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Thread: Another rule for the Arabs

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    Another rule for the Arabs

    Robert Kilroy-Silk's outburst shows that there is one ethnic group about whom it is apparently still OK to be flagrantly racist, writes Brian Whitaker

    Monday January 12, 2004

    While sifting through my father's belongings after his death a few years ago, I came across a book of autographs that he had collected as a child. Some of the signatories had added short verses or quotations, and on one page I found this:
    God made the little nigger boys
    He made them in the night
    He made them in a hurry
    And forgot to paint them white

    In Britain during the 1930s, it was considered perfectly acceptable (at least among white people) to write that sort of thing, and some may even have found it amusing. In those days, of course, there were not enough black people in Britain to challenge such attitudes, but we have moved on and now have a multicultural society.

    Today, anyone who suggested that blacks were created as a result of divine amnesia or a malfunction on God's production line would justifiably be accused of inciting racial hatred - as would anyone who suggested that Jews, for example, had made no worthwhile contribution to civilisation. Even now, though, there is still one notable exception: the Arabs. People happily write and say racist things about Arabs that they would not dream of saying about blacks or Jews - and usually they get away with it.

    The explanation lies partly in international politics but also in the negative stereotypes of Arabs that have become deeply imbued in western popular culture. This is nowhere more apparent than in Hollywood films where Arabs, unlike other racial groups, continue to be demonised on screen.

    A couple of years ago Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American professor, published Reel Bad Arabs, a massive study of some 900 films featuring Arab characters. With very few exceptions, he found that Arabs are portrayed as hate-figures in films to a degree that the studios would no longer dare with any other ethnic group.

    He accused the film-makers of "systematic, pervasive and unapologetic degradation and dehumanisation of a people". In the early days of Hollywood, Arabs were portrayed as over-sexed, exotic creatures living in the desert, riding camels, fighting among themselves and buying women at slave markets.

    By the 1970s - probably as a result of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the oil embargo - Hollywood Arabs turned into oil sheikhs: rich, vengeful, corrupt, sneaky and invariably fat. From the 1980s onwards, they have usually been portrayed as crazed terrorists - evolving more recently into crazed terrorist Islamic fundamentalists.

    Which came first - the politics or the stereotypes - is a moot point, but Shaheen and others argue that both are interlinked. The stereotypes help to justify the foreign policies of western governments, particularly the US, while at the same time government policies help to legitimise the stereotypes.

    It is only recently that such attitudes have been seriously questioned. The events of September 11, and the ensuing "war on terror", caused alarm among Arab and Muslim communities living in the west, sparking fears of a racist or religious backlash. As a result, they have become much more media-conscious, actively monitoring what is said about them and complaining when they feel they have been treated unfairly.

    Last Tuesday, the Guardian (and presumably other newspapers too) received two emails complaining about a column which had appeared in the Sunday Express on January 4. One came from the Muslim Council of Britain, the other from the Islamic Affairs Central Network in Nottingham. Next day there were more, from the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (Fair), Arab Media Watch and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding.

    The offending column was headed "We owe Arabs nothing" and it said: "Apart from oil - which was discovered, is produced and is paid for by the west - what do they contribute? Can you think of anything? Anything really useful? Anything really valuable? Something we really need, could not do without? No, nor can I."

    "What do they think we feel about them?" it continued. "That we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 and then danced in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate the murders?" By any standards it was an appalling article, a sweeping denunciation of Arabs in general, without any qualification or exception, implying that all 200 million of them were "suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors".

    The author of this trash, Robert Kilroy-Silk (who is known in the popular tabloids simply as "Kilroy") was once a Labour member of parliament, admired for his dashing good looks and occasionally tipped as a future prime minister.

    Instead, he ended up as presenter of a TV chat show which goes out at nine-o'clock in the morning and is sometimes described as the BBC's answer to Oprah Winfrey.

    He also airs his prejudices in a weekly column for the Sunday Express, a tired right-leaning tabloid which has suffered years of decline and cost-cutting under various proprietors.

    The row over his latest anti-Arab outburst was reported by the Guardian and the Independent last Thursday. Other papers, which had shown little interest initially, took it up later when the Commission for Racial Equality - a government-funded body - said it had taken legal advice and was reporting Mr Kilroy-Silk to the police with a view to prosecuting him for incitement under the Public Order Act.

    In the meantime, the Muslim Council of Britain received a large volume of hate-mail, apparently prompted by its complaints about the article. One message said: "Why don't you go back to the desert and get busy oppressing the opposite sex and everyone else who doesn't agree with your weird, backwards religion?"

    On Friday afternoon, the BBC announced that it was suspending Mr Kilroy-Silk's show with immediate effect, pending further investigation. By Saturday, the story was all over the front pages.

    On Sunday, the Express returned to the fray, defending the article on the grounds of free speech and attacking the BBC's decision, though it also published a reply from the Muslim Council of Britain, as well as several critical letters from readers.

    The BBC's suspension of the Kilroy show has been criticised by some as an over-reaction, but the BBC - along with other broadcasters in Britain - has a legal obligation to be impartial. Newspapers, on the other hand, can be as partisan as they like. The BBC has also been trying to clamp down on freelance writing by its journalists and presenters (such as Mr Kilroy-Silk's column for the Sunday Express) because of possible conflicts between the two activities.

    The problem of freelance writing came to light during the recent Hutton inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist David Kelly, over remarks made by the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. In addition to his work for the BBC, Mr Gilligan wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday in which he said the prime minister's press secretary had been responsible for "sexing up" the British government's dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

    BBC guidelines state that freelance writing by staff "should not bring the BBC into disrepute or undermine the integrity or impartiality of BBC programmes or presenters", and there can be little doubt that Mr Kilroy-Silk's latest rant has done just that.

    In future, as the Muslim Council of Britain points out, Arabs and Muslims are going to be reluctant to appear on his show, knowing the views that he expressed in his newspaper column.

    A broader point, made by the Arab League's ambassador in London, is that the BBC has its worldwide reputation to consider. The BBC's Arabic service has a large audience in the Middle East and is highly respected there, but the views expressed in Mr Kilroy-Silk's column, which were reported in the Arab press, have damaged that reputation.

    One complicating twist in the tale is that the offending article has appeared twice in the Sunday Express - on January 4 this year and on April 6 last year - under a different headline and with some differences in editing.

    The explanation given by Mr Kilroy-Silk is that his secretary accidentally plucked an old column out of the computer and emailed it to the newspaper instead of the column intended for January 4.

    Nobody at the Express seems to have noticed, though there were several clues in the text that ought to have rung alarm bells. The first sentence began: "We are told by some of the more hysterical critics of the war that 'It is destroying the Arab world' ..."

    Writing last April, Mr Kilroy-Silk was referring to the war in Iraq. Receiving the article again this month, a subeditor - apparently baffled as to which war the columnist was talking about - blithely changed "the war" to "the war on terror".

    Thanks to this mistake, Mr Kilroy-Silk and the Sunday Express are able to point out that there was no great outcry the first time his anti-Arab column was published.

    It seems that in the midst of the invasion of Iraq the monitoring groups simply failed to notice what Mr Kilroy-Silk was writing. That is scarcely surprising, because the headline on the April version of the column was barely comprehensible and cannot have enticed many people to read on. It said: "Us, loathsome? Shame on them." The headline on the second version - "We owe Arabs nothing" - was far more likely to grab readers' attention.

    Part of Mr Kilroy-Silk's defence is that in its original context of the Iraq war his article was unobjectionable - as demonstrated by the lack of objections at the time. That has subtly muddied the waters, but it is really no excuse: racism is still racism, whether or not anyone happens to complain.

    Throughout the "war on terror" and the war in Iraq, Tony Blair, and even George Bush at his most rabid, made clear in their speeches that they had no quarrel with Arabs or Muslims in general - unlike Mr Kilroy-Silk, apparently, since he included no such caveats in his column. Writing in the Sunday Express again yesterday, Mr Kilroy-Silk said: "The article was always intended to be a criticism of certain Arab regimes - never of Arab people in general."

    If that was really the intention, it does not explain why he wrote instead about ordinary Arabs dancing in the streets to celebrate September 11, chanting support for Saddam Hussein or "living happily in this country on social security".

    Mr Kilroy-Silk also "spoke movingly of how fiercely he guards the right to free speech for which his father died fighting during the second world war", according to an "exclusive interview" with the Sunday Express (who else?).

    "He died so that I could grow up in a free society, with the right to free speech to say what I like, when I like," Mr Kilroy-Silk told the paper. That is all very well, but we also carry a responsibility for what we say. Racist articles by high-profile figures not only reinforce popular prejudices but lend credibility to the unsavoury views of neo-Nazi groups. If the freedom-of-speech argument is taken to its logical conclusion, then all kinds of racial abuse become permissible - blacks, Jews, the Irish, everyone. That becomes a recipe for communal disaster of a kind that even Mr Kilroy-Silk would probably not wish to see.

    Where racism is concerned, therefore, freedom of speech has to be tempered by restraint. But whatever applies to one racial group has to apply to them all. It is no good having one rule for blacks, Jews and the Irish, and another rule - or none at all - for the Arabs.

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    Post Re: Another rule for the Arabs

    He is also a jew an a ardent zionist!

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    im OCCUPYING a house in england
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    Post Re: Another rule for the Arabs

    I've never heard of him being Jewish. I don't like the guy anyway.

    But I don't think that it's acceptable to be "racist" about them in the media. If anything they're the one group who we're NOT allowed to criticise.

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