By Dr Salman Al-Azami
Religion is important to most people in the UK according to the last census data. For the first time, in the 2001 Census, an optional religion question was included where an overwhelming 76.8% expressed their allegiance to a religion. However, the majority of the contemporary media representations of faith give a negative picture of religion. According to Biernatzki (2003) religion in the media, is, “… either ignored or sensationalized — and either of those extremes distorts its reality…”
After the tragic incidents of 9/11 and 7/7 there has been increased interest among the media on religious issues, particularly concerning Islam and Muslims. Current trends in the media clearly show that the images, representations and discourses relating to Islam and Muslims in mainstream Western media tend to be negative and hostile. A Cardiff University study analysed 974 stories about Islam and Muslims in the media between 2000 and 2008, and found only 5% positive news.
A contemporary report by the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex concluded that the media re present Muslims negatively and in some cases persecute them. The report outlines that the media do not treat Muslims with tolerance, decency and fairness that is claimed to be the British way. Another report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (2007) finds ‘structured’ and ‘institutionalized prejudice’ against Islam and Muslims in the western media.
I conducted a piece of research in 2008 on how people react to negative media propaganda against Muslims and their place of worship. The majority of the non-Muslims who knew Muslims and knew about Mosques found these media representations untrue. A Non-Muslim community leader in East London said,
Muslims have suffered a lot of misconceptions, not that this is their fault, but because media has encouraged and exaggerated things arising from this misconception. I believe Muslims are very sincere people, humble and very god-fearing.
A non-Muslim living in East London found the media scapegoating Muslims:
The tabloid and right-wing media have been scapegoating Muslims and generating fear and hatred against Islam. The IRA terrorists were never called Catholic terrorists in the way Islam has been anointed with extremist activity.
The role played by the media in representing Islam has not been very responsible. Investigative reports should be more evidence-based. For example, the Dispatches programme ‘Undercover Mosque’ shown in Channel 4 on 1 Sept 2008 could not prove the Mosque’s involvement in hate preaching, but implied that they were responsible for it. In 2007, The Times published an investigative report where they implied that the Chairman of East London Mosque was responsible for some of the books being sold at a bookshop in the Mosque building. They later had to apologise and accept that they were wrong.
Who are the terrorists? Do they really have a religion, or do they exploit people by using some out-of-context verses from religious scriptures? A recent MI5 research found that most of the stereotyped images of terrorists in the media are wrong. It found that a large amount of terrorists are religious novices who do not practise their religion regularly. Some take drugs, drink alcohol and visit prostitutes. The research found that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”. This is contradictory to most of the media representations on terrorists.
Negative stereotyping and propaganda in the media can never be a recipe for a cohesive society. The media expects Muslims to integrate into the British way of life, but at the same time publishes articles and reports that contribute to prejudice and hatred against them. Whether the media likes it or not, modern British society is increasingly becoming a mosaic society with people from all denominations. By attacking a particular community will only lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication.
There have been various efforts in the UK in recent times to bridge the gap between media and different faith groups. In 2004 a national conference on media and multifaith society aimed at ‘finding ways to harness the positive energy of the UK’s faith communities and the media to help build stronger and more cohesive communities, based on a spirit of tolerance and understanding.’ In 2005, the Board of Governors of BBC held a seminar, Taking Belief Seriously to discuss how mainstream programmes can directly or indirectly reflect the experience of ‘belief’. This is a positive trend, but much more needs to be done to minimize the gap between media and religion, particularly Islam. An Islamic Human Rights Commission report (2007) suggests ‘wide and effective consultation’ between Islamic scholars, the Government, and the media to create a better understanding of Islam. There needs to be sincere efforts from all these stakeholders to come together and develop this understanding. While media has a wider responsibility to represent Islam without prejudice and stereotyping, Muslim leaders also need to play their role in removing the negative mindset of media practitioners. Initiating positive dialogues between these people will contribute to creating an environment where Islam will be represented in its true essence. We will definitely see a change in people’s attitude towards Islam and Muslims if this can be successfully implemented.
Finally, I would like to conclude with the concluding comment in the Guardian editorial on MI5 findings published on 21 August 2008:
“MI5 is right too to highlight the importance of politicians and the media. If they had played a less provocative role on many occasions in the past then MI5’s job would not be as difficult as it now is”.
Dr Salman Al-Azami holds a PhD in Linguistics and is a Lecturer in English Language at Liverpool Hope University. Dr Al-Azami has taught at universities both in the UK and in Bangladesh. He has written three books and has published a number of articles in international journals. His research interests include bilingualism, language in education, religious discourse & media and language of advertising.
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