Thursday May 19, 2022

Media to build bridges

December 25, 2021

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

In my last piece, ‘Muslims and the media’ published in this space (December 4), I discussed how the Western media’s representation of Islam and Muslims shows their limited and narrow understanding. By highlighting the media’s portrayal of immigrants and refugees, we saw how media coverage and commentary shapes opinions which then lead to the adoption of a public policy. The process of interaction between the three variables is dynamic and continues to feed each other.

As pointed out by some readers, the situation cannot be allowed to persist, given the stakes involved and there must be some way to stop it from festering. While it is for political scientists, faith leaders and those vested with the executive authority to think of more innovative ways to propose actions for healing, here are a few thoughts on how the stereotypical framing of Muslims is problematic, reinforcing the need for introspection.

Muslims are much more diverse and dynamic culturally, politically and even in matters of religious practices than their monolithic and static portrayals by the Western media. The fact that there are massive yearnings for change and assertion of democratic rights within the Muslim world are signs of the changing times.

As evidenced by the Arab Spring, there is a strong urge for change in Muslim lands, and a new consciousness of Muslim polities being consistent with contemporary world is developing. When the Western media denies these glaring facts through its stereotypical reportage, it tends to render Western audiences susceptible to a narrower understanding of Islam and Muslims. This way, it empowers individual groups and portrays them as representatives of Muslim societies and mainstream Muslim opinion. The outcome of such agenda-driven media representations is the flawed manner in which public opinion and political discourses are shaped vis-a-vis Muslims.

The stereotypical media portrayal of Islam has negative implications for interfaith and inter-community relations. Such media representations that are influenced by certain archaic writings, New Orientalism and Clash of Civilizations theories highlight the divergences between Islam and Christianity at the cost of many shared commonalities. The fact that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have more in common than is generally recognised has escaped the media commentary on Islam.

During the study of literature on the subject, one of the key findings was that the Western media’s coverage of Islam uses the orientalist framework that privileges ‘difference’ and ‘opposition’ in its portrayal of Muslims as an anti-thesis of the West. Through an orientalist approach and framing, the media has tended to focus its attention only on those stories that paint Muslims in a bad light.

The process of news selection and presentation involving Muslims is often flawed, aimed at fitting them into frames of hate, crime, and violence. As part of its agenda-setting role, the very manner in which the negative stories are prioritised with select portions of their contents highlighted disproportionately encourages news-consumers to attach a particular amount of importance to the news stories.

The Western perspective on Islam and Muslims will change only when the Western media ceases to view Muslims only from the prism of religion. Most events are often the result of political, social and economic factors and any attempt to interpret them with a label of religion alone runs the risk of simplifying the complex processes. Hence, Western journalists should not be tempted to use religion as the basis for interpreting the events and happenings involving Muslims.

Journalists and the media must apply the same journalistic principles to the representations of Muslims which it applies while covering their own societies and other ethnic and religious communities in media discourses. Audiences tend to have balanced views if they are enabled to access and understand a broad and diverse range of views. The focus on limited voices, as in the case of anti-Muslim narratives, precludes the possibility of news-consumers forming informed opinion. The media can achieve this objective by interacting with and referring to more voices from the Muslim communities.

At the start of the new millennium following 9/11, the media spotlight shifted to Islam in a massive way. Journalists, however, were unprepared to provide answers to the raging questions through their discourse analysis and investigative stories because of the lack of requisite knowledge about Islam and due to having had little contact with Muslim communities.

Western journalists covering Islam and the Muslim world may be encouraged to study more about their subjects. It will expose them to a wide range of opinions and consequently help them overcome the tendency to stereotype and profile Muslims. This awareness will enable them to provide a context to the readers for an informed understanding of the issues facing the Islamic world.

In the last piece, we analysed the dynamic nature of the interaction between media portrayals, formation of public opinion and the resultant policy responses around Muslim refugees and immigrants. We noted that those who flee their countries in the most trying circumstances often at massive risk to their lives end up becoming the target of prejudice, hatred, and Islamophobia.

This policy of de-legitimising asylum seekers is in sync with how the majority of public opinion, influenced by media portrayals, wants refugees to be framed: as threats to the national interests. Over here the media, as the fourth pillar of the state, is expected to scrutinise the policies and attitudes but instead it chooses to echo them, thus reinforcing the sentiments of the people about the asylum seekers.

The lack of media scrutiny, coupled with the increased public expectations from the governments, has led authorities to put in place more restrictive immigration regimes aimed at deterring potential refugees. The public discourse on asylum seekers can change if the media can take a more nuanced view of them by exploring their circumstances from human and socio-economic angles without invoking their religious identity.

By their population and geographical spread, Muslims are an essential stakeholder in peace and stability of the world. The events happening in Muslim countries are likely to affect the rest of the world. It is the ethos and the spirit of globalisation. So an attempt at further marginalising Muslims will be counterproductive.

The Western media has a huge role to play in correcting audience perceptions through a more comprehensive reportage and responsible representation of the conflicts, events and crises taking place in the Muslim world.

To achieve this purpose, the media need to adhere to the foundational principles of journalism and shun the obsession with the use of Islam as a political cover. The media has to be a bridge-builder in fostering understanding between Islam and the West, besides raising greater awareness of the circumstances faced by asylum seekers and immigrants.


Twitter: @Amanat222