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Opinion: When the Media Promotes Terrorism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A police van carrying one of the suspected murderers of British soldier Lee Rigby arrives for his trial at the Old Bailey in central London December 10, 2013.(Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett)

The late Margaret Thatcher popped into my mind on Monday evening while I was watching television coverage of Michael Adebolajo’s trial. Adebolajo is accused of murdering British soldier Lee Rigby on May 23, 2013, in Woolwich, southeast London. Many of those who live in this country and belong to my generation probably remember what the Iron Lady said in the late 1980s about terrorism, namely that terrorists should be deprived of the “oxygen of publicity.”

What Thatcher meant at the time was to deprive the Irish Republican Army (IRA) of media coverage, as it was a means through which they could try to provide a kind of justification for their acts of killing and violence. That would only serve to further spread their message of terrorism.

Thatcher’s remarks quickly took the form of a law the then-Home Secretary announced on October 18, 1988. The law banned TV channels and radio stations from broadcasting audio recordings by Sinn Féin or interviews with their leaders. The ban remained effective until September 16, 1994, four years after John Major took office.

Lady Thatcher’s philosophy was subjected to waves of bitter sarcasm and fierce criticism. Those who poked fun at the law argued that the actual implementation of the Thatcherite vision, as well as the law it was based on, opened the arena for humor. This was particularly true after media outlets circumvented the law by using actors to voice-over IRA statements. As for the serious critics who downplayed the effectiveness of the law, they saw that Lady Thatcher was dragging Britain towards a position that was more commonly seen in Third World countries, namely the restriction of freedom of opinion.

Nevertheless, despite the bitterness of the sarcasm and the relevance of the criticism, it was clear that that Thatcherite measure had a negative impact on the IRA propaganda machine, depriving its political figures from the luster of media platforms and lights. This is particularly true given that no actor can have Martin McGuinness’s charisma or Gerry Adams’s oratory talent.

In fact, those who sarcastically belittled Lady Thatcher’s philosophy and the ones who seriously criticized her did not realize the significance of her point at the time. Thatcher opposed media coverage of terrorism that makes no distinction between important information and analysis, which the audience needs, and giving certain figures the chance to spread their messages and allegations of terrorists and those who justify killing under any pretext.

I watched the TV correspondent quoting almost the full text of Adebolajo’s defense, in which he justified killing Rigby with a machete in a London street. Adebolajo claimed that he did so not as a civilian, but rather as a soldier of Allah, and that his act was part of a war. After ten minutes of listening to this nonsense, I wondered about the media’s justification for broadcasting the words of a brainwashed murderer into the houses of millions of people. I would not be surprised if the ordinary viewer mistakenly believed that part of the personality and principles of this murderer are shared by every Muslim who frequents mosques to worship God. I would not find it strange if many people believed that the motives to commit similar crimes exist like “dormant cells” in Islam. No, we should not be surprised if Islam appeared to the others as if it were in a state of war with every non-Muslim.

That same evening, the newsreader reported another piece of news: the failure of French forces to stop fighting between Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic. There is insufficient space to discuss the reasons behind these massacres here, regardless of who was first to commit injustice. And despite the bright image of some successful Muslim countries—such as Dubai, which recently has won a bid to host Expo 2020—Muslims still appear on TV screens across the world in the shape of soldiers fighting others in their home countries just because those “others” are non-Muslims.

This is an unacceptable misconception, which the media has played an unfair role in spreading. Media coverage does not necessarily require going that extra step to promote the message of terrorism, which is the bitterest enemy of Islam.