Why online Islamophobia is difficult to stop

Islamophobia has been an ongoing concern in the west since 9/11, but a number of recent incidents in Britain have given rise to a new wave of hatred that experts say is finding a breeding ground online.

Laws not strong enough to police it, say experts

A number of recent high-profile incidents in Britain have given rise to a new wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in social media and internet chat rooms, experts say. (Shutterstock)

Islamophobia has been an ongoing concern in the west since 9/11, but a number of recent incidents in Britain have given rise to a new wave of hatred that experts say is finding a breeding ground online.

Part of the problem, researchers say, is that right-wing groups can post anti-Islamic comments online without fear of legal prosecution.

“If they were to say, ‘Black people are evil, Jamaicans are evil,’ they could be prosecuted,” says Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Islamophobia reporting web site

But because religious hatred isn't covered legally in the same way that racism is, Mughal says "the extreme right are frankly getting away with really toxic stuff.”

Researchers believe the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and incidents such as the  murder of British soldier Lee Rigby and the recent sexual exploitation scandal in the town of Rotherham have contributed to a spike in online anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK.

Imran Awan, deputy director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University, noticed the trend when he was working on a paper regarding Islamophobia and Twitter following Rigby's death.

Rigby was killed in the street in southeast London in 2013 by two Islamic extremists who have since been convicted.

Awan says the anonymity of social media platforms makes them a popular venue for hate speech, and that the results of his report were “shocking, to say the least.”

'A year-by-year increase'

Of the 500 tweets from 100 Twitter users Awan examined, 75 per cent were Islamophobic in nature. He cites posts such as "'Let's go out and blow up a mosque' and 'Let’s get together and kill the Muslims," and says most of these were linked to far-right groups.

The 2013 killing of British serviceman Lee Rigby by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, seen here in an image from CCTV footage from that day, led to a stream of Islamophobic commentary online. (London Metropolitan Police/Associated Press)

Awan’s findings echo those of Tell MAMA UK, which has compiled data on anti-Muslim attacks for three years. (MAMA stands for "Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks.")

Tell MAMA's Mughal says anti-Muslim bigotry is "felt significantly," and adds that "in our figures, we have seen a year-by-year increase."

Researchers believe far-right advocates are partly responsible for a spike in online hate speech.

“There’s been a real increase in the far right, and in some of the material I looked at online, there were quite a lot of people with links to the English Defence League and another group called Britain First,” says Awan.

Both Mughal and Awan believe that right-wing groups such as Britain First and the EDL become mobilized each time there is an incident in the Muslim community.

The Twitter profile of the EDL reads: “#WorkingClass movement who take to the streets against the spread of #islamism & #sharia #Nosurrender #GSTQ.” Below it is a link to their Facebook page, which has over 170, 000 likes.

Below that page, a caption reads, “Leading the Counter-Jihad fight. Peacefully protesting against militant Islam.”

EDL spokesperson Simon North dismisses accusations that his group is spreading hate, emphasizing that Muslims are often the first victims of attacks carried out by Islamic extremists.

“We address things that are in the news the same way newspapers do,” says North.

The spreading of hate

Experts in far-right groups, however, say their tendency to spread hateful messages around high-profile cases is well established.

North allows that some Islamophobic messages might emanate from the group's regional divisions. But they do not reflect the group’s overall thinking, he says.

“There are various nuances that get expressed by these organizations,” North says. “Our driving line is set out very clearly in our mission statement.” 

According to EDL's web site, their mission statement is to promote human rights while giving a balanced picture of Islam.

Awan argues online Islamophobia should be taken seriously and says police and legislators need to make more successful prosecutions of this kind of hate speech and be more “techno-savvy when it comes to online abuse.”

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and news reports of the group's atrocities is cited as another trigger of Islamophobia online. (Reuters)

Prosecuting online Islamophobia, however, is rare in the UK, says Vidhya Ramalingam of the European Free Initiative, which researches far-right groups. That's because groups like Britain First, which have over 400,000 Facebook likes, have a fragmented membership and do not have the traditional top-down leadership that groups have had in the past. 

Beyond that, UK law allows for the parody of religion, says Mughal, which can sometimes be used as a cover for race hate.

“The bar for prosecution of race hate is much lower, because effectively the comedic lobby has lobbied so that religion effectively could be parodied.”

The case in Canada

Online Islamophobia is also flourishing in Canada. The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is receiving a growing number of reports.

But there are now fewer means for prosecuting online hate speech in Canada. Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act protected against the wilful promotion of hate online, but it was repealed by Bill C-304 in 2012.

“It’s kind of hard to say what the impact is, because even when it existed, there weren’t a lot of complaints brought under it,” says Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Though there is a criminal code provision that protects against online hate speech, it requires the attorney general’s approval in order to lay charges — and that rarely occurs, says Zwibel.

Section 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada forbids the incitement of hatred against “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation." 

A judge can order online material removed from a public forum such as social media if it is severe enough, but if it is housed on a server outside of the country, this can be difficult.

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of NCCM, says without changes, anti-Muslim hate speech will continue to go unpunished online, which he says especially concerns moderate Muslims. 

“They worry about people perceiving them as sharing the same values these militants and these Islamic extremists are espousing.”