“I genuinely felt afraid. I have spoken in hundreds of universities, and I have never seen anything like it before. I always think of students as being so open minded.”
This coming from a man who, only minutes earlier, had told a large audience of Southampton students that he no longer feared having a loaded gun held to his head.
Tonight the University played host to a lecture by Moazzam Begg on Islamophobia in the media under somewhat ironic circumstances. An article had been written on sotontab.co.uk asking the University not to allow Begg to attend and give the talk. To do so, the article claimed, would give him a platform to spread his “vile, pro-jihadist message.”
As it turned out, the talk contained not a single reference to Jihad. Instead Begg gave a timely and important lecture on media driven Islamophobia to a large crowd in Building 46. He began with a history lesson, emphasising the role the media played in the build up of anti-semitic feeling in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.
While, as he said, there is no need to exagerate the comparisons, there are similarities between the media then and the media today. Muslims throughout Europe feel demonised and alienated by their portrayal in the media. Once again we are seeing far-right groups become more vocal throughout Europe, only this time, as compared to the general anti-immigrant prejudices expressed in the 1970s and 80s, they single out one group.
Begg also talked of his own experience as a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, which remains open, with over 100 detainees despite President Obama’s election promise to close the facility. He talked of how he was beaten, how loaded guns were held to his head, how he was told the screams of a woman in an adjacent room were the sounds of his wife being beaten, and how he witnessed the murder to two detainees at the hands of American forces.
Despite being subjected to all this, Begg managed to form bonds with his captors, even providing marital advice to a soldier through the flap in his cell. To this day he remains in contact with some of his former captors, who have visited him and stayed at his home.
What came across most strongly from his talk was his plea for tolerance, and a recognition of common humanity. He has experienced first hand the consequences that de-humanising a person can have.
He explained the fear that ordinary Muslims feel when constantly attacked by the press. As he said, less than a decade ago stories about Muslims were rare or non-existent. Now you can barely open a newspaper or watch a news bulletin without a story somewhere about the ever present threat of Islamic terror (despite, as Begg pointed out, one attack occuring on the British mainland in the 10 years since September 11th).
And, more recently, the press coverage has gone further. It is no longer just a fear of terrorism, but Islamism. Muslims are painted as people who don’t respect the rights of women, who refuse to integrate into British society, who demand Sharia law. The bombardment of this image of Islam and Muslims is almost constant, and the effect it has on psyche of the people who digest the news is becoming more apparent too.
And into this context came the article referred to above. It claimed (later retracted) that the Islamic Society had advertised the talk with a poster written in Arabic containing a crossed gun and sword. It then claimed that this poster was used by Begg’s campaigning group Cageprisoners to advertise the talk. So far neither the editor, nor the author of this piece have been able to provide a link to back this point up. Yes the image has been used on cageprisoners website, but the talk at Southampton is not even mentioned. Even so much as a cursory look at the topic of the talk, or contact with the Islamic society to check how they had advertised it could have avoided this mistake.
The article went on to state that “maybe Southampton will be the next university to breed terrorism, who knows?” Again, neither the editor or the author has been able to give a single piece of evidence to demonstrate what this claim was based upon.
For the author of the piece, John King, however, the article was justified because of the threat posed by Begg: “There’s a reason that the anti-extremist pressure groups and thinktanks, containing many ex-Islamist Muslims, recognise that Begg is a dangerous individual. So if my comments against Begg upset a few people then as devotees of the principles of tolerance and liberty we know that we are doing our job. We cannot legally stop people such as Begg from spouting their rhetoric of hate, but we do have the indisputable right to stand up and denounce him and the illiberal views that he espouses”
However, his article carries all the hallmarks of traditional press Islamophobia. It focused on fear and exagerated threats. Quite how a talk on the media portrayal of Islam aimed, as Begg himself pointed out, at non-muslims, was likely to create future terrorists is not comprehensible. But the article didn’t trouble itself with making logical conclusions. Rather it stirred up fear and leapt straight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely.
In speaking at 100 universities across the country, Moazzam Begg states that he has never experienced this type of reception before. Is this a condemnation of Southampton or a sign of the times? Either way it should leave us with cause for concern.
The message of Begg’s talk was quite simply about promoting tolerance in place of de-humanisation and fear. There is a lesson there, not just for the media in general, but for the student media here at Southampton.
Update: Soton Tab have issued an apology for publishing the article which can be viewed here