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OHPI and online anti-Muslim bigotry

The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) published a report on online antisemitism earlier this year. OHPI has now produced a similar document, ‘Islamophobia on the Internet’, about anti-Muslim discourse. This is a fascinating resource, and I aim to post in more detail once it is publically available.  Here are a few key points.

‘Islamophobia on the Internet’ immediately tackles a real dilemma faced by those concerned to combat online hatred – negotiating the right balance between freedom of speech and protection from abuse, or worse.   As the report’s main focus is Facebook, a platform which does not claim to allow absolute freedom of speech, it is reasonable that bigoted discourse (of the type few of us would want to censor completely) comes in for censure.

Here’s a summary of the authors’ approach:

Theological debate and criticism of religion should be protected under freedom of expression principles, however, the vilification of a group of people on the basis of their religious belief or practise, or of individuals on the basis of membership of such a group, is a fundamental affront to human dignity.

It might be countered that some elements of religious belief or practice (whether connected with Islam or any other faith) should not be allowed a free pass.  However the report offers many cases of straightforwardly hateful material.

One hypothetical example of hate speech aimed at individuals, not just ideas, is cited – a sign on a shop which reads: “Muslims and 9/11! Don’t serve them, don’t speak to them, and don’t let them in.”

The report also reproduces real examples of anti-Muslim bigotry which might be seen as dehumanizing and/or racist: a blonde Viking Valkyrie kicking a bearded and turbaned Muslim off a map of Europe, or a picture of a plane labeled ‘humans’ from which hangs a crate labeled ‘Muslims’. Another image is captioned ‘Miss Piggy: the only Western woman Muslims don’t want to rape’.

A controversial issue addressed by the report is the relationship between support for Israel and anti-Muslim bigotry:

Where Jews are associated with Israel, and Muslims are associated with the Palestinians, the zero sum game approach can lead to a build up of hate against both groups by various ‘hangers on’ supporting the other side. That would typically be the left that slips into antisemitism in its support of Palestinians, or the right that slips into anti-Muslim hate in its support of Israel. There are also those who are deeply antisemitic who use the pro-Palestinian cause as a cover, and similarly, in the pages examined in this report, we see those with a hatred of Muslims bring in pro-Israel (and pro-Jewish) imagery and arguments as a cover or a means to try and attract support – as shown in Figure 6.

(Figure 6 depicts a flag of Israel with the slogan ‘annoy Muslims, support Israel’.)  It should be noted that OHPI is equally alert to the way criticism of Israel can be used as a cover for antisemitism, an important focus of its earlier report which I discussed here.

There aren’t always easy solutions.  Where does valid criticism end and bigotry begin?  If you censor (or even censure) too much, then questions and anxieties may be driven underground. This is acknowledged in one recommendation of the report, a call for more transparency over the issue of halal certification. This is not because the authors share the concerns sometimes voiced about halal meat (that it increases prices unreasonably and even finances terrorism) but because they think releasing more information will allay fears.