Islamophobia remains a major concern in British society with a number of reported incidents of street-level violence perpetrated against Muslim communities. However, in an increasingly more digital environment, social media sites like Facebook and now Twitter have become the new virtual spaces for exacerbating online anti-Muslim abuse and #Islamophobia. I would categorise these incidents as ‘cyber harassment’, ‘cyber bullying’, ‘cyber abuse’, ‘cyber incitement’, ‘cyber threats’ and ‘cyber hate’. They are however not all confined, to social networking sites and wide online sites dedicated to blogging, online chat rooms and other virtual platforms that promote online Islamophobia are equally dangerous.
Few of us will forget the moment when Salma Yaqoob appeared on BBC Question Time, and tweeted the following comments to her followers: “Apart from this threat to cut my throat by #EDL supporter (!) overwhelmed by warm response to what I said on #bbcqt.’’ The person arrested, in connection with the comments, Steve Littlejohn added: “if that salma yaqueb’s there, cut her f### throat, rip weyman bennets teeth out with pliers and carve edl across all the asian scum who try and attack us”.
Sadly, many of us also recognise this level of online abuse via platforms such as Twitter. I personally have now become accustomed to seeing online trolling and anti-Muslim abuse all targeting me because of my work on anti-Muslim prejudice and the problems of cyber hate against Muslim communities. Simply by using some common words used to abuse Muslim communities with you can find a whole plethora of online anti-Muslim abuse with the #Muslimpigs, #Muzzrats (used by Tommy Robinson), #Muslimpaedophiles and #Muslimcunts.
The overwhelming does show that words, visual images, tweets, Facebook comments and online videos of hate not only cause offence but can have a huge impact on the victims they target. It allows online behaviour to become normalized by offenders which allows a perpetrator to use in many cases anonymity, manipulation and social control to target their victims. Mehdi Hasan, the Huffington Post, UK political director recalls the impact of these online hate comments on his family. He states that: “To say that I find the relentlessly hostile coverage of Islam, coupled with the personal abuse that I receive online, depressing is an understatement. There have been times – for instance, when I found my wife curled up on our couch, in tears, after having discovered some of the more monstrous and threatening comments on my New Statesman blog – when I’ve wondered whether it’s all worth it.”
Equally ordinary Muslims have also experienced this online hate which has had an impact upon them and their families as shown by the research which I have conducted with Muslim families. The ‘hate’ comments made online can have a negative impact on the victims who are targeted and can be very upsetting and unsettling for them. Post Woolwich the Internet and social networking sites have been used to by groups like the far right to attack Muslim communities. This type of prejudice follows a ‘drip drip’ effect and whilst it has intensified following Woolwich, the level of online anti-Muslim prejudice remains on a steady increase.
Many of the comments posted online through social networking sites, likeTwitter or Facebook consist of an ‘extremist’ and incendiary undertone which attacks the whole of ethos of the government’s social cohesion strategy and risks stoking up more hatred in particular in the case of online Islamophobia. Indeed, as Tell MAMA recently noted that they had received (74%) of reported online anti-Muslim abuse. Some of the cases reported to Tell MAMA included online anti-Muslim abuse against high-profile Muslim figures such as Baroness Warsi and Jemima Khan both of whom were subjected to online threats which were reported to the police by Tell MAMA.
Unfortunately, however policing online anti-Muslim abuse remains poor and more needs to be done in providing a safe environment where people are open to reporting online abuse to the police without fear that they will not be taken seriously. The importance of online Islamophobia does not always get the media and political attention it merits. It is often disregarded as ‘less valuable data’ or people are more concerned with the visible threats Muslims face. This is the problem when trying to ascertain what constitutes ‘high’ level and ‘low’ level incidents. For example, the use of targeted ‘Trolling’ can constitute online harassment and has a huge impact on the victims. Sadly, as a society the way we deal with online anti-Muslim hate is with a laissez-faire attitude at best and at worst leads to us simply asking the victim either to Block someone via Twitter or to simply close your account. This is why we need to try and build a new culture towards understanding the victim first and foremost.
Imran Awan is Deputy Director for the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University and co-editor of the books ‘Policing Cyber Hate’ and ‘Extremism, Counter-Terrorism and Policing’.