Anti-Muslim bias in the British media, and the way forward


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Earlier this month, British journalists and editors submitted the report, Race and Reform: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, to the Leveson Inquiry. Led by Lord Justice Leveson, appointed last year by Prime Minister David Cameron, the Leveson Inquiry aims to investigate the ethics and culture of the British press in light of The News International phone-hacking scandal. Race and Reform highlights the predominantly negative, inaccurate and racist depictions of Islam and Muslims in the British media and calls for greater accountability on the part of the concerned authorities.

Coordinated by Unitas Communications, a cross-cultural communications consultancy in London specialising in Islam-West relations, the report draws on interviews with media professionals from The Daily Mail, The Daily Star, The Telegraph, The Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, The Times, Channel 4/ITN and BBC World Television. According to the report’s author, Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, the consequences of anti-Muslim media bias have been far reaching. Such media narratives have correlated directly with a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, now ‘at record levels,’ and generated social alienation among minority groups that would endanger the very fabric of British multiculturalism.

The depiction of Muslims as a singular embodiment of ‘terror’ and ‘menace’ by mainstream media outlets has long been a source of outcry for many Muslims, but the struggle, too often, has been circular, wrapped around debates on ‘Islamophobia.’ Some western commentators dismiss the term, calling it a ‘political ploy’ to stifle freedom of expression. Amidst the importance placed on the sanctity of free expression in the West, these testimonies of distorted facts vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims seem to be a rather sinister breach of ideals.

Dr. Ahmed writes that the negative portrayal of Muslims has been largely ‘due to poor journalistic standards in the tabloid press, which sets the wider news agenda in print and broadcasting’ – a statement backed up by the journalists we interviewed. For instance, Brian Cathcart, former deputy editor at the Independent on Sunday, told us that ‘where Muslims are concerned, some of the country’s top-selling newspapers have too often failed… damaging stereotypes have been adopted and repeated by some newspapers… Since these papers enjoy such wide circulation, this cannot fail to disadvantage Muslims in British society.’

Notwithstanding the elusiveness of ‘Islamophobia’ as a term, it is worth inquiring about the larger frame of reference at work here now that the facts are out. In the construction and transmutation of the Muslim or Islamic ‘menace,’ often unifying the left and the right in Europe, the report shows media narratives regularly conflate the West’s Muslim diaspora communities with external instances of extremism, terrorism, despotism, and sexism.

Old habits die hard. The depiction of Muslims as the foreign ‘other’ has persisted in literary writings and mainstream media, from the time of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Aladdin’s exotic genie in the bottle to the Iranian revolution, 9/11, 7/7 and the aftermath. Race and Reform represents a thorough investigation of a phenomenon that is, unfortunately, larger than the British context.

The Arab Spring, thankfully, has challenged some of these persistent stereotypes of the Muslim ummah, replacing turbaned ‘ayatollahs’ with the youth of Egypt marching into Tahrir and chanting ‘aish, hurriyah, ‘adalah ijtima‘iya (Bread, freedom and social justice). Islam and democratic principles have suddenly ceased to appear irreconciliable. Even ‘Islamism’ as a concept is suffering from an existential crisis – what did it ever mean and has it transmuted into another reality: ‘post-Islamism’?

The recommendations put forward in Race and Reform include a more robust statutory regulatory framework, powers to deal with third-party complaints, protection of journalists from editorial pressure, and greater mechanisms for formal engagement and exchange between media agencies and Muslim communities.

It is the last clause that represents a window of opportunity for Muslims, both in the West and in the Arab world. Negative stereotyping and discrimination can too often generate a sense of alienation. But lest Muslims fall into the trap of perpetuating the binaries imposed on them, it is important to rise to this challenge and ensure a successful implementation of the recommendations presented in Race and Reform. The issue at hand is not to lose Islam’s identity to the ‘West,’ but to own it within the West, through positive contribution.

(Muddassar Ahmed is the CEO of Unitas Communications Ltd, an international strategic communications consultancy based in London. He is also Chairman of the John Adams Society UK and a NATO Young Atlantacist Fellow. Heba Al-Adawy assisted in researching this article)

2 replies

  1. What about anti-Ahmadiyya bias in Muslim media? is it not – ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’?
    There is need to mend our behaviour.

  2. UK is a RACIST country.They call all non-Anglosaxon as black.You are not cosidered a 1st class citizen, even if you are a 3rd or 4th generation immigrant.
    The good news is that the constitution is civilized & the courts are fair.

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