Gilligan denies anti-Muslim backlash

The Sunday Telegraph of 2 June featured an article by Andrew Gilligan, “The truth about the ‘wave of attacks on Muslims’ after Woolwich murder”, in which he dismissed the idea that the Muslim community had faced any serious outbreak of hostility following the death of Lee Rigby. His argument was that the government-backed Tell MAMA project (“Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks”), which had reported a sharp increase in Islamophobic incidents, was “overhyping the backlash” and thereby “playing into the hands” of Lee Rigby’s murderers.

Not that Gilligan’s response was exactly unexpected. Given his established record of denying the existence of Islamophobia – a stance perhaps not unconnected with the fact that he himself has played a prominent role in whipping it up – you’d be astonished if he had reacted any differently. It could be confidently predicted from the outset that Gilligan would dismiss any suggestion of a post-Woolwich upsurge in anti-Muslim hate crime, ignore any evidence to the contrary and attack those who argued otherwise as Islamists or their stooges.

Gilligan’s thesis was enthusiastically received in some circles, however. No sooner had his Telegraph piece appeared online than one popular far-right Facebook page posted a link to it, while Pamela Geller was so impressed she reproduced his article in its entirety. Geller’s ally Robert Spencer also quoted extensively from Gilligan’s article (“Muslim group fabricated evidence of ‘wave of attacks on Muslims’ in wake of London jihad murder”), as did another notorious “counterjihadist” website Frontpage Magazine (“UK Muslims claim ‘massive backlash’ and ‘endemic fear’ caused by 120 internet posts”).

On the more mainstream right, the Daily Mail eagerly picked up on Gilligan’s rubbishing of the idea that British Muslims had experienced any real escalation of hate crime (“The TRUTH about the ‘wave of attacks’ on Muslims after Woolwich killing: Most of the incidents recorded were offensive messages on Facebook and Twitter”) – though, to be fair, unlike Gilligan’s own paper the Mail did at least balance this by illustrating the online version of its report with photos of vandalised mosques and an angry gang of English Defence League thugs.

It is not my purpose to endorse Tell MAMA or its director, Fiyaz Mughal. The latter’s political opportunism is well illustrated by his reaction to Gilligan’s attack on him for publishing an article in the Cordoba Foundation’s journal. Instead of defending that organisation as a legitimate part of the Muslim community and telling Gilligan to get stuffed, as he ought to have done, Mughal conceded that he made a “mistake” in contributing to Arches Quarterly and assured Gilligan that he won’t repeat it. Tell MAMA’s own reply to Gilligan can in any case be consulted on their website.

What I want to do here is to compare Gilligan’s assertions about the absence of a worrying anti-Muslim backlash with the actual evidence that I have uncovered. Lacking Tell MAMA’s resources, I have relied on press reports to build up a picture of events following the Woolwich murder. A summary of my research can be found here. Obviously this list grossly underestimates the actual number of Islamophobic incidents, since most of them wouldn’t have made the newspapers. Nevertheless, even on the basis of this limited material it is not difficult to demolish Gilligan’s arguments.

Regarding the upsurge of aggressive acts against Muslims, Gilligan insists that these were largely restricted to attacks on mosques, and even here “all the incidents were relatively minor, such as window-breaking or graffiti”. He says there were “only two exceptions” to this – “a mosque in Grimsby into which firebombs were thrown and another one in Essex where a man entered with a knife”.

Let us start with case of the Grimsby Mosque & Islamic Community Centre. There were in fact two attacks on their premises, the first of which took place on the evening of 23 May, when a gang of drunken youths hurled bricks through the windows of the mosque, narrowly missing the people inside, and also vandalised cars parked in the road. This was followed by an even more violent attack on the evening of 26 May. Despite the mosque being under police guard, three petrol bombs were thrown at the building, where worshippers – including a family with young children – had just finished prayers.

According to Gilligan’s analysis, only the second of these attacks qualifies as serious. The first he categorises as “relatively minor”. Ask yourself whether Gilligan would take the same view if a drunken mob laid siege to his own home and threw bricks through his windows.

The only other incident that Gilligan recognises as serious took place at a mosque in Essex where “a man entered with a knife”. This is a reference to the attack on the Al Falah Islamic Centre in Braintree on 23 May. As worshippers were preparing for prayer a man ran into the mosque brandishing two knives and shouting “Where is your Allah now?” He then set off a smoke bomb. The individual charged with the attack, Geoffrey Ryan, would appear to be an English Defence League supporter and an adherent of the international “counterjihadist” movement whose anti-Muslim propaganda borrows so freely from Gilligan’s own journalism. Understandably, this is not an aspect of the incident that Gilligan shows any interest in exploring.

Furthermore, and contrary to Gilligan’s assertion, Grimsby was not the only case of an arson attack on a mosque. On 23 May a lighted bottle of inflammable liquid was thrown onto the roof of the Zainabia Islamic Centre in Milton Keynes. There were 30 people inside the building at the time. One of them, Mrs Fazilat Shivji, told the local paper: “I think I am more scared now than at 9/11, which is surprising. The vilification of Islam and Muslims is getting worse day by day.” Some of us might think this provided a telling insight into the lived experience of the Muslim community. Gilligan would presumably discount it as Islamist propaganda.

Let us have a look at some more of the incidents that fall into Gilligan’s “relatively minor” category.

One was the attack on Gillingham Mosque on 22 May. A man first broke one of the windows and having got into the building proceeded to smash up a bookcase containing copies of the Qur’an. The head of Canterbury’s Muslim Cultural Centre told the press his members feared further revenge attacks and he had warned them to be wary about going out at night. While Gilligan would no doubt see this as just another example of Islamist scaremongering, Kent police took a different view, stepping up their patrols outside mosques to prevent further reprisal attacks during Friday prayers. The police presence didn’t prevent one woman from shouting and swearing at worshippers as they entered Gillingham Mosque, telling them to “go back to their own country”.

It was not only mosques that were targeted. On 23 May a Muslim-run fried chicken takeaway in Upton Park was attacked. Two men came into the shop, banged on the counter and shouted “You killed one of our soldiers, we’ll kill you” before smashing the glass doors, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage, and leaving the family who own the shop traumatised. Then again, nobody suffered any physical injury during the attack, which according to Gilligan’s criteria would place it “at the lower levels of seriousness”.

Gilligan is also keen to downplay the importance of graffiti attacks that followed the Woolwich murder. Let us examine some of them. The words “Hell 2 Muslims. EDL!” were painted on a wall in Mitcham. “Islam = Evil” and “Terrorist training camp” was sprayed on the wall and door of Masjid-e-Usman in Bolton and “Terrorist inside” on a car parked outside. “Muslim scum” was daubed in red on the walls of Bournemouth Islamic Centre and Central Mosque. “Islam pedos”, “Islam murders” and “scum”, along with the letters “EDL”, were sprayed on the wall of a Muslim prayer hall at Pleasington Cemetery in Blackburn.

Obviously graffiti attacks do not involve any direct violence. However, their purpose is to frighten and intimidate a vulnerable minority community, while also contributing to an atmosphere of anti-Muslim hatred in which actual physical attacks do take place. To dismiss this form of hate crime as a matter of little consequence, as Gilligan does, is to demonstrate complete contempt towards its victims.

Gilligan also attaches little importance to the spate of online threats and abuse against the Muslim community unleashed by the Woolwich murder, through posts on Facebook and Twitter. These were, Gilligan contends, “nasty and undesirable, certainly, but some way from violence or physical harm”. Really? If Gilligan had bothered to do some basic research into this issue he would have found that the disturbing feature of the internet-based hate-fest that followed Woolwich was precisely that much of it involved explicit calls for violent retribution against British Muslims. Let us list some examples.

David Lee posted threats and racist abuse against Muslims on Facebook in response to the Woolwich murder, which included the suggestion: “if just one person petrol bombed any local muslim business in their area, that would be the end of them in one day.” An EDL supporter named Shaun Tuck posted Twitter comments in which he urged people to riot and “bomb and gas every mosque in England” in revenge for Lee Rigby’s death, and called for Muslim children to beheaded.

An EDL activist named Adam Rogers posted a series of “vile” and “inflammatory” messages on Facebook, in which he threatened to burn down a mosque in retaliation for the killing of Lee Rigby. Another EDL supporter named Tony Perrin posted a photo of himself on Facebook wearing a balaclava and pointing a gun at the camera, accompanied by the warning: “I will do a lot worse than what took place yesterday and I have like minded people behind me. You muslims aren’t the only people that make explosives and your not the only people willing to commit acts of insane violence. Watch this space.”

Lee, Tuck, Rogers and Perrin were all arrested and charged with criminal offences over their online threats, as indeed were a number of other individuals across the country who posted similar appeals for violence against Muslims. Police also placed a guard outside the Baitul Futuh Mosque in south London after calls for the mosque to be burned down appeared on a far-right Facebook page called True British Patriots. Clearly the police took this outpouring of anti-Muslim hatred on the internet rather more seriously than Gilligan does.

As Tell MAMA observe in their reply to Gilligan, the 120 complaints about Facebook and Twitter comments that they logged were only a small sample of the wave of online anti-Muslim abuse, and if they had attempted to record it all they would have been “inundated”. Anyone who is familiar with this particular area of rabid Islamophobia could only agree. Here, for example, is a selection of comments from a single thread on the EDL Facebook page, posted in response to the lie spread by the EDL leadership that Muslims in Oldham had publicly celebrated Lee Rigby’s killing. Rather than belittling the significance of this sort of racist poison, any responsible journalist would be urging the authorities to take much firmer action to deal with it.

Imagine that it was the Jewish community who had been subjected to this level of hatred over the course of little more than a week. Would a responsible journalist publish an article arguing that only about a dozen synagogues had been attacked during that period and most of them had had their windows smashed and their walls defaced with antisemitic graffiti, rather than being firebombed, so what were Jewish organisations complaining about? Would the journalist describe Facebook posts calling for Jews to be killed, their communities to be bombed and their businesses and places of worship to be burned down as merely “nasty and undesirable, but some way from violence or physical harm”?

But then, Gilligan is hardly a responsible journalist, is he? This is a man who was forced to leave his job at the BBC back in 2004 after his shoddy and dishonest journalistic methods were publicly exposed, and in the decade since then his methods have only got worse.

Published by Socialist Unity in June 2013