BBC skirts issue of incitement

The headline of an article appearing on May 8th in the Middle East section of the BBC News website informs readers: “Senior Jerusalem Islamic cleric questioned over clashes“. 

Mufti questioning

The report opens:

“Israeli police briefly detained Jerusalem’s most senior Islamic cleric, following clashes between Muslim and Jewish worshippers on Tuesday.

Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was arrested in connection with a “disturbance” outside the Old City’s al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Given the BBC’s usual employment of the word “clashes” as a euphemism for rioting, the use of the phrase “clashes between Muslim and Jewish worshippers” suggests some sort of violent activity in which two sides were active. However, that implication appears to be contradicted by the placing of the word disturbance in quotation marks without there being any accompanying mention of a source from whom the term might be quoted. Later on in the article, readers are told that:

“During Tuesday’s clashes, Muslim worshippers are reported to have thrown chairs at Jewish visitors to the compound.”

So what did happen on Tuesday on Temple Mount? Here is Ha’aretz’s account:

“The riots ensued Tuesday after the police allowed some 200 Jews to enter the Temple Mount to pray in honor of Jerusalem Day. At the same time, security forces prevented a few dozen Muslims, whom police said were members of extremist groups, from entering the Mount.

Shortly thereafter, the Palestinian media reported that “extremist settlers” had taken over the Al Aqsa Mosque and that the police were not allowing Muslims on the Mount.

Clashes then broke out between police, Jews and Muslims, with Palestinians throwing stones and chairs at police. A few hours later, the police summoned the Jerusalem mufti, Mohammed Hussein, for questioning, following information that he had been involved in the rioting. The police issued a warning to Hussein and then sent him home. However, Palestinian and Jordanian media outlets reported that the mufti had been arrested and had spent the night at a police station.”

As we see, there is no small amount of rumour, disinformation and incitement in this story. That, of course, is nothing new: myths depicting Israeli plots to destroy the mosque or tales of ‘extremist settlers’ plotting to ‘storm‘ Temple Mount are part of the staple diet of incitement fed to the Palestinian people and the wider Muslim world by various organisations and the Palestinian media, as well as by interested parties such as the Iranian state-owned media outlet Al Alam. Neither is the Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Hussein himself a stranger to incitement.  

This BBC report, however, makes no effort to explain to readers the context behind this latest incident of violence and its relation to the regular use of the site’s emotional potential for political ends. Instead, the only background information given is in two laconic sentences:

“The compound where the mosque lies is revered by Muslims and Jews and is a frequent flashpoint for violence.

It is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount.”

That is followed by a statement which reveals something of the BBC’s bigotry of low expectations:

“Muslims regard visits by Jews to the mosque compound as provocative.”

We also find in this article a very political and partial description of the Israeli holiday ‘Jerusalem Day’:

“Tuesday’s violence coincided with Israel’s celebration of Jerusalem Day, which marks the anniversary of its capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.”

In fact, the holiday celebrates the city’s reunification after 19 years of Jordanian occupation.

The article closes with the repetition of a ridiculous quote from Mahmoud Abbas:

“Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had called for Sheikh Hussein’s “immediate release”, calling his arrest “a flagrant challenge to the freedom of worship”.”

Obviously, detaining someone for questioning in connection with the throwing of rocks and chairs has nothing whatsoever to do with the freedom of worship, but again the BBC fails to place Abbas’ statement in its appropriate context as part of the cycle of rumour and incitement designed to keep the threat of violence at such a volatile site permanently simmering.

The BBC’s self-declared mission of building “a global understanding of international issues” cannot be fulfilled by the omission of vital context – especially on such a contentious issue. 

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