By Tamanna Rahman
I often hear the complaint, with some justification, from many friends that Muslims are almost always portrayed negatively in the media; as wildly exaggerated caricatures of stereotypical backward types, or as the vanguard of the new feminist movement who are using driving lessons to kick start the revolution.
For some reason, they say, of all the immigrant religious communities that live in Britain, Sikhs and Hindus are seen as being more integrated and seem to get a better press. How do they manage it without trying, they wonder? It’s not like Muslims are so very different.
Of course, there’s a very simple answer to this. Muslims aren’t always portrayed negatively in the media. They’re portrayed mostly negatively in the news, because the news is there primarily to report on bad stuff, and unfortunately there are Muslims who are doing a lot of seriously bad stuff. And of course, during a time of economic doom and gloom, nothing makes people happier than communal moaning against a perceived enemy. You could argue some journalists are actually doing a public service. Obviously at the serious disadvantage of one community, but Muslims are always advised to act for the greater good. Being the scapegoat is almost like a charitable act. There’s probably a prophetic saying about it somewhere.
And in other media – documentaries, films and soaps, for example – watching decent, law abiding people would be about as interesting as watching a day in the life of Ned Flanders. You watch most programmes for the unfolding dramas, and drama only happens where there’s a rubbing point. Through them you find out who a person really is, and what makes them tick. You find them annoying, you hate them, you respect them, you grow to love them.
A prime example of Sikhs getting good press recently was Channel 4’s “The Family” which was brilliant. If you haven’t watched it, I recommend it highly. Here’s an average Asian family, where their Sikhness was a beautiful accompaniment to the drama of their lives. Despite all the ups and downs (often relating to cultural values), and character flaws you end up leaving with a really positive image of just a normal family.
The problem isn’t that Sikhs or Hindus get better press because there’s a vendetta against portraying Muslims in a positive light. The real problem is that there just aren’t enough Muslims willing to open up their lives, be the story and allow the development of a relationship with the audience.
I was recently working in development – that murky part of the television industry where people mooch around for a few hours on the internet, or reading newspapers, trying to come up with the next big idea that will keep them in employment for the next few months. It’s not like there’s not an appetite for life stories from different communities. If anything, there’s a thirst for it.
But there was clearly a disconnection. Nobody I spoke to really wanted to talk about their issues for any ideas I had about their family stories.
There are probably two main reasons for this. One; a sometimes justified distrust of how your story will be edited, but mainly; nobody wanted to air their dirty linen in public. What would the community say?
For this, I can only point to The Family and say there were any number of issues going on in that family – a daughter whose family had disowned her. A father who was slightly misogynistic (in a charming kind of way). An incredibly lazy younger son who just slept all day. But you never felt anything other than this was a charming family who were just getting on with their own lives.
There is a problem with Islamophobia in this country, but it’s not going to really go away, unfortunately, until people feel they know that Muslims are normal people. At the moment, most of what they see will be what makes the news.
In the coming years, the next challenge for Muslims will be to become comfortable with the media as a means of entertainment – rather than (mis)information. We need to have a laugh at ourselves, not take ourselves too seriously and not judge each other so harshly. Forget about what the community will say. Yes, any Muslim on TV for a non-news item is a bit of a novelty. But we need to get to a place where it’s just a normal part of British TV.
And next time, when I come knocking on your door asking about your 5 year old son’s drinking problem, please say yes.
Tamanna Rahman is a Broadcast Journalist with BBC News. In October 2009 she presented an eye-opening episode of Panorama dealing with racism in Britain, for which she was subsequently awarded the Royal Television Society award for Young Journalist of the Year in 2010. Tamanna read History at the University of Manchester.
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