforms are the seed-bed of extremist content or birthplace of ‘fake news’.  In 2017, a rumour that the devastating hurricane Irma would be a category 6 storm – a level that does not exist – was doing the rounds on social media after it was broadcast by the website InfoWars and shared on Facebook. The President of the United States Donald Trump even retweeted one of the right-wing Britain First’s campaign videos about Islamic terrorism, both deemed Islamophobic and later discredited. When news becomes ideological, which it inevitably does when it leaks into social media, “fake news”, misinformation and the distortion of fact becomes unavoidable, even inevitable. The presence of reputable news organizations on social media legitimizes the less trustworthy ones that whose sole aim is to reach as many people as possible, making it even more difficult to distinguish between ‘real’and ‘fake’ news. Though this task was far from easy even before this shift, all these developments can do is further muddy the waters of fact and fiction.

Crucially, this phenomenon has made it necessary to have some way of filtering the ‘real’ news from the ‘fake’ news. In The Guardian’s James Ball’s piece on the decline of public trust in social media makes it clear just how prescient this issue really is:

Trust in social media platforms fell just four points year-on-year in the UK, and even after the relentless coverage of social media being exploited for propaganda, and the big tech backlash in the US, fell just 11 points there. Globally, media was trusted less than business and NGOs, and is equal to government – and this trust level isn’t increasing.

Many government leaders and CEOs have pledged to tackle the spread of fake news, attesting that it is one of their main priorities. This can be problematic in itself though, people voicing their concerns that freedom of the press must be protected, that a state where fake news is rife is preferable to a state policed and censored by governing bodies. In spite of this, some of these strategies are compelling and might well positively contribute to the fight against misinformation and sensationalism. During the run-up to the Italian election, the government is assigning a task force to combat fake news in the wake of the suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Following much public uproar, Mark Zuckerberg has committed to suppressing the spread of fake news on Facebook by encouraging its users to take a survey on which sources of information they perceive to be most “trustworthy” so as to give priority to “high quality news”.

Social media platforms are a great way to respond to news stories and are often used as vehicles for social or political movements, undeniably a good thing in that they are a sign of a healthy democratic society. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements would not have taken off in the same way if social media platforms had not been their to give them access to millions of people. Complications arise when social media is a source of news rather than a space to react to news, though this recognition may have come too late. As James Ball points out,

they [social media and news coverage] are now wedded to one another, and will sink or swim together. News won’t be saved by the public falling out of love with Facebook. It will take much more than that.

Regrettably, it seems to be too late to curb these developments, it being instead more important to get with the programme and experiment with methods of damage-control and of improving the quality of journalism today. Though the future is far from certain, there remains huge potential for the media industry, avenues that are only available thanks to these very social platforms. It seems that all we can do at present is keep scrolling.

 

View story at Medium.com

pink is a powerful colour

It was only after a friend pointed out that my wardrobe was slowly beginning to look like a collection of cast-offs from from Clueless that I really considered how much I love the colour pink. Dusky, pale and delicate, I can safely say that I am going through my pink phase now as an adult, having missed out on one as a so-called ‘tomboy’ child. Though it is arguably a much misunderstood colour, I would like to come to its defence against popular opinion to maintain that the colour pink is an empowering symbol of the feminine that I, as a female, am proud to show off. IMG_3225 (2)In abstract, pink has far more positive connotations than one might originally think; psychologically speaking, for instance, it is associated with tenderness, love and compassion, hugely important and valuable characteristics for anyone to possess. We are doing ourselves a disservice by disassociating these qualities with masculinity, carelessly conceiving of gender in binary categories with little thought to the effect on the mental health of those exposed, young children being particularly vulnerable to such black-and-white thinking.

Admittedly, pink can indeed be representative of an unhealthy version of femininity, particularly in regards to the way that products and lifestyles are marketed to young people. It is no coincidence that pink gender-oriented products are intended for girls and often endorse a problematic interpretation of what it means to be feminine, the emphasis placed on passivity and unassertiveness, even fragility by implication. The industry is dominated by of princesses, unicorns and plastic babies, only furthering the promotion of the values listed above. In recent years, there has been much coverage of the issue of prescribing lifestyles and behaviours on the basis of biological sex, often to the detriment of mental health and self-image. Arguably, however, it is not pink that is the problem, but society’s perception of the nature of femininity, it being entirely possible to reclaim this misunderstood colour to be a symbol of empowerment and strength rather than humility and submissiveness.

Pink is the colour of Japan’s world famous cherry blossom or ‘sakura’ which draws visitors from all over the world to admire its beauty and transience. Pink is the colour that flooded my cheeks after my recovery from life-threatening anorexia, a signifier of my regained strength and health. Indeed, pink is the colour that the thousands of women chose to wear as hats at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, the largest single day rally in the history of the US that united women across boundaries of gender, race, sexuality and religion. In the past, even, pink was a colour intended for boys as it was the more ‘vibrant’ shade said to denote strength and vigour.

womens march 2017

What symbols represent is relative and often determined by one’s cultural reference point, hence there a flexibility to them that allows for diversity of meaning. Contrary to Western ideas about the benevolent sun and the “jealous” moon, for example, the Bacongo of Angola believe, according to Jogn S. Mbiti, ”the moon is the place of coolness and happiness where good men go after death; and the sun is the place of punishment for the wicked”.  Naturally, symbols often have a flipside, much like the colour pink as a symbol of femininity; yes, as a female I can be empathetic, I can be tender, I can be caring but I can also be vibrant, full of strength, love and self-belief.

It’s possible, then, that pink is so divisive a colour because it is a symbol of the conflicted and complex way women are viewed in society. Socially, pink has become representative of the feminine whether you like it or not, making the issue about how this symbol is to be interpreted. Yes, it can have a crippling and detrimental impact on the way women see themselves and their purpose in life when it is aligned with crippling and detrimental views about the role of women. In like manner, it becomes empowering then it is interpreted as encompassing all of the positive aspects of femininity.

ladies, stand up

“If you have unshakable faith in yourself, in your sisters and in the possibility of change, you can do almost anything” so said the said the Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. After listening to an inspiring interview of Liberia’s outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I felt compelled to do a little digging into the country’s history to observe her path to becoming Africa’s first woman in the presidential office, a journey made possible by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, led by the single mother Leymah Gbowee. I am ashamed that I was ignorant of so monumental a peace movement, run by ordinary women, what would have such far-reaching, lasting consequences not only for Africa, but for the international political community as a whole.

It is worth here giving a brief outline of Liberia’s history, the West African country emerging from a colony of American ex-slaves in the 19th century, only to gain its independence as the Republic of Liberia thirty years later. For decades, the political sphere was dominated by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the freed slaves that migrated there decades before, leading to growing tensions among the indigenous community who felt they were being neglected and cheated by the ruling class. This state of affairs continued until the president William Tolbert was killed in a military coup led by Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, whose leadership – the result of a fraudulent election – was violent and bloody, swiftly publicly executing members of Tolbert’s cabinet after his rise to power. During his rule, another uprising occurred, led by Charles Taylor sparking a long and bloody civil war, after which he was elected president. Throughout his leadership, he was accused of supporting the perpetration of the torture, rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of innocent citizens, many of whom were displaced from their homes, the principal victims being women and children.

It was this 14 year long civil war that compelled Leymah Gbowee to action, herself a single mother and social worker working with UNICEF to counsel those who had been traumatized by war, putting her into contact with some of the most vulnerable members of Liberian society, some of whom were ex-child soldiers. In 2002, she reported having a dream in which God spoke directly to her, telling her to gather the women of Liberia together to lobby for peace and an end to the fighting and hostilities that had caused untold suffering and devastation to thousands or innocent, ordinary people like herself. She begun at her Church, forming the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace whose supporters demonstrated continually at a local fish market with signs and placards, all dressed in white as a symbol of peace, strategically choosing the route they knew the president to take everyday on his way to and from work. Significantly, Muslim women made up a large part of the assembly, Gbowe credited with uniting women across cultural divides in the name of peace and prosperity for Liberia and the future of their children.

gbowee
Leymah Gbowee

Suffice it to say, the movement grew to encompass thousands of women, eventually succeeding in making direct contact with the president when Gbowee issued a speech to Taylor, refusing to turn her back to him, where she declared “We [the women of Liberia] are tired of war. We are tired of running…We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children”. Later, peace talks would be held in Ghana following pressure from the international community as well as the women’s movement, an event attended by many supporters of Gbowee’s cause. After weeks of seeing little change, the women staged a sit-in at the presidential palace where they prevented anyone in attendance from leaving until a satisfactory outcome had been reached, Gbowee resisting arrest by threatening to strip naked as, in her words, “You [they] have taken all of this from me, I’m giving you [them] the last bit of my pride”, whereupon they released her. Not long afterwards, a peace deal was reached and Charles Taylor was exiled and imprisoned in Nigeria charged with crimes against humanity throughout his six year presidency.

Many argue that is was largely the work of these brave, inspiring women that facilitated the election of Africa’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, often credited with stabilizing a country that had for years been in the grip of violence and corruption.

PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL
Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

Sirleaf is herself another inspiring woman in Liberia’s political history; a victim of an abusive relationship and imprisoned twice for opposing the government Johnson Sirleaf still managed to ascend to the presidency through democratic election, going on to implement free primary education for Liberia’s children, attract valuable foreign investment, promote equal rights for women and stabilize a country long at war, though she has been the recipient of fierce criticism for tolerating corruption within the presidential circle as well as nepotism. It is unsurprising, then, that both Sirleaf and Gbowee are recipients of the Nobel Peace prize for their work in fighting for social justice and peace for their country despite all of the odds that seemed to work against their favour.

These women provide us with clear proof of the strength and grace of ordinary women, show us that women wield extraordinary power both as individuals but, more importantly, as a unit. When women put on a united front, there is little they cannot achieve, as Liberia’s Women’s movement demonstrates. Ladies, stand up.

on priorities

 

As a start to the New Year, I hope to use this space to encourage myself and others to make more time for themselves and to be more aware of their mental health, the topic of evaluating one’s priorities right seeming appropriate to the way in which I would like to begin 2018. This was all sparked by a chance encounter I had the other day, when I happened to meet a man who had recently moved to the UK from India to study, a conversation that led me to reflect on the culture I am familiar with here in the UK. While fixing my phone, he described in detail his town and friends back home, it being clear that – however many positive aspects there are to the UK- there are certain crucial things that many in this country often neglect to the detriment of their quality of life. In India, so he said, his friends were up for a good time whereas in the UK. they had to be painfully persuaded before they might go out or relax. Newly arrived, he was keen to explore and sought to take a round trip to Scotland, asking his new flat mates to come along. Shockingly, they only agreed to come once he had offered to pay for them, later allowing him to shoulder the entire financial burden as they were too concerned about ‘wasting’ their precious time and money on such an excursion.

This is telling of the attitude that pervades society as I know it, the man aptly using the word ‘conservative’ to describe the British attitude to having a good time. It is important to point out, however, that this may have been because he was a student, hence money and time do become legitimate excuses for not going on lengthy, expensive trips around the country. Additionally, I should make clear that by ‘having a good time’ I am not referring to the culture of binge drinking and burnout that I and so many others, particularly young people, are so accustomed to. Instead, by that term I make reference to things that bring genuine and lasting pleasure, that are conducive to true satisfaction and mental well being, examples including going out (or in) to have dinner with close friends, visiting a museum or art gallery, going for a walk or out to see a movie or a musician perform live. These activities need not be expensive or even particularly time-consuming, encompassing anything that brings joy such as a casual coffee morning or trip to the cinema. Though these sound so simple, my own experience indicates that there are so many things that get in the way which make these practically impossible or even seem like overly indulgent ways to spend one’s time.

Not meaning to make any generalizations, I would ask one to compare this mindset to the cafe culture of the continent or nightlife of central and southern America, where restaurants and bars are open till late and customers often sit chatting into the small hours. It is this that I perceive many in the UK to be lacking, this flexibility and openness to pleasure, particularly among those of my own generation. As cliched as it is, I would say that here we seem to have our priorities wrong, valuing productivity over pleasure, industriousness over indolence and wealth over well-being which we would do well to reevaluate and place more importance on making time and space for ourselves over the coming year.

the ethics of the bystander

As someone who works in retail, I come to interact with people on a daily basis, not only to help them with their weekly shop but also to be a listening ear for many people who otherwise would have no social outlet. It is inevitable, then, that I come to meet people who hold views vastly different to my own, a positive thing though not without its difficulties. In the past, I have met a middle-aged woman who, when praising the Austrian burqa ban, remarked that “you never know if they’ve got a bomb under there”. Another woman, when telling me how offended she was to have been followed around the shop by an Asian member of staff who suspected her of stealing, told me of how she mocked them, asking her “you no speaki inglese?”, related to me in a whisper as a black customer was walking down the aisle we were standing in. Examples such as these are no doubt symptomatic of ignorance and circumstance, yet here what I want to explore is my own complicity in the situation when I remain silent. In both instances, I didn’t challenge the women, didn’t even raise an eyebrow, I am ashamed to say, as I feared being told off later by my boss.

Reflecting now, I would say that this cowardice is inexcusable as it facilitates the perpetuation of this toxic problem. These people feel comfortable saying these things to me because I appear to be ‘like them’ i.e. I am a white British female, hence they feel I am familiar, an ally. In remaining silent, I only reinforce this view, maintaining the idea that those of the same tribe, so to speak, are allied to each other, easily remedied by challenging them to shatter this illusion.

In remaining silent, I am essentially shirking the responsibility for solving the issue, leaving it up to those who are the victims of ignorance and intolerance. Can one really be said to be not racist, not sexist, not homophobic if they passively allow these problems to worsen, even if they do not actively contribute to their intensification? Is it really enough to be ‘nice’ to others when this has no real effect in combating the root problem? If one were to watch someone being mugged, for example, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the victim instead of the silent bystander; in the same way, it is ridiculous to suggest that the buck stops with the receiver of the abuse alone.

Clearly, then, remaining silent is an ethically inexcusable act, the implication being that I did wrong when I didn’t challenge these customers. In the same way, society does wrong when it doesn’t confront these issues head on but claims to be liberal and unprejudiced. Next time, I will definitely be tackling this bigotry rather than feeling a vague sense of guilt in remaining silent as it seems obvious that this is the only moral reaction to an immoral situation.