As you know, we don’t just bring you all of the finest student news available in the British press. We are also totally committed to bringing you first class study guides, gap year information and interview techniques. This is the first instalment of the Young Academic Study Guides and is a good example of a journalism degree dissertation. Written by Charles Whitworth in 2008, this piece of coursework achieved a 2:1 and may be a good guide for any of you embarking on dissertation for a media course. Please feel free to leave your comments below and look out for more Young Academic Study Guides. Plenty of great student news coming this week as well!
This dissertation or research project examines whether or not, and if so how the image of Islam has changed in the British Print Press since September 11.
Through the qualitative analysis of data and wider reading on the theme, conclusion will be made on whether media contribute to creating public hysteria regarding Islam.
The point will be emphasised that the press present all Muslims as one group with one perspective when there are clear boundaries between British Muslims, extreme Muslims and the two sects of the religion – Shi’a and Sunni.
Through the reading of current theorists, the collection of data in the form of contemporary newspaper reports and the interviewing of a representative from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) examples have been obtained which reveal a trend that has developed in today’s print media.
The study will unearth apathy by the British public on what Islam actually is and how this lack of understanding is not helped by the British print presses refusal to portray the faith fairly. The theory that they do this in order to create impact and to ultimately sell papers will be discussed.
This dissertation investigates the British print press and its reporting of Islam since September 11th. Analysis has been undertaken on how Islam has been presented in the years since the event by the two contrasting sides of the British print media. Before answering the question, it is important to define the key terms involved.
This study refers to Islam constantly as it is the subject of the dissertation. Islam is the religious faith of Muslims, based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad and the Koran which demands total submission to one deity – referred to as Allah. Islam is also a term used for the whole body of Muslim believers, their civilization, and the countries in which it is the dominant religion.
This project investigates how the image of Islam has changed in the British print press since September 11th. The two newspapers chosen as representative of the British print media are The Guardian, as a more liberal or middle to left publication and The Times as an example of the conservative press. By choosing two different types of publication, with different political biases, more objective and accurate conclusions can be made.
This research project includes primary research such as the in depth analysis of the aforementioned contemporary newspapers. This evidence has helped to generate the theories that have then been developed through wider reading on the subject.
Secondary research has been conducted in the form of an interview with a prominent member of the young British Muslim community. Through contacting the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), the president Mr. Ali Alhadithi identified an individual that he saw as an ideal candidate and representative for the Islam community– an active member of the British Muslim community who had just returned from the Hajj.
This investigation will emphasise how the British Muslim community has been used as a scapegoat by the British print press in order to legitimate the behaviour of the western world. The quest for oil as well as justification for the war in Iraq has motivated politicians and journalists alike to present the population’s Muslim contingent as demonic and evil.
The dissertation is structured in a way that considers all sides of the issue at hand. An interview with a Muslim representative has been performed and two newspapers have been analysed intricately. This has been tied in with the theories of recognised writers on the subject. Once all of these factors have been considered, the conclusion to this study will then answer the dissertation title and suggest courses of action that could remedy the problem. The appendices to this study are made up of evidence and statistics to substantiate any claims made in the body of the dissertation. By shaping the dissertation in this manner, the conclusions made will be as comprehensive and informed as possible and give a fair and accurate answer to the research project title.
Choosing the correct research method for this dissertation was of paramount importance as adopting the wrong method would have had serious implications for the outcome.
The subject of the research project undertaken has been classified as a phenomenon, therefore it will be necessary to investigate the problem, describe it and seek to explain it. When attempting to do so it is of vital importance to outline the most salient features of the phenomenon – in this case these are the image of Islam and how it has been framed since September 11 and the role of the British print press.
A qualitative research method was chosen as quite clearly the most appropriate for the chosen topic area; “Researchers adopting a qualitative perspective are more concerned to understand individuals’ perceptions of the world. They doubt whether social ‘facts’ exist and question whether a ‘scientific’ approach can be used when dealing with human beings.” (Bell, 2005, p. 7)
Bell argues here that when dealing with a non-scientific matter but a social one, it may not be possible to give an actual solution to the problem but through intricate research it is possible to discover why the problem exists and to suggest some courses of action. In this project, the way that the image of Islam has been reported in the British print press since September 11th will be revealed and some explanation of possible reasons why will be discussed. Repercussions of the situation will also be analysed.
Due to the fact that this is a social phenomenon and not a scientific question that can be answered with a simple yes or no conclusion, the aim is to reveal exactly why this set of circumstances exists and as just mentioned – suggest how future conduct could be improved.
Although this investigation will not isolate the problem, or indeed affect it, some conclusions may be made that could suggest a way for the issue to be tackled in the future. Social, political, economic and cultural phenomena are the majority of the time, the result of a very complex set of circumstances and events – this is certainly the case with this dissertation and the experiments in the form of interviews, document analysis and the research of experts in the field will offer some explanation.
The aim of this research is fundamentally, to uncover the reasons why the British print press convey Islam and its followers in the way that they do. As explained, the differing methods used by certain publications will be explored – this is due to the fact that this could reveal motives or justification for the issue being discussed. The ways in which the image has changed since September 11th will be thoroughly examined and explained in a critical manner – investigating every aspect involved.
By reading as widely as possible on a topic that has had surprisingly little written about it, analysing the two sides of the British print press – both conservative and liberal as well as interviewing a member of the British Muslim society – a qualitative research method was advantageous for this particular area of study. Although a qualitative research method has been adopted, this does not mean quantitative methods cannot be used as well. Indeed, through the use of tables showing the coverage of Muslim stories in The Times and The Guardian, some quantitative research methods have been utilised in order to substantiate the other research that makes up this dissertation.
In particular, as a type of qualitative research, a course of ‘action research’ has been decided upon. According to Denscombe “specific knowledge is required for a specific problem in a specific situation, or when a new approach is to be grafted on to an existing system” (as cited by Bell, 2005, p. 9) action research is ideal for this problem. The topic chosen is one that requires change or improvement and Denscombe continues by stating that the aim is to “arrive at recommendations for good practice that will tackle a problem or enhance the performance of the organization and individuals through changes to the rules and procedures within they operate”. This approach is perfect for the issue being discussed as it is one that requires much improvement in order to give the Islamic community in Britain fair portrayal in the press.
Due to the fact that a contemporary issue is being discussed, newspaper articles on the debate were easy to come by and the use of the internet in order to obtain old articles was also particularly useful. Analysis was then undertaken of these articles and comparisons made between the ways in which the two specified publications covered certain aspects of British Islamic issues.
In order to minimise the risk of any opinion on the subject prior to the dissertation’s commencement being displayed in the body of the research project, the findings of the analysis of the reports were then discussed with relevance to the wider reading of theorists such as Poole, Karim and Hafez. Any statements or claims made in the project are therefore justified with contextual evidence. The conclusions made in this project may simply be the way in which the facts have been interpreted, a major aspect of qualitative research, but these are justified with examples and the ideas of experts.
This dissertation looks at how certain publications frame stories about British Muslims in order to create or intensify a feeling of ‘Islamophobia’ within the United Kingdom. The framing of risk is analysed and a theory that these ‘scare stories’ create a sense of hysteria in order to sway public opinion is developed. This research develops these theories and goes some way to finding out how the British press, in particular The Times and The Guardian, portray Islam and their possible motives for doings so.
Integral to this study is an article from The Guardian by Ronan Bennett, which is referred to in the evidential section of this research project. In his feature, Bennett argues many of the points highlighted in the dissertation almost exactly and focuses on one perpetrator of the misrepresentation of Islam in particular – Martin Amis. Bennett even goes as far as to label Amis a racist and highlights other examples of the problem. This cannot be used as hard proof of the issue but is an excellent source which can be used to substantiate some of the points that are made.
Also featured in the evidential chapter of this dissertation is an interview with a representative from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), who due to the repercussions of being named being quite dangerous, is referred to simply as Mahmoud. This provided an excellent secondary source that could be used to substantiate the theories that are developed elsewhere in the project. Analysis of this interview can be found in the evidential chapter of this research project and a transcript of the interview is also included (see appendix 1).
The questions asked were carefully selected so as not to indicate that any decision had been made before the investigation, so were not leading questions. Although this is an issue where there is a great deal of misrepresentation involved, it is essential in any research project not to come to any conclusions until all collected evidence has been evaluated. Questions were not asked in order to get certain answers as the very point of this investigation is to highlight a lack of objectivity by the British press, it would therefore be hypocritical to display this through the asking of provocative questions. Questions were simply chosen in order to obtain a first-hand perspective of the question being tackled from a member of the community being focused on.
Research has also been carried out into the history of the religion, as it would have been unwise to delve into such a controversial topic without acquiring background knowledge. Background reading was performed into the two sects of the Islam religion – Shi’a and Sunni. Differences in the values of Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims were discovered, and how this affects the everyday lives of the two strands of the religion. The media’s role has obviously been focused on in order to answer the chosen dissertation title. As will become evident in the main body of the dissertation, a worrying trend has developed in the British print press which, it could be interpreted, amounts ultimately to cultural racism and propaganda.
The objective of this project is to reveal the bias and misrepresentation that is in existence in the British print press. Change is undoubtedly necessary regarding this issue and the research has been carried out in order to suggest change. The findings of this dissertation, if put into the right hands should result in action being taken that would result in fairer reportage for British Muslims. At the very least, more people could learn of the trend that has developed, and perhaps encourage a few more like minded journalists or social scientists into action.
The following section of the research project is a review of the literature that will be vital to the completion of the task.
Other texts will also be utilised but the following chapter describes how the more important books will contribute to the study as a whole. A list of all texts, websites, journals and resources used during this research project is included at the end of this document as new sources will materialise as the study progresses.
Muslims and the News Media, edited by Elizabeth Poole and John E. Richardson, will be an integral text as it provides in depth analysis of how The Times and The Guardian have framed Islam since September 11th. Facts and figures will also be of great use once applied to the theory that is outlined in the study.
Journalism after September 11th, edited by Phil Scraton is a compendium of papers and essays by theorist on the chosen topic – such as Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. The writing of Karim H. Karim will also be very useful as will be the further reading of this theorist.
The theme of stereotyping, which is key to the understanding of the question in hand will be assisted by Hafez’s text, Islam and the West in the Mass Media. Direct quotes from this text can be utilised and the background knowledge obtained will offer a good insight into the factors affecting the coverage of religious affairs in the press.
The difficulties in addressing the relationship between religion and the media are discussed in Religion and the Media, edited by Hent De Vries and Samuel Weber. This text will be fundamental to understanding the actual problem at hand and will offer further reading into analysing the representation of Islam in the Western press.
As discussed, the research undertaken by Elizabeth Poole and John E. Richardson will play an integral role in this dissertation. Another title, this time edited by Poole on her own named Reporting Islam: Media Representations, will offer good insight to how the portrayal of the faith altered immediately following September 11th. Released in 2002, this title will show how the image of Islam has changed in the press since that time.
September 11th was obviously an event of massive international significance, not least to the world of journalism. The event had a huge impact on the world of commerce and the hugely competitive British print press was forced to act as they have been forced to do throughout the annals of time, going back to the start of print journalism nearly two centuries ago.
The relative resilience of this specific form of print has been credited, broadly speaking, to a distinctive competitive dynamic which, since the nineteenth century, has allowed national daily newspapers periodically to reconstitute themselves in response to social and cultural changes interpreted primarily through the prism of commercialism.
(Engel et al, as cited by Zelizer and Allan, 2003, p. 160)
The attacks on the World Trade Centre sparked huge social change and commercial pressures forced the various newspapers to report September 11th and Islamic terrorism in the most appealing or newsworthy style. The press have played on the public’s concern for these issues ever since, this is widely referred to as a ‘moral panic’. First used in the 1970’s the term is used for an “episode, condition, person or group of persons that are defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” (Cohen, 1972, p. 9) The press have recognised that issues that the public deem to be a threat to their society will sell more newspapers. These ‘moral panics’ are therefore in the interests of the organisations involved. As will become clear, some publications are more obvious in their framing of these risks than others.
This playing on the public’s fear and naivety towards Islam by the press to create a sense of hysteria or ‘moral panic’ has resulted in mass stereotyping of a hugely diverse faith. This is problematic due to the fact that in general, the non-Islamic community are apathetic towards the religion and exactly what it entails. This is suggested by the research of De Vries and Weber (2002).
Moral Panic is created by the press, and indeed the government due to the fact that we live in what is described as a ‘Risk Society’. Terrorism is one of the prominent risks outlined in this theory, along with climate change. As described earlier – the press have realised that by playing on these risks or moral panics circulation can be increased. This is also supported by the research of Ulrich Beck (1992).
Beck, who is arguably the most influential pioneer of developing the ‘Risk Society’ theory touched on this theme of the terrorist threat during a speech at the London School of Economics in 2006;
The bitter varieties of this risk irony are virtually endless; among them is the fact, that, in order to protect their populations from the danger of terrorism, states increasingly limit civil rights and liberties, with the result that in the end the open, free society may be abolished
The theory, outlined in the methodology to this dissertation and later in the evidential chapter, that civil liberties and rights are being encroached due to overly negative reportage of a religion is supported here by Beck as well as the point that this set of circumstances is resulting in the deterioration of a free society.
Since September 11th the British press have been concerned with whether or not Muslims outside the UK dictate the agenda of those within it. Binary coverage has been both positive and negative since September 11th and the War in Iraq. For example, The Guardian reported on the protesting against the war by British Muslims, therefore in allegiance with Britain. This time period also gave space to Muslim writers but reinforced theories about young British Muslims going underground – this image is more apparent in The Times. So, the message being portrayed to the British public is contradictory but the fear factor is again being played on by the press and the ‘risk society’ that we live in is again being presented at the expense of the image of Islam.
The press were forced to change their focus and frameworks following September 11th and the War in Iraq. Public interest in Islam and therefore coverage of the religion and its ambassadors surged phenomenally. Between 1994 and 1996 coverage of British Muslims in the press stood at 12%, this had risen to 25% by 2003 (Poole and Richardson, 2006, p. 91) following the aforementioned events – so it has more than doubled and counted for a quarter of all newspaper coverage.
Although The Times has overtaken The Guardian in coverage levels, there are still less stories in that particular publication that sympathise with the British Muslim perspective. The former seems to concentrate on extremists such as Abu Hamza and the looming terrorist threat whereas the latter tends to cover stories such as the effects of September 11th and Guantanamo Bay – where hundreds of British Muslims were held without trial simply due to their religion. This is due to the news values that exist in the British press today – a paper such as The Times is less likely to take an interest in items with less cultural proximity unless they have extreme news value. Elizabeth Poole again adds insight into this issue; “These events have allowed for the construction of Muslims within a more limited and negative framework which is more likely to be reinforced in the conservative press” (Poole and Richardson, 2006, p. 92).
The Times has gone someway to constructing an image of Islam that is negative – being a more right-wing publication whereas The Guardian has certainly been more sympathetic and supportive of the Muslim religion and its followers. As will become clear in the evidential chapter of this dissertation, the recent coverage of Archbishop Rowan Williams’ comments about Sharia Law, and the writing of Ronan Bennett are good examples of this trend.
As described, coverage of Islam in The Guardian since September 11th is far more supportive than in The Times, with 29% of their stories since the disaster reported in a positive framework. Articles in The Guardian review the ways in which September 11th and the War in Iraq were reported whereas The Times focuses more on the differences between Islam and Christianity. This is emphasised in the research of John E. Richardson (2004)
Another interesting feature that was revealed from Poole’s quantitative research of British newspapers between 1994 and 2003, was that before the World Trade Centre was attacked, The Guardian covered more Islamic issues than The Times, with around 1450 stories a year compared to 1200. By 2003, The Times had far surpassed The Guardian, featuring roughly 2000 Islam-based stories and reports a year, compared with its rival’s relatively modest 1600.
Considering what has been discussed regarding the two publications’ differing styles of reporting these issues, this is bound to have had an effect on the public perception of Islam.
Muslims in Britain are now often depicted as exiles from Islamic countries, particularly in the conservative press. Research undertaken by Karim (2003) has revealed that suggestions of covert activities such as raising funds for political groups abroad are now rife and although these stories are occasionally justified the press regularly homogenises every Muslim into a single group with a single perspective.
There has emerged over the last three decades a set of journalistic narratives on ‘Muslim Terrorism’, whose construction is dependent on basic global perceptions about the global system of nation states, violence and the relationship between Western and Muslim societies. The dominant discourses about these issues help shape the cognitive scripts for reporting the acts of terrorism carried out by people claiming to act in the name of Islam.
(Karim, 2003, p. 81)
The cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who has now been charged with conspiring with terrorists featured prominently in the British press before his demise due to the fact that he had been operating as a member of the British community. He was demonised by the press due to his activities but he was an ideal figure due to his evil appearance and hook for a hand. The media immediately took advantage of his appearance, expressions of violence and radicalism – but this had serious implications for the way British Muslims were perceived as the press were quick to highlight how the ‘enemy’ were among us.
This kind of coverage in the press has gone a long way legitimising some of the political action that has followed September 11th, defining activities as terrorist allows the detention of people without trial. People from an Asian background have also seen an increase in on-the-spot police searches as outlined in the research conducted by Poole and Richardson (2006).
Miller develops this theory when he suggests that the framework for the reporting of Islamic issues has been altered due to governmental influence.
Since September 11th 2001, both US and UK governments have comprehensively overhauled their internal and external propaganda apparatus. These have been globally coordinated as never before to justify the ‘war on terror’ including the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq and the assault on civil liberties at home.
(as cited in Poole, 2002, p. 19)
The research of Poole and Richardson (2006), which as is becoming apparent was integral to this research project, has also revealed that prior to the attacks on the World Trade Centre the press used the term ‘fundamentalism’ to describe radical Islamic terrorists. However, since the event the term ‘terrorist’ is used in nearly every instance. Poole develops this theory when she states; “This shift occurred immediately following September 11th when coverage converged dramatically around three major topics; terrorism, counter-terrorism measures and discrimination against Muslims” (Poole and Richardson, 2006, p. 95) This indicates how the press have altered their reporting of Islamic issues; this change in terminology and indeed portrayal of the faith is contributing to the demonization of the faith.
As discussed in the introduction to this dissertation, the press have increased the coverage of a religion that they continue to homogenise or group together as having one stereotypical perspective. Contemporary theorists have commented on this; “Islam is portrayed as monolithic and Muslims as homogenised; diversity and differences are ignored; the most potent image of Muslims is that of the Muslim fundamentalists; the same characteristics are attributed to all Muslims.” (Saikal, 2003, p. 144)
This is not however a new problem within the news media as suggested by research conducted by Braham et al (as cited by Franklin, 2005, p. 223); “Unfortunately, across the years and seemingly as a matter of routine, the news media have predominantly depicted Black and Asian people in terms of difference, deviance, threat or otherwise as a problem to white society”. Although many members of the Islamic faith are not Black or Asian, the British media’s tendency to portray any group that they see as a threat to British values negatively is outlined here – as well as the theme of the ‘risk society’ described earlier in the investigation.
Although the World Trade Centre being attacked was inevitably going to result in widespread criticism of Islam, it gave the West the chance to further demonise a faith that it was, and indeed is, at odds with – not least with regard to global power. The research of Bishara emphasises this point;
Historically there exists a conflictual relationship between the east and the west due to the exertion of power by the west over the region because of middle eastern oil; this relationship has worsened due to recent shifts in the global order following the collapse of communism and poses a threat to western interests – a power issue is at stake not a religious one. These shifts have led the western nations to question their own identity, becoming more ethnocentric and reassuring themselves with images of the “other”, giving rise to more friction. The growth of Islam, fuelled by western domination, in turn causes the west to turn further inward against Islam. (As cited by Hafez, 2000, p 212)
Bishara outlines here the motives of the west to portray Islam as a negative force and argues that it is not just a religious conflict but a conflict over global superiority, September 11th simply gave the western world an added incentive and justification to further misrepresent a massive section of society – both globally and in Britain. Although this issue is governmental, the press are swayed by their political persuasions. This may go some way to explaining the differing methods used by The Guardian and The Times.
According to early research undertaken by Poole (2002), relationships and Crime are major factors when discussing how the image of Islam has changed in the British print press since 2001 – the two are also very closely related in coverage of British Muslims. Between 1994 and 1997, before the threat of Islamic terrorism became so visible in the media, Muslim relationships were covered when a non-Muslim converted due to a relationship with someone from the Muslim faith. The press focus was due to a cultural difference. From 1997 the focus shifted to arranged marriages and honour killings and suggested to the British public that Muslim families were dysfunctional, that misogyny was rife in Islam and that pride was more important than loved ones. Islamic values were presented as at odds with British values and questioned their ability to fit in. It could therefore be argued that September 11th served as a catalyst to intensify a trend that was developing already. Rather predictably there were more crime stories involving Muslims in The Times than in The Guardian – again due to the newsworthiness of these stories.
Coverage of Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams’ Comments Regarding Sharia Law
The following part of the research project is the analysis of contemporary newspapers, again The Guardian and The Times. A current Islamic issue has been selected which has had extensive media coverage in recent weeks. Investigation has been made into whether or not the trends that Poole and other theorists have recognised are still in existence.
The issue chosen is the criticism of Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams’ comments regarding the integration of Sharia Law into the British legal system. From wider reading and the already mentioned patterns, a distinctly anti-Islamic perspective is expected from Times whereas The Guardian should carry a more sympathetic and impartial take on events.
Immediately, a difference in the use of language between the two newspapers is noticeable. The Guardian’s first paragraph introduces the story by describing how the Archbishop had “prompted criticism from across the political spectrum”. In contrast, The Times start the feature using far more poignant adjectives, stating that the Anglican primate was “under fierce attack from the government, his own church and other religions for advocating the adoption of parts of Islamic Law, or Sharia Law, into Britain”. This creates a different perspective on the story straight away as it portrays the Archbishop and his comments in a negative way and underlines the British perspective, or indeed the threat to Britain. As discussed earlier in the project, The Guardian’s reporting of this issue is far more objective, being less concerned with any potential threat to Britain or Britishness.
The Times and The Guardian do report the same hard facts of the story, but the differing methods and perspectives are plain to see. Both papers discuss the Archbishop’s use of the word ‘unavoidable’ regarding the integration of certain aspects of Sharia Law in to the British system. However, The Times is quick to add that it is not widely acknowledged as being ‘unavoidable’ and quotes such figures as the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and other leading Bishops. The Guardian is more supportive of the Archbishop explaining that he had not advocated the implantation of Sharia Law but was stating that certain aspects seemed inevitable. This correlates with the theory put forward by Poole, explained earlier in this dissertation, in which she explains that the conservative press is less likely to be sympathetic towards Muslim issues than more left-wing publications such as The Guardian.
The discussed pattern continues throughout the articles as The Guardian reports on how the words of the Archbishop, although somewhat controversial, underline his attempts to understand Islam and promote tolerance between different faiths. The Times instead chooses to focus on the criticism of the comments from the Prime Minister, The Conservative Party and the Archbishop’s peers – particularly the Bishop of Rochester.
The Times chooses not to point out the rather integral point that Dr. Williams was not endorsing the ‘inhumanity’ associated with Sharia Law in some Islamic states, but simply noticing that being aware of the fact that Muslims are faced with choosing between two sets of legislature every day, some sort of cohesion may be unavoidable. Through the publications more objective method of reporting, The Guardian offers the readership a more comprehensive portrayal of the situation and allows readers to make up their own minds. The Times, due to their political persuasion offers a clearly visible right-wing attitude, this is however appropriate for the newspapers readership.
A final point regarding the coverage of this issue by the British print press is the headlines used for the two stories. The Times uses the term ‘Islamic’ whereas The Guardian uses ‘Sharia’ – this may or may not have connotations. It could however be argued that The Times uses such terminology to create a more negative image before the article has even begun. This may not be the case but is certainly a factor that should be considered when comparing the differing news reporting methods of the two publications in question. In direct reference to the dissertation title, this observation poses the question: would the coverage of this issue have been any different before 2001? Research and analysis suggests so.
As described in the abstract to this research project, part of the evidence obtained in order to answer the question in hand was in the form of an interview (appendix 1) with a representative from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) about the issues being discussed. This interview was quite difficult to conduct due to timing as the majority of the workers from this organisation, who see themselves as impartial ambassadors for the religion in Britain, were on Hajj – the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Efforts were made to contact The Times and The Guardian in order to ask them the same questions, so that the case study gave the perspective of all involved but unfortunately no one from either organisation was available for comment. Due to the sensitive nature of this research project and the obvious implications, the individual that was interviewed wished to name himself simply as Mahmoud – he will therefore be referred to as such throughout this chapter.
Once completed, the interview provided priceless feedback on just how members of the British Islamic community feel about the representation of their faith in the British media and how it has altered since the World Trade Centre came under attack.
An interesting aspect of the case study was that the sentiments of the Islamic representative matched that of the theorists that have been quoted in this study. This has resulted in direct links being made from the theory discussed earlier and conclusions have therefore been made.
The interview transcript (appendix 1) is attached to this research project in order to prevent too much regurgitation of the answers. As will become clear, some slight alterations have been made to the answers in the form of spelling or grammar corrections in order to maintain the correct meaning. The following chapter is therefore a summary of the key points from the interview in answer to the dissertation title. Where appropriate, paragraphs have been concluded with a direct quote from the interview that illustrates the issue being discussed – these are shown in bold type and unless otherwise stated are the exact words of the interviewee.
The first point made by Mahmoud in reference to the project title is the fact that since the World Trade Centre was attacked the portrayal of Islam has become far more negative. He points out that before 2001 groups such as the ‘Mujahideen’ were presented in the media as heroes fighting for their freedom, particularly due to their resistance of the USSR invasion. Such groups as the ’Mujahideen’ and ‘Jihad’ are now portrayed in a negative manner on an almost daily basis. This links to the point developed in the theoretical chapter of this research project – that the entire Muslim community has been homogenised and subsequently criticised due to the behaviour of radical fundamentalists. There could be variety of reasons for this such as the legitimisation of political actions as is also explained earlier in the project.
“Prior to these events [September 11th and the War in Iraq] the representation of Islam in the media was subject/incident specific, and a lot more balanced…”
“…But since 9/11 and 7/7, media attacks on Islam and Muslims have become an almost daily routine.”
The homogenisation of the two Muslim sects – Shi’a and Sunni – is described in the abstract to this dissertation and it is also discussed in the interview. Mahmoud is in agreement with other research that has been performed as he states that the most salient word is Islam and that the two strands of the religion are seen as one by the majority of the British readership.
“…for the majority of news items, the sects are blurred into one ‘draconian entity’…”
“The ‘buzz’ or keyword remains Islam, and the Shi’a/Sunni differentiation is but a semantic.”
The interview also unearthed the issue that the press have gone a long way to creating a separate community of Islamic citizens. Whereby Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and other religious denominations are integrated into the British public with seemingly little negative media coverage, a psychological barrier has been created by the media in this country. Due to the fact that public attitudes towards religions or ethnic groups are changed irrevocably by what they read, the media are succeeding in manipulating or steering public opinion. This situation has created sense of ‘Islamophobia’ amongst the public which considering Muslims account for 1.2 billion of the British population, is far from helpful and contributes to the apathy or even ignorance that exists today.
“People’s worldviews and outlooks are manipulated and steered by what they read, and the constant bombardment of misinformation is creating psychological barriers between Muslims and others,”
“Consequences are segregation of communities, mutual mistrust and the escalation of ‘Islamophobia”
In accordance with the research undertaken in this project and to the research of recognised theorists on the subject, Mahmoud concurred that the liberal press were far more sympathetic to the Islamic cause than the conservative press. The Independent and The Guardian were outlined as the most objective titles available and he too touched on the fiasco involving Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams and the differing methods of reporting used by the two sides of the British press.
“While papers like The Telegraph and The Times were advocating victory for ‘Islamists’ in Britain, the former papers [The Guardian and The Independent] were more balanced in their telling and conveyed the realities as they were, away from personal biases and alignments.”
The aspect of terminology was also discussed in the interview. Phrases such as ‘Islamic Terrorism’ and ‘Violent Islamism’ were highlighted as stereotyping the religion and its followers. Claims by government officials that later turn out to be unfounded that there are thousands of potential terrorists in the country have led to on the spot searches of anyone who looks to be of eastern origin. This in turn has resulted in the image of the religion to be further tarnished and the intensity of the situation heightened. Mahmoud also pointed out that there does not even seem to be a clear set of rules that point out exactly what a terror suspect is. This judgement is left entirely to the discretion of the police which can turn out to be problematic. The case of Jean-Charles De Menezes is extremely relevant here, as he was wrongly trailed, shot and ultimately killed by British Police – an investigation has revealed he was simply scared and completely innocent of any terrorist behaviour. This may not have relevance to how the image of Islam has changed in the British print press but certainly indicates how dangerous the stereotyping of terrorists in the media can be.
As with the whole investigation, efforts have been made not to be too aggressive in the criticism of the press and to give a fair and impartial account of the situation. Mahmoud is also careful to give credit where it is due to the parts of the press that are objective and constructive in their work. Due partly to the fact that being fair and balanced is integral to the values of a Muslim, the FOSIS representative was quick to state that there is a fair amount of quality and fair reporting to be found in the British press but, as will be examined in Ronan Bennett’s article named ‘Shame On Us’ – there will always be the voice of the xenophobe or cultural racist to contend with.
“There remains a good portion of objective and integral journalists within the media apparatus. Though, the voice of the bigot always overshadows the sound of reason and rationale.”
The point, which is first developed in the theoretical chapter of this research project, that the very small number of radical ‘Islamists’ are depriving the rest of the Islamic community of the chance to live without prejudice was further emphasised in the interview. The cleric Abu-Hamza, who has now been charged with conspiring with terrorists, has ruined any chance for the Imams – or Muslim community leaders – to reach the masses through the media. This obviously makes a lot of sense as it results in the risk of extremists gathering any support being eliminated. Mahmoud does however point out that there is again no balance, as other proven racists such as the British National Party’s Nick Griffin and David Irving are allowed party political broadcasts and lecture at Universities where the youth of today are susceptible to propaganda or manipulation. The advocating of any of the actions of Abu Hamza is certainly not being suggested here, but the point being made is very relevant to the issue in hand.
“This is not to justify any of the dangerous views that were voiced by Abu Hamza or any other similar ideas, but simply to highlight a grave imbalance in our current way of thinking and judgement.”
The interviewee answered extremely succinctly when asked of the publications that he read and this factor perhaps needs no further explanation that the direct quote that was given;
“I mostly read The Guardian and The Independent, other papers simply depress me because I am guaranteed to read insults or attacks directly or subtly implied against my religion or community, and hence would rather avoid myself the frustration.”
This statement emphatically supports the theories discussed in this dissertation as it outlines how the conservative press is almost unreadable for members of Islam due to its unsympathetic or even biased coverage of events concerning the religion and its members.
In perhaps the most vital part of my discussion with the FOSIS representative, the direct issue of the impact of September 11th on the image of Islam was approached and the feedback gave an excellent insight into how non-radical Muslims feel about the issue. It was discovered that the attacks on the World Trade Centre have led to many Islamic members of the community becoming scared of revealing their faith due to suspicion or racism – the negative press that they have received can only have intensified this problem. A positive aspect has however developed. Many saw it as an event of huge significance and it has spurred them on to prove to the rest of the community that such actions are not condoned by the Islamic community – the support of the press would be hugely advantageous in achieving this due to the already discussed influence of the media over public opinion. If Islam is to successfully challenge the misconception that the majority of the British public hold of them, the support of the British press is of paramount importance. Mahmoud again highlighted how there are no clear definitions set in place. As Muslims and members of other denominations are being urged to prove their ‘Britishness’ and that they are not with the ‘other’ or the ‘enemy’ – there is concern that by living within the law many Muslims are not being given the same chance as other members of British society.
“…while for many the events [September 11th and the War in Iraq] created a psychology of fear, and led them to withdraw and conceal their Islamic identity to avoid discrimination and suspicion, others saw it a wakeup call and felt it now a timely duty to reinforce and fuse both the Islamic and British aspects of their identity.”
“…there is widespread concern that the Muslim Community has been singled out and pressurised to prove its British identity and affiliation, among all other ethnic minority communities. Again, no clear definition has been suggested by the advocates of such rhetoric, and the confusion remains.”
The final point made in this extremely useful and revealing interview follows the same ethos as the dissertation as a whole and goes a long way to answering the question in hand. The image of Islam has been somewhat destroyed since September 11th due to negative coverage my much of the British press and the naive way of thinking by the public due to what they are reading. Mahmoud points out that people are not aware that innocent, non-radical Muslims died on September 11th, when the bombs exploded in London June 7th 2004 and continue to die daily in Gaza and Iraq as the result of suicide attacks. Obviously, the fact that we are in Britain means that issues of interest to British people are going to have more news value, that is the essence of journalism however the hypocrisy in the conservative press is plain to see as the public are not getting a comprehensive version of events. This is only one point of view and must not be taken as gospel, but the links to the theory outlined at the start of the research project are extremely relevant when attempting to address the question.
“It is such displays of hypocrisy in the media that disenfranchises the Muslims and builds a barrier of mistrust between them and the media. As though the blood of Muslims is a different colour, hardly of value, or that their innocent lives taken are always reduced mere statistics for news bulletins.”
As mentioned, this interview is the opinion of one individual and cannot be used solely as proof of an issue or problem. It can however be used as excellent secondary evidence and cross referenced with my own research and the research of recognised theorists in order to come to a coherent answer to the dissertation title. The conclusion to this research project will outline what has been discovered and attempt to give as full and succinct an answer to this hugely salient issue as possible.
Analysis of Ronan Bennett’s article: ‘Shame On us’
The third and final source chosen as representative of how the image of Islam is portrayed in the press is an article taken from The Guardian last November. It must be noted that this is taken from a publication that has demonstrated a more sympathetic approach to Islamic issues, but Bennett makes some excellent observations that tie in with my research and the research of theorists such as Karim and Poole. The article was published in The Guardian’s G24 section on the 19th November 2007 but can be found on-line at the web address given in the bibliography of this research project.
Bennett introduces what was described in the press at the time as a ‘nasty literary punch up’ whereby Terry Eagleton – professor of English at Manchester University – accused Martin Amis of racism against Muslims following some statements made by the novelist, who has also taken up a teaching post at the very same University. Eagleton suggested that Amis was advocating nothing less than the “hounding and humiliation” of Muslims, so that “they would return home and teach their children to be obedient to White Man’s law”.
Amis’s comments were that:
“Muslims are gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.”
“The Islamic community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.”
“I just don’t hear from moderate Islam do you?”
The writer also suggested the “Strip searching Muslims. Discriminatory stuff until it hurts the whole Islamic community and they start getting tough with their children.”
Bennett, who writes regularly for The Guardian and is a screenwriter most famous for his work entitled ‘The Hamburg Cell’ (a portrayal of the plane hijackers involved with the attacks on the World Trade Centre) – makes the point in his article that had the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ been removed from his statements and replaced with ‘Judaism’ and ‘black’ then the repercussions may have been far more serious.
The writer also refers to a debate sponsored by the London Evening Standard – a publication that is regarded as having a neutral political stance – named ‘Is Islam good for London?’ Again, had the title been ‘African’s’ or ‘Judaism’ the response may have been far different, Bennett argues.
“Those who claim that Islamophobia can’t be racist, because Islam is a religion not a race, are fooling themselves. Religion is not only about faith but also about identity, background and culture and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white. Islamophobia is racist and so is anti-semitism.”
Bennett argues here what theorists since September 11th have been discussing, that Islamophobia should be regarded as unethical as anti-Semitism but due to the portrayal of the faith since the aforementioned event – individuals are convincing themselves that it is not principally the same. Whether or not this is the case is surely down to personal opinion but anti-semitism and Islamophobia are both attacks on identity and culture fuelled by the fear of a nation created by the moral panic that exists in the British print press, discussed earlier in the theoretical chapter to this project.
Bennett also concurs with the research discussed earlier in this dissertation when he points out that there has been much negative press of Islam in the press since September 11th with seemingly little support. In a press that is said to be free, Bennett’s article excluded, it has been impossible to find any voice or writer standing up for the Islamic community. Indeed as Bennett himself states;
“…there has been, with a few notable exceptions, a puzzling lack of effort when it comes to something as critical as expressing support for an increasingly demonised minority in our society. Martin Amis should have been taken to task by his peers, he was not.”
As is also discussed in the theoretical chapter, Amis is accused by Bennett as being guilty of using the ‘us’ and ‘them’ terminology that has gone further to portraying Islam as a demonic and dangerous faith.
Amis’s ‘scattergun’ point of view, in which he categorises all Muslims in to the homogenous group that is highlighted earlier in the project, is not just put forward in this particular speech.
Bennett also discusses the novelists statements in a talk given at the Cheltenham Literary Festival earlier in 2007 where he exclaims; “By evolved, I mean more civilised, we have more respect for civil society. Here in the west we have the most evolved society in the world and we are not blowing people up”. With Amis being a recognised lecturer in literature, his words will inevitably be influencing the youth of today – some of which are likely to work in the press later in their careers. His terminology is again based around the ‘us’ and ‘them’ concept which, as already mentioned is intensifying the issue at hand. His comments are also controversial due to the fact that western troops do bomb people on a daily basis – many of whom are Muslims. This project has been conducted in the most objective manner possible, it is however difficult to justify Amis’ comments as they seem to display the very bias and xenophobic tendency that has created the problem being focused on.
In reference to this point, Bennett states; “Hardly a day goes by that they [members of the Islamic community in Britain] are not lectured and scolded by writers claiming to be the champions of true liberalism.” He is highlighting here that the press and the writers that claim to be left-wing portrayers of the truth are surely contradicting themselves through their blatant bias on the subject.
In agreement with Mahmoud, the representative of the faith who provided this study with the interview, Bennett continues by outlining how members of Islam feel they have no voice in the British community and live in fear of prejudice. He writes; “Muslims are under siege, worried that if they speak out they will be accused of being quasi-Islamist. Many have given up trying to engage in the debate over what Amis calls the ‘problems of Islam’.” This reiterates further the fact that the media’s portrayal of Islam has resulted in them feeling alienated from society – this is supported by the theory included at the start of this research project and, as stated, the sentiments of the interviewee (please see case study).
In an article that summarises somewhat what is being critically analysed in this dissertation, Bennett concludes with three very poignant paragraphs which could be interpreted as being vital to understanding this complex issue. These are outlined below:
“By every official index, violence and discrimination against Muslims have increased since 2001. The victims of physical violence will always be a minority – although Asian people are twice as likely to be stabbed to death than they were ten years ago – but what the majority experience in their daily lives is much more insidious, the kind of coded rejection that in this more enlightened age takes the place of outright expressions of racism.”
As set out in the methodology to this research project, the repercussions of the situation that has evolved must be considered. The above statement summarised just one. Apart from the already mentioned prejudice and stereotyping that exists, physical violence has also risen over the last ten years and particularly since September 11th. Although these are the words of a journalist and must not be taken as gospel, it is unlikely that an individual working for The Guardian would make crass unfounded comments.
“Every time a writer or politician or policeman begins a sentence by saying “Muslims must …”, there is little recognition of the sheer variety of belief within Islam, or of the cultural diversity among Muslims, or of the everyday pragmatic reality of what it means in a secular age to believe in God and to try to live by that belief.”
Again tying in with the other chapters of this project, Bennett is describing the fact that Islam is a very diverse faith with different sects, values and principles. The homogenisation of the religion is again touched upon and as suggested by theorists on the topic this could be interpreted as being unfair on this section of British society.
With Martin Amis, as described earlier, being an influential writer who teaches many young people in our community – Bennett’s description is extremely salient – as Amis is but one of a large number of similarly principled writers in Britain.
“An important question from a leading literary figure? A brave revenge fantasy? No, a major cultural and literary figure endorsing prejudice against Muslims”
This is but one writers perspective on the issue being discusses, however obvious ties have been made with the theory section to this project as well as the case study. It is down to ones interpretation of the facts as to whether this is a true reflection of a problem that is intensifying in the British media.
This research project, through intricate and in depth analysis of current theorists, contemporary newspapers and a case study of a representative of the Islamic faith, has proven that the image of Islam has been desecrated by the British print press particularly since September 11th 2001.
References have been made to recognised experts in this field and although attempts have been made to take in to account the media’s incentive for such misrepresentation, the conclusion must be that as a mechanism it is overwhelmingly intolerant and hostile to Islam and its members in Britain. Indeed, research and subsequent conclusions have been performed in as objective manner as possible. There are a contingent of good quality reporters in the press, as emphasised by the interviewee featured in the case study however the voice of the xenophobe is unfortunately negating any objective reportage of Islamic issues in Britain.
As discussed in both the theoretical and evidential chapters of this project, journalists and writers alike are guilty of solidifying a stereotype that has been created of a diverse and intricate faith. As Ronan Bennett states when writing about one particular perpetrator; “Amis’s views are symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of others”.
The research performed by the described theorists in the dissertation and the analysis of the press has revealed that The Guardian being a middle-left wing publication is far more sympathetic to Islamic issues than The Times – a conservative publication. The dissertation also outlines how the negative press that the faith receives is guilty of homogenising or grouping 1.2 billion citizens into one group with supposedly one dubious perspective.
This project also shows that this conduct by sections of the media is resulting in Muslims across Britain feeling segregated from the rest of the community. Whilst this research project recognises that the behaviour of Islamic extremists is unacceptable, it highlights how the stereotyping of the other members of the faith is contributing to making them feel ‘alien’ – which is obviously unhelpful to the situation.
This dissertation also highlights the motives of the British government for their hostility towards Islam, which is therefore mirrored in the press. It is suggested and subsequently proven that the negative portrayal of Islam in the British print press is used as a mechanism to legitimise the quest for oil and the War in Iraq. The research of Elizabeth Poole and Kai Hafez was particularly useful in substantiating this theory.
The recent coverage of Archbishop Dr. Rowan Williams’ comments regarding Sharia Law and the writing of Ronan Bennett support the theories touched on in the theoretical chapter to this dissertation and show how the different members of the press and influential writers are contributing to the problem.
Following this analysis, this project has ultimately revealed that the media must give Islam more media space and allow them to have a voice in order to allow the members of the religion to feel integrated into the British community. This must also be portrayed in a fair, objective and unbiased fashion.
Having analysed all the described data and taking into account the current media coverage and the input of the aforementioned interviewee it is concluded that without the fair portrayal of such a prominent religion in our community, the situation can only worsen.
Due to the factors already discussed, the current standard of conduct being displayed by much of the British print press is only maximising any threat posed by our supposed ‘enemy’ as it is giving further incentive to extreme members of Islam.
This study would have been made far more comprehensive had the opinions of the publications focused on been included, but they were unfortunately unavailable for discussion on the topic. This would have made the research far more objective – objectivity is of course a major theme to this investigation. Efforts have however been made not to be overly scathing of the press but instead convey all the facts and theories on this complex issue.
The feedback received from Mahmoud, the FOSIS representative, was of great use as it tied in very coherently with the theories developed by the experts of the field. It must however be pointed out that this is the feeling of but one member of a very large religion and one side of the argument. The connections between his answers and the theory discussed are however salient and consolidate the final conclusion to this dissertation.
Upon analysis of all the papers, essays, statistics and theories and issues it is concluded that the image of Islam has been unfairly destroyed by the British and other Western media due to the actions of extremists and the conflict in interests between the Eastern and Western powers. The press in Britain have constructed a framework of Islam that is not representative of the religion as a whole and efforts must be made to rectify this. If this does not occur, the results will surely get worse. In a nation that has a supposedly free press; it must also have a fair and objective press for all religions, as it does for all races and sexes.