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The language was fierce. Emotions were clearly running high. “Total scum.” Disgusting filth.” “Absolute scum.” “Vile f***ers.” “Terror-loving scum.” A whole group of people condemned – as scum, mostly – for the actions, supposedly in the name of those people, of a very few. Far-right extremists have been the focus of attention in Britain since the grisly murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, South-East London last week. Their predictable racist posturing has been as fundamentally flawed as ever; as have their games of “condemnation top trumps” about an act which I believe condemns itself – games people from far less extremist standpoints than the English Defence League (EDL) are also too willing to play. One such game was set up on Sunday evening in the most bizarre of circumstances.
As Celtic’s players lapped Hampden Park after their Scottish Cup triumph, cameras briefly focused on Honduran left-back Emilio Izaguirre. And, in the background, draped over the small fence at the front of one group of Celtic fans, was an Irish flag with the letters “Island CSC” (Celtic Supporters Club) visible over the white and orange sections of the tricolour. There were other letters emblazoned on the green section but due to a fold in the flag, only the letters “hill” were as visible. This, for those of us with a passing knowledge of Irish geography, was demonstrably the “Achill Island CSC” – an island off the west coast of Ireland’s County Mayo. It took me about one second to work this out. And one thing which was, or should have been, clear to anyone looking at the image, whether they were County Mayo-literate or not, was that there were three words on the flag.
Maybe an inability to count to three fanned the controversy which the flag stirred in certain areas of certain minds. Because, in the blogosphere, the banner very soon read “Islam CSC.” That, in the aftermath of events in Woolwich, was just not on. And personalities as diverse as an “ex-football hooligan and now actor/author and dinner speaker,” a “15-year-old West Ham fan” and someone proud to be “Girvan Loyal” were quick to take to social media to say so. “Apparently Celtic Football Club flew a banner in support of Islam at the cup final… scum!” someone tweeted, in an apparent attempt at the world record for factual inaccuracies in 140 words. Another asked whether “Celtic responded to the Woolwich atrocity by hoisting a “ISLAM CSC” banner at the cup final?” starting his tweet with a plaintive “I hope not.” 135 characters later, having apparently gathered all the evidence in that time (clearly a slow typist), he concluded “horrible club.”
Two others heard these “rumours” about “horrible slags Celtic” and “dirty Celtic scumbags,” phrases which suggested they just might have believed the rumours, although one later stressed he only “asked a question.” “Celtic” also “had an Islam banner,” while the fans had “a banner saying Islam and Celtic after they murdered a soldier” (who, Celtic?). And, in a quantum leap of logic, Celtic fans were castigated for choosing to “’celebrate’ the death of Drummer Rigby.” It had occurred to none of these people, at least not before they put finger to keyboard, to even wonder what the third word on the flag said. Indeed, the third word seemed to escape them entirely. It occurred to me that anyone capable of misreading “Island” as “Islam” would surely have been able to misread “hill” as “kill,” which may have made the banner acceptable to some of the mentalities on display.
In the face of what I saw described as “weapons-grade stupidity,” humour was the initial response of choice. Within minutes of the first complaints being aired, an “Achill Islam CSC” was indeed tweeting away. “Photographs” abounded of Muslims at prayer at venues across the Island such as “Lynott’s bar” (“just on Achill Island with the lads for prayer service and a few pints”), the irony of which was probably lost on the weapons-grade stupid. There were photoshopped images of mujahedeen warriors strolling along the islands’ coastal roads, watched nervously by attendant sheep. It was announced that “Al-Jazeera (are) to broadcast all Celtic home games next season.” “Halal, halal, the Celts are here” was among many plays on words, including the claim that the Quran was actually named after the “Currans” from County Monaghan. And in response to a story about allegations that “Scotland is a hostile place for Catholics,” one wag asked whether that was why Celtic fans were “all converting,” adding the hashtag #allahmakingsensetomenow.
Sophisticated humour, this was not (especially that last one, which I have to admit was my dismal contribution to proceedings). But it wasn’t being aimed at sophisticates. As the Scotsman newspaper’s Irish journalist Tom English tweeted: “Achill Islam CSC” was “straight in at number one in the Top 10 idiotic controversies in Scottish football. Quite something.” Indeed. Only later, I am a little ashamed to admit, did it occur to me that there was nothing unacceptable, in itself, in having a banner reading “Islam CSC.” And, even then, this thought was only prompted by two tweets which between them noted that “Islam CSC, Protestant CSC, Sikh CSC, Catholic CSC, Hindu CSC, Jewish CSC, Atheist CSC…all welcome at Celtic Park… what matters is we all support Celtic” and a hashtag on another tweet which reminded me that “Islamisnotacrime.”
A cursory inspection revealed that the Celtic-condemning tweets came from a predictable mix of Rangers fans and the aforementioned EDL. And Celtic fans were quick to delight in the intellectual and visual challenges facing fans of their Glasgow rivals. Once the story reached the Scottish press, however, the narrative was rather different. According to a Scotsman headline, a “Misread Celtic flag” sparked an “EDL anti-Islam response.” While the story said “the banner was misread by members of the far-right…prompting social media outlets to light up with messages from the… EDL.” The demonstrable contribution of Rangers fans and the fact that Celtic and Celtic fans were the targets of this “response” went unacknowledged.
The quotes which began this article were directed only at Celtic Football Club and Celtic’s supporters. And whilst the sources of these quotes readily indulged in an “anti-Islam response” to Woolwich, that wasn’t what happened on Sunday evening. Of course, the condemnation of an entire religion and its adherents for the actions of a very few is the more serious and sinister example of “weapons-grade stupidity.” It was nevertheless disturbing to see the condemnation of an entire football club and its supporters entirely ignored… even by those reporting the story. (Sally Bercow, recently ruled to have libelled Conservative Party peer Lord McAlpine via Twitter after he was falsely linked to sex abuse claims, might have been better served calling McAlpine a vile Celtic scumbag). The response of many Celtic fans did give the affair a funny side (“No man is an Islam” etc…). In this world, humour has to be at least part of your reaction to such stupidity, otherwise you’d lose your mind, as there’s so much of it. But as one tweeter put it, the whole affair was: “A reaction so stupid it was instantly funny and then the realisation quickly followed that it really wasn’t funny at all.” Quite so.
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