Collective Efforts Needed To Ensure Fair Media Portrayals Of Muslims

In the current climate of rising Islamophobia, the stakes for a collective effort by academics, journalists and the Muslim community to ensure fair, accurate and sensitive media coverage of British Muslims could not be higher.

Islam, particularly British Muslims are at the forefront of our national conversation – be it terrorism perpetrated by or against British Muslims, be it political participation, be it segregated Muslim communities, be it issues related to Muslim women, or even sex abuse committed by some Muslim men – there is no stopping of headlines in the media related to Muslims.

In a democratic society, media plays a vital role in defending public interests by mediating between society and state. Such role allows the media privileged access to the minds of the public. The end of the ‘Cold War’ in 1990s saw the media attention towards religion significantly increased, particularly after the tragic events of 9/11 and 7/7. Stewart Hoover, a pioneering scholar of religion in the media, thinks that the reason behind the increased interaction between religion and media is that in this modern age we are continuously exposed to and are largely dependent on media for information.

The question arises, how competent are the media in depicting religions? Stewart Hoover argues that journalists lacked the knowledge and expertise to report the religious dimension of news stories adequately. Another scholar in this field Buddenbaum suggests two reasons why the reporting of religious aspect of news stories is often woefully inadequate. First, the predominant ethos of the newsroom is secular, and many journalists have an antipathy towards religion. Secondly, news stories are primarily characterised by controversy and conflict, and that this consequently misrepresents ‘the reality of religion as most people experience it’. Biernatzki found poor representation and interpretation of religion in the media where “it is either ignored or sensationalized — and either of those extremes distorts its reality”.

Most people in the West have little knowledge of Islam or the cultural practises of Muslims, and are largely dependent on the media. Unfortunately, research on media representation of Muslims overwhelmingly show that a large section of the British media fails to portray Muslims in a fair manner. But why do some sections of the media portray Muslims so negatively? Elizabeth Poole concluded that the British media portray Islam and Muslims from an ideological standpoint considering them as a threat to Western interests. While observing the ‘Islam versus West’ attitude in the British media, she said, “The creation of a dichotomy between Islam and the West is a consequence of this, presented in the press along a series of binary oppositions in which the West stands for rational, humane, developed and superior, and Islam for aberrant, underdeveloped and inferior.”

British Muslims are now positioned as a ‘threat to security’ and incompatible to mainstream British way of life by a section of the British news media. While analysing 974 newspaper articles about British Muslims between 2000 and 2008, A Cardiff University study observed that 80% discourses, particularly in the tabloids, associate Islam and Muslims with threats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values. Baker et al. made a comprehensive linguistic analysis of British newspapers’ coverage of Islam and Muslims between 2000 and 2009 and found the media’s attitude towards Muslims as counterproductive. They found some “…explicitly Islamophobic representations, particularly in the right-leaning tabloids” and concluded that the reaction to terrorism related activities by the media has played into the hands of the terrorists.

In my book Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis (Palgrave), I argued that some sections of the British media look at Islam from an ethnocentric perspective considering the Western culture as the only ‘civilised’ culture and any religious or cultural practice that is different is portrayed as ‘other’, and therefore not acceptable. For example, terms like ‘shocking’, ‘disturbing’ ‘forced’ ‘imposed’ etc. were used in a Daily Mail article on gender segregation in Islam implying that it is female oppression in the highest order. Gender segregation is a frequently covered topic in the media to castigate Islam without any effort to know its underlying reasons, nor is there any investigation to find out whether it is actually forced or not. Most participants in my study, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, observed that the media rarely takes Muslim women’s perspective while talking about gender issues in Islam.

Who benefit from these negative and sensationalistic media portrayals of Muslims? The consequence is that Muslims are looked at suspiciously by a large section of the wider public resulting in a dramatic increase of Islamophobic attacks in recent times by far right extremists. Baroness Warsi, former Chairman of the Conservative Party said a few years ago that Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test, and the way the media portray Islam has a big role in this attitude towards Muslims. On the other hand, terrorists use these examples to prey on impressionable young Muslims that the West has waged a war against their faith.

Are the media Islamophobic or being irresponsible? Despite the overwhelming negative portrayals of Muslims, very few academic evidences can be found that suggest that the media deliberately undermine Islam and Muslims all the time. However, almost all research in this field agree that they are not playing a responsible role. I am currently looking at the language used in the right wing British tabloids to investigate whether there is any Islamophobic element in the language used in these articles. My observation so far is that there are some Islamophobic elements, but irresponsible journalism far exceeds Islamophobic elements. One obvious issue I am facing in this analysis is the complexity of the term Islamophobia itself.

It will be grossly unfair to put all the blames on the media. A lot of the negativity stems from lack of cultural understanding and the Muslim community have to engage more with the media to help them develop that cultural awareness. The media often get confused between religious and ethnic practices. For example, forced marriage or FGM have nothing to do with Islam as they are cultural practices of some parts in Asia and Africa respectively. These practices are committed by both Muslims and non-Muslims in these regions, but the media often portray them as Muslim issues. This is a matter of awareness and understanding, which can be done only through the community engaging with media practitioners.

On the other hand, we the Muslim community also need to do some soul searching as to whether we are acting as responsible citizens of this country. Are we doing enough at family and community levels to save our young children from internet radicalisation? Are we doing enough to mix with our non-Muslim neighbours? Are we actively taking part in British political process? Are we treating the women in our families fairly? Did we do enough to stop some members of our community commit those terrible crimes against young white girls in some areas? I am not saying that we didn’t do any of these, but through self-reflection we may be able to assess whether we played our role as we should have.

British Muslims are an integral part of this country, so it is important that we all work together to build this nation. The media need to seriously consider whether they should engage with the Muslim community much more than they currently do to ensure that their representations are accurate and fair. The Muslim community need to help the media in developing that understanding. And in that discussion, academics can play a constructive role by disseminating their research to both the media and the Muslim community to help them build the bridges.

A recent conference I organised at Liverpool Hope University entitled, Media Discourse about British Muslims and its Implications is a humble beginning to start this conversation. It was heartening to have received such good responses from all stakeholders, which was reflected in the brilliant line-up of speakers in the conference. However, a major drawback was the absence of those journalists and commentators who write or broadcast in mainstream media on British Muslims. When I started planning this conference, I wanted to bring people from all viewpoints, particularly those who represent Muslims negatively in the press. From this perspective, I admit that I have not been successful on this occasion. Many top journalists were contacted, but most of them did not respond. Those who did respond said they were not available on this day. I also had time constraints from my university as the event needed to be held within this academic year, and this may not be the best time to organise such an event. We will learn from this experience. This is the first of a series of events I wish to organise, possibly in partnership with others.

The conference was addressed by academics like Dr Elizabeth Poole of Keele University and and Dr Shuruq Naguib of Lancaster University, and experience broadcast journalists Chris Johnson and Talat-Farooq Awan of Made In Liverpool TV and BBC Radio Manchester respectively. From the Muslim community, the speeches by Talha Ahmad, the treasurer of the largest Muslim umbrella body, the MCB, and Lauren Booth, an experienced journalist as well as a community activist were crucial in the discussions. Shenaz Bunglawala shared her experience as a media analyst, while the former NUS president Malia Bouattia – the first Muslim to hold this position, shared her practical experience of being in the media spotlight. Apart from academics, journalists and the Muslim community, representatives from the Roman Catholic and the Jewish communities attended and shared their perspectives on this topic. Finally, the inclusion of some undergraduate and postgraduate students from Hope and from some other universities ensured that we kept our focus firmly on the future.

While giving some media interviews on the conference, I highlighted the need for everyone to come together. It is not good enough for the Muslim community to just show their frustrations on the negative media coverage and do nothing to engage with the media. The media also should realise that they need to understand the Muslims better in order to represent them accurately. In this conversation, academics who study religion in the media need to disseminate their research findings to the communities and the media to ensure a positive impact of their research. I feel that we have started this conversation and this will continue, despite the many challenges ahead.

Published in Huffington Post on 19 July 2017.

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