The media has been given a number of aliases, from Adorno and Horkeimer’s ‘culture industry’ to Enzenberger’s ‘mind making industry’. What both these terms, and their authors’ explanations, refer to is the idea that the media shapes our consciousness and manipulates the ways in which we see the world (Adorno & Horkeimer, 1969; Enzenberger, 1974). And when examining the representation of Islam and Muslims in the media it becomes increasingly apparent that this is in fact the case. The hegemonic nature of the media, and its role as cultural leaders (Hoynes & Croteau, 2003), have allowed the creation and maintenance of negative stereotypes. Yet a number of new counter-hegemonic approaches are attempting to renegotiate these terms. Through new media forms, culture jamming, cyber dissidence and activism individuals are counteracting dominant ideologies and stereotypes. This essay will look at the media’s current attempts at hegemony through their negative representations of Islam and Muslims, it will also show some of the ways in which this hegemony is being challenged.
‘The notion of hegemony connects questions of culture, power and ideology’ and is communicated through images and narratives and the ideas that are represented within them (Hoynes & Croteau, 2003: 165). It is about maintaining power and influence and is the cornerstone of the media, the culture industry. For Adorno and Horkeimer the culture industry is effectively a means of mass deception, with a passive and uncritical audience (Adorno & Horkeimer, 1969), which suggests that they would in turn consent to dominant ideologies and allow media hegemony to continue. However, Gramsci argued that hegemony is a two way process, individuals can challenge dominant ideas, can rebel against hegemony (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2006: 183). However in order for this to take place there must be a level of awareness about the impact, extent and seriousness of hegemony adn dominant ideology in the media.
The impact of hegemony and dominant ideology is clear when looking at representations of Islam in the media. The media produce images that give meaning, they do not just reflect the world and its events, ‘they re-present it’, and do so with their own ideology in mind (Hoynes & Croteau, 2003: 168). This has allowed the development and perpetuation of negative stereotypes associated with Islam, to such a degree that the media, popular culture and its audience now subconsciously make these negative connections. The creation of this harmful picture of Islam has been achieved through the media’s homogenisation of the ‘other’, their repetition of negative imagery, generalisations and inaccurate and misleading assumptions (Isakhan, 2005). Awareness is being raised about media hegemony in relation to the representation of Islam, specifically through work by Jack Shaheen, and studies like that conducted by Kerry Moore et al and Deni Elliot.
Dr. Jack Shaheen examines the movie industry’s attitudes to Arab peoples and culture, and their role in perpetuating negative stereotypes in his film Reel Bad Arabs: how Hollywood Vilifies a People (,2006). Using examples from films as far reaching as Disney’s Aladdin, to Gladiator starring Russel Crowe, he shows a continuing negative representation. Shaheen states that almost 25% of Hollywood films demean Arabs in some way, and describes what he calls the ‘bundles in black’, images of veiled women in the background, submissive(,2006). In an interview with Amy Goodman, he also acknowledges the power of the media and hegemonic process, ‘take the same images and repeat them...they teach us to hate a people, and hate their religion, what happens...we actually turn around and let these images despise and vilify’ (2007). This type of media criticism is an effective way to raise the profile of media hegemony and dominant ideology; it demonstrates the extent of hegemony and its impact on popular culture. Images of Islam in the UK, a study undertaken by Moore et al (2008) examines hegemony in print media.
Kerry Moore, Paul Mason and Justin Lewis undertook a study of representation of British Muslims over an eight year period, Images of Islam in the UK (2008); their results demonstrate the extent to which the negative stereotype has been sustained. They found that the focus of the majority of stories involving Islam or Muslims in the British press was on religious and cultural difference, or Islamic extremism, audiences were shown that Muslims were a threat or a problem (2008: 20-21). More disturbing was the list provided by the study of the most common nouns and adjectives used in relation to British Muslims including, ‘terrorist’, ‘Islamist’, ‘suicide bomber’, ‘radical’ and ‘militant’ (2008: 22). This type of reporting reinforces dominant ideology and is a means of maintaining hegemony. Over an eight year period, from 2000-2008, the impact that it would have had on the development of ideas about Islam and Muslims by the public is substantial. The degree to which hegemony is shown to be at play in Images of Islam in the UK is distressing but not limited to that region; Terrorists We Like and Terrorists We Don’t Like (Elliot, 2003) examines similar reporting in the US.
Elliot’s, Terrorists We Like and Terrorists We Don’t Like (2003), discusses the power the of the media and how it forms the connections between Middle Eastern appearance and terrorism and violence. She uses examples of reports about terrorism that are more often than not accompanied by images of men in turbans, women wearing burqa’s or veils and mug shots of people of Arab or Middle Eastern appearance, which ensure ‘the religious and cultural symbols of regional dress became icons for evil’ (Elliot, 2003: 52). These images along with politically motivated labels like “terrorist” and “opposition army” help form a dominant ideology and become part of the media hegemony. A recent example of the use of such politically motivated terms can be found in the Foreign Correspondent episode Iran: the Rebellion Network (ABC Television, 2009). The program, reporting on the conflict that followed elections in Iran in June of this year, juxtaposes the descriptions of the ‘rebels’ by two news services. The BBC Persian language service, which broadcasts direct to Iran, uses the term ‘protestors’, as their description, while Press TV, the official English language service in Iran, calls these same people ‘terrorists’. Elliot suggests that alternative media sources are needed to provide another ideology, to challenge media hegemony. In recent years counter-hegemonic approaches have become more frequent, and are challenging the negative stereotype built up by the dominant ideologies of the media.
Counter-hegemony acts to challenge dominant world views, to gain popular support for new discussions which will test the status quo (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2006:185). Attempts to challenge the negative association and stereotyping of Islam and Muslims in the media have come in a number of different forms, from culture jamming to cyber activism and dissidence. These acts of counter-hegemony have been made all the more possible and much more accessible through new media, such as internet sites like YouTube and Twitter, and the Blogging phenomenon. The internet in particular has given media producers the ability to reach a wider, global audience, however more traditional forms of media, have remained useful tools in the counter-hegemonic process.
The internet whilst at times a media tool, has also allowed the development of citizen journalists, everyday people who contribute to the media sphere in new and challenging ways. Blogs are just one of the ways citizen journalists contribute to the media, and are changing traditional journalistic practices. They bypass the dominant media ideologies, creators or authors are able to create individual interpretations. And in what is called the ‘blog-effect’ they can respond to news events, articles, images and criticism in real time (Gallo, 2004). In effect blogs are the first step in making everyone manipulators, the start of a ‘revolutionary plan’ to challenge media hegemony (Enzenberger, 1974; Gallo, 2004). Hijabman.com created by Javed Memon, has been running for over ten years and provides a fresh perspective on news, current events and Islamic issues. The aim of the site is to ‘entertain and educate the Believing and curious community’ (2009), it also provides an alternative to mainstream media and utilises another form of counter-hegemony, culture jamming.
Culture jamming aims to rework the intended meaning of media texts, raise awareness about hegemony and challenge ideologies and the media (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2006: 188). At hijabman.com, t-shirts and bumper stickers are sold bearing slogans such as ‘frisk me I’m Muslim’ and ‘my name causes national security alerts’ in attempt to challenge the images presented by mainstream media (Memon, 2009). Salam Cafe (SBS TV) a comedy panel show about life as an Australian Muslim also utilises culture jamming in an attempt to raise awareness about negative associations of Islam. The used sketches entitled ‘Where’s Osama’ and ‘Australian Imam, the search for Australia’s most controversial Imam’ to parody the stereotypes found in mainstream media and as part of their counter hegemonic approach to media. Another comedy, show filmed in Canada, Little Mosque on the Prairie (CBC Television) depicts life in a small Muslim community and challenges traditional conceptions about life as a Muslim and parodies them. While culture jamming is an effective way of acting against media hegemony, new media such as twitter and YouTube, and surprising media forms such as comics also provide methods of challenge.
During conflict in June of this year in Iran the new government strengthened its influence over the media in attempt to maintain control. Foreign journalists were expelled, and internal media outlets were subjected to strict controls. In a desire for a truer picture of what was happening in Iran to be shown to the world citizen journalists took to new media forms, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and uploaded reports, images and video footage of what was taking place within Iran. A Foreign Correspondent report describes this as ‘cyber-dissidence’ a form of web based counter hegemony and protest (ABC Television, 2009). A less aggressive and more unusual form of counter hegemony is evident in the comic ‘the 99’. Created by a Kuwaiti psychologist, Naif Al-Mutawa, the 99 heroes of the comic each possesses a different attribute of Allah but come from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. Al-Mutawa claims to be challenging the stereotypes while still attempting to appeal to a wide audience (SBS Television, 2009). This comic demonstrates how unassuming a challenge to stereotypes, dominant ideology and hegemony can be. And along with television parodies, blogs and new media it is part of a global movement of counter hegemony, a challenge to the negative stereotypes built up by mainstream media.
The media industry forms a large part of the public sphere. They produce the images and stories that ‘define reality’ and give meaning to events, actions and individuals (Hoynes & Croteau, 2003). Through the dominant ideology and hegemony that is found in today’s media, we are taught to think of Muslims not as individuals with distinct identities, but simply as Muslims, taught to associate Islam and Muslims as something to be feared, as dangerous even taught to see them as terrorists(Moore et al, 2003; ,2006; Elliot, 2003). Reporting of this type has become so widespread and sustained that these connections are made subconsciously. This negative stereotype has been built up and sustained by the media industry’s hegemonic process to such an extent that these are now subconscious associations. However a number of counter hegemonic approaches are attempting to raise awareness of this negative and misleading stereotype, challenging the media and its processes. From blogs like hijabman and television series such as Salam Cafe to the unexpected comic the 99 media activists are using tools such as culture jamming, parody, and citizen journalism to produce media that entertains, educates and challenges its audience. These projects, just some of many, are part of a movement acting against media hegemony in attempt to correct the assumptions and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that this process, its dominant ideology and our ‘cultural leaders’ have created.
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