If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an Muslim radical makes death threats against a university audience in London, and the BBC does not report it, did it really happen? There is a sense of unreality about the reporting of militant Islam in the U.K. The BBC is regularly chastised for its biases and omissions in reporting on Islamic militancy -- while some tabloids are taken to task for whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. However, one can usually count on the corporation making mention of an incident.
While I was researching background materials for an article, I happened to page through the website of the National Secular Society (NSS) -- a humanist group in the U.K. I came across a 17 January 2012 press release entitled "Islamist stops university debate with threats of violence." I had not heard about this incident, and when I googled the name of the lead actor in this drama I imagine you did not hear about this either as the Independent was the sole broadsheet to cover the story -- and they buried the article in the crime section.
According to the NSS press release:
A talk on sharia and human rights by NSS Council Member Anne Marie Waters' at Queen Mary University of London was cancelled at the last moment because of an Islamist who made serious threats against everyone there.
Ms Waters was due to give a talk on behalf of the One Law for All campaign on 16 January but before it started, a man entered the lecture theatre, stood at the front with a camera and filmed the audience. He then said that he knew who everyone was, where they lived and if he heard anything negative about the Prophet, he would track them down.
The man also filmed students in the foyer and threatened to murder them and their families. On leaving the building, he joined a large group of men, apparently there to support him. Students were told by security to stay in the lecture theatre for their own safety.
The Independent reported the same set of facts and interviewed a number of witnesses and Ms. Waters. The headline fairy seems to have been at work that evening at the Independent as the title of the story was sanitized. "Man threatens students at debate" is not likely to pull many readers interested to learn more.
“This is the first time this has happened, it’s really very frightening and you don’t know what else it’s going to turn into,” she said. “I’m not worried about repercussions, but I’m worried about it happening again.”
While the head of the British Humanist Association stated:
“Free expression, the free exchange of ideas and free debate are hallmarks of an open society; violence and the threat of violence should never be allowed to compromise that, especially in our universities.”
No comments from Islamist groups, or from experts on censorship was appropriate, or an exploration of why someone would commit a criminal act in the name of Islam. Yet, I am not that worried about the brevity of the Independent story and am pleased that something made it into print that reported on this assault on free speech and civil liberties.
Let's look at this another way -- imagine if a professed Christian activist entered the Queen Mary University lecture hall and threatened death to those attending a lecture disparaging the Christian faith. Do you think that this would not be spread across the British press? How many column inches would Polly Toynbee or Richard Dawkins take to denounce the incident and the belief system behind it?
But this is Islam -- so we have silence.
In Peter Godwin's wonderful memoir of life in Zimbabwe, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, he cites a phrase of Winston Churchill's that speaks to this moral cowardice:
... appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last.
Perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps it was a cringing, craven self-censorship, perhaps the A-team of reporters was not back from the Christmas holidays. Whatever it may be, I can see no reason to spike this story.
Crocodile photo courtesy of Shutterstock.