You’ve got hate mail: how Islamophobia takes root online

The internet has become a safe haven for racial and religious abuse. Shutterstock

In late 2013 I was invited to present evidence, as part of my submission regarding online anti-Muslim hate, at the House of Commons. I attempted to show how hate groups on the internet were using this space to intimidate, cause fear and make direct threats against Muslim communities – particularly after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year.

The majority of incidents of Muslim hate crime (74%) [reported to the organisation Tell MAMA]((http://www.tees.ac.uk/docs/DocRepo/Research/Copsey_report3.pdf) (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) are online. In London alone, hate crimes against Muslims rose by 65% over the past 12 months, according to the Metropolitan Police and anti-Islam hate crimes have also increased from 344 to 570 in the past year.

Before the Woolwich incident there was an average of 28 anti-Muslim hate crimes per month (in April 2013, there were 22 anti-Muslim hate crimes in London alone) but in May, when Rigby was murdered, that number soared to 109. Between May 2013 and February 2014, there were 734 reported cases of anti-Islamic abuse – and of these, 599 were incidents of online abuse and threats, while the others were “offline” attacks such as violence, threats and assaults.

A breakdown of the statistics shows these tend to be mainly from male perpetrators and are marginally more likely to be directed at women.

After I made my presentation I, too, became a target in numerous online forums and anti-Muslim hate blogs which attempted to demonise what I had to say and, in some cases, threaten me with violence. Most of those forums were taken down as soon as I reported them.

Digital hate-speak

It’s become easy to indulge in racist hate-crimes online and many people take advantage of the anonymity to do so. I examined anti-Muslim hate on social media sites such as Twitter and found that the demonisation and dehumanisation of Muslim communities is becoming increasingly commonplace.

My study involved the use of three separate hashtags, namely #Muslim, #Islam and #Woolwich – which allowed me to examine how Muslims were being viewed before and after Woolwich. The most common reappearing words were: “Muslim pigs” (in 9% of posts), “Muzrats” (14%), “Muslim Paedos” (30%), “Muslim terrorists” (22%), “Muslim scum” (15%) and “Pisslam” (10%).

These messages are then taken up by virtual communities who are quick to amplify their actions by creating webpages, blogs and forums of hate. Online anti-Muslim hate therefore intensifies, as has been shown after the Rotherham abuse scandal in the UK, the beheading of journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and the humanitarian workers David Haines and Alan Henning by the Islamic State and the Woolwich attacks in 2013.

The organisation Faith Matters has also conducted research, following the Rotherham abuse scandal, analysing Facebook conversations from Britain First posts on August 26 2014 using the Facebook Graph API.

They found some common reappearing words which included: Scum (207 times); Asian (97); deport (48); Paki (58); gangs (27) and paedo/pedo (25). A number of the comments and posts were from people with direct links to organisations such as Britain First, the English Brotherhood and the English Defence League.

Key Islamophobic words used online as compiled by Faith Matters. Faith Matters, Author provided

Abuse is not a human right

Clearly, hate on the internet can have direct and indirect effect for victims and communities being targeted. In one sense, it can be used to harass and intimidate victims and on the other hand, it can also be used for opportunistic crimes.

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 internet is a powerful tool by which people can be influenced to act in a certain way and manner. This is particularly strong when considering hate speech that aims to threaten and incite violence.

This also links into the convergence of emotional distress caused by hate online, the nature of intimidation and harassment and the prejudice that seeks to defame groups through speech intending to injure and intimidate. Some sites who have been relatively successful here include BareNakedIslam and IslamExposed which has a daily forum and chatroom about issues to do with Muslims and Islam and has a strong anti-Muslim tone which begins with initial discussion about a particular issue – such as banning Halal meat – and then turns into strong and provocative language.

Most of this anti-Muslim hate speech hides behind a fake banner of English patriotism, but is instead used to demonise and dehumanise Muslim communities. It goes without saying that the internet is just a digital realisation of the world itself – all shades of opinion are represented, including those Muslims whose hatred of the West prompts them to preach jihad and contempt for “dirty kuffar”.

Clearly, freedom of speech is a fundamental right that everyone should enjoy, but when that converges with incitement, harassment, threats of violence and cyber-bullying then we as a society must act before it’s too late. There is an urgent need to provide advice for those who are suffering online abuse.

It is also important to keep monitoring sites where this sort of thing regularly crops up; this can help inform not only policy but also help us get a better understanding of the relationships forming online. This would require in detail an examination of the various websites, blogs and social networking sites by monitoring the various URLs of those sites regarded as having links to anti-Muslim hate.

It is also important that we begin a process of consultation with victims of online anti-Muslim abuse – and reformed offenders – who could work together highlighting the issues they think are important when examining online Islamophobia.

The internet offers an easy and accessible way of reporting online abuse, but an often difficult relationship between the police and Muslim communities in some areas means much more could be done. This could have a positive impact on the overall reporting of online abuse. The improved rate of prosecutions which might culminate as a result could also help identify the issues around online anti-Muslim abuse.