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Many fair-minded and responsible British institutions and individuals rallied around the Muslim community in support of its objections to an article published by Robert Kilroy-Silk ‘We owe Arabs nothing’ in the Express on Sunday (4th January 2004). Diligent work by young advocacy and lobby groups scored a notable achievement when Kilroy-Silk, a well-established TV personality, was asked twelve days later by the BBC to stand down from his daily talk show. However the community’s response has been one of sober reflection rather than celebration.
Kilroy-Silk’s polemics were a salutory reminder of the social climate in post-September 11 Britain: a mainstream Sunday paper, using ‘Arab’ as code speak for ‘Muslim’, could claim open license for its columns to be used to heap abuse and humiliation on a section of society. For British Muslims it was as if the tap of Muslim bashing invective had been turned fully clockwise. ‘We owe Arabs nothing’ was like a throw back to a previous era – when the Hellenophile Gladstone and The Times would rant about the ‘Turkish problem’ – now it is not another sick man of Europe that is being manufactured in the public imagination. The British public is being pushed into believing there is a ‘Muslim problem’ in their midst. Cultural denigration of Muslims is the new racism.
As in the Rushdie Affair, the community is being lectured on ‘freedom of expression’ – that Muslims are again seeking the censorship of ideas. Kilroy-Silk and his supporters attempted to ‘spin’ gratuitous racist remarks as a right of free speech. The episode highlights potential double standards –Muslims are expected to uphold ‘freedom of expression’ at the cost of their own self-respect and dignity, but protest is muted when others seek to ban books, films and exhibitions that may be damaging to their interests.
The Muslim campaign to have Kilroy axed from the BBC was also instructive for revealing genuine well-wishers, fair-weather friends offering heavily-qualified support and – judging from the volume of hate emails received by Muslim institutions - the persistent racist undercurrent that is unable to come to terms with global changes arising from migration, demographic shifts and the desperate need for labour.
A chronology of what happened
Sunday 4th January - The Express on Sunday publishes Kilroy-Silk’s polemic that decries “the Arabs” for “murdering more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 and then dancing in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate” and desribes them as “suicide bombers, limb-amputators, womenrepressors”.
Monday 5th January – an Express reader, Tanveer Rahman, contacts the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to object about the article.
Tuesday 6th January – The MCB writes to the BBC pointing out that “Kilroy-Silk is – as you must know - a man who positively revels in airing his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim views. We wonder whether you would consider it proper to give the same kind of prominence to a presenter who was so openly anti-black or anti-Jewish?”. The secretary of the MCB’s media committee, Inayat Bunglawala (photo) also writes to the Press Complaints Commission and notifies the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).
Wednesday 7th January – The MCB establishes further contacts with the CRE– and also follows up with media contacts, including a letter to the editor of the Express on Sunday. BBC management remain closeted at meetings all day.
Thursday 8th January – CRE issues its statement with reference to potential Police action, “Our lawyers have considered the column and, in the light of widespread concern, we are referring the article to the police to consider whether it might constitute an offence under the Public Order Act, in precisely the same way we did when a bonfire society in Sussex recently burnt an effigy of a Gypsy caravan”.
Dr Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak tables an Early Day Motion (EDM) “this House deplores the racist comments directed at Arab people”.
British National Party’s web site announces “Robert Kilroy Silk, the TV presenter and darling of the daytime housewife prime time viewing has come under attack from none other than the race relations industry here in Britain for daring to question the gift to the greater good of those people of Islamic and Arabic origin”.
Friday 9th January – BBC announces decision to suspend broadcasts of the Kilroy programme on BBC1 with immediate effect “because of the seriousness of the matter” while it conducts an investigation. The MCB and other Muslim organisations are targeted by a hate email campaign – a common phrase in these emails is ‘why Kilroy-Silk should be investigated for incitement to racial hatred when no action was taken over remarks by Oxford don Tom Paulin (for comments on illegal settlers in Israel).
Sunday 11th January – BNP’s web site states “The move by the Race Relations industry and their allies in the BBC to gag Kilroy-Silk is an attack on every person in Britain with a brain to think, lips to speak and ears to hearl… If Kilroy is arrested and charged, British National Party activists will demonstrate against his persecution and in favour of free speech at the offices of the totalitarian Commission for Racial Equality, and outside the homes of its senior executives”.
Express on Sunday publishes a response by Inayat Bunglawala.
Monday 12th January - Guardian writers Brian Whitaker and Faisal Bodi are the first broadsheet journalists to criticise Kilroy-Silk. The former notes, “Racist articles by high-profile figures not only reinforce popular prejudices but lend credibility to the unsavoury views of neo-Nazi groups”.
The Council for Anglo-Arab Understanding (CAABU) issues a press release expressing its grave concern at the failure of Robert Kilroy-Silk to apologise fully for his offensive and racist article.
The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) issues a press release applauding the actions of the BBC in dropping Robert Kilroy-Silk’s programme. The Jewish Chronicle (16 January) reports that “Rabbi Alan Plancey, who represents Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the CCJ’s advisory committee was ‘furious’ at the council’s response, claiming it had not been sanctioned by the organisation’s presidents – which include Rabbi Sacks”.
Labour MP Andrew Dismore states that he finds it hard to understand why the BBC had moved against Mr Kilroy-Silk but had not taken any action against Tom Paulin.
Thursday 13th January – CAABU issues a further press release It refers to the activities of Betar: “a Zionist youth movement and registered charity. In a widely circulated email, Betar called Kilroy-Silk's article ‘excellent’ and urged its members to complain to the BBC for suspending Kilroy-Silk and stated that he was ‘fired because his article spoke the truth’.”
Wednesday 14th January - The Daily Express highlights the female BBC executives behind his suspension, under the headline "BBC bully girls who hate Kilroy". The executives are Jana Bennett, director of television; Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC1; and Alison Sharman, head of daytime programmes. An orchestrated email and phone campaign is now underway, bombarding Muslim organisations with hate mail and blocking BBC telephone lines - 7,000 calls to its viewer comment line, most in support of Kilroy-Silk. The MCB submits a dossier to the BBC on some of Kilroy-Silk’s previous obnoxious statements on Muslims.
Board of Deputies Director General Neville Nagler writes to the Guardian “You quote the spokesman of the Muslim Council of Britain as saying that ‘if anyone had made a rant against black or Jewish people there would be no question of temporary suspension - they would be out straight away’ (Kilroy-Silk looks to be on the way out after interview with BBC rival, January 13). Sorry to disappoint the MCB, but when BBC Newsnight review contributor Tom Paulin praised the murder of Israeli settlers, there was no question of suspending him. Quite the reverse: the BBC was happy for him to appear the following week. Yet another example of BBC double standards”.
Thursday 15th January – BBC Question Time programme – Education Minister David Miliband describes the BBC’s decision to suspend the programme as “absurd”.
Friday 16th January – at 3 pm BBC announce that it is taking Kilroy-Silk off-air. Metropolitan Police confirm receipt of a complaint from the CRE questioning whether the 4th January article amounted to incitement to racial hatred.
Jewish Chronicle reports that “the comparision between the treatment of Kilroy-Silk and Paulin’s continued BBC work was also raised by the Board of Deputies and Lord Janner, who accused the corporation of double standards.
Sunday 18th January – The Sunday Express attacks Jane Bennett and Alison Sharman – “control freaks who forced Kilroy-Silk off our screens”. Writing in the same issue, Kilroy-Silk puts the ‘freedom of expression’ spin: “ … the Muslim Council of Britain wants to stifle any news with which it disagrees. Will we allow them to censor us? Will we support those of them who believe in burning books? I don’t think so”.
By Robert Kilroy-Silk, The Express on Sunday , 4th January 2004
We're told that the Arabs loathe us. Really? For liberating the Iraqis? For subsidising the lifestyles of people in Egypt and Jordan, to name but two, for giving them vast amounts of aid? For providing them w ith science, medicine, technology and all the other benefits of the West? They should go down on their knees and thank God for the munificence of the United States. What do they think we feel about them? That we adore them for the w ay they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 and then danced in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate the murders?
That we admire them for the cold-blooded killings in Mombasa, Y emen and elsewhere? That we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, womenrepressors? I don't think the Arab states should start a debate about what is really loathsome.
But why, in any case, should we be concerned that they feel angry and loathe us? The Arab world has not exactly earned our respect, has it? Iran is a vile, terrorist-supporting regime - part of the axis of evil. So is the Saddam Hussein-supporting Syria. So is Libya. Indeed, most of them chant support for Saddam.
That is to say they support an evil dictator who has gassed hundreds of thousands of their fellow Arabs and tortured and murdered thousands more. How can they do this and expect our respect?
Why do they imagine that only they can feel anger, call people loathsome? It is the equivalent of all the European nations coming out in support of Hitler the moment he was attacked by the US, because he was European, despite the fact that he was attempting to exterminate the Jews - and Arabs.
Moreover, the people who claim we are loathsome are currently threatening our civilian populations with chemical and biological weapons. They are promising to let suicide bombers loose in Western and American cities. They are trying to terrorise us, disrupt our lives. And then they expect us to be careful of their sensibilities? We have thousands of asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries living happily in this country on social security.
This shows what their own people think of the Arab regimes, doesn't it? There is not one single British asylum seeker in any Arab country. That says it all about which country deserves the epithet loathsome. GEORGE GALLOWAY, the member of parliament for Baghdad Central, as his tormentors describe him, called the British and American troops "wolves" and called for the Arab countries to rise up and fight them and to cut off oil from the combatants. Later he called upon British troops to refuse to obey "illegal orders".He has, predictably, been vilified. His comments have been termed a disgrace, disgusting, outrageous and so on.
He has been called a loony, naive, gullible and a traitor. There have been demands that George's constituency party should deselect him, that his constituents should not vote for him at the next general election, and that he should be deported to Iraq. No one, as yet, has demanded that he be put in the stocks or burnt at the stake, though no doubt this will come. But why all the fuss? Why is everyone getting into such an excitable lather over the predictable remarks of a no-mark? Who with any sense cares an Iraqi dinar for what dear George thinks? Like Clare Short, George is a licensed court jester. He acts the buffoon while she's the straight part of the act, though she exaggerates her sanctimonious seriousness.
Neither are taken seriously. Both are totally discredited laughing stocks that add to the variety of political life. At least George is open, honest and sincere.
6th January 2004
Dear Ms Heggessey,
Kilroy-Silk is – as you must know - a man who positively revels in airing his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim views. We wonder whether you would consider it proper to give the same kind of prominence to a presenter who was so openly anti-black or anti-Jewish?
Kilroy-Silk writes a weekly column for the Express on Sunday in which he often gives vent to his bigoted and ill-informed ideas about what is happening in the world. In last Sunday’s paper he surpassed all his previous efforts and produced a hysterically gratuitous anti-Arab rant. As you can see in the following extract (“We Owe The Arabs Nothing”) from the Express on Sunday (4th January 2004), Kilroy-Silk appears unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between the terrorists who perpetrated the Sept 11 atrocities and the ordinary Arab peoples who constitute a population of over 200 million.
“We're told that the Arabs loathe us. Really?… What do they think we feel about them? That we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11… That we admire them for the cold-blooded killings in Mombasa, Yemen and elsewhere? That we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women-repressors?” Note that Kilroy doesn’t attack the actions of a particular few – but ‘the Arabs’ as a whole. This seems to be a clear case of indiscriminate generalisation and as such, blatantly racist. The Press Council upheld a complaint against The Sun for publishing similar comments about ‘the Arabs’ in 1987.
Kilroy also displays a lamentable grasp of geography and history: “The Arab world has not exactly earned our respect, has it? Iran is a vile, terrorist-supporting regime - part of the axis of evil. So is the Saddam Hussein-supporting Syria. So is Libya. Indeed, most of them chant support for Saddam.”
Iran is a largely Farsi-speaking country (not Arab) and heir to an enormously rich civilisation. Kilroy’s dismissive remarks Iran and the Arab world are not untypical of the arrogant way he treats anything to do with Islam or Muslims. In addition, the Iraqi and Syrian regimes have for decades actually been bitter rivals in the region as each country’s branch of the Ba’th party tried to project itself as the leader of the Arab world. Moreover, the majority of the Arab public has never hidden its disdain for Saddam Hussein and his brutal rule.
There has been a lot of comment in the press recently about journalists and commentators employed by the BBC who bring the corporation into disrepute by writing opinionated pieces in newspapers. The Muslim Council of Britain considers Kilroy’s remarks quoted above to be ignorant, extremely derogatory and indisputably racist.
In the BBC’s Producer’s Guidelines, your Chairman, Greg Dyke says “Our audiences rightly expect the highest…ethical standards from the BBC…values such as impartiality, accuracy, fairness, editorial independence and our commitment to appropriate standards of taste and decency” We hope you will agree that Mr Robert Kilroy-Silk has fallen far short of these values and standards.
We now urge the BBC to take urgent and appropriate action on this extremely serious matter to reassure the Muslim and Arab communities in Britain and abroad that the BBC will not in any way accept the contemptible demonisation of entire peoples. Certainly, if the word ‘Jews’ was substituted for ‘Arabs’ in the Kilroy quotes above it seems to us that the BBC would not tolerate any delay before it took substantive action against Kilroy.
For your information, the Muslim Council of Britain is also writing to the Press Complaints Commission about Kilroy’s article. Yours sincerely,
Cc: Greg Dyke, Director-General, BBC Alison Sharman, Controller, BBC Daytime Television
11 January 2004
In last week’s edition of the Sunday Express, columnist Robert Kilroy-Silk made a series of remarks about the Arab world which left Britain’s Muslim and Arab communities shocked and deeply upset. In a Monty Pythonesque way ("What have the Romans ever done for us?") Mr Kilroy- Silk asked whether the Arabs have contributed anything useful – other than oil - to world civilisation: “Can you think of anything? Anything really useful? Anything really valuable? Something we really need, could not do without? No, nor can I.” Which can only mean that Mr Kilroy -Silk should have been spending a little less time in front of the cameras and a bit more time swotting up on his history.
In the middle of the 9th century CE - a time when scholars refer to Europe as being in the Dark Ages (476 C.E – 1000 CE) - the Arab-Islamic civilization stretched from its heartland in Arabia to the Atlantic coast and Spain in the West, the plains of northern India in the East, and deep into the steppes of Central Asia to the north. It formed one vast multifaith realm, larger even than the Roman Empire at its height, with Arabic being the universal language of learning. It constituted a massive common market.
Baghdad was the fabulously wealthy capital of the empire, the Abbasid Caliphate. Its fame would be celebrated in stories in the Arabian Nights. Here, in this Arab and Muslim city, a great cultural and economic nexus developed which drew on knowledge and ideas from other civilisations in Greece, Rome, Byzantium, India and China. These influences were forged into a brilliant new culture under an inclusive Muslim civilisation that was eager to learn and spread learning.
As you would expect, the Arab-Islamic world in return influenced surrounding cultures to an extraordinary degree. Baghdad was home to Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 780 – 850), the Persian mathematician. Al-Khwarizmi’s book, Kitab al-Jabr Wal-Muqabala, is the oldest Arabic work on Algebra. Partially translated into Latin by Robert of Chester, the text served to introduce the science of algebra (from the Arabic al-jabr) to Europe. Our English word algorithm is, in fact, a corrupted version of this great Muslim mathematician’s name.
Al-Khwarizmi also made a lasting contribution to the field of astronomy by taking the first mathematical step from the Greek conception of a static universe to the Islamic one of a dynamic universe.
Muslim achievements in textiles, carpets, metalwork, glassmaking and bookbinding can be seen across the medieval and early modern European world.
The very paper on which you are reading this article was an innovation passed on to Europe courtesy of the Arabs. Its page numbers are to this day known as Arabic numerals. It is no exaggeration to say that the European Renaissance, and therefore most of modern science, was based to a large extent on Arab scholarship.
Indeed, for much of the period in the thousand years between the 8th and 18th centuries the leading civilisation on the planet in terms of spread and creativity was Islam – whose blessed Prophet Muhammad, was also an Arab. Even now, Arabic continues to be the common language of worship for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. You may not know it, but even you already speak a lot of Arabic. Hundreds of our everyday words in the English language including admiral, elephant, lemon, magazine and traffic, are Arabic in origin.
In his article Mr Kilroy- Silk failed to distinguish between the terrorists who perpetrated the September 11 atrocities and the ordinary Arab peoples who constitute a population of over 200 million and form the majority in over twenty countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
He wrote: "We're told that the Arabs loathe us." Going on to say, "What do they think we feel about them?", and then, "that we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors?"
Unfortunately Mr Kilroy-Silk didn’t restrict himself to attacking the actions of a particular criminal few. As the Muslim author Ziauddin Sardar commented, "It is like blaming Yorkshire people for the actions of the Yorkshire Ripper”. The article also displayed a less than adequate knowledge of basic geography.
“The Arab world has not exactly earned our respect, has it? Iran is a vile, terrorist-supporting regime - part of the axis of evil." Iran is not, and never has been, an Arab country. Its civilisation, culture and language are entirely separate from those of Arab countries. Iran and Arab countries are however united by the Islamic faith.
Mr Kilroy-Silk says that "we have thousands of asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries living happily in this country on social security". As a millionaire Mr Kilroy-Silk may not know this but no- one lives happily on social security, least of all people who have fled persecution in their own country. The Muslim community in Britain has been facing unprecedented levels of abuse, intolerance and physical hostility since the 9/11 atrocities. Our mosques have also been repeatedly vandalised, set fire to and in a couple of instances, bleeding pigs heads have been thrown through front doors of mosques and into the prayer halls. Even the dead in their graves have not been left in peace as we have had our cemeteries desecrated.
Partly for this reason, responsible governments do not allow unlimited freedom of speech but enforce laws which clearly forbid incitement to racial hatred.
During the Second World War, in Nazi Germany, we saw what this kind of demonisation of entire peoples led to. Our challenge today is to make the cry "never again" real for all the people in this country, whatever their faith or ethnic background.
By Inayat Bunglawala, Express on Sunday, 11 January 2004
Thursday 8 January 2004
Our lawyers have considered the column and, in the light of widespread concern, we are referring the article to the police to consider whether it might constitute an offence under the Public Order Act, in precisely the same way we did when a bonfire society in Sussex recently burnt an effigy of a Gypsy caravan.