The Problem with Cathy Newman’s “Misunderstanding”

On February 1, 2015, mosques across the United Kingdom held open days in an attempt to address rising anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of a terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Amongst visitors to local mosques was Cathy Newman, a white non-Muslim journalist and blogger. After arriving at the wrong place, Newman tweeted she was “ushered out” of the mosque despite being “respectfully dressed,” leading to social media-wide accusations of sexism and even a number of death threats against the mosque. The Huffington Post released CCTV footage soon after the incident showing Newman leaving alone, leading to a tepid apology from Newman for any “misunderstanding” she may have caused.

What’s disconcerting (although perhaps unsurprising) about this story is the ease with which many accepted Newman’s covert accusation of sexism, regardless of whether it was intended to be Islamophobic. Because, although Newman may have apologised, her words and the ready acceptance they received are symptomatic of the Islamophobia that many privileged non-Muslims undoubtedly harbour.

Now, when British Muslims hear the word “Islamophobia,” we often imagine a Tommy Robinson; a snarling white man holding a “ban Aslan” sign, yellowing teeth and over-gelled hair. This is the image of Islamophobes we’re used to and even able to dismiss because the Islamophobe is very obviously ignorant, possibly doesn’t know better and is probably incapable of convincing anyone to ban “Aslan” or anything else. So what happens when the Islamophobe isn’t unpresentable or easily dismissible? When one tweet by them can provoke nation-wide anger and even death threats? What should we think when it’s someone who we expect to “know better” and when the “ban Aslan” sign is a seemingly plausible story that will not as easily be memefied as our stereotypical Islamophobe’s faux pas?

Before looking at why exactly I consider Newman’s allegation to be Islamophobic and at the implications of this, I’d like to look at her admittedly impressive professional profile. Newman studied English at Oxford University before going on to work for the Financial Times, The Independent and then The Washington Post before joining Channel 4 News in 2006 – a far cry from a laughable stereotype holding a misspelt sign.

Newman has spoken out in the past about the sexism she was faced with in Westminster during her time as a political correspondent. When commenting on the sexism she experienced, she said she had been the victim of sexist comments and added that “throwaway remarks that might seem harmless to some” are part of how conditions in which people are able to engage in harmful behaviour with impunity are created. With this comment, Newman demonstrated an awareness of how social power dynamics work, an awareness of how words aren’t “just words” and that the wrong words will reinforce established imbalances of power in social relations.

Newman’s apt summation of how everyday sexism contributes to wider issues for women is exactly the reason her false allegation (which in different circumstances might even convincingly labelled a mere cry for attention) is more than a simple “misunderstanding;” the same idea of gender-based privilege that put Newman in a position where she felt victimised by her male peers applies to the “ushering” situation at hand. Not only is Newman privileged due to her whiteness, she is prominent in the public eye and in a position where she is able to reach more than 70,000 people with one tweet alone. And so, when someone in her position makes “throwaway” comments about a marginalised group, especially in a time where that group is particularly vulnerable to negative contagion effects of bad press, it cannot be considered a harmless “misunderstanding.”

What makes the affair particularly offensive is the fact that Newman apologised for causing a “misunderstanding,” not for being Islamophobic. What was offensive to Muslims such as myself about her actions was the fact that she firstly assumed the reason she was directed out of the mosque was because she was unwelcome due to her race or gender, on a day religious officials had gone above and beyond the call of duty to accommodate people who were genuinely interested in engaging with Muslims in our religious environments. To add insult to injury, she then exaggerated her experience on a platform with an audience of over 70,000 people. If she expects any sympathy, Newman should explicitly apologise for buying into Islamophobic stereotypes her perceived (if, in fact, she was genuinely offended and not just seeking attention) slight rested on, for contributing to the conditions that allow Islamophobes in Britain to operate without check and for her disingenuity when her offence was exposed to be unfounded.

Image from The Huffington Post UK

Written by Mahnoor Javed