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  • Disgraceful media coverage of B’ham arrests

    by Sunny
    6th February, 2007 at 4:51 pm    

    Suffice to say, press coverage of the recent arrests in Birmingham over the alleged plot to behead a Muslim soldier have been a disgrace. In other cases such as the BNP chemicals case the press wrote nothing in order to avoid prejudicing the trial, and yet in this case Al-Qaeda was dragged in without any demonstrable evidence and without the trial having even started.

    Today, the human rights group Liberty has written to the home secretary asking for details of briefings given to journalists about the arrests. On BBC News:

    Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said she was “gravely concerned” by reports the Home Office may have “secretly and speculatively briefed journalists as security operations were under way”.

    “Any such practices risk undermining the work of police and prosecutors and jeopardise both the trust and safety of the public.

    Liberty has also issued a Freedom of Information Request asking what was said to journalists by home office officials. See their press release today.

    These follow reports in this weekend’s Guardian and Daily Mail that the home office’s actions were motivated by attempts to divert attention from their own problems.

    Today the shadow home secretary David Davis has also spoken out on the issue, and I’ve just received this from Tory press office:

    David Davis: concern relating to media handling of counter-terrorism operation in Birmingham last week.

    Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, has today written to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Normington, regarding the procedure for Counter-Terrorism Operations and Press Briefings, and seeking clarification of the procedures in place regulating press contact.

    Letter to Sir David Normington, Home Office Permanent Secretary:
    You will be aware of the increasing concern relating to the media handling of the police counter-terrorism operation in Birmingham last week. I would be grateful if you could clarify the standing procedures in place regulating press contact in such cases.

    In particular, please could you provide me with an explanation of the agreed procedures for police counter-terrorism briefings to the press with respect to ongoing matters or those of an operational, sensitive or confidential nature?

    In addition, it would be useful to know when such briefings would be expected to be left to the Home Office – rather than the police – and what procedures apply to media briefings in those circumstances.

    Finally, I would be grateful for a clear statement of the circumstances (if any) in which it would be appropriate for Special Advisers to engage in briefing of this nature – whether on a formal or informal basis – in relation to ongoing police matters.

    But all this is not enough The real problem here isn’t just the home office or the police, although they are part of the nexus that prejudice coverage, but the Attorney General, who refuses to step in and say that press coverage is damaging any hope for a fair trial. Without that people will continue breaking the law.

    In yesterday’s Media Guardian Peter Wilby also wrote on this issue. As you have to register to read the article, I’ve copied and pasted it below.

    The biggest press scandal of our time is not intrusion on royal privacy - which has just led to a reporter’s imprisonment - but the newspapers’ consistent and brazen disregard for the contempt laws. The police and the government, far from taking steps to apply those laws, have colluded in what amounts to a complete revision of British legal conventions. The Press Complaints Commission, always active in trying to protect the royals, has so far refused on this issue even to investigate.

    Take last week’s coverage of the alleged kidnap plans by Birmingham-based Muslims. “The execution plot: Terror gang planned to kidnap, torture and behead a soldier on our doorstep,” announced the Sun. Just in case we wanted to know what an execution might look like, the front page showed the US hostage Nick Berg being executed in Iraq in 2004. The Times front page prominently quoted “a senior police source”, a ubiquitous and garrulous creature on these occasions: “This is Baghdad come to Birmingham … The soldier would have been filmed dressed up … like Kenneth Bigley.” The Times duly printed a picture of Bigley, a Briton murdered in Iraq in 2004, in an orange jump suit.

    Under the sub judice laws, journalists are supposed, from the moment of arrest, to confine themselves to the barest details and to avoid publishing material which might prejudice a jury if the case came to trial. Judge for yourself whether the coverage fell within the laws.

    “There would have been no negotiations and no mercy for the victim,” explained Philip Johnston in the Telegraph. The operation was “orchestrated by al-Qaeda”, confided the Mail. The soldier would be filmed “against the backdrop of a Jihad banner as he pleaded for his life,” according to the Express, which also assured us the executioner would be hooded.

    Some of the suspects had travelled to Pakistan “where they were put in touch with extremist groups”, revealed the Times. Police had found “grisly videos of beheadings”, said the Sun. They had also found “personal dossiers on soldiers, including addresses, car numbers and places of work”, added the Mirror. Circumstantial evidence may not be admissible in court, but it is certainly allowed in the papers. One of the premises raided by the police, the Maktabah bookshop, “has links with several past and present terror suspects”, noted the Telegraph.

    As well as “incendiary works”, it had “display cases stacked with veils, incense sticks, huge jars of perfume and an array of ceremonial candles”, the Times reported damningly.

    The papers dutifully scattered “alleged” through their stories but, the morning after the raids, neither the Express nor the Sun managed to get the word on their front pages. Indeed, the Sun criticised BBC news for noting that “the intelligence services often get it wrong”. “Just whose side are these guys on?” the paper demanded.

    Only the Guardian and the Mirror, with articles by Duncan Campbell and Roy Hattersley respectively, raised immediate concerns about police leaking to the media. Perhaps the coverage worries only men of a certain age, like me, Hattersley, my former Observer colleague Robert Chesshyre (who denounced the press coverage on the First Post website) and my former Sunday Times colleague Peter Dunn, who complained to the PCC last summer about similar coverage of the alleged plot to blow up airlines. As Dunn put it in his letter to the PCC (which has belatedly agreed to put his concerns on the agenda for its code of conduct committee): “During the 25 years I worked for the Sunday Times, no newspaper lawyer would have let this stuff through.”

    Some will say we old hacks should accept that, in the age of 24-hour news and the internet, nobody can stop the circulation of speculative details about high-profile alleged crimes. But there are several reasons why I think the subject needs urgent consideration.

    First, printed newspapers, to say nothing of the police, still carry far more authority than tittle-tattle on the internet. Moreover, while few jurors would have bothered to dig out old newspaper cuttings before a trial, it is quite possible that some would refresh their memories from electronic files. The danger is not only that juries may be prejudiced against innocent people but also that, if a defence counsel convinces a judge that the coverage went too far, a trial of genuine terrorists could collapse.

    Second, if we are so concerned about the privacy of the royals and other celebrities who live in the public eye and often welcome publicity, why are we not equally concerned about the privacy of previously obscure men who may well prove innocent? What is it like for their families to see emblazoned across the papers damning, and possibly incorrect, details about their loved ones?

    Third, we should consider the effect on Muslim neighbourhoods. Large numbers of brown faces rarely appear in the papers except in the context of anti-terrorism operations. Whether or not they have anything to do with terrorism or with the suspects, they are invariably shown in a negative light. Several papers ran pictures of three heavily veiled Birmingham women. One was giving a V-sign, another was shielding her face with her hand and a third, a Sun caption helpfully explained, “stared icily ahead”. If their neighbourhood had been infested by cameras all day, these were probably natural reactions and, for all you and I know, a photographer may have provoked them deliberately.

    When Prince William’s girlfriend, Kate Middleton, gets similar treatment, the great and the good, with the PCC to the fore, spring to her defence, and newspapers, led by a sanctimonious Les Hinton, boss of News International, call the hounds off. I wonder if we shall see similar concern and similar restraint as events unfold in Birmingham.

    The PCC, to all intents and purposes, is a gigantic waste of time on these issues. The only way forward would be to put some pressure on the Attorney General.

    Update: Two have already been released.

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    1. Clive Davis


      An interesting post at Pickled Politics about the reporting of the Birmingham terror case. Yet more evidence of the perils of spin? On a related note, you can tell how serious the problem has become when the head of a…

    1. Sahil — on 6th February, 2007 at 5:39 pm  

      To add from this story yesterday:,,2005086,00.html

      “Whitehall officials briefed journalists early on Wednesday before all of the suspects had been found, with the result that lurid details of the alleged plot were broadcast while one suspect remained at large. At least one tabloid newspaper had even been tipped off the night before the dawn raids, and its reporters put on standby to race to Birmingham.

      Police sources in the West Midlands said yesterday they suspected the anonymous briefings may have been intended to deflect attention from the prisons crisis and the cash for honours inquiry, while counter-terrorism officials in London told the Guardian there was concern that the speculation generated is interfering with the investigation by the newly formed Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit.

      One counter-terrorism official warned yesterday that “an awful lot of inaccuracies” had begun to appear in the media, to the alarm of West Midlands police. “As a result of some of the speculation, police feel they have been hampered in their evidence gathering,” he said”

    2. contrarymary — on 6th February, 2007 at 6:01 pm  

      This is disgusting - it’s illegal and a deliberate attempt at scaremongering and encourages demonisation of the muslim communities. It’s a disgrace and nothing short of government sponsored propaganda. absolutely scandalous. will the majority of the press report on this? not bloody likely.

    3. Refresh — on 6th February, 2007 at 6:18 pm  

      We had to laugh when they (whoever ‘they’ are) released images of some bomb factory somewhere - what did we get? A frying pan and what looked like hotwater feed hose for a washing machine.

      For goodness sake, sooner Blair goes and Reid is sacked the better for all of us.

      I think we need Bert Preast on the case - he needs to stand down his street warriors.

    4. Shaku — on 6th February, 2007 at 7:07 pm  

      Based on what Sunny posted, it would appear that the reporting of the alleged plot was over the top and possibly illegal. Like Contrarymary, I think some media do not care or actually are happy to do this to play on the fears or even bigotry of their readers.

      But to follow on contrarymary’s point, I have to ask the question: If the press had done the right thing and not released information that could prejudice jurors, and the men had a fair trial and were found to be guilty, if the press reported on the incident as a muslim and AQ plot to instill fear in other muslims or the general population by beheading muslims or others, would the reporting still be “a deliberate attempt at scaremongering and encourages demonisation of the muslim communities. It’s a disgrace and nothing short of government sponsored propaganda. absolutely scandalous.”?

    5. contrarymary — on 6th February, 2007 at 8:29 pm  

      Interesting point Shaku - my whole take on ‘muslim terrorists’ is do not tar the majority with the actions of a few.

      So yes if the reporting did imply, as it has done over the last few years, that the entire muslim community in this country is al-qaeda sympathisers and want to commit terrorist acts, then yes it would be
      “a deliberate attempt at scaremongering and encourages demonisation of the muslim communities. It’s a disgrace and nothing short of government sponsored propaganda. absolutely scandalous.”

      It’s somewhat reductionist but when the IRA was terrorising the UK mainland, they weren’t Catholic terrorists. In the same way when catholic priests are guilty of paedophilia and sexual assualt, it does not make the entire catholic community, paedophiles or sexual offenders.

      This is opinion, but I think there is a groundswell of latent islamophobia in the media and wider society. But what’s really driving the media on this, is fear sells.
      I would wager newspaper sales were highest on the days papers were reporting on the birmingham terror plot.

      It’s not too different to the Shilpa Shetty CBB scenario. Create a media feeding frenzy, that the media becomes so absorbed in, it’s impossible for the wider public to escape, and they too get sucked in because everyone’s talking about it.

      what do you think Shaku. would the reporting/coverage be justified if they were found guilty?

    6. El Cid — on 6th February, 2007 at 9:11 pm  

      ContraryMary, no they weren’t described as catholic terrorists but they were usually described as Irish terrorists. Would you rather they described the alleged plotters as Pakistani? It’s not much of an improvement is it?(I tried to press someone on this the other day, but they sidestepped the issue. It’s not easy is it?)

      Shaku, that’s not the point. Respect for due process is the key thing. What if they were guilty as charged but were then set free because press coverage was adjudged to have prejudiced the trial? I think there is a precedent, but it escapes me for the time being.

      I think the key issue is that such leaks undermine the ability of our security forces to protect us from potential terrorist attacks.

      Sunny.. oh never mind. It’s all good.

    7. shaku — on 6th February, 2007 at 9:27 pm  

      contrarymary, I do think that reporting the facts are justified and that it would be irresponsible to not report the facts. I think it is OK to report the origins of men, that AQ were involved (if that is the case), as well as the intentions and motivations of the men. I’m not sure that I buy your analogy about priests and pedophiles. In general, when people hear about a priest’s misdeeds they don’t think that all of Catholics or priests are perverts. I know some people are rabidly anti-catholic and will think that all priests and Catholics are bad, but most will simply recognize that there is a problem in the Catholic church with some bad priests. So too will the reporting of the B’ham plot and all its details simply cause people to recognize that, yes, there is a problem in the Muslim community where some ass-hats think it is quite Islamic to go about exploding themselves and chopping heads. I agree that there are some people (some of whom occasionally visit this site) that will point to this and say, “Look at that! All Muslims are bad!” But you could point them to a Muslim deploring the plot and they’ll scream “takiya!” (sp?).

    8. Don — on 6th February, 2007 at 11:04 pm  

      Actually, weren’t they referred to as ‘Republican’? Or ‘Loyalist’ (and how many quotes can you put around that one?).

      Most terrorist organisations have been more or less accepted by the media as however they choose to term themselves.

      Contrarymary has it about right with ‘Create a media feeding frenzy, that the media becomes so absorbed in, it’s impossible for the wider public to escape, and they too get sucked in because everyone’s talking about it.’ It’s commercially driven, the market at work. Fear sells.

      Still, maybe they can feed off bird flu and global warming for a while.

    9. El Cid — on 6th February, 2007 at 11:51 pm  

      I was thinking about the old days Don — i.e the 1970s

    10. El Cid — on 7th February, 2007 at 12:06 am  

      or a lot more recently (people have short memories):

    11. El Cid — on 7th February, 2007 at 12:07 am  

      But I agree, fear sells

    12. Sid — on 7th February, 2007 at 1:09 am  

      Its was a good day to bury bad news by with another “scary beards from hell” story. Isn’t it time Rebekah Wade was given her marching orders, or does she have journalistic immunity?

      If you tolerate this then you’re children will be next, as the Welsh guy said.

    13. Nyrone — on 7th February, 2007 at 6:07 am  

      That song, by the Manic street preachers had a really excellent title didn’t it…I remember feeling in despair at it, but i’m more open to now hearing it as an honest and necessary warning now.

      Well, it’s the news folks…welcome to the uncompromising, scare-mongering, rumour-led, unsubstantiated, gossip-sells, fox-news style ‘trial by media’ that tend to go so far out of their way to paint a picture of their ‘truth’ in their sensationalist-form, that a ‘guilty’ verdict has already been all but planted in the minds of people sitting on a train catching a brief moment to look-up at a headline on a free newspaper.

      It’s gotten to that horrible point, where they barely seem regulated on important matters like these. Where on earth have all the guidelines gone? They don’t give a toss about the truth or due process, they just want to ‘grab your eye’ with their outlandish headlines that cause you to fall out of your seat and look to the skies in trepidation…possibly while still brandishing a copy of their ‘newspaper’.

      “Iraq comes to the UK?” what was the need for this, besides lulling us all in a blanket of collective fear? It’s odd, because for all the impartial, facts-only Iraq stories we read on a daily basis, when something comes along in the UK, the heated emotions lead to extraordinarily imaginative writing, maybe at the cost of the truth and repect for that old adage “innocent until proven guilty”.

      How can their be a presumption of innocence with this circus of speculation? It’s really upsetting and hypocritical, and I’m glad it’s at least been raised heavily on here, because I agree it’s something that needs to be urgently addressed now.

    14. Nyrone — on 7th February, 2007 at 6:23 am

      and now we find that 2 of the 9 have been released without charge…and confirm in a statement that:

      “Not a word was ever mentioned to either of them about a plot to kidnap or the grisly suggestion of a beheading or even of a soldier at all”

      Their solicitor, Gareth Peirce states:

      “They have left the police station without any better understanding of why they were there than when they first arrived seven days ago”

      Both the men had been met with a “consistent refusal” of an explanation for their arrest, Ms Peirce added.

      Collective gasp from Sun Readers: “what do you mean no beheading plot??? we were told it on the newwwsssszz! They claimed they had blueprints of the whole thing and were in the final stages of planning!! We demand a re-count! Arrest em again and keep em in jail until they confess to the story we wrote about how evil they were!”

    15. Billy — on 7th February, 2007 at 10:30 am  

      “If you tolerate this then you’re children will be next, as the Welsh guy said.”

      They did pilfer it from a Spanish Civil War poster.

    16. Chairwoman — on 7th February, 2007 at 10:48 am  

      I don’t understand why anyone is surprised by the reporting of this story.

      The press as a whole never fails to ensure that both the ethnicity of suspects is known, and that they are probably guilty.

      Let us take Lord Levy as another example. Most reports still mention his Jewishness, even though we all already know, and the implications are that he is corrupt. At this point I would like to say that even if he did whatever he is accused of, the power to bestow honours rests with Mr Blair alone.

      But enough of the red herring.

      If you’re a a member of a minority group in this country, the press are going to ram that ethnicity down their readers’ throats, along with with as many details of the offence as they’re allowed to print.

      Welcome to multi-cultural Britain.

    17. Sid — on 7th February, 2007 at 10:54 am  

      With one crucial difference which Sunny has already noted:

      In other cases such as the BNP chemicals case the press wrote nothing in order to avoid prejudicing the trial, and yet in this case Al-Qaeda was dragged in without any demonstrable evidence and without the trial having even started.

    18. soru — on 7th February, 2007 at 11:07 am  

      The legal issue is, as I understand it, that you can cover stuff after arrest and before charges, which in non-terrorism cases is a very short window, which the media will often miss, especially if they are not notified by the police.

      On the other hand, don’t you risk an accusation of hypocrisy to be talking about rocket launchers and chemical weapons and the BNP, when those are similarly unproven charges? The BNP guys might conceivably have just been weapons collectors, some kind of fetishists, framed by political rivals, or whatever.

      If a PP reader ends up on the jury for their trial, would their lawyer be able to use your piece in their defence?

    19. Chairwoman — on 7th February, 2007 at 11:20 am  

      Sid - Notice the BNP not being an ethnic minority.

    20. Leon — on 7th February, 2007 at 11:25 am  

      Let us take Lord Levy as another example. Most reports still mention his Jewishness, even though we all already know, and the implications are that he is corrupt.

      I didn’t know that…I just figured any mate of Tony is a corrupt SOB despite any ethnic aspect.

    21. Sid — on 7th February, 2007 at 11:52 am  

      The legal issue is, as I understand it, that you can cover stuff after arrest and before charges, which in non-terrorism cases is a very short window, which the media will often miss, especially if they are not notified by the police.

      A very short window?? Is that a short post modernistist fenestration?

      Why the difference in coverage between the BNP arms cache story and the Muslim soldier beheaders? Apart from the obvious one - that BNP strories don’t sell newspapers. Could there be more to this journalistic imbalance?

    22. Chairwoman — on 7th February, 2007 at 11:59 am  

      I don’t dispute that for one moment Leon, I always thought he was a bad choice (Tone, that is), it’s just always there.

      The old buzz phrases,

      ‘North London Businessman’, ‘Child of Holocaust survivors’, or the alternatives ‘Family own a corner shop in Barnsley’, ‘People in the community’, ‘I spoke with them after Friday prayers’.

      I could go on ad nauseam, but need I bother?

    23. Leon — on 7th February, 2007 at 2:21 pm  

      ‘North London Businessman’

      That too!?! I’ve lived in North London all my adult life (in fact most of my teenage life too) and never once thought “Jewish person” when that phrase has been mentioned. I guess I just don’t see N London as primarily one ethnicity or another…

    24. El North Londoner — on 7th February, 2007 at 3:02 pm  


    25. Chairwoman — on 7th February, 2007 at 4:15 pm  

      Leon and Rodrigo - Trust me, that’s what it means.

      As Londoners you see it correctly, but there are many who know the code.

    26. Leon — on 7th February, 2007 at 4:29 pm  

      but there are many who know the code.

      Hmmm I’m uneasy about things like this. I take your point but still part of me wonders if this isn’t hyper sensitivity etc. That said, if in doubt do the right thing. The right thing here for me is probably to shut my mouth before it encounters my foot.

    27. Chairwoman — on 7th February, 2007 at 4:33 pm  

      Actually I’m not hyper sensitive to this, I am both amused and irritated by it.

    28. Katy — on 7th February, 2007 at 4:52 pm  

      “prominent Asian businessman” = Asian (and probably a fraudster)
      “prominent Nigerian businessman” = black (and probably a fraudster)
      “prominent North London businessman” = Jewish (and probably a fraudster)

      Now Mum’s pointed it out, you’ll spot it everywhere. Trust me.

      Oh yes.

    29. El North Londoner — on 7th February, 2007 at 5:25 pm  

      Is this code thing a bit like an obituary in The Telegraph when it says:
      “He never married.”

    30. Chairwoman — on 7th February, 2007 at 5:27 pm  


    31. Don — on 7th February, 2007 at 5:31 pm  

      ‘prominent businessman’ = probably a fraudster?

      Touches a bit of a nerve with me. One of the banes of my life is an ex-schoolmate and neighbour who is now ostentatiously rich and succesful. Mum actually saves newspaper cuttings to show me his latest triumph. ‘I see blank has bought Poshbastard Hall’ she will remark, or (last Sunday) ‘I see blank has bought a fleet of executive jets.’ This with a glance at the two year old Clio I bought last month and which I am really quite pleased with. ‘Eee, blank did well for himself in the eighties.’ (i.e., while I was galivanting around the tropics without a pot to piss in).

      Twenty odd years of this but, because mum knows his mum, I can’t say, ‘Yes, by smuggling hard drugs from Holland and ruthlessly ripping off everybody he does business with.’

      Sorry, just needed to vent.

    32. Chairwoman — on 7th February, 2007 at 5:40 pm  

      On my marriage certificate, where it says ‘Father’s occupation’ my father put ‘company director’. He was quite peeved when I told him that meant ‘member of the criminal class’ or ‘minicab proprieter’.

    33. ZinZin — on 7th February, 2007 at 6:17 pm  

      Never mind the Jihadis the motorists are turning to terrorism.

      And this is John Reids response.

      Home Secretary John Reid described the incidents as “worrying”.

      But he added: “It is important we allow police to get on with their investigation without undue speculation.”

    34. Nyrone — on 7th February, 2007 at 7:38 pm  

      C4 news mentioned animal-rights protestors possibly being behind the letter-bombs…there were lots of suspects, it felt a bit like cluedo.

    35. Leon — on 8th February, 2007 at 11:01 am  

      But he added: “It is important we allow police to get on with their investigation without undue speculation.”

      I don’t condone random acts of violence but people like him seriously test that principle…

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    37. Bert Preast — on 8th February, 2007 at 9:28 pm  

      Refresh - I’m here \o/

      But I’m not even slightly amused by this one. This has knocked the army back to the 80s, whatever happens soldiers home on leave to areas with a muslim population cannot relax. Instead we’re back to checking the car every morning for IEDs and hiding the uniform while pretending to be a fitness instructor. Which is frankly undignified.

      This plot fits perfectly with the sermons Izzadeen etc. have been spouting and I don’t doubt that it’s all too real. Though unless the participants were extravagantly dumb what evidence can you have until the deed is done? A video camera, headband, orange jumpsuit and a breadknife just isn’t going to make the grade, is it? It seems selling hateful material isn’t enough, so the police will have to wait for them to saw someone’s head off before they can be sure of a conviction.

      And Sunny’s attempts to equate everything to the BNP bombers are beginning to grip my tits. Why not equate them to Meibion Glyndwr (the Welsh nationalists who never went further than rhetoric and vandalising some English owned holiday homes)? When the BNP manage to blow some randoms to bits, you can have your equivalence. In the meantime they’re not in the same league.

    38. Bert Preast — on 8th February, 2007 at 9:28 pm  

      and…. breathe.

    39. El Cid — on 9th February, 2007 at 12:00 am  

      Someone has decribed blogging as the modern way of talking to yourself. But I think this relevant:

    40. lithcol — on 9th February, 2007 at 6:55 pm  

      There is a problem and it does appear that the West Midlands Police are not to blame for the hype.
      The police and security services have to act if we are to avoid another atrocity in this country. However, the press should be more circumspect. If it turns out that leaks came from Government sources, then heads should role.
      This should not of course detract from the obvious that the West and its values are under attack by a murderous fascist ideology.
      The West is not alone. I fear for India, where innocent live are lost every day to this backward ideology.
      If another atrocity is perpetrated in this country, many progressive and innocent
      Muslims will suffer the backlash..
      There are limits to tolerance, and it is a pity that Islamism is so intolerant. I do not want the religious sectarianism and murders seen in other countries ( and no it was not religious sectarianism in NI). In this country. Hindus, Sikhs etc do very well, as do many Muslims. So it is not brown skin ( not that all Muslims have brown skin), it is the religion itself when interpreted in the fanatical way that Saudi finance and influence encourages.
      I am afraid that things will get very much worse and the losers will be all Muslims and not just the fanatics.

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