Following Faisal Hanjra’s heartfelt reaction to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s status as an Islamic Society President, Charles Whitworth investigates how the image of Islam has been affected by such events.
Whilst examining critically how and why the image of Islam has changed in Britain since events such as September 11th and Christmas Day, I conducted an interview with a representative of FOSIS. The response goes further to underline Hanjra’s concerns and reveals a worrying agenda that has been set out by the conservative press.
CW: Do you believe that Muslims have been presented more negatively in the British Press since September 11 and the War in Iraq, if so – how?
FOSIS: Certainly so, prior to these events the representation of Islam in the media was subject-incident specific and a lot more balanced. For example, the Afghan ‘Mujahideen’ against the USSR Invasion were projected as heroic freedom fighters, supported and hailed by the western world, Britain included. Nowadays, the terms ‘Jihad’ and ‘Mujahideen’ are always represented in a negative light. Occasional negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam was not unheard of, however. The Salman Rushdie fiasco comes to mind, for example. But since 9/11 and 7/7, media attack on Islam and Muslims has become almost daily routine.
CW: Do you believe that the British Press differentiate between the two sects of Islam (ie. Shi’a and Sunni), or do you believe they have become homogenised? Basically, do you feel that the press presume one Muslim perspective?
FOSIS: This Depends on the news item at hand. But for the majority of news items, the sects are blurred into one homogenous ‘draconian’ entity. Though, irrespective of whether the media made that distinction or not, the perception amongst the lay public will not be altered in the least. The ‘buzz’ or keyword remains Islam, and the shia-sunni differentiation is but a semantic.
CW: Do you feel that the British Print Press create or intensify a feeling of ‘Islamophobia’ amongst the British public, if so – how?
FOSIS: There is no shadow of a doubt. Islam is almost on a daily basis highlighted and portrayed in a negative light. This media onslaught is feeding to the readership on a daily basis, and affecting change on people’s perception of Islam and Muslims. 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, as well as withdrawal among certain sections of the Muslim community. Consequences are segregation of communities, mutual mistrust and escalation of ‘Islamophobia’. The media largely clusters all the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world into a single ‘threatening’ block.
CW: Do you feel that certain parts of the media portray Muslims or Islam in different ways?
FOSIS: There is discrepancy between different broadsheets and tabloids in the way which they reflect and represent Islam. Personally, I feel the Guardian and the Independent are more objective than other papers. The most recent example would be the row over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on the integration of aspects of Sharia law into the mainstream British legal system. While papers like the Telegraph and Times were advocating victory for ‘Islamists’ in Britain, the former papers were more balanced in their telling and conveyed the realities as they were, away from personal biases and alignments.
CW: Would you say that British Muslims are too quickly associated with the theme of terrorism?
The whole Nation of Muslims, British included. Readily used terminology such as ‘Islamic Terrorism’ and ‘Violent Islamism’ obscure the image of the religion as a whole, and its followers by extension. Unfounded comments by officials that there are thousands of potential terrorists in the country, added to the regular raids and arrests on pre-tried Muslim ‘suspects’ as well as discriminatory stop-searches only heighten the intensity of the scrutiny. The irony is that there seems to yet be a clear definition of parameters within which an individual is rendered a suspect, extremist or terrorist. The judgment is apparently left to the security officials, which is unhelpful. It creates mistrust between the Police and the very community with which they need to engage most positively with in order to tackle the problem of violent extremism.
CW: If you feel that the image of Islam has been misrepresented since the aforementioned events, how did coverage of the religion differ before 2001?
FOSIS: Fundamentally, Islam wasn’t a topical issue that earned almost daily attention in the media prior to the tragic events. Also, when it did appear in the media it was usually part of a story on an incident that relates to the Islamic world, as opposed to Islam as a belief system and religion.
CW: Would you describe the British Print Press as xenophobic or culturally racist? Please explain…
FOSIS: It would certainly be unjust to label the whole industry as institutionally racist and/or xenophobic. As Muslims being fair and balanced is central to our values, even if we’re not receiving that very treatment towards ourselves. 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.
CW: Overall, what impact do you think September 11 and the War in Iraq has had on British Muslim identity?
I think there can be no single conclusive answer to this particular question. The events had a number of different implications on different sections of the non-homogenous Muslim community. To illustrate, two opposite effects observed were that while for many the events created a psychology of fear and led them to withdraw and conceal their Islamic identity to avoid discrimination whereas others saw it a wakeup call and felt it time to reinforce both the Islamic and British aspects of their identity. That said, there is widespread concern that the Muslim Community has been singled out and is now pressurised to prove its British identity and affiliation.
CW: Is there a message that FOSIS would like Student Times readers to be aware of with regard to this ‘Islamophobia’ that has been created?
One point the media always seem to miss, is that Muslims are victims of terrorism as much as everyone else. Muslims died in the WTC when it was attacked, as well as on 7/7. Furthermore, innocent Iraqi Muslims are victims of daily suicide attacks by terrorist groups in Iraq.
More importantly, if terrorism implies the killing of innocent civilians, then surely the Israeli government and war machine are terrorists, as well as the US army for all the blood of innocent people they spilled in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Vietnam, Hiroshima etc. The double standards in the terminology are sickening.
There have been instances when only one Israeli life took all the well deserved attention of the media after being killed in a suicide attack, 1.5 million people were being starved in Gaza and deprived of all basic requirements of life due to the imposed Israeli embargo. Further, tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians were killed as a result of military raids by the Israelis on besieged Gaza. The Palestinians didn’t receive the attention the Israeli did on the news. It is such display of hypocrisy in the media that demonises 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.
So, although the opinion of just one individual, it is clear to see the campaign of prejudice that has been constructed by certain areas of the media against the Muslim community. Although the atrocities demonstrated by radical Muslims cannot be ignored, should a whole community be demonised? If you have a strong opinion on this issue, why not send us your story?