Interview with Sanum Ghafoor, the Muslim woman who created #blamethemuslims hashtag

PostDesk speaks to the Sanum Ghafoor, whilst also looking at the issues of Islamophobia, bias, double standards and hypocrisy in western media

19 year old Sanum Ghafoor, a university student in London is now notorious for starting the popular #blamethemuslims Twitter hashtag which ‘trended’ globally for 48 hours just a few days ago.  We spoke to Sanum the day after, and got the full story about why she did it, and what she thinks of the reaction the hashtag provoked.

Sanum Ghafoor

Sanum has since been featured on global television network Al-Jazeera, and in the mainstream press including The Washington Post, CNN and on a multitude of blogs across the Internet.

Sanum on her Twitter feed said that she started the hashtag to highlight how ridiculous it is to “…blame Muslims for every problem around the world”. She raised these issues albeit in a satirical way using intelligent irony, with Tweets like “My Internet is slow #blamethemuslims”,  “Are you paying too much for your car insurance? #blamethemuslims” and Friday by Rebecca Black? #blamethemuslims”. Blogger Clare Neruda described the hashtag as “funny, witty, self-deprecating and intelligently ironic”.

Blame the Muslims Tweets

…and more

Blame the Muslims Tweets

Sanum’s Motivations

This is not to say that Sanum had serious political motivations for starting the Hashtag, and genuine political foundations. Speaking to PostDesk Sanum said she felt that the crux of the issues were those surrounding 9/11, and the fact that generally speaking, in mainstream western media, the individuals involved in the World Trade Center attacks were not considered to ‘blame’ as individuals, they or as ‘mad people’ or anomalies – these people were frequently held to represent billions of Muslims globally and it was Islam which was generically ‘blamed’ by the media. Sanum related this to how some of the most media mainstream media outlets jumped to conclusions and relied on hearsay to ‘blame’ Muslims for the recent tragic attack in Norway, but secondly to the fact that as soon as it transpired that the Norway attacker was a white, right wing Christian extremist his religion didn’t play a part in the news coverage [which Sanum said was a good thing, incidentally]; he was described as a “mad man” and a “monster” who was nothing to do with Christianity; whilst Al Qaeda extremists involved in 9/11 are shown to represent an entire faith. Sanum saw this as a real case of double standards and hypocrisy, something which clearly fuelled her desire to stand up for her opinions in the first place.

Blame the Muslims Tweets

Ahmed Moor at Al Jazeera wrote that the Western media’s response “demonstrates the extent to which reactionary bigotry” and anti-Muslim sentiment have “infected mainstream thought.” The New York Times was criticised by Glenn Greenwald at Salon for using the word “terrorist” when referring to Muslims but switching to the word “extremist” when the perpetrator turned out to be Christian.

Sanum also made reference to Glenn Beck (American conservative radio and television host) who is quoted saying that “10% of all Muslims in the world” were terrorists, and how that means there are “157 million Muslim terrorists in the world” – yet another example, although an extreme one, of the prevalence of this kind of behaviour in the media. The article also went on to describe  current issues with The State and Islamophobia.

Sanum also told us how Fox News’ own Bill O’Reilly reacted to the news about the identity of the Norway attacker; when he said that this self confessed Christian extremist couldn’t possibly be a true Christian, yet another serious case of double standards. The video below is a breakdown of the clip by co-founder of talk radio show, The Young Turks, Conk Uygur.

US media were not the only ones to jump to such conclusions; The Sun newspaper which has a daily average daily readership of almost 8 million in the UK ran the headline ‘Norway’s 9/11’, and Sky News also broadcast comments saying that “it’s these Muslims once again” without verifying theirs sources properly.

During Sanum’ Aljazeera interview, Zeya Meral, Turkish Author and Blogger said that it was “a Perfect reflection on all of the prejudices we have while we’re trying to understand a completely complex world where we are all trying to find a ‘scapegoat’ where we can neatly and tidily find something which we can clearly blame”. He to describe how what Sanum did unwittingly reflects the real life consequences where we completely ostracise millions of people around the world as an “intellectual failure”. It was also said that the hash tag played to the kind of bias that is “common in this type of coverage” and which is widely accepted.

Sanum certainly isn’t alone with her views, news outlets everywhere reported how “muslim and multicultural groups accused the British media today of a “knee-jerk” response”, with the LA Times reporting that “…there was a sigh of relief that it wasn’t someone connected with their religion, but also a sting at being initially scapegoated — not unlike what occurred immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing by right-wing American extremists in 1995.” whilst outraged bloggers in posts entitled ‘when in doubt blame the muslims’ called out the likes of The telegraph for pointing the finger at Al Qaeda without justification.

Most prominently, The International Socialist Group on there website spoke of the ‘Media Hypocrisy and Islamophobia’ referencing again The Sun newspaper – commenting that “…the rush to blame Muslims is particularly appalling because social networking sites like Twitter were circulating information on the fact that the man responsible had been a blonde haired and blue eyed Norwegian hours beforehand. But this wasn’t what the mainstream media were looking for; surely there must have been a link to ‘Islamic terror groups’?”

The Sun Front Page (Norways 9/11) Al-qaeda Massacre

Islamophobia has become embedded within many of our institutions

They went on to say that the incident in Norway “…represents something equally as frightening for us today – that Islamophobia has become embedded within many of our institutions. We must ask why, despite the inconsistencies in the news coverage, media outlets were still able to report Islamophobic propaganda.”, continuing to say that “Islamophobia is not only confined to Britain: this form of state-sponsored racism is widespread across much of Europe. The political climate forged by the ‘War on Terror’ has led to a rising wave of anti-Muslim racism which is sharply expressed in anti-immigration policies, anti-terror laws and street mobilizations of violent groups like the English Defence League in Britain and its counterparts in Europe.”

Media bias, double standards and hypocrisy

Adding Context, The International Socialist Group said that, “…the man responsible for carrying out the attacks in Norway is a far-right Christian with a long history of membership in right-wing organizations.  The attacks were carried out as a means of creating more division within our society, to conjure up anti-Muslim racism and anti-immigration sentiment.” But from the perspective of the media, this was not ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’ – Breivik was a ‘lone wolf’ and a ‘madman’, and thus not significant as part of a broader trend.  No political context or reason given and the massacre reduced to the actions of an individual maniac.  Furthermore, any link with Christianity was quickly dismissed with people arguing that the violence acted contrary to the teachings of the Bible, yet if it was a Muslim we would hear that the Quran preaches violence.  The Breivik massacre, quite apart from its shocking nature, is a flagrant case of media bias, double standards and hypocrisy.”

Sanum’s Intentions

Speaking to PostDesk, Sanum said that she had no intention of it becoming a trending topic, and it she had no idea it would materialise in to what it did – but it didn’t take long for her to realise that she has provoked reactions for hundreds of thousands of people. It wasn’t long before Sanum realised that she had brought together a ‘community of people’ as she described it, which felt strongly about the fact Muslims appear to ostracise in the media and categorically blamed, without justification, for many serious events in the world.

One thing that is likely to have led #blamethemuslims to become such a strong trending topic was it’s very nature in that so many people took it so many different ways.

How it trended

Whilst most users on Twitter understood the clever yet risqué irony from the outset others took at face value and whilst Sanum tried to rectify this by telling fellow “ to read her timeline”, reiterating that she is indeed a Muslim and that she started the hash tag, much of this was outside Sanum’s immediate control due to the very nature of a hashtag on Twitter.

Sanum told us that she identified three different types of respondents to the hashtag. Firstly, some understood the irony of the #blamethemuslims hashtag and joined in. Secondly, there were those who expressed anger and disgust against the phrase. Blogger Clare Neruda described these people as those who “just aren’t getting the joke”. Sanum however told us that she felt these people were also supporting the cause, and she was thrown back by the solidarity of all different people, non-Muslims and those of many different religions coming together to oppose the hashtag in a truly vocal way. Clare Neruda picked up on this too, commenting that “…the majority of the people who have utilised the hashtag seem to have done so purely to vent their anger about the perceived racism of the trend, without researching its origins before forming an opinion. Irony upon irony; the very thing Sanum seems to have been satirising has been replayed by millions in their misguided attempts to rid the (twitter)world of an ‘evil’ that is no more than a product of misinterpretation.”

She also received vocal criticism from fellow Muslims (though most showed unequivocal support), but she said she understood exactly why they felt this way; and that the reasoning and motivations behind the hashtag were not too hard to find out as many people did. The third kind of response were the small proportion that were being genuinely offensive, although a quick look at the tweets containing #blamethemuslims at the time revealed that there were very few of these – perhaps further demonstrating this surprising level of solidarity especially given current position of much of the mainstream press. As Elizabeth Flock of The Washington Post noted, “…everyone who used the hashtag either defended Muslims against blame or participated in the satire.”

Death threats

Despite receiving several death threats to her personal email and over Twitter, she even has sympathy for those people to. Sanum told us she “understood exactly where they were coming from” and that she “knows how it feels to have their religion hijacked by extremists, and in turn the media”. She said she took these threats on the chin.

Offensive Irony?

Some argued that the potentially ‘offensive irony’ should not be used as it can be misunderstood or misconstrued, but we’d argue that whilst when taken at face value out of context the hashtag could be considered offensive, surely if it wasn’t as risqué then it wouldn’t have had the effect it did, and in turn we feel that it achieved it’s anterior aim in bringing light to a very important issue whilst it was highly topical.

What is admirable about Sanum, is that she felt strongly enough about this issue to keep tweeting and to defend her cause showing some genuine passion for her cause.

Sanum on YouTube

Sanum is no stranger to sharing her political views and comedy on line; she produces and posts YouTube videos and has done since she was in her third year at secondary school. In these impressively well produced videos, Sanum eloquently discusses related matters ranging from ‘The Language of War’ and ‘Police at Protests‘ to the recent Egyptian uprising. Sanum tells us they are made using a “laptop and a webcam on a stack of books”, adding that she started out with comedy videos, but as she became more politically aware she made videos with much more political content, still with a unique comedic edge.

One of Sanum’s many videos on YouTube, this one entitled “The Language of War”. Sanum has almost 2000 subscribers on YouTube.

Sanum’s “The Best 5 Minute History Lesson on Egypt. Ever”

Sanum’s in “You know you’re a Muslim when…”

Her YouTube videos are well worth checking out, and you can also follow her on Twitter at @Strange_Sanum. She was thankful for the hundreds of thousands who supported her cause and the cause of billions of members of the largest religion in the world who are in the same situation, having their religion hijacked by the media and used all to often as a scapegoat with no justification whatsoever.

Sanum told us that she plans to continue voicing her opinions on these political issues, and to keep producing her YouTube videos; but she told us that she isn’t sure what to do after her degree – which is in Phycology and Anthropology.

…and as The International Socialist Groups’ piece concluded, “…we must defend multiculturalism and challenge the racism that exists at the very top of our society.  We must continue to oppose the wars and oppose the fascists when they take to our streets.  But we can only do this with maximum unity by challenging reactionary ideas and media mystification while arguing for the broadest possible working class movement to challenge War and austerity.”