Newspapers fuelled anti-Muslim panic in communities after Lee Rigby death

Lee Rigby was murdered in May 2013

Describing politically motivated murders as ‘terror’ attacks if perpetrated by Muslim extremists but ‘racially motivated’ if carried out by so-called ‘white supremacists’ is contributing towards rising moral panic against Muslim communities, criminologists at Birmingham City University are claiming.

A new study published this week in ‘The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs’ by researchers from Birmingham City University, points to the cases of murdered British solider Lee Rigby and Muslim pensioner Mohammed Saleem to highlight the stark contrast between the characterisation of each brutal death.

Rigby’s murder in May 2013, at the hands of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, was repeatedly described by both police and media as an act of terrorism, while the killing of Saleem was most commonly labelled ‘racially motivated’ despite his Ukrainian assailant Pavlo Lapshyn being found guilty under the Terrorism Act.

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Mohammed Saleem was murdered in April 2015

Sentencing Lapshyn to a minimum term of 40 years, Mr Justice Sweeney told him: “You clearly hold extremist right wing, white supremacist views and you were motivated to commit the offences by religious and racial hatred in the hope that you would ignite racial conflict and cause Muslims to leave the area where you were living.”

Associate Professor Imran Awan and Mohammed Rahman from the University’s Centre for Applied Criminology examined how UK newspapers depicted the murders in both cases, reviewing over 1,022 articles from UK newspapers in the three weeks following Lee Rigby’s murder. They also studied references to Saleem’s murder in Birmingham one month earlier and later once his killer, Lapshyn, was convicted.

Awan said: “We found that almost all articles we reviewed about the Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby used the term ‘terrorism’ to describe the attack. Yet the attack on Mohammed Saleem was immediately labelled as ‘racially motivated’ by the police, and despite Ukrainian Pavlo Lapshyn being found guilty under the Terrorism Act, many newspapers continued to label him as a ‘white supremacist’ rather than a ‘terrorist’.  A stark difference in comparison to the case of Lee Rigby.

“It is crucial that a more balanced viewpoint of reporting terrorism is adopted otherwise we risk creating further anti-Muslim prejudice and exacerbate the potential for unfair treatment of Muslim communities”, added Awan.

“In the aftermath of the Woolwich murder, evidence showed that Muslims had become targets for a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime. In such times, the role of the media is crucial in projecting a balanced approach and avoid creating a ‘moral panic’.

“A YouGov survey of over 1,839 adults following the Woolwich attack showed that there was clear evidence people felt Muslims were a threat to democracy, and two-thirds of those people believed that Britain was facing a clash of civilisation between British Muslims and white Britons.”

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