Monday, November 2, 2009

The Portrayal of Islam by the Western Media

By Daniel Dixon

Marginalisation, discrimination and vilification of Muslims throughout the West became particularly prevalent after the events of September 11, 2001, but according to Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, Islam and the Arab world have been continually misrepresented by Christianity, Western media and popular imagery (Said 2003, 60). With reference to relevant academic literature, this essay looks to define the key problems of the Western representation of Islam by framing the theoretical context of these broad and ubiquitous representations and examining the counter-hegemonic efforts being undertaken by Islamic communities.

In the article, Islam and Muslims in the Mind of America published in 2003 in the journal Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the author states that from the appearance of Islam it was looked upon fearfully by Christian Europe (Gerges 2003, 73). After being unable to initially accept Muhammad as a prophet or the authenticity of his revelations, there still remains bitterness between the Christian West and the Muslim East, largely because the two cultures offer conflicting universal truths derived from similar traditions (Gerges 2003, 74). To Christianity, Islam is a major competitor and it represents a significant challenge. Deriving from the Christian attitude, Islam has, since the middle ages, been presented as a menace to Western civilisation and this media-driven image has become embedded in Western culture (Agha 2003, 221).

In his book, Orientalism, Edward Said makes the claim that, as opposed to a growing body of positive knowledge about the Arab world, Western ignorance grows more refined and complex, leading to reinforced fictionalised versions which demonise the other (2003, 62). According to Said, through the Middle Ages, Christianity considered Islam to be a false religion and Mohammed was seen to be “... the epitome of lechery, debauchery and sodomy, and a whole battery of assorted treacheries , all of which derived ‘logically’ from his doctrinal impostures.” (2003, 62)

This attitude was perpetuated in the European world throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with Islam being labelled as heretical and Arabia being seen as the fringe of civilisation. This attitude also persisted through the eighteenth century, when the false imagery of the Islamic and Arabic world had been canonised by major authors such as Shakespeare, Milton and Cervantes. The European imagination consistently misrepresented Islam with fabricated, ideological myths being widely accepted as knowledge (Said 2003, 62).

It is argued that Said’s theory of Orientalism does not quite fit the framework of Western journalism today (Brasted 2001, 210). Said was writing for a time when European hegemonic (particularly British and French) colonialism dominated the Muslim world and the Islamic world was seen to be in decline. Today, Islam is portrayed to be aggressively militant, repressive and stuck in old ways. Whereas Said’s view came from ignorance and superiority, today’s stereotype stems from ignorance and fear (Brasted 2001, 210).

A biased philosophical and theoretical framework for the perceptions of ‘otherness’ of the Islamic world is crystallised in a quote from philosopher Jacques Derrida given shortly after September 11.
“... the experience Europe inaugurated at the time of the Enlightenment in the relationship between the political and the theological or, rather, the religious, though still uneven, unfulfilled, relative and complex, will have left in European political space absolutely original marks with regard to religious doctrine ... Such marks can be found neither in the Arab world nor the Muslim world... ” (Almond 2007, 198).

As a thinker, Derrida seems to be placing Europe at the centre of the thinking world, and while not dismissing the Muslim world, he is certainly placing it on the philosophical periphery. Ian Almond writes that it is worrying that intellectual writings about the other tend to derive from previous intellectual and philosophical literature rather than first-hand experience or knowledge of the non-Western world. This leads to the literary and philosophical canon which references the Islamic world to maintain a purely European perspective (Almond 2007, 203).

To better understand the issue of Muslim representation, it can be looked at through relevant representation theories. The ideological representation is about a domination discourse which marginalises the views not held by the privileged culture (Ahmed et al 2007, 11). Three important discourses to be applied to the issue of Muslims’ representation in the West are:

•Ethnocentric discourse: A sense that other cultures and societies are peripheral and the development of a ‘you’ and ‘me’ mentality leading to the marginalisation of the ‘other’.

•Domination discourse: An attitude about power; ideologies are approached with preconceived notions of ‘we’ the superior and the disadvantaged inferior other.

•Demonisation discourse: A malicious and dishonest approach, aiming to represent the other in a bad light by spreading false and damaging ideology.
(Ahmed et al 2007, 13)

All these discourses can be applied to examples and attitudes permeating the issue of the Western perception of Islam. The media has established and reinforced attitudes which correspond to these discourses, as can be seen in the examples given throughout this essay.

A defining moment that shaped the Western perception of Islam today came about in the 1970s (Gerges 2003, 75). Until World War II the dealings of the United States with the Middle East had been framed in the context of a secular nationalism. The early 1970s however, saw a rise in religious Islamic politics (Gerges 2003, 76). The 1978-79 Iranian revolution coupled with the hostage crisis in which Americans were held captive by the Iranian state, had a profound effect on the perspective of the West. Assertive, militant Islam was brought to the forefront of the political consciousness. Islam continued to be stigmatised In the 1990s, terrorism became synonymous with Islamic extremism leading to further demonisation and marginalisation of the Muslim world (Gerges 2003, 76).
A major sociological study into ‘news values’ that took place in the 1960s by Johan Galtung and Marie Holmboe Ruge found that journalists, often subconsciously, emphasise certain ‘news factors’ in their reporting. These include conflict, disaster and ethnocentrism (Hafez 2001, 6). It is clear that journalists continue to utilise these values, and this is particularly demonstrated by the reporting of Islam by the mainstream media in the West.

Currently, it is evident that much of the stereotyping and stigma attributed to Islam is misinformed and dangerous. In an article by Ervand Abrahamian published in 2003, in Third World Quarterly, the writer discusses the work of the author Samuel Huntington, and explains the way in which the events of September 11, 2001 were framed by the mainstream United States media, in the context of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. When the American news media was covering the fallout of the September 11 crisis, few Middle East specialists were actually consulted and a sensationalist attitude was privileged (Abrahamian 2003, 540). The example is given that the New York Times framed the post September 11 reaction of the United States in the context of a cultural and religious war, using broad terms such as ‘The core of Muslim’s rage’ and ‘Yes, this is about Islam’ (Abrahamian 2003, 531). This attitude spread, not simply being confined to stories about terrorism or the Middle East. Political and social ills in Islamic countries around the world were regularly placed in the context of a discussion about Islam (Abrahamian 2003, 533).

Abrahamian goes on to discuss the implications of the American attitude towards Islam in the 21st century. In what is a majority Christian nation with a powerful Christian lobby, some evangelical Christian leaders have spoken out against the Islamic religion, saying that ‘Islam is a warrior religion’ and that ‘Muslims are worse than Nazis’ (Abrahamian 2003, 539). On an individual level, according to Abrahamian, Muslims in the West have been subjected to extra scrutiny at airport security and many experience discrimination in the workplace and verbal and physical abuse (Abrahamian 2003, 539).

Specific Islamic imagery is frequently used to emphasise the distance between cultures and encourage a marginalising of Islam. The faith is presented as a caricature and symbols such as the veil or a beard are attached to an extremist philosophy which opposes the attitude of the overwhelming majority of Islam (Brasted 2001, 220).

Now, so-called Islamic revivalism dominates the mainstream discourse concerning Islam, leaving the ‘true believers’ to go unheard. These Muslims who completely reject militant Islam and arguably have a stronger religious life than their radical colleagues, are ignored and the Muslim intellectuals who reject Islamic extremism have difficulty inserting their critical views into the global debate (Arkoun 2003, 19).

During the reporting of the September 11 crisis, the al-Jazeera television network was an Arab news source which achieved great prominence. As a news channel, al-Jazeera has been credited with unifying and mobilising opinion in the Arab world (Poole & Richardson 2006, 7). It is argued that an influential and respected international media representative for the Arab and Islamic world offers an alternative source and perspective, leading to more positive global connections (Poole & Richardson 2006, 7). The influence that al-Jazeera offers, undermines the Western dominant and demonisation discourses, directly reporting the reality of the Islamic world and opposing the Western ethnocentric filters.

In addition to the measures that the Islamic world is taking to break the misrepresentative Western perception of Islam, it is important to look at how Muslims view major events and actions in which Islam is seen to be at the core. In 2002, Simon Haddad and Hilal Khashan published an article on Lebanese Muslim views on the September 11 attacks, analysing the results of a large survey which queried Muslims attitudes towards the West and extremist Islam. They conclude that many Islamic individuals believe that on a political level, the United States and its partners must cease treating Middle Eastern countries like non-entities (Haddad & Khashan 2002, 826). However, they also found that a surprising number (32%) of respondents supported the actions of the terrorists on September 11 (Haddad & Khashan 2002, 822). This suggests that many Muslims also need to develop their understanding and perception of a fair representation of Western culture, which would aid in facilitating the better treatment and framing of Muslims by the West.

Contemporary biased media coverage of Islam in the West does not result solely from the events of September 11, 2001. In 1997, an article appeared in Economic and Political Weekly which covered the mainstream Western media’s tendency to demonise Islam to serve their own geo-political interest and portray the Islamic world as being anathema to civilised values (Thussu 1997, 264). Daya Kishin Thussu, who wrote the article, proposed that the Muslim media needed to make an effort to reduce their dependency on Western news sources.

Inherently biased information and imagery in the form of ‘Islamaphobia’ has been perpetuated by the Western media’s often narrow view of Islamic issues and Muslims. In the book (Mis)Representing Islam, John Richardson focuses on the attitudes of British newspapers, finding that journalism can be used to reinforce the inequalities that exist between cultures and societies. The majority opinion is often adopted by the media as it will appeal to the consumer market (Richardson 2004, 35). According to Richardson, media appealing to the mainstream can result in minority ethnic opinions being marginalised (Richardson 2004, 36).

Richardson also discusses methods used to normalise and positively represent Islam in the West. In order to justly portray Islam, it is important to discuss the religion as being of Abrahamic origin with close ties to the Judaic and Christian traditions. This characteristic of Islam facilitates understanding but is often ignored by the mainstream media (Richardson, 2004, 149). Giving an overview of positive themes in newspaper articles, Richardson encourages and praises those which reference the repression and typical stereotyping of Islam. Although they are in the minority, media dissenting the ‘Islam vs the West’ representation are considered to be important elements of the media discourse. An interesting approach taken by some articles was to dissent the typical representation of British Muslims, highlighting their ‘Britishness’ (Richardson 2004, 148-9). As this marginalises the Muslim elements of an individual, celebrating difference rather than emphasising similarity may be a more effective path.

With regard to the portrayal of Islam in the Australian media, it seems that it is hardly different from the biased coverage disseminated in the United States, Britain and Canada (Brasted 2001, 208). The typical portrayal of the more contentious aspects of Islam has certainly dominated the coverage. This is not so much a result of a permeating Orientalist perspective, rather it is related to the methods and marketing requirements of news organisations which are similar to those of Britain (Brasted 2001, 222).

Ultimately, Western media has categorised and caricatured Islam and its followers, directly affecting the opinions and actions of those who look to the mainstream media. With the United States waging a war on terror, and violence in the Middle East regularly featuring in news coverage, the images broadcast relating to Islam are negative and damaging. Whether the community reactions and behaviour of the media come from intended cultural hegemony or the continued following of traditional practice and attitude, it is important that both the Muslim world and the Western media make a distinct effort to overturn current practices, as the ignorance, misunderstanding and distortion that exist certainly compound issues of global conflict and is detrimental to individual Muslims throughout the world.

Abrahamian, E. 2003. The US Media, Huntington and September 11. Third World Quarterly 24 (3) 529-544.

Almond, I. 2007. The New Orientalists: Representations of Islam from Foucault to Baudrillard. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.

Agha, O. H. 2003, Islamic Fundamentalism and its Image in the Western Media. In Islam and the West in the Mass Media, ed. Kai Hafez, 219-233. United States of America: Hampton Press Inc.

Ameli, S. R., Marandi, S. M., Ahmed, S., Kara, S. and Merali, A. 2007. The Ideology of Demonisation. Wembley: Islamic Human Rights Commission.
Said, E. 2003. Orientalism. England: Penguin Books.

Arkoun, A. 2003. Rethinking Islam Today. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities) 18-39.

Brasted, H. V. 2001. Contested Representations in Historical Perspective: Images of Islam and the Australian Press 1950-2001. In Muslim Communities in Australia, ed. Shahram Akbarzadeh and Abdullah Saeed, 206-227. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd.

Gerge, F. A. 2003 Islam and Muslims in the Mind of America. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities) 73-89.

Haddad, S. and Khashan, H. 2002. Islam and Terrorism: Lebanese Muslim Views on September 11. The Journal of Conflict Resolution 46 (6) 812-828.
Hafez, K. 2003, International News Coverage and the Problems of Media Globalisation. In Islam and the West in the Mass Media, ed. Kai Hafez, 3-24. United States of America: Hampton Press Inc.

Richardson, J. E. 2004. (Mis)Representing Islam: The racism and rhetoric of British broadsheet newspapers. Norwich: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Richardson, J. and Poole, E. 2006. Muslims and the News Media. United States of America: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.

Thussu, D. K. 1997. How Media Manipulates the Truth about Terrorism. Economic and Political Weekly 32 (6) 264-267.

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