Examine how Islam is portrayed in the media, especially in the aftermath of the 2001 September 11th attacks. What are some of the effects of this portrayal on the Islamic communities globally and locally?
This essay examines how Islam is portrayed in the media, and how this representation of Islam has affected Muslim communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and my hometown, Singapore. To set the parameters of my essay, media is defined as broadcast and print news media. In studying the portrayal of Islam in the media, I am using two theoretical frameworks by Bourdieu and Baudrillard, reflected in their essays ‘On Television’ and ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ respectively.
Media coverage on 9/11
The terrorist attacks on the iconic Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, or commonly known as 9/11, marked a watershed in US, and probably, world history. The attacks were planned, executed, and staged perfectly that no one, not even the media, would have missed the succession of events that brought down a powerful country which prides itself in its defence and warfare. The perpetrators of the attacks, the Al-Qaeda, justified their violent act as part of their crusade against the infidels––the Americans. Their religious affiliation to Islam then became the spotlight of the news coverage both on TV and in print. In this essay, I will examine three areas of Islam that have been on the news, and how they have been presented so far. These areas cover topics such as Jihad, the Koranic verses, and Syaria penal laws.
The media and its medium: ‘manufacturing our consent’
According to Marsden and Savigny (2009:1), ‘The media provide the basis from which we can gain knowledge and understanding of our contemporary environment, yet they are not passive conduits for communication’. The phrase, ‘passive conduits for communication’, gives us the impression that the media are not just presenting us with the news per se, but in a way, influences what we think through the narrative frames of the news. Journalists do define the parameters of what we think through the framing of the news, and what constitutes the ‘news’. Within the framework of narrative frames, the political influence on news production also plays a key role in determining the type of news for public consumption.
This political influence is evident when, in addressing the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration clearly demarcated the distinctive line between the notion of ‘us’ and ‘others’, so that Americans, both Muslims and non-Muslims, would feel united as one, and rally for one another. In reality, hate crimes were happening in the US; tackling this problem meant that President Bush had to step in and construct a framework that separates the Muslims in the US (‘with us’) from the Muslims outside of the US (‘against us’) (Ibrahim, 2010:118). The other Muslims, who were not in the confines of American soil, were treated as the ‘others’––a brand of Islam which advocates Jihad. The discourse of ‘otherness’ primarily focuses on the religion of Islam, which is inherently violent, and directs hatred at America. The media presents this ‘violent’ nature of Islam through the narrative frames, when terrorism is equated with Islam, and creates a conflation of the terms such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islam’.
The conflation of the terms, ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islam’, presents itself as an area which is highly contentious: is it a coincidence or is it consciously ‘manufactured’ by the media to influence how we (readers or audience alike) think? To respond to this, I would like to quote Bourdieu who states that even before the news reaches us on TV or in print, it has already been subjected to ‘censorship’ and various levels of decision making, in which the journalists ‘retain only the things capable of interesting them and “keeping their attention”, which means things that fit their categories and mental grid; and they reject as insignificant or remain indifferent to symbolic expressions that ought to reach the population as a whole’ (1998:330). The content that makes up the news has to be ‘interesting’ and ‘attention-grabbing’; thus, scenes that denote violence in strikes and rioting are preferred to a peaceful demonstration. The interviewees are also selected carefully, and usually these are people who are loud, young, and angry (Ibrahim, 2010:120).
The process of news selection is also crucial. In Bourdieu’s description, we see how news is filtered in many layers (within the journalist’s decision making matrix and through the management) and at the end of it, the essence of it, or even the truth, might be dissipated. News that ‘ought to reach the population as a whole’ gets swept aside, and what gets aired on TV is clearly news that focuses only on ‘contentiousness, scandal, or the offbeat’ (Underwood, 2002:130). What gets presented in the media then is through the journalist’s (and the management’s) lens: an overgeneralised and oversimplified connectivity theory that links terrorism with Islam, just because the perpetrators happen to be Muslims and are proud to be citing Islamic verses when interviewed on TV. At the end of it, the credibility of the news is questionable. However, are readers or the audience able to discern this, or have they been conditioned to this type of news?
To respond to the question of whether the audience is capable of discerning the credibility of the news or whether they have been conditioned to consuming the news as it is, McChesney (2003:310) claims that ‘professional journalism is on the decline, and over the years, the audience is used to the sub-standard reporting’. He also cites Westin (2000:5) who deduces that ‘the audience has become accustomed to shoddy reporting to the point that the average viewer does not necessarily expect quality journalism…the mass audience cannot perceive the difference between a well produced story and a below-average one’. The conditioning is there, and the quality of journalism has definitely met the expectations, but the bar set is not high. The audience is used to the below-average news that they are not able to discern the difference between good and not so good quality news.
In my opinion, the concern lies not just with the quality of the news, but the way in which journalists frame their news to ‘manufacture [our] consent’ (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). Are we ‘tricked’ into forming our own opinion with the media’s manipulative news framing? To a large extent, we are, especially now when media conglomerates are controlled by a select few. The same news footage gets reproduced several times, up to a point that it leaves an indelible mark on the audience (and to a certain extent cloying too). I would like to term this mass reproduction of news as ‘canned news’: they have been ‘manufactured’ by the media conglomerates, and ‘delivered’ straight to news stations worldwide.
Further, Bourdieu (1998:330) also adds that ‘these journalists can impose on the whole society their vision of the world, their conception of problems, and their point of view’. This imposition is not done in an explicit way, but done in a manner that is only discernible if one is aware of the inner workings of journalism. What is presented is one journalist’s point of view, and the audience believes that it is the real representation of events. However, an event itself has many perspectives and points of view––what is real, and what is the truth can never be presented in one ‘plenary’ platform. This phenomenon is reflected in Baudrillard (1994:468) when he writes:
Whence the characteristic hysteria of our times: that of the production and reproduction of the real…What every society looks for in continuing to produce, and to overproduce, is to restore the real that escapes it. That is why today, this “material” production is that of the hyperreal itself…Thus everywhere the hyperrealism of simulation is translated by the hallucinary resemblance of the real to itself.
From the above quote, we see how the production and reproduction of the real are happening in our society today. But it is not only the society that makes this phenomenon ‘materialise’: the media also play an important part in creating this hyperreality. The simulacrum is as close as the real thing, but the real cannot be presented in any form. Paradoxically speaking, the simulacrum is the real itself.
Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality is also echoed in Horkheimer & Adorno’s (2002:58) ‘The Culture of Identity’ when they posit that ‘language which appeals to mere truth only arouses impatience to get down to the real business behind it. Words which are not means seem meaningless, and the others seem to be fiction, untruth.’ This paradox reflects the sad state of how truth is downplayed or altogether dismissed in the media. The continuity of this paradox represents itself in the form of a Mobius strip––there is no beginning or end. The culture industry continuously duplicates ‘appearances’, and as a result, the truth is obliterated.
Misinterpretation of Jihad
After 9/11, when the world knew about the perpetrators’ religion, more attention was given to Islam, especially how the terrorists made use of the term, ‘Jihad’, to justify their actions. Journalists who presumably had no background knowledge of Islam nor were fluent in Arabic language, presented Jihad as Holy War. This is a common problem with any language when it is translated; there is usually no corresponding accurate meaning when some words are translated into English. More often than not, a transliteration occurs, not a translation. And this is what usually happens when journalists look up Arabic words in Arabic-English dictionaries. According to Ibrahim (2010:118), ‘one of the ongoing problems with western coverage of Islam is that Jihad is always translated as a holy war.’ This was also demonstrated when ABC’s Bob Woodruff did a news coverage in Islamabad, where, according to him, ‘is where the recruits…study the Koran and they learn about Jihad, or Holy War’ (cited by Ibrahim, 2010:119).
This concept of Jihad can be misconstrued not only by non-Muslims, but also by Muslims alike, especially if they lack background knowledge in Arabic. Therein lies the problem where Jihad can be manipulated to suit one’s personal agenda. This is clearly illustrated by Osama Bin Laden who claimed that his Jihad was ‘against the United States and killing of Americans is the core of his faith’ (cited by Ibrahim, 2010:119). The phrase, ‘the core of his faith’, would be a gross misrepresentation of Islam, in which the core values are definitely not ‘killing of Americans’. Genocide is never advocated in the Koran, let alone killing of Americans.
When the press presents a radical view (especially by Bin Laden) that is not balanced by other perspectives, especially from an Islamic scholar’s point of view, the audience or readers see only one perspective, albeit a bigoted and incorrect one, of a religion. An audience that is not aware of the limitations of news coverage will believe what the news anchors report, and readers who are not aware of editorial biases will consume the written words as the truth. This phenomenon is attested to by Baurillard (1994:473), who writes that ‘one remains dependent on the analytical conception of the media, on an external active and effective agent, on “perspectival” information with the horizon of the real and of meaning as the vanishing point’. The idea of dependence is crucial here, as we as receivers of information, rely on the media’s objectivity and efficacy in producing “perspectival” information or a balanced viewpoint.
The lack of contextualisation
Although the media purportedly report news at an objective level, media analysts question whether this objectivity can be achieved in light of human biases, and the limited perspectives offered not just through the journalists’ viewpoints, but the panoptic nature of television. When the topic of religion is covered in the news, there are many factors that can affect the understanding of the readers or audience. Within the short time constraint given to journalists to cover a topic on religion, it is virtually impossible to find multiple perspectives that will result in a balanced report. The lack of contextualisation also exacerbates the problem––according to McChesney (2003:304), ‘A second flaw of journalism is that it tends to avoid contextualisation like the plague…Coverage tends to be a barrage of facts and official statements. What little contextualisation professional journalism does provide tends to conform to official source consensus premises’.
The lack of contextualisation is palpable when Koranic verses on war are taken in isolation, and incorrectly reflect the real ‘terror’ of Islam. When the 9/11 terrorists used Koranic verses to justify their violent actions, or their crusades, the reporters aired their views without consolidating this with other viewpoints, especially from the perspectives of Islamic scholars. This gives an incorrect view of what Islam is, and Ibrahim (2000:119), cites Edward Said’s observation:
Much of what one reads and sees in the media about Islam represents the aggression as coming from Islam because that is what ‘Islam’ is. Covering Islam is a one-sided activity that obscures what ‘we’ do, and highlights instead what Muslims and Arabs by their very flawed nature are. (Said, 1997: xxii)
Most of the time, the news coverage is on Arabs, whom the audience usually associate with Islam; the problem is, Arabs are not a homogenous group of Muslims––there are also Arabs who are Christians. Arabs and Muslims have become synonymous that there is no distinction between race or ethnicity with religion. This is just one example of a conflation of terms.
Another example of a conflation of terms is ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’. The 9/11 attacks became a preamble to many more terrorist attacks that occurred in Bali, London, and Bali. The perpetrators who executed these attacks more often than not claimed affiliation to Al-Qaeda, and inevitably, the conflation of the terms Muslim/Islam and terrorist has resulted. The terrorist has a face now, and profiling (by government watchdogs all over the world) has just been made easier. When the news covers terrorist attacks, and show young, angry, masked Muslim men with their rifles chanting, “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great! God is Great!), the audience makes the connection of terrorism with Islam. Further, every time Osama Bin Laden is mentioned, he is seen with a firearm, and rallying the Mujahideens. The constant play of these images definitely makes an impact on the audience, and ‘manufactures’ the association of terrorism with Islam.
Impact on Muslims worldwide
The 9/11 attacks not only created chaos and cacophony worldwide, they also spurred a spirit of Islamic revivalism and more inter–faith dialogues in some countries such as Tony Blair’s Faith-to-face foundation, and the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore. Hopkins (2008:44) cites Bloul, 2003, when she observes that even though ‘Islamophobia in the media has grown over the recent years, the rate of Islamic ethnicisation has also increased’. Islamic ethnicisation entails Islamic ‘oneness’, and probably has elements of Islamic revivalism when Australian Muslims, despite their race, nationality, or political affiliation, become united (Hopkins, 2008:44). They identify with the challenges that Muslims around the world face, and empathise with the difficult journey that some Muslims embark on, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks.
In Singapore, Islamic revivalism is evident when issues such as allowing Muslim girls to wear the hijab or head scarf in government schools are brought forth and contested. Being a pluralistic society, the Singapore government is aware of racial and religious tensions, and attempts to appeal to Singaporean Muslims to be ‘moderate Muslims’ and place their national loyalty above everything else, especially race and religion. Tan (2007:26) notes that ‘one consequence of Islamic revivalism is that Muslims may find it increasingly difficult to put national interests above the personal desire to take one’s faith seriously––even if it means expressing one’s religious views in the public arena’. While it is clear that there is a clear demarcation between one’s duty to the country and obligation to his/ her faith, Islamic revivalism tends to blur this line. Currently, Singaporean Muslims practise their religious beliefs in the private sphere; however, when religious issues are brought up in public spheres, the government has to tread on this ground carefully lest racial or religious riots are created. History has taught Singapore that this could happen, especially in the case of Maria Hertogh. The lessons from history have ensured that the government will try its every means to prevent such events from happening again.
At the same time, the rise in Islamic revivalism also brought about the world’s attention to Islamic Syaria laws, especially the penal laws, which transgress the international law of human rights. In Australia, particularly, ‘there appears to have arisen a disturbing sense that Muslims are un–Australian and that Islam poses a threat to the Australian way of life’ (Akbarzadeh & Smith, 2005:2), as cited in Hopkins (2008:44). The question of whether Syaria laws sit well with the concept of democracy has been explored in the current affairs programme, ‘Insight’, which was aired on SBS One on Tuesday, 2nd November, 2010. The title of the segment was ‘Fear of Islam’, and the question of whether anti–Islamic sentiment was on the rise was explored. The question seemed rhetorical to me, and the title was, for want of a better word, distasteful. What it invited was a whole barrage of criticisms from the audience, who were ill-informed about Syaria penal laws, and an ‘expert’ who was formerly a Muslim. SBS’s attempt to address the problem of anti–Islamic sentiments that are on the rise in Australia is applaudable, but rather than attaining enlightenment, it opened a can of worms, where more problems were created.
Islamophobia in Australia is a phenomenon beleaguering Australian Muslims since the turn of the century; according to Dunn, Klocker, & Salabay (2007:564), ‘contemporary anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia is reproduced through a racialization that includes well rehearsed stereotypes of Islam, perceptions of threat and inferiority, as well as fantasies that the Other (in this case Australian Muslims) do not belong, or are absent’.
Dunn et al. cites Kobayashi and Peake (2000:393) who define racialization as “the process by which groups ‘are identified, given stereotypical characteristics, and coerced into specific living conditions’ which often involve ‘social/spatial segregation’ or otherwise ‘racialized places’. [Additionally], this process is not necessarily based on racial differentiation (genetics, skin colour, etc), but through asserted cultural features, such as religious performances”.
Thus, racialization, through the description given above, does not mean categorising groups according to their race, but according to religious beliefs and practices. The ‘well rehearsed stereotypes of Islam’ are probably a result of the media (mis)representations of Islam or an overgeneralisation of what Muslims are like, while the concept of the ‘other’ shows the marginalisation of Australian Muslims, who are at the periphery of mainstream society. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent terrorism acts have exacerbated the situation for Australian Muslims because Dunn et al. cites Dreher (2005:11–14, 20–21) that ‘hijab-wearing Islamic women have reported higher rates of racist incivilities and attacks than have Islamic men or those women not wearing forms of cover’.
The hijab is the most distinctive Islamic dressing that signals others that the hijab-wearer is a Muslim. It is also this distinctive form of dressing that subjects the women to ‘racist incivilities and attacks’ because it is the symbol for a Muslimah (a Muslim woman). Hopkins (2008:44) cites Göle (1996:1), stating that ‘No other symbol than the veil reconstructs with such force the “otherness” of Islam to the West’. The hijab is not the only topic that is in the news; the niqab or the burqa has also gained a lot of attention in the news. In France, the niqab or the burqa has been banned for security reasons; as mentioned earlier, the face of terrorism has been placed on the Muslims, both men and women. The conflation of the terms, ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ has now extended to Muslim women as well.
Racialization also occurs in United Kingdom. Dunn et al. (2007:567) cites Hopkins (2004:269), whose interviews with young Muslim Scots reveal the following:
Young Muslims who visibly display markers of ‘Muslimness’, whether this be through dress, through having a beard or simply through skin colour, are more likely to be marginalized through everyday racism and lack of access to employment than Muslims who do not visibly display their ‘Muslimness’.
This notion of ‘Muslimness’ does not only occur in United Kingdom, but in Singapore too. According to Ramakrishna (2009:8), ‘contentious issues among this [Muslim] community include the perceived lack of representation of proportionate numbers of Muslims in sensitive appointments in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)… the recent ban on wearing headscarves or tudung by Muslim schoolgirls attending national schools, and the penchant of a number of employers to require Mandarin proficiency as a job requirement, a prerequisite many Muslims consider a form of economic discrimination’. Thus, the problems faced by Muslims in UK and Singapore are in the same vein: marginalisation and job discrimination.
Islamophobia in the UK, however, is on the rise, especially with the establishment of the English Defence League (EDL), which is against the spread of Islam and Islamic extremism, and Syaria laws in England. The EDL carried out mass demonstrations and have, on several occasions, turned violent. The EDL members proclaim their downright hatred towards Muslims, and the membership is growing every day.
Although there have been no physical attacks on Muslims in Singapore, or any establishments such as the EDL in Singapore, it’s a totally different story in cyberspace. There have been incidents when some Singaporeans were charged in court for sedition against the Muslims in Singapore. The Singapore government takes a strong stand against such acts that could disturb peace and stability in Singapore.
Religion is definitely a terrain where the media has to tread carefully. There are many compelling forces that can create religious tension in the world, and the media are one of the big players in the industry that can make or break the tension. While the picture painted of Muslims around the world is bleak, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, there are efforts to dispel the misconceptions that non-Muslims have about Islam, such as Tony Blair’s face-to-faith foundation, and the Inter-Religious Organisation in Singapore. At the same time, Muslims also need to stand united, and speak out against the libellous statements against Islam, the injustices that are inflicted upon them, but at the same time, tackle these issues in a level-headed manner.
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