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What can we do about racism?

18 March 2015

Dominic Bascombe

The terror attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, is well documented. Terrorists opened fire on staff there on press day, killing 9 journalists, a maintenance worker and two police officers. The brutal killings shocked the world and questions about press freedom were widely debated. As you could imagine, there were very divergent views on this.

An early day motion laid before parliament noted that:

"In carrying out their jobs, they (the journalists) uphold the invaluable and historical right to free speech and freedom of expression which are both integral elements of democracies".

French newspapers took the view that the shootings were an attack on press freedom. Le Parisien's front-page headline the day after read: "They shall not kill freedom". For Le Monde, the attack was "The French 9/11". The Libération headline "We are all Charlie" reflected the Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie (I am Charlie), which expressed worldwide solidarity after the attack.Le Figaro ran a giant headline "Liberty assassinated", and commented in a front-page editorial that:

"This is war. A real war, not by soldiers, but by shadowy assassins, methodical and organised assassins whose quiet savagery freezes the blood".

The paper called for society to unite against the jihadi threat and for the tightening of 'complacent' laws that had allowed religious fanatics to hijack the internet. Striking a different tone, Libération's editorial said that the attackers:

"wanted to take the war into our newsrooms. We shall not wage war. We aren't soldiers. But we shall defend our knowhow and vocation: to help the reader to feel like a citizen."

In the UK many newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, took the view that press freedom should also include freedom to mock and offend. The Mail said in its editorial:

"If liberty is to mean anything, it must include the freedom to mock, offend or question the beliefs of others, within the limits of democratically decided law."

The Chinese official media, however, saw the attack as justification for their strict limits on press freedom. They said:

"Charlie Hebdo had on multiple occasions been the target of protests and even revenge attacks on account of its controversial cartoons. What they seem not to realize is that the world is diverse and there should be limits on press freedom. Unfettered and unprincipled satire, humiliation and free speech are not acceptable."

So how do you show solidarity in such a situation? Should British newspaper publish the offending cartoons?

Across the world many editors chose to do just that, justifying their actions by saying that it was important to show that there was nothing so sacred that it could not be published and criticised.

In Germany, several stones and an incendiary device were thrown through the window of the archive of the regional tabloid daily, the Hamburger Morgenpost which published the cartoons days after the Hebdo attack.

In the UK however, most newspaper outlets took the view that whilst they believed in press freedom, the cartoons were simply unacceptable for them anyway. Their editorial lines meant that they would not normally publish the cartoons, so why do so now?

Some editors took the view that the safety of their staff was paramount and they recognised that, whilst it was important to show solidarity, there were practical considerations to be taken into account. You cannot account for extremist behaviour and if publishing the images led to attacks on British staff, would the editors' actions be justified?

The NUJ has a code of conduct that members subscribe to upon joining. One of the principles is that a journalist:

produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person's age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status or sexual orientation.

In 2010, we used this code to reject membership applications from members of the British National Party (BNP) saying that such applications were not compatible with the NUJ. Similarly we have challenged the BBC allowing former BNP leader Nick Griffin a platform on Question Time arguing that "the format of the show does not allow the BNP's dishonest propaganda to be properly challenged".

Our code of conduct sits within, for us, a broader acceptance of press freedom. But if some argued that the actions of Hebdo led to the attacks there, what about the actions of the press in other areas or since the Hebdo attack?

The French newspaper Le Figaro talked about uniting against the jihadi threat; Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun and various other titles, took to Twitter soon after the Hebdo attack saying:

"Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible".

So the actions of some became the responsibility of all. This idea of the need to fight the growing presence of 'an other' (in this case Islam) has become a significant theme and has clearly boosted right wing groups here and across Europe. As we all know, stoking fear is a proven way to promote divisiveness.

There have been a growing number of groups protesting against the Islamisation of Europe over some time.

In 2014, football hooligans organised Hooligans against Salafists (Hooligans gegen Salafisten) HoGeSa.

Their public gatherings began with around 300 people showing up. A growing Islamaphoia led to increased numbers attending a rally in October 2014- around 5000 people turned up there. HoGeSa has been promoting itself as being anti Islamification, but it is clear that they were against all immigration and not necessarily Muslims alone.

HoGeSa marches in Berlin and Hamburg were banned, but one in Hanover had 3,000 people attending. These marches have been linked to the rise of Pegida in particular.

The Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the Occident also known as the Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West (Patriotische Europaer Gegen islamisierung des Abendlandes) held a community walk in Dresden on 20 October 2014. Participants were encouraged to walk silently and not say anything to journalists. These walks became a weekly occurrence and grew in number; from 500 to 17,500 by December 2014.

The walks brought together a range of individuals, from hooligans to far right politicians all coming under the banner of protesting what they claimed to be a growing Islamification of the West. Pegida talks about tackling fundamentalist Islam but it is clear from what they say and the banners they carry that they are talking about immigration per se.

Again ironically, in this region of Saxony we are talking about a tiny BME population – less than 1 in 20 residents is a migrant. But they don't let the reality prevent them from putting up banners proclaiming the need to: 'Protect the Homeland instead of Islamisation' and 'For the Protection of Our Culture'.

The difficulty here however is that they capitalise on the social anger and outrage against groups such as Islamic State and the atrocities they have carried out. That situation, together with dissatisfaction with the media and lack of mainstream political engagement has created a situation where groups such as Pegida seem to represent a legitimate outrageous outlet for their anxieties.

Combined with perceived increases in asylum seekers, particularly those fleeing Syria recently, mean that the situation is volatile. Public opinion polls speak about a "lack of integration by immigrants into German society". There are debates about banning the burka there and the need for immigrants to speak German in public and in the home. Where have we heard similar sentiments expressed? Yes, right here in the UK.

The far right is good at capitalising on perceived failings in the mainstream and distorting figures particularly around asylum and immigration. Hence they attract many who don't have or fail to seek the real facts and figures.

This is nothing new. In August 1992 in Rostock, hundreds of right-wing extremists and local thugs spent four days throwing rocks and firebombs at a building used to house asylum-seekers, most of them Sinti and Roma, in the outlying Lichtenhagen district. Thousands of others stood by and cheered on the attackers, shouting "foreigners out!".

A neighboring building housing dozens of workers from Vietnam and their families was then set on fire. The police and fire officials retreated from the violent mob leaving the victims -- including small children -- forced to find their own way to safety by escaping onto the roof.

This happened just 2 years after the reunification of Germany.

Across Germany Pegida like groups sprung up in various regions: Degida in Dusseldorf, Begida in Bonn, Kagida in Kassel, Fragida, mockingly named Frigida, in Frankfurt. In Denmark there was the Stop Islamiseringen af Danmark (SIAD). In Norway there has been the development of Pegida Norge and Pegida Norway – a falling out between rivals hence the names. Pegida Sweden held its first march in February 2015.

In France, a similar march was banned due to the terror attacks that had taken place just days before.

However whilst these groups have sprung up across Europe, they are not actually winning much support.

In Vienna, 350 Pegida supporters were stopped by 4500 anti Pegida activists. In Denmark, there were only 40 people at the first rally and 50 at the second. In Norway, the first march garnered 190 attendees but that dwindled at successive events to 106 then to 46 then 26. In Sweden, 10 people turned up at their march. In Germany, the situation was similar. 450 supporters in Dusseldorf were shouted down by 1000 counter demonstrators.

In Bonn a week later, 200 supporters were met by 2000 anti-fascists. In Cologne, 200 supporters were met by 20,000 counter demonstrators. Symbolically the Bishop of Cologne tuned off the lights at the Cologne Cathedral.

Fr Norbert Feldhoff, dean of Cologne Cathedral, made an appeal to Pegida supporters:

"You're taking part in an action that, from its roots and also from speeches, one can see is Nazi-ist, racist and extremist. And you're supporting people you really don't want to support".

Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke out against Pegida marches stating that: "Islam is part of Germany".

Here in the UK, the far right has largely been reduced in recent years. Where groups such as the BNP once held real political power, they have been virtually wiped out through aggressive counter organising, and a series of infighting and squabbles.

Smaller disparate groups such as the English Defence League, the Scottish Defence League, British Voice, National Action and the Infidels still exist in small numbers. They continue to be a real threat on our city streets. However until recently Pegida has not been present here.

They held their first rally in Newcastle recently attracting around 300 people and 1000 counter demonstrators.

Like their European colleagues they are trying to build upon a fear of growing muslim numbers in the UK, saying that "If we do nothing they will take over" and that we have to "fight back".

They are blatantly appealing to Middle England voters to get behind them by arguing that they are not racist because Islam isn't a race. And as they are only against Islam they cannot be racist (!)

Scotland is not immune to these groups. We have unfortunately seen the Scottish Defence League given permission to march in Edinburgh in the past. At the time, Glasgow Hope not Hate wrote to Edinburgh city council calling on them to rethink that decision.

Unlike Glasgow who have committed themselves to keeping fascists off our streets, Edinburgh has so far not chosen to do the same. Indeed an SDL rally was planned for today (14 March 2015) in Edinburgh in front of the Scottish Parliament. Pegida plans to hold its first Scotland march on the 21st- UN Anti Racism Day funnily enough.

So where do we go from here?

The anti- racist movement in Scotland is strong. Marches and demos by racist groups do not go unchallenged. But it has not stopped them from continuing to be on our streets. There is still an element of fear and mistrust of the other in Scotland. When Hope not Hate leafleted against UKIP at the last European election, the responses were generally that 'UKIP aren't that bad', 'They aren't racist'.

And it's true; UKIP aren't necessarily openly racist. But neither are Pegida. Instead they seek to capitalise on a fear of 'an other' who they claim is becoming more powerful even though the reality is that minority communities overall remain just that.

So what do we do?

We challenge the untruths and the myths.

We challenge our newspaper and television outlets to provide the true information and not just what is fed to them by right wing protaganists.

We speak out in our families, our communities, our neighbourhoods.

Our schools, our unions, our workplaces need to be places where racism is successfully challenged. And that can be difficult, but not impossible.

We provide support to those actively fighting racists and fascists on our streets.

We must call on our politicians to explain why they allow racists on our streets and challenge them to not allow that in the future.

When we hear that demonstrations are taking place to "rid these islands of Islam", we should all be very concerned.

If we do not do so now, we know what may come next.

This is the transcript of a speech at an STUC event by Dominic Bascombe, NUJ assistant organiser

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Tags: , racism, far right, equality, diversity, europe, black members, charlie hebdo, the voice, edl, bnp, race reporting, pegida, campaigns