Expressive and composed, Akeela spoke to us on behalf of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, whose courageous activism is helping repair the fractured socio-political landscape. She opened with comment on the recent, horrific New Zealand shootings: “like the rest of the country, we woke to the devastating news of the mosque shootings in Christchurch. Men, women and children who were worshipping as part of the Friday prayers were brutally killed, and this terrorist attack, the biggest ever on New Zealand soil, has been profoundly shocking.” Also making sure to commend the New Zealand government for “taking some of the swiftest and deliberate political action” for offering expert emotional support to the families of the victims and banning militarised weapons immediately after the atrocity, Akeela continued on to state: “the attacks were shocking, but it is also important to understand that for a while there has been a growing sense of apprehension within the Muslim communities that an attack like this could happen and those who’ve been working to combat Islamophobia. These attacks were not isolated incidents, perpetrated by a lone wolf, but a manifestation of a wider growing phenomenon; of far-right ideology fuelled by white supremacy.”
Indeed, a fact which has been underreported by the mainstream media, the NZ attacker had identified with the Alt-right: a resurgent Fascist group who exploits the online medium to perpetuate racist rhetoric. “The rise of white supremacist movements some of which originate in the US, have adopted an international outlook. Spreading across the Western political sphere”, these movements are closely tied to Anti-Muslim movements “by relying on a multiplicity of narratives to reinforce itself.” This is also the fault of unchecked social media companies who “have not done anywhere near enough to prevent extreme right-wing activity on their platforms. The perpetrator of the NZ shootings, for example, was a white supremacist whose manifesto looked up to people such as President Trump, and cited Anders Breivik” It has also been documented that the shooter visited Nazi memorials across Europe before live streaming the massacre to an audience, worldwide.
“A significant part of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group’s effort is to therefore advise and put pressure on social media platforms to introduce better measures for protection. We want companies such as Twitter and FB to apply the same supervisory procedure to far-right radicalism as they do for Islamist terrorism.” When asked if such an enormous cultural earthquake would at the very least challenge the social prejudice that terrorism is predominantly linked to Muslim culture, Akeela replied: “unfortunately not.” Dealing with an institutional bias, which is more than merely technical, “we must challenge the toxic narratives that are being circulated by some sections of the media. Sinister public figures” such as the right-wing columnist Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the EDL, “are broadcasting extremist sentiments that affirm a bigoted perspective and propagate destructive actions. The NZ shooter truly believed he would be championed: in fact, there were people applauding his act on FB and sharing the different iterations of the video.”
As a result, another key role of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group has been addressing the distorted representation of Muslims in the media. “Constituted of experts such as myself as well as other independent members and officials from different government departments, our organisation is working with IPSO, the press regulator to develop guidelines for journalists on responsible relaying accounts about Muslims. The media very often fails to capture the complexity of Muslims subjectivity,” often pushing damning portrayals. “For example, a BBC presenter asked a young Muslim woman who appeared on the news show to talk on the NZ attacks whether Muslims should have been quicker to condemn Islamist terrorism. This was awful and unfair considering how much the community is already suffering.”
Akeela had prior founded the vibrant social collective, She Speaks We Hear, which brought together the voices of different women with a focus on of Muslim women to reclaim that doubly margined selfhood in particular. In accordance, the spokesperson gave a yet more specific example of the social tendency to simplify “Muslim women into the binary of either victims who are unsuspectingly recruited by ISIS, or highly aware masterminds who threaten state order for that exact same reason.” She continued: “this is incredibly unhelpful. We need to address the details of why so many are feeling disaffected and becoming radicalised in the first place – it’s about more in-depth conversations.” Consequently, “it became important to publish opinions through an unfiltered, neutral lens. I wanted to give Muslim women free reign to talk everyday subjects, from the realm of politics and fashion to concerns about parenting and the general election. I wanted them to feel present in their entirety.”
And so, the vociferous counternarrative that Akeela continues to support not only works to dismantle racial bias but at once champions the fast-fading virtue of objective truth altogether. This is bolstered by the fact that the Anti-Muslim Hatred Group has only yielded practical and constructive results moving forward. This proves a certain accuracy indicative of a connection to reality. “A strong dialogic approach never fails because it encourages discussion and growth,” and consequently civic success: “the best way to counter corrosive narratives is for people to really get to know one another. I support the Jewish-Muslim women’s network Nisa Nashim, for example, and women who wouldn’t usually get to meet one another, bond and form authentic friendships across cultures that are perceived to be at odds. Together women from two different religious backgrounds have cooked for the homeless, cleaned up local areas, visited synagogues and mosques respectively. It is absolutely possible for people with two seemingly opposing viewpoints to come together on the mutual premise of understanding.”
Conversely, far-right philosophy is formed on the foundation of judgement and constrictive thought, forgoing situational nuance and the crucial discourse of “sense of belonging.” The ideological abstraction then results in a confused humanity, breeding a calamitous world. This is reflected in the literal manipulation of knowledge: "The NZ Shooter was influenced by selective information that came from very Conservative, so-called think tank called the US Centre for Security Policy. The CEO of that organisation was part of the Trump administration and his policy recommendations were quoted by President Trump while campaigning for the Muslim Ban.” Here, Akeela aptly finished by adding that the work of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Group includes highlighting the positive contributions of the Muslim community to society, and promoting collaborative work. “Ultimately, the way we think determines real-life events.”
Have you felt the media has adequately responded to the NZ atrocities?
Coverage was censored and altered somewhat. The Daily Mirror, for example, humanised the perpetrator as an angelic, young innocent and framed the whole attack as if the actions of this man were a one-off: ‘how could he have grown up to go on to become this? But it wasn’t an anomaly.
The article should have focused primarily on the actual victims and the background of this man: the fact that he had been planning this. They have since apologised. But the media, from print journalism to films and TV have played a huge part in creating a cultural void where right-wing narratives can be supplanted.
What other Key actions will be taken by the network?
There’ll be a Nisa Nashim Conference held on the – 7th April entitled Faith and Friendship and exploring a multicultural interface with workshops and talks.