A mosque, muppets, and the media

Reported in The Guardian today is the story of an arson attack on a Mosque in Harlow, just outside London, to the north east. I think the article requires dissecting, teasing out, and looking at in a bit more detail:

“Members of an Islamic centre which suffered a suspected arson attempt have said they are “very saddened” by what appears to be a racist attack.“

Calling it a “suspected arson attack” is reasonable (and likely straight from the police). Calling it ‘racist’ on the other hand is not reasonable, and entirely inflammatory (if you’ll pardon the pun). Islam is a religion, its adherents are as united by race as Christianity is – in other words, not at all.

“Zia Rehman, the Islamic Centre’s vice-chairman, added that although police still have to determine the motives behind the apparent attack, he suspects it may have been due to anti-Islamic prejudice.”

So Zia Rehman suggests ‘Anti-Islamic prejudice,’ where the author of the article (presumably in a bid to not use the same phrase) refers to it as racist.

The largest Muslim population in the world (according to the Pew Forum, 2010: http://bit.ly/15cDgfb) is Indonesia. It should be clear to all that this is a large Island in South-East Asia, not an Arabic state. The three next largest Muslim populations are Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – again, not Arabic states. Rounding out the top 10 are Egypt, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Algeria and Morocco – four North African states, and two Middle Eastern. To be clear, even ‘Arabic state’ is confusing – none of the top 10 Muslim populations are even on the Arabian Peninsula, though several have Arabic as a major language. So, what race is this attack racist about?

“Britain has witnessed a spike of hate crimes against Muslims in recent months following the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks in south-east London in May.”

The killing of Lee Rigby was perpetrated by Michael Adebolajo, a Nigerian (the African country with the largest number of Christians) – I can’t pretend to know the minds of the arsonists, but I don’t think they would be targeting a mosque specifically for the Nigerian or North African contingent, so racism (or at least accurate racism) can be struck from the list of motives.

It saddens me that Zia Rehman even had to make the following statement:

“We have been working very hard within the local community, building bridges, and we were hoping we wouldn’t have this kind of problem, but in the current climate there are elements within society that are not happy and there are issues.”

We don’t see much coverage of such things in the press, do we, this idea of faith communities reaching out to the greater community to say that they distance themselves from the actions of the few? Then again, when the perpetrator of a crime is a Christian, because this is the UK, it’s taken as read, whether they’re C of E or Catholic (or whatever other Christian denomination, assuming their religion even rates mention), that the church distances itself from these actions… then again, given these churches’ actions (respectively, the cover-up of organised child abuse and rampant misogyny), maybe they should.

  • As an aside: Just as ‘child pornography’ has been rightly amended to ‘child abuse images,’ maybe instead of calling these attacks hate-crimes, let’s call them what they are. The word ‘hate’ gives these crimes an element of coolness, albeit misanthropic coolness, that they do not deserve. These are stupid crimes – no-one likes being called stupid, least of all when their eventual capture is emblazoned across national papers under that heading. (It’s possible that sealing the doors with foam, thereby starving the fire of oxygen, may also justify calling it a stupid crime.)

To call the attack racist, we also have to assume that the perpetrators of this attack are white and English. But it’s not racism, so which ‘ism’ does this attack (and those like it) come under?

There is no ‘ism.’

If the perpetrators are white and English, then they are of approximately the same racial, cultural and national identities, perpetrating a crime against individuals of diverse racial, cultural and national identities, who, as a group, just happen to have similar religious identities (and who, like the perpetrators, also have some element of their identity tied to the fact of living in England). Slapping a media-friendly ‘ism’ onto this buys into the simplification that the perpetrators have engaged in to justify their actions, perpetuating the problem that occasioned the article in the first instance.

Racism is making simplistic assumptions based on obvious characteristics, and acting in accordance with those assumptions – which is exactly what The Guardian did in their reporting on this arson attack.

Anti-vaxxers and reality

This recent article on Slate raised the interesting spectre of civil or criminal action in response to parents failing to vaccinate their children. The issue being one of contributory negligence. If a child were to become ill due to exposure from an unvaccinated child, does the parent of the now ill child have recourse against the parents of the unvaccinated child?

It is somewhat ironic that “proving cause and effect will sometimes be difficult” for any such case, because proof of cause and effect is exactly what brought about this situation in the first place. What astounds me is that a lot of people who write about this gulf between the reality of cause and effect, and the anti-vaxxers’ understanding of it miss so many obvious sources of these misunderstandings.

Humans are naturally pretty bad at dealing with ratios, and we will unconsciously give additional weight to different types of emotional content, sometimes flying in the face of strongly contradicting but ‘sterile’ evidence. Why not understand where the vast majority of these misunderstandings come from?

In the case of the MMR/autism ‘thing’ (not calling it a controversy), it’s easy to see why people who are ‘in’ the situation of noticing that their child has just been diagnosed with autism, and remembering that the last major medical event in their child’s life was the MMR vaccine, might intuitively link the two. (Note that MMR is given at age two, and that is the age at which it first becomes possible, as the science currently stands, to diagnose autism.) The perpetuation of the MMR/autism ‘thing’ has nothing to do with mercury in the manufacturing process or any of the elements of Wakefield’s original “study” – it is post hoc rationalisation of an intuitive belief using conveniently available “science” – in quotes because Wakefield failed to disclose the source of the funding for his study. He has since been struck off the medical register.

Further, it’s easy to see why people who have not had such a diagnosis might be more inclined to notice the emotional story of someone who has (whether they themselves cite the link, or not), and place that information above the science that says otherwise. We are ultimately egocentric organisms, we will often place our own experience ahead of conventional wisdom, especially if that conventional wisdom comes to us with no emotional content (and sometimes that’s absolutely the right thing to do). When we’re not more egocentric we’re more social, and that means that many of us will place another person’s emotional information ahead of clinical information.

This goes to a bigger problem, that because science very often removes the human face from the information, a lot of people simply can’t relate to it. Recall, as well, that many popularisers of science – those that can humanise it, Carl Sagan springs to mind – face a backlash of sorts from the scientific community. Those involved in the hard sciences don’t want to see it reduced to one of the humanities (yet at the same time wonder why science isn’t a more popular choice at school and is under-represented in politics). Psychology typifies this battleground as it is a science that many of the natural sciences don’t see as one because it’s too “soft,” because it is too human.