Don't mention the Muslims

by Mary Jackson (May 2007)

“Trio arrested over 7/7 suicide bombs,” said a recent headline in The Telegraph.


How unfair. There they were, the three of them, innocently rehearsing for a performance of Mozart’s Divertimento in E Flat, K 563, when those uncultured infidels burst in and clapped the darbies on 'em. Mohammed plays the cello, Khaled the violin and Ahmed the viola, or sometimes, if they’re doing Beethoven’s Archduke, the piano. Occasionally they go a bit wild, dress up as the Andrews Sisters and sing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B”. But terrorism? Perish the thought.


One of the challenges facing journalists in recent years has been how to report incidents of terrorism without mentioning the word “Islam” or “Muslim”. In the UK, “Asian”, or “of Asian extraction” regularly stands in for Muslim, as if Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and atheists from the Indian sub-continent were as likely as Muslims to plot jihad. A problem then arises if the Muslim terrorists are black, Arab or white. The BBC, more anxious than most of our news media to avoid the M-word, has even resorted to “men”. This narrows the field down to half the population. Should a Muslim woman become a terrorist – and this has happened in other countries – she will be called a “carbon-based life form”.


Violent French Muslims get called “youths”. This may lead to problems if they’re over forty. Perhaps they then become youths of a certain age. Then again, our media, particularly the BBC, has a strange attitude to age when it comes to violent Muslims. Palestinian terrorists are “children” for far longer than their Israeli counterparts. When Israelis are attacked by seventeen or eighteen year olds they must not retaliate against these “children”. Middle age, on the other hand, doesn’t last long for Palestinians. No sooner have childhood and youth passed than “elderly” kicks in. At the time of his execution, “elderly” terrorist – sorry, spiritual leader - Sheik Yassin was ten years younger than Ariel Sharon, who mysteriously seemed to be in his prime.


Sometimes you feel that the M-word is on the tip of the journalist’s tongue. To paraphrase Alfred Doolittle, he’s willing to say it; he’s wanting to say it; he’s waiting to say it. Recently there was a news item about Holocaust education in the UK. The nub of the story was that teachers are avoiding teaching the truth about the Holocaust and Crusades because they are afraid of Muslims, who are taught lies about them at home and in their mosques. The story, reported in The Times, turned out to be inaccurate, but it is still instructive as an illustration of a writer willing, wanting and waiting to say the M-word, but being unable to bring himself to do it: 

Teachers are dropping controversial subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from history lessons because they do not want to cause offence to children from certain races or religions, a report claims.

“Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship,” it concluded.

"Certain races or religions"? "Community or in a place of worship"? Muslims. Mosques. I know it, you know it, he knows it. The dogs in the street – haram as they are – know it.

“Don’t mention the war,” warns Basil Fawlty in the classic “Germans” episode of Fawlty Towers to which the title of my piece pays tribute. “I mentioned it once,” he goes on to say, furtively, “But I think I got away with it.” You can get away with mentioning Muslims, but only if you mention other, harmless groups at the same time. Thus you will hear: “(Extremist) Muslims … oh, and fundamentalists of all religions.” Fundamentalist Christians are just as bad, apparently. I would like to see this belief put to the aeroplane test. Moral equivalence merchants in my test are invited to choose between boarding a plane half full of fundamentalist Christians and a plane half full of fundamentalist Muslims. The most you would have to fear from the Christians is that they might harangue you about the Good Lord. The Muslims, on the other hand, might send you to meet Him.


Basil Fawlty hoped his reference to the Second World War would pass unnoticed because he mentioned the Korean War too. There is a legal principle of interpretation, noscitur a sociis, whereby the meaning of an unclear word or phrase is determined on the basis of the words or phrases surrounding it. I believe this legal term can be applied more widely, particularly in the context of M-word mitigation, the bastard child of M-word avoidance.


This year, a student at Clare College, Cambridge produced an edition of a college magazine satirising religion, with some particularly irreverent comments about Islam and Muslims, including one of the “offending” Danish cartoons. The student, who cannot be named “for his own safety”, was forced into hiding and was compelled by the college authorities to issue a grovelling apology. The apology acknowledged the offence caused to  "various groups, including women, gays, Jews, Christians and Muslims.”


Does anybody seriously believe that the student or the college had anything to fear from combustible gays or exploding Jews? No. We all know what these words mean, and placing Muslims fifth in a list of victim groups, so that, by a perverted application of noscitur a sociis, they are rendered equally harmless, changes nothing. The reality is that the five groups whose offence concerned the college authorities, and whose reaction we all fear are: Muslims, Muslims, Muslims, Muslims and Muslims.


Any Muslims reading this piece may by now be a little annoyed. They may argue that, by consistently describing as Muslims those who would kill in the name of Allah, I am implying that all Muslims are terrorists. Not so. My demands are modest. I do not ask that all Muslims be described as terrorists because I do not think that all Muslims are terrorists. I ask only that Muslim terrorists be described as Muslim terrorists. If the M-word is objectionable, however, the J-word might do. Why not describe Muslim terrorists as jihadis? Muslims who renounce the doctrine of jihad can then join non-Muslims in condemning them. The word jihad is rarely used by mainstream politicians and journalists. The closest they come to it is the all-purpose phrase “linked to al-qaeda”. While the use of this phrase implies that there is an organisation, al-qaeda, which may be fought and defeated, those who use it know – must know- that no such organisation, distinguishable from other jihadis, exists. The phrase is used more by non-Muslims than by Muslims, and is a reflection of wishful thinking. Al-qaeda will not do. Muslims must join non-Muslims in speaking honestly and critically of jihad. However, if they do not, and if their silence suggests that they sympathise with rather than condemn the jihadis, then we non-Muslims may feel free to use the M-word.


Let us return to the musical threesome, mentioned in the Telegraph piece linked above. I like “trio”, but they shouldn’t overuse it. Next time three male carbon-based life forms of Pakistani or Arab extraction are arrested, The Telegraph should use another word, for example: triad, triumvirate, trine or trinity. Yes, trinity – that’s a good one.  

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.

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