Friday, 11 January 2013

Islam in the media: an Islamophobic press?

When an influential Israeli businessman predicts a Muslim holocaust, the time has come to dial down the Islamophobia

Anti-Islam protest, UK 2010
by S. Taalay Ahmed

In 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport devised a five-level scale to measure prejudice and discrimination within a society. He called the lowest level antilocution, or the spread of negative stereotypes and propaganda regarding a particular minority. The second level was avoidance. The third discrimination, the fourth physical attack and then, finally, extermination.

Allport's scale, published nine years after the Second World War, served to remind Europe of the terrible holocaust it had inflicted upon the Jewish people. Yet, almost seventy years on, is Europe heading back in the same direction? That very suggestion may sound outlandish, but two days before Christmas Israel National News covered a recent speech by Israeli businessman Moti Zisser.
"It is much more painful than with the Jews, and for this they killed six million Jews, so for the other things they will kill 60 million too."
"I would give you numbers regarding what is happening with Muslims in Europe," said Zisser, speaking at a synagogue. "It is much more painful than with the Jews, and for this they killed six million Jews, so for the other things they will kill 60 million too."

"The new demon in Europe is the Muslims," he went on. "It is being built up just like the Jewish demon was built up at the start of the previous century. This new demon is being built in the way that Europe knows how to build and annihilate something when it is defending itself against it."

Zisser's predictions seemed terribly prophetic when, just six days later, Erika Mendez admitted murdering an Asian man by pushing him in front of a New York subway train. "I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims," explained Mendez. "Ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up."

The same New York subway network on which Mendez committed murder had, through December, been hosting anti-Islam adverts featuring images of the World Trade Centre's twin towers collapsing. Earlier in the year, the subways had also featured adverts insinuating Muslims are 'savage'. Yet worryingly, it's not just anti-Islam organisations portraying the religion in a negative light, as the National Communications Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper, wrote in an op-ed last week. Hooper urged the media to end the negative use of the word 'Islamist', pointing out the term 'Christianist' was never used, before going on to describe the media portrayal of Islam as 'hardly fair or balanced'.

The view that there is a media bias against Islam is not exclusive to the USA. Last year, during the  UK's Leveson Inquiry, 60 prominent figures including politicians, journalists, human rights lawyers, academics and Muslim leaders wrote to The Guardian to call for an ‘inquiry into anti-Islam press’. Their concerns were apparently shared by much of the general public: a poll taken in 2011 by ComRes asked what was the greatest cause of Islamophobia. The most common answer was ‘the media’. 
Polly Toynbee, then of The Independent and now of The Guardian, once wrote: “I am an Islamophobe and proud of it”.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests Islamophobia is flourishing. Polly Toynbee, then of The Independent and now of The Guardian, once wrote: "I am an Islamophobe and proud of it". Even more dangerous and worrying than an influential columnist expressing pride in her Islamophobia are reports of the UK media frequently fabricating horror stories which portray Muslims in a deeply negative light, as Peter Oborne exposed in The Independent in 2008.

In fact, in recent years studies have repeatedly found media coverage of Islam and Muslims to be biased. One report states that Muslims are ‘typically’ portrayed in a ‘negative’ manner. Another 2011 report, by the Faith Matters organisation, noted how 62% of articles about converts to Islam spuriously link the converts to terrorism. 

The most thorough and shocking report of all was published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2011. Having studied over 200,000 articles on Islam between 1998 and 2008, the report found that ‘moderate’ Muslims are mentioned only once for every 21 times extremists make the news. It went on to note: "so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ often get praised in a way which implies they are good because they aren’t fully Muslims". The study found the word ‘Islamic’ was followed by ‘extremism’ on one in six occasions and this practise was so common that the report concluded: "the word Islamic is now difficult to use in a neutral way as it is so heavily laden with negative overtones and disapproval". 

The same study also said: "Muslims who get on with their lives aren’t seen as newsworthy, so it’s the likes of Abu Hamza who are more likely to attract press attention". It went on to give examples of newspapers writing about extremist Muslims as though they represent the entire Muslim community, including headlines such as "MUSLIMS TELL BRITISH: GO TO HELL!" which appeared on the front page of the Daily Express in 2010. It was coverage of this kind that lead Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, then the chairperson of the Conservative Party, to remark on how the media’s portrayal of Muslims had led to Islamophobia passing ‘the dinner-table test’ and becoming socially acceptable. 

In light of all this, it is easy to understand why British Muslims feel unfairly demonised. A 2012 publication released by The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan stated that only 3% of Muslims are extremists. Another study by Pew Forum in 2012 found the vast majority of Muslims around the world support democracy, while a survey of six Muslim countries (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Pakistan and Turkey) found the majority of the Muslim population in each of those countries condemned the extremist ideologies of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Hezbollah. Yet, extremists receive 21 times more press coverage than moderates in the UK, despite being a small minority, and media outlets regularly run scare stories about shariah law, despite the majority of Muslims around the world supporting democracy. 

The results of the widespread anti-Islam propaganda have been stark. An organised anti-shariah political group has been formed called the EDL and demonstrable Islamophobia is also being seen. According to Faith Matters, in the last nine months there have been 496 hate crimes reported against Muslims in the UK.
We found that 58% of stories were negative, with only 10% positive - and this in newspapers that have a combined circulation of over 7 million and, with the Daily Mail reported to be the most popular news site in the world, that figure may only be a small fraction of their actual readership.
And there is still no sign of change among the media. Here at New Religion, we conducted our own survey into how the press reported on Islam in 2012. We took samples from the three most widely circulated tabloids (The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror) and from three of the most popular broadsheets (The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent) and read through a total of 60 stories on Islam. Each story was categorised as portraying Islam and Muslims in either a positive, neutral or negative light. We found that 58% of stories were negative, with only 10% positive - and this in newspapers that have a combined circulation of over 7 million and, with the Daily Mail reported to be the most popular newspaper site in the world, that figure may only be a small fraction of their actual readership. 

Perhaps, the general trend could be explained by the argument that a serial killer committing a murder is more newsworthy than a doctor saving lives and so, even though far more doctors save lives than serial killers commit murders, serial killers are given far more column inches. In the same way, Abu Hamza is more newsworthy than a moderate Muslim and therefore the extremist minority receives 21 times more coverage than the moderate majority. That may be well be true and the press do have a responsibility to highlight issues and social problems within the Muslim community. However, it is ethically indefensible for these issues to be highlighted in an unbalanced manner. 

To find out if the reporting of negative stories about Islam was done in a balanced manner, a second survey was taken. This time, the negative stories from the first sample were reread to check if they were balanced or unbalanced. The definition used for ‘balanced’ was an article that either mentioned the negative issue under discussion (eg. extremism) was not representative of the views or practises of all Muslims and/or gave a voice to the views of ‘moderate’ Muslims. So, an article only had to fulfil one of these two criteria to be considered balanced, even if the balance was only given in one phrase or sentence. 

The results were again terrible and only 37% of negative stories offered any kind of balance. However, the figures do not even begin to demonstrate how truly shocking the media coverage of Islam in the UK is. Columnists in respected national publications are still explicitly defending Islamophobia and examples of fabricated stories can easily be found: one feature in The Sun claimed that most of the thousands of Muslims who convert each year do so to marry their Muslim partners. To support this claim, the feature cited a recently published study which, said The Sun, had found 75% of converts to Islam are women. In fact, what the study actually said was that 62% of converts are women and that surveys show the vast majority do not convert for marriage and this, the study concluded, showed Islam is not as repressive towards women as it is often portrayed. The Sun’s feature and the actual study it cited were so diametrically opposed in their content that it is difficult to conclude anything other than the ‘mistake’ on The Sun’s part was deliberate. 
Writing in The Spectator, columnist Rod Liddle asserted: "the ideology of Islam frightens us with its implacability, with its severity, with its vindictiveness - but most Muslims are not like that. They do not sign up to it. They are, like us, ‘not too bad’." 
As previously mentioned, the study by the Economic and Social Research Council found in the period from 1998-2008 moderate Muslims were praised in a way that implied they were being praised for not being fully Muslim. The same holds true today. In most of the stories which were negative but balanced, the balance was given in a way to suggest the aspects of the Muslim community considered praiseworthy were those that were un-Muslim. The same articles that would criticise ‘Islamists’ and ‘Muslim extremists’ would go on to praise ‘modernisers’ and ‘progressives’, without linking the modernisers or progressives to Islam at all. Almost always, these ‘balanced’ articles failed to note that the majority of Muslims are and always have been moderate. Although the examples of this practise found in the sample itself were usually subtle, other recent examples in the UK media have been more overt. Writing in The Spectator, columnist Rod Liddle asserted: "the ideology of Islam frightens us with its implacability, with its severity, with its vindictiveness - but most Muslims are not like that. They do not sign up to it. They are, like us, ‘not too bad’." 

However, there were also several examples of good practise, the best of which was found in The Independent. Writing on December 25 2012, Phillip Pullela wrote a story concerning Muslim militants in Mali. While other media outlets covered the story in a way that left the impression the militants were practising the legitimate form of Islam, The Independent reported the story as follows: “In Nigeria, the Islamist sect Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in the north of the country, targeting a number of churches. In Mali, a mix of Islamists with links to al-Qa’ida have occupied the country’s north since April, destroying much of the region’s religious heritage. They have also carried out amputations to help to impose strict Islamic law on a population that has practised a more moderate form of Islam for centuries.” 

While the media were right to report an important story, only The Independent added balance by underlining that there are other interpretations or viewpoints on Islam and also by making it clear that much of the country’s Muslim population has always been and remains moderate and that this is by no means a less legitimate practice of the religion. Still, the general coverage remains overwhelmingly negative and as Allport's scale makes clear, where negative stereotypes and propaganda are left unchecked, discrimination and physical attack are not long to follow. @Taalay

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