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October 9, 2019

Islamophobia and the media


October 9, 2019

During his address to the UN General Assembly as well as the one at a round table discussion co-hosted by Pakistan and Turkey on the sidelines of the session, Prime Minister Imran Khan articulated the twin challenge of Islamophobia and hate speech that has largely defined relations between the West and Muslims.

Noting the growing ‘discrimination and violence based on religion and belief’, he highlighted the need to address ‘both the drivers and the consequences of these phenomena’. The outcome of a tripartite parley between the prime ministers of Pakistan and Malaysia and the Turkish president was the decision to set up a BBC-like TV channel to fight Islamophobia.

While the problem of Islamophobia is quite deep-rooted and has exhibited itself in various forms, it has recently been fuelled by the growing trend of white supremacism. The wave of popular nationalism sweeping across Europe, North America and Australia has made far-right political parties, with an avowed anti-immigration agenda, not only politically relevant but also strong contenders for power in their respective countries.

This narrow nationalism presents a challenge to the idea of multiculturalism. Threatened by the rise of white supremacism and popular nationalism, the Western democratic and liberal model finds itself under tremendous stress. It also explains why globalization and nationalism are being considered mutually exclusive.

Any debate on Islamophobia and subsequent policy actions to address it needs to factor in the role of the media in promoting it. Understanding how the media has portrayed Islam and Muslims is critical to the containing and neutralizing its harmful effects.

In this age of mind-blowing inventions in technology, perceptions are more important than reality. The media is at the heart of how we construct notions about the ‘other’ and engage with ‘them’.

Media representation of Islam and Muslims particularly after 9/11 must be an engaging case study. The problem is not that the media does not cover the issues of Muslims. What is worrying is that it highlights negative news involving Muslims more than positive news. The absence of positive and more representative stories helps people form stereotypical opinions of Islam.

It has been empirically proved that people who do not have direct interaction with Muslims and for whom the media is the primary source of information tend to have more negative opinions about Islam than those who interact with Muslims in their neighbourhoods, and places of work, etc. By focusing on the limited voices within the Muslim community, the Western media allows ‘other’ commentators to shape the worldview of local citizens about Islam and its followers.

The Western media employs the key concepts of news values, framing and agenda-setting during the process of selection and presentation of the news involving Muslims. Its representational approach is also marked by ‘Orientalism’, whereby Muslims are essentially presented as ‘other’.

Robert Entman, who presented the concept of framing, defined it as a method of critical discourse analysis in media studies by which some aspects of reality are given more prominence. Framing is also used to define a problem, make a moral judgment about it and offer a solution. The Western media has used the concept to project Muslims as a source of terrorism, judged them to be incompatible with Western values and unquestioningly supported the ‘war on terror’ as a solution.

Even before 9/11, Muslims were portrayed negatively. However, the hostility towards them increased manifold after the attacks. Western media in general and the American media, in particular, has used the terrorist and culturalist frames in a manner so as to suggest a connection between Muslims and terrorism.

There is near consensus on the fact that Muslims are unable to integrate with Western societies because of their distinct culture and religious identity. Thanks to this perceived failure to assimilate into the host societies, the media has subjected Muslims’ religious beliefs to scrutiny, going to the extent of even questioning the very idea of inclusive societies.

As propagated by neo-Orientalism, Muslims are inherently incapable of achieving modernity and their religious teachings are inconsistent with the Western foundational principles of democracy, human rights, and gender equality.

Orientalism is important to understand the nature of the Western media’s portrayals of Islam, for it pits Muslims in complete opposition to the West. Muslims are said to be lacking the dynamism and the capacity to break free of cultural straitjackets. They are ‘unenlightened outsiders’ who can’t compete with the West in pursuit of material progress.

As is evidenced by the Western media’s portrayal of Muslim asylum seekers, it has shown a tendency of being racist. It has employed such abusive words as ‘uncouth’, ‘illegitimate’, ‘irrational’ and ‘uncultured’ to describe the asylum seekers. It has focused on the religious identity and ‘origins’ of those seeking asylum, and shied away from discussing their socio-economic and political backgrounds.

When the terrorist events involve Muslims as perpetrators, the media is quick to employ the label of religion, something it does not do when the perpetrator belongs to other religions. The indiscriminate use of the religious label serves to scandalize Islam and apportion the blame of an incident on the whole Muslim community.

There is a dynamic and interactive relationship between media portrayal, public opinion and political discourse as they feed off each other. The media portrays Muslims and other immigrants as constituting a security threat as well as being a drain on the Western economies. This way a feeling of mass fear and Islamophobia is created. The electorate put pressure on their political representatives to adopt more restrictive and harsher anti-immigration policies. In the same way, political leaders exploit the environment of panic to push through their anti-immigration policies.

Political discourse and public opinion provide content to media outlets that echo it without scrutinizing the actors. The framing of asylum seekers and the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ are two pertinent examples that highlight how the Western media has failed to perform its watchdog function. In both instances, it only played the role of a mouthpiece of the dominant elites.

For a long time, critical scholarship debunked the theory of Clash of Civilizations. However, the rising trend of Islamophobia, particularly attacks on holy personages and symbols of Islam, shows that religion and culture are the basis of intercultural and interreligious conflicts. The media, through its coverage of Muslim asylum seekers, has positioned Islam and the West as opposing ideologies. Muslims are portrayed as ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’ in comparison to the West.

The narrative of the Western civilization being superior to its Islamic counterpart has been articulated into a binary of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. The media has pushed this narrative to the centre of the global conversation about Islam. Muslims believe that the Western media has been unfair to them, with the result that their second and third generations align themselves more with the global Muslim community.

Before any policy to address Islamophobia is worked out, it is important to have a proper understanding of the media’s role in spawning it. The establishment of a TV channel should be followed by research institutes and think tanks that are capable of generating ideas that can clarify misconceptions and win the battle of hearts and minds.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222