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The fires of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia have been burning with worrying brilliance over the past few months. Stoked by events such as Brexit here and the Trump victory in the US.
In Europe, too, there has been a reported shift to the right, with concern about elections in France and Austria both attracting extremist candidates. Happily, in Austria at least, some sense of history prevailed as the far right Freedom Party was once again defeated in the re-run of their presidential election. The spectre of the first fascist leader in Europe since the Second World War has, for the moment, been exorcised.
With all this going on, the gaze of western media has, perhaps understandably, been rather myopic of late. But in some of the more dusty corners of mainstream news channels there seems to be a definite blindness to events outside their strict editorial purview.
One such event took place at the end of November and went virtually unreported on regular news channels. Considering it involved the mass movement of around 20 million Muslims you could be forgiven for thinking that a little odd.
In what must be one of the largest mass marches in history, Shia Muslims travelled en masse to Karbala, 62 miles south west of Baghdad, through war-stricken areas and in defiance of the threat from ISIS. Yet, save for one report in the Independent, it went virtually unnoticed by the international media.
Why, you may ask, was such a potentially newsworthy event ignored? Why have we not seen banner headlines from our usually quick to anger red tops? Why has the Daily Mail and The Sun not mounted a furious campaign to stir its readers into their usual state of fist waving, spittle spraying paroxysm?
I’m assuming the answer may be that this was a demonstration against the media’s rhetoric that is so often associated with the Muslim community. Because the message here was one of peace. These were marches to protest against terrorist groups, in particular ISIS, who have come to personify Islam in many people’s minds, particularly those who are led by the nose by the right wing press.
This march and many others around the world, were inspired by Arbaeen, an event which occurs at the end of a 40-day mourning period following Ashura, a religious ritual that commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Hussain ibn Ali, a 7th century revolutionary leader who made the ultimate sacrifice for social justice in the face of corruption and tyranny. Many of the participants travelled on foot to take part, some walking for anything up to two weeks. There were also reports that at least 80 of the participants were killed in ISIS attacks while returning from the commemorations.
These are annual demonstrations, with smaller marches taking place throughout the world. Several took place in the UK, some routed through the busiest sections of central London with marchers waving placards condemning violence in the name of Islam and calling for inclusivity with other faiths. The largest of these, which brought Oxford Street to a standstill, was covered by UK media, yet almost all of the smaller marches went unreported. It seems that positive stories about the Muslim community only register on mainstream media radar when they have an impact on our ability to go shopping.
It’s not as if there’s a dearth of news from the area. Reports of the massive Hajj pilgrimages regularly make it into global news feeds, but these are usually reports about deaths and other disasters arising from the huge numbers of people taking part. The annual Arbaeen procession is a far larger event, yet for the most part it goes completely unreported by western media. Organisers of the UK processions have frequently expressed their frustration at the lack of coverage.
The London marches were organised by the Hussaini Association, an international organisation which aims to inspire people through the Hussain’s example. According to the whoishussain.com website, he was raised by his grandfather Muhammad (the last prophet of Islam) and was known for his integrity, generosity of spirit and blindness to colour and social class. After refusing to show fealty to the tyrant Yazid, he was killed in a desert battle where he was woefully outnumbered.
I must admit I’d never heard this story before, and it’s well worth a visit to their website to find out more about this man. It’s a facet of Islam that stretches out over 1400 years from the very same deserts in which we still fight tyranny, in its many forms, today.
As an atheist myself, I’m no defender of any religion, but stories like this cut across cultural and theistic divides and above all give lie to the rhetoric that is usually trotted out about Muslims failing to make a stand against the violence and intolerance perpetrated in their name.
After virtually every Islamic terrorism atrocity, the shouts rise, usually from the same quarters of the media I described earlier, for moderate Muslims to dissociate themselves from these acts and organisations. Yet it seems that even when they do, this is ignored in favour of the much more saleable story of tacit complicity.
Yet Muslims frequently take to the media themselves, both social and traditional, to share in our disgust at the cowardly and barbaric acts of people who cloak themselves in Islam. After the Paris attacks, the Muslim Council of Great Britain even took out a full page newspaper advert condemning the events, so poorly were their own feelings being represented in editorials.
During discussions with reasonably moderate people, I still hear complaints that ‘ordinary Muslims’ don’t stand up to be counted. Well only a week or so ago, tens of millions of them did just that, very visibly and in areas that are usually very well covered by the media, yet virtually no one noticed.
In a post-Brexit, post-Trump world we need events like these to be more widely reported in an attempt to head off the rise in racism and Islamophobia that we’re already seeing in the UK and America.
Whilst specious reports of ‘no-go’ areas and Sharia courts might sell more newspapers or earn more clicks, an unbalanced and biased view of the Muslim community is promulgated by the lack of attention given to more positive stories.
The fact that a regular annual demonstration of Muslim opposition to Islamic extremism has been so woefully under-reported is something our so called mainstream media should be ashamed of.
At least in some small way I hope we can redress the balance here.