Dr Mohammed Ali: Memo to the media – stop demonising Muslims over terrorism

Crowds at the Trafalgar Square vigil after the Westminster terrorist attack.
Crowds at the Trafalgar Square vigil after the Westminster terrorist attack.
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WHAT do we really know about Khalid Masood? Well, police have now confirmed that the man who left four people dead and at least 50 injured in Wednesday’s Westminster attack was born Adrian Russell Ajao and used several other aliases.

We know that he was born to a black father and a white mother. We know that during a 20-year criminal career from 1983 to 2003, he received numerous convictions – including grievous bodily harm and possession of offensive weapons. We think he might have converted to Islam relatively recently, possibly some time in the last decade.

And we think we know that he carried out a terrorist attack that struck fear into the corridors of power. But can we be sure?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) has been quick to claim Masood as one of its ‘soldiers’, but that is to be expected. Whether acting alone or as part of a terrorist cell, he has succeeded in committing an atrocity that could further their aims of spreading hate and fear and creating division in our communities. But only if we let it.

So far we have no evidence of any direct links between Masood and IS. He has never been convicted of any terrorist offences. We believe he may have been radicalised during his many prison stretches but we are still speculating as to his exact motive.

So it is worrying that first reports described a ‘middle-aged Asian’ driver ploughing into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge. It suggests an undue readiness to ascribe the actions of one unstable and possibly embittered individual to his presumed ethnic background.

Thankfully politicians have been quick to grasp the importance of encouraging the British public to close ranks and prevent extremists from exploiting the fear and anxiety created by Masood’s actions. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, himself of Pakistani origin, has called for people to show that ‘we are not and will not be divided’. He is right to say that if we allow people to drive a wedge between us, we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

I will be the first to admit that the Westminster attack is not only a horrific tragedy, but also a direct assault on our British values of democracy and freedom. It is terrible to think that in the space of a few minutes one individual can be responsible for so much misery and suffering. Four lives have been lost (five if you count that of the perpetrator), seven more people have been critically injured, families have been torn apart and even those who escaped the carnage physically unscathed will live with the memory of this terrifying event for the rest of their lives. Reading about it and watching the round-the-clock news coverage makes us all fear for our safety.

No wonder IS was so quick to claim responsibility. Terrorists win by creating a climate of fear and suspicion and all too often the media are their unwitting accomplices.

Five people die every day on Britain’s roads. In the year ending March 2015, there were 518 homicides in the UK. Yet these incidents rarely attract anywhere near the amount of media coverage as has been accorded to Wednesday’s attack. Statistically you are far more likely to die from a lightning strike than at the hands of a terrorist. But when these incidents are reported almost to the exclusion of all other news, it’s easy to think the risk is far greater than it is.

It’s also tempting to think you know where the danger is coming from. Masood may have been a mixed-race man of black and white parentage but the finger of suspicion initially pointed at the Asian community. It’s hardly surprising that so many Pakistani and Bangladeshi people feel increasingly vulnerable. Incidents like this also serve the purposes of Far Right activists who are all too ready to exploit them to provoke anti-Islamic sentiments.

Maybe it’s time we took a long, hard look at what part the media plays in enabling terrorist organisations and other extremist groups to control the hearts and minds of British people. We may never find out exactly what drove Masood to carry out this terrible atrocity or whether it was due to a perverted interpretation of the Islamic faith, but we do know that it was a cowardly and criminal act. By keeping a sense of perspective and reporting it in these terms, rather than speculating on possible religious or political motives, we can deprive IS of the oxygen of publicity on which it thrives.

Dr Mohammed Ali OBE is the founder and chief executive of QED Foundation, a Bradford-based national charity set up in 1990 that supports the social and economic advancement of disadvantaged ethnic minority communities.