The disturbing rise in Islamophobia over the last twenty years is now well documented, and has not come from nowhere. Several factors have played their part in its rise, but in this blog I am going to simply focus on one such issue, because I believe this factor is insufficiently understood and very alarming; I am speaking about our media diet in the UK.
What follows is an excerpt from my book Judging Religion A Dialogue for Our Time (Silverwood Books) September 2019. It is taken from Chapter 2 Through A Glass Darkly: Religion in the Media Spotlight. P45 – 47 and it describes how Islam has been reported on in the UK in recent times.
‘Reporting on Islam
Following 9/11 in 2001 and 7/7 in 2005, Islam fell under the media spotlight
more than ever in the UK, and a persistent association of Islam with terrorism
became normative. A two-week study in 2008, compared with the early 1980s,
saw a rise in references to Islam from 38 to 306, making it the largest, single
category of reporting on religion in newspapers, and the fourth-largest topic of
coverage on TV.
Three researchers into media coverage of religion, Teemu Taira, Elizabeth
Poole and Kim Knott, conducted a qualitative analysis of three quarters of
newspaper articles on Islam from October 2008. Of the 87 articles analysed,
55 could be said to cover topics relating to terrorism, conflict and extremism.
Seven of the articles could be described as broadly positive, the remainder
of the articles showed Muslims in a predominantly negative light. Further
observations were clear: for example, no political or historical context was
provided regarding terrorism, the acts were simply linked to Islamic beliefs.
Some of the most detailed research into media coverage of Islam in the UK has
been undertaken at Cardiff University, which then fed into written evidence
to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia given by Dr. Chris
Allen in 2012. This revealed a number of issues about UK press coverage of
Islam. To quote from Dr. Allen’s report:
‘Four of the five most common discourses used about Muslims in the
British press associate Islam/Muslims with threats, problems or in
opposition to dominant British values. So, for example, the idea that
Islam is dangerous, backward or irrational is present in 26% of stories.
By contrast, only 2% of stories contained the proposition that Muslims
supported dominant moral values.’
The most common nouns used in relation to British Muslims in British
print media were ‘terrorist’ (26%), ‘extremist’ (21%), ‘Islamist’ (9%),
‘suicide bomber’ (8%) and ‘militant’ (5%), compared with more positive
epithets e.g. citizen (1%) and scholar (1%). References to ‘radical’ Muslims
outnumbered references to ‘moderate’ Muslims by a ratio of 17:1. The
report goes on to point out that while the majority of coverage about
Islam does not compare it to other religions, where comparisons are
made, negative comparisons outweigh positive ones by a ratio of 4:1. Of
interest too are the sources of information quoted by the media in articles
principally about British Muslims. The most popular sources are politicians
(23%), the general public (13%) and criminal justice professionals (11%).
Christian religious leaders stand at 4% and Muslim religious leaders at 3%.
In other words, British Muslims themselves hardly feature as a voice about
themselves. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has
also had to make many interventions correcting negative misinformation
about Islam within the media. According to one estimate, IPSO has needed
to intervene twelve times more often with respect to Islam compared with
Christianity, notwithstanding that, as we have seen, complaints about the
coverage of Christianity far outweigh complaints about the coverage of
Islam. Kim Knott goes on to comment:
‘The frameworks within which Muslims are represented and
understood continue to problematise and homogenise a diversity
of people. Difference is highlighted [between Muslims and non-
Muslims]. Categorising and classifying people in this way divides
them along the constructed categories, concealing commonalities
and obstructing understanding.’
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has also
intervened calling for the UK media to ‘avoid perpetuating prejudice’,
remarking that ‘fuelling prejudice against Muslims’ was ‘reckless’. The
United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has similarly
urged the UK to ‘tackle hate speech’, including in the media.’