One man is not a mob

The British media claim that an ‘Iranian hate mob’ has demanded the execution of the 15 captured British seamen. Really?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘Iran mob calls for sailors’ hanging’, reported Sky News last Thursday, 29 March. The British news network reported that ‘the Iranian hostage crisis has taken a new twist after protesters in Tehran demanded that the 15 captured British service personnel be hanged’. According to Sky, ‘the demonstrators waved placards with the words “15 British aggressors must be executed”.’ (1)

Other media outlets also claimed that a mob had demanded the execution of Navy Leading Seaman Faye Turney and the 14 other British servicemen seized by Iranian forces 10 days ago. The Daily Mail reported that the hostage crisis took ‘a sinister new turn’ as a ‘hate mob in Tehran demanded that the 15 captured British navy personnel be hanged’. The London Evening Standard also reported on the scary-sounding mob and its demands for the execution of the Brits. All of the reports were illustrated with the photograph above, showing an angry looking student waving a placard that says: ‘15 British agressors [sic] must be executed.’ (2)

The story about the mob quickly spread around the blogosphere. An American news site called The Conservative Voice published an article under the headline ‘Iran to Brits: Behead!’. It asked: ‘The “hate mob” demands captured Brits be beheaded. Anyone surprised…? It’s the extremist Islamic way in Iran particularly. Nothing new. Nothing novel.’ Other right-leaning blogs said there was only one response to such mobbish behaviour: ‘Bomb Iran.’ ‘Of course they have a bloodthirsty mob’, said one commenter on a widely read blog. ‘Iran always has a bloodthirsty mob they can trot out to scream for infidel blood.’ (3)

So was there a ‘bloodthirsty mob’, a ‘hate mob’, baying for the beheading of the captured British servicemen in Tehran last week? Hardly. Morteza Nikoubazl, the Iranian photographer who took the pictures of the ‘mob’, says there were 11 students in an orderly line outside the foreign ministry in Tehran. Eleven students do not make a mob, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the disorderly and riotous part of the population, the rabble; a tumultuous crowd bent on lawlessness’.

Nikoubazl says the 11 students were not behaving mobbishly. ‘They were not violent. It was quite small.’ How many of them were holding placards calling for the execution of the 15 Brits? ‘One, maybe two’, he says. The rest held placards calling for Britain to recognise that its servicemen had crossed into Iranian waters and to apologise for their having done so. As the photo above shows, it was a tiny demonstration made up of what look like middle-class students, where only one man seems to be waving a placard calling for violence. One man is not a mob. This photo was noteable by its absence in most of the British media coverage last week, which preferred to zoom in on the one guy waving the ‘execution’ placard and describe him as part of an imaginary mob.

Some of the media coverage of the Iranian captives saga seems to imagine that Iran is still in the grip of the revolutionary fervour of 1979. It talks up the threat posed by Iranian students and radicals, as if there were millions of them on the streets demanding the punishment of the West. Even the larger demonstration at the British Embassy in Tehran over the weekend seems to have been blown out of proportion in the British press. At that demo, students chanted ‘Death to Britain!’ and let off firecrackers (which were initially, and erroneously, reported as ‘bombings’ and ‘explosions’). Photos made it look big and rowdy, but it is estimated that 200 protesters were involved and they were held back from the Embassy compound by ‘a few dozen’ Iranian police (4).

So far there has been little evidence of a mob emerging in Iran. Instead the protests against Britain look remarkably like those ragbag gatherings of Islamists in London and other Western cities, where scores of bearded students call for the beheading / execution / hanging of anyone who criticises Islam or hurts Muslims’ apparently fragile feelings. And like these Western demos, the Iranian demos seem to be staged for the media, too. The protest at the foreign ministry last week appears to have been aimed at the international press corps rather than at stirring up domestic Iranian sentiment to ‘do something’ about the 15 Brits – how else do we explain the fact that the execution placard was written in (bad) English rather than Farsi? The extent to which the Iranian mob seems to exist more in the minds of Western observers than on the streets of Iran is clear in the headlines that said the ‘mob’ outside the foreign ministry had demanded the ‘hanging’ or ‘beheading’ of the 15 Britons. In fact the offending placard called for their ‘execution’. It was British caption- and article-writers who imagined Iranians wishing to cut people’s heads off or suspend them from the gallows.

Mob behaviour, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. And many of those beholding Iran seem keen to fantasise that it poses a mass and irrational threat to British and Western civilisation, which, I suppose, helps to inject a modicum of momentum into the flaccid PR war over Faye Turney and her colleagues.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. Photos taken by Morteza Nikoubazl.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill argued that Britain is too weak to control the problems with Iran, and described the on-going spat as an irrational war of words. David Chandler noted the contrast between the public statements about Iran’s nuclear programme and the current quiet diplomacy. Philip Cunliffe thought the anti-war movement was talking up an American attack on Iran. Or read more at: spiked issue Iran.

(1) Iran mob calls for sailors hanging, Sky News (reproduced on Yahoo! News), 29 March 2007

(2) See the Daily Mail website, 30 March 2007

(3) Iran to Brits: Behead!, Conservative Voice, 1 April 2007

(4) Protests at UK’s Tehran Embassy, BBC News, 1 April 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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