Thursday, February 12, 2015

Muslim Street

We learn about belonging and non-belonging, inclusion and exclusion, the we and the other, not through an accumulation of facts, but through stories.  Or, to be more precise, fables.  In fables, meanings are condensed into a succinct narrative which yields a morality lesson. Social media is especially good for this, acculturating us to a degree of concision far greater than on television. A few lines of text are enough to tell of whole worlds. These representations may, or may not, be true. Or they may, or may not, make contact with pockets of lives experience. To the extent that they do, they will be more persuasive. But it is sometimes sufficient that they merely touch on and reinforce existing representations. Here is a short fable from Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. This edifying story barely needs unpacking, but I will do it the courtesy of a sketch. Muslims have elected to put on a display of openness and, if you like, integration. By inviting members of the non-Muslim public to peer into their world, they hope to clear away the negative mystique which they argue is created by unfounded demonisation in the media, and to prove their integration into mainstream society. They are as British as the passive-aggressive whining about how unBritish they are: why, 'Dawoud' and 'Maryam', that's just 'Dave' and 'Mary'. Yet here, a white journalist, though perhaps self-evidently not a regular attendee, turned up "respectfully dressed" to visit a mosque advertising this invitation - and was not just refused entry but "ushered" away. This gives the lie to, or raises questions about, the 'openness' that was advertised. It suggests that some Muslims really do either have something to hide, or prefer self-segregation, or perhaps have some sort of prejudice against women. Either way, the moral of the fable is that Muslims remain a problematic other, whose national belonging is in question, who must be interrogated further, surveilled more intensively, kept on a very tight leash. This was rapidly taken up by the national media as a scandal and an affront to one of our top white people. The mosque referred to in these tweets reports that it was subject to threats and abuse as a result. Now, as it transpires, the story is not true. Cathy Newman, as this footage shows, was not 'ushered' by anyone:

She had, in fact, gone to the wrong place, and was politely directed to the correct place. On the evidence of the footage, she seems to have hung around for a while, considering her options, then left under her own steam, unaccompanied. Then she frantically tweeted her "interpretation of events". The mosque singled out for this treatment responded quickly, pointing out that there must have been some sort of error, as they were not participating in the #VisitMyMosque event. They then quickly checked their CCTV for evidence of what happened, and discovered that she was bullshitting. For over a week after the footage emerged, Channel 4 and Cathy Newman observed a studious silence, while the mosque continued to be subject to abuse and threats. Now, Newman has sent the mosque a letter of apology, regretting her "poorly chosen" words. The mosque has rejoined with a gracious acceptance of the apology, while pointing out that:
"We were not offended by her choice of words. We were deeply disappointed that her instinctive reaction to a confusing episode was to assume that she was being mistreated by Muslim men on the account of her gender. It was this assumption, exacerbated by the hyperbole in her tweets that caused the maelstrom of abuse and national controversy our Centre was subjected to. These were not just poorly chosen words - they painted a picture of an incident that never occurred."
In this, the mosque has it absolutely right. In itself, it shouldn't be very important whether or not the incident occurred. Yet, these incidents, these fables, constitute the crucial moments of pedagogy in the national culture. Uncontested, they corroborate one another, until they form a 'common sense' about Britishness and Islam. They also provide strategic moments of intervention for racists, both liberal and reactionary, passive and violent. Had the story not been rebutted, it would probably have made its way into a scrappy Douglas Murray unthink-piece, or a bit of Farageian eristic. Muscular liberals, neoconservatives and UKIPers would have extemporised in unity on this issue. Who knows, perhaps the police might have taken a look at the matter. Cathy Newman's letter of apology states: "Channel 4 News has a particularly strong relationship with the Muslim community..." And thank god for that. We must move beyond this unfortunate incident and fix our eyes on the future. We must gird our loins and wet our palates for the inevitably upcoming series, Muslim Street. Which I hope Newman will be available to present.