Covid-19 has highlighted more than ever the power of the media which, as an outlet of mass communication, has the potential to influence opinion both consciously and unconsciously. The media in any form can shape, confirm and deny our deepest convictions and suspicions.
The negative consequences of this potential include the endorsement of discriminative beliefs and misguided stereotypes. One global exemplification of this is the creation of Islamophobic headlines and content produced and circulated on social media.
In the UK, Muslims have been falsely accused of breaching Covid-19 guidelines by other members of the public. For example, one media outlet reported how a British far-right activist shared a video online (watched 10,000 times on Telegram) allegedly showing Muslims leaving a “secret mosque” in Birmingham while places of worship were closed during the lockdown.
Despite these claims being falsified, it displays the danger in the misuse of material to further Islamophobic agendas. Videos like this have been and will be used to justify violence and activism against Muslims in the UK in the name of ‘justice’.
Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to select a scapegoat for disasters and, as well as the Chinese, Muslims are once again demonised in the spotlight. This scapegoating is also occurring elsewhere, such as in India which saw “#CoronaJihad” go viral. An Islamophobic conspiracy theory, it suggested that Muslims were responsible for the creation and spread of the virus. Such theories do not end here, however, as they lead to attacks on Muslims and attempts at forced conversion.
Islamophobia in the media is by no means a new phenomenon; it has merely been exacerbated by the pandemic. In France, Charlie Hebdo has reprinted some of its controversial caricatures while those who attacked the satirical magazine’s offices in 2015 are on trial for terrorism charges.
Given that these caricatures are considered highly offensive by most Muslims, many Muslims can understandably feel alienated or targeted. But it goes without saying that no act can justify terrorism. This marks the seemingly never-ending debate between the right to freedom of speech and the right to religious freedom.
However, Islamophobia in the media also extends to the portrayal of Muslims in film and TV. Countries like the UK are now quick to remove old films and TV shows that present explicitly racist portrayals of black, Asian and minority ethnic people. But they have failed to be consistent by not condemning those portrayals which are implicitly racist or Islamophobic.
Indeed, the decision to remove racist portrayals in the media has appeared to be a reactionary decision after the widespread protests for Black Lives Matter. It is a valid decision, but the media must initiate institutional change to combat racism and religious discrimination and not only when it feels it must as a result of social pressure. This change must include the abandonment of implicitly Islamophobic depictions of Muslims.
As an episode of one of the most popular British TV shows — a modern take on the UK’s most famous fictional detective — ends with the antagonist about to be beheaded by “terrorists” in Karachi, who are depicted as men wearing headscarves carrying AK-47s. This portrayal would go unchallenged by most viewers, but it implicitly reinforces the stereotype about the association of Pakistani Muslims to terrorism. Yet there was no criticism or controversy on this account.
Thus, without the knowledge of many viewers, Islamophobic stereotypes are being unconsciously reinforced through the media. Such portrayals will confirm the general sense of suspicion and fear of Muslims but will also be used as fuel by anti-Muslim individuals and groups to further their agendas. All people who contribute to the media, whether in the news or film industry, play a role in public perceptions of Islam and Muslims. As long as they consciously or unconsciously support Islamophobic stereotypes or sentiments, they are complicit in the abuse that Muslims suffer as a result.
It is a privilege to communicate to the people through the media, but accompanying that privilege is a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation and misleading portrayals. To tackle Islamophobia thus requires an overhaul of the way in which Muslims are depicted and described.
Lazy journalism and unconscious bias can no longer be considered valid excuses for Islamophobic and racist narratives.
The writer has completed her MTheol degree at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and now works as a researcher. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter
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