Last week, I attended the conference, ‘The Young Muslims’ Guide to the British Media’, which aimed at deciphering and understanding both the bias against Muslims, promulgated by the media, and that of many Muslims, who foster a suspicion of much of today’s reporting, against the media. The conference was thoroughly informative, tackling contemporary taboos, and striving to find a way to restore the mutual trust and respect between Muslims and the media, through peaceful cooperation and dialogue. There was a wide range of speakers offering valuable insight to the discussions, such as Hayyan Ayaz Bhabha, from the Middle Temple Young Barristers’ Association, who was working in a parliamentary group to combat Islamophobia, as well as Huda Jawad, who belonged to a domestic violence charity and Aina Khan, presenter of religious Q&A show, Ask the Alim.
A key topic explored was the perpetuation of Muslim stereotypes throughout the media. Huda Jawad presented the case that the British media tended to portray Muslim women as oppressed and compelled by their faith and their community to act against their will in the ways they dress, work and even think. She tackled this particular stereotype by stating that most British Muslim women have, in actual fact, been emancipated for 40-50 years, as have the rest of British women of any or no faith. She presented an interesting theory for the reason that this image of women subjugated by their Islamic faith is so frequently used: the media, which is predominantly leftist in its political persuasion, views religion, in general, as an activity for uneducated and naïve people. It was, however, intriguing to perceive that while, ideologically, the media leans towards opposing ‘religion’ as a whole, its negative emphasis rests mainly on Islam.
An examination of the presence of Muslims within the media facilitated the exploration of Jawad’s hypothesis and, indeed, provided key examples of anti-Muslim bias, both in terms of the content of reports as well as in the demographic of the reporters themselves. Aina Khan raised the example of the Sun columnist, Kelvin McKenzie’s recent provocative article regarding how he believed that having a veiled, Muslim Channel 4 News anchor, Fatima Manji, reporting on the Nice terror attacks was offensive so soon after the atrocity. Khan argued that Manji’s appointment was a significant step forward in the representation of Muslims in the media, as it seems as though Muslim reporters are only called in to speak about matters to do with Islam. Hayyan Ayaz Bhabha added to this, stating that news studios would never call in a Muslim journalist to talk about the success of Mo Farah, only to talk about subjects such as terror attacks. Coupled with this Islamophobia, Khan pointed out, was blatant sexism. Manji was chastised for covering her head, whereas the BBC Muslim anchor, Assad Ahmed, rarely even gains attention for his faith. Jawad coined this as ‘Islamophobic misogyny’.
Eisa Ali, as a Muslim journalist working for the controversial corporation, Russia Today, was able to introduce a slightly different perspective into the discussion. When asked whether he had ever been pigeonholed into reporting solely on issues to do with his faith, he replied that he had, in fact, never. While his personal experience was able to restore some faith in the supposed neutrality of the media, he argued that the most significant problem for Muslims and the media was journalists writing out of ignorance and laziness, leading to the, perhaps unintended, perpetuation of stereotypes. He gave the example of the commentary on the fight against ISIS in Iraq: through generalising the resistance as simply as a ‘Shia militia’, many journalists omit to mention that this militia is in fact comprised of Christians and Sunnis in addition, working together.
Far from seeing the problem as solely the fault of the media, all the panellists courted the idea that the development of such a harmful rift in relations between the media and the Muslim community was partly the fault of the latter as well. Khan relayed a personal experience, where she, as a result of what she wore while presenting her television programme, received far more commentary from the Islamic community that she had not covered her hair enough, despite wearing a headscarf, as opposed to the content of what she was saying. She argued that Muslims do not have the right to criticise non-Muslims for condemning what they wear (the Burkini ban was frequently discussed throughout the day), when Muslims do it to each other anyway. Khan continued to advocate introspection in the Muslim community, before automatically leaping to blame the media. Jawad then took a slightly alternative approach, where she proposed that Muslims should push themselves into the public eye and make sure that their side of the story is heard; it is not enough to complain and wait for the media to approach them.
Khan, Jawad, Bhabha and Ali all, despite identifying different manifestations and root causes of the problem of the mutual mistrust between Muslims and the media, all suggested the same course of action to alleviate this in the future. The key theme throughout the day of discussions was the importance of dialogue and engagement between both sides of the debate. Whether this means better funded and more readily available community media, or more Muslims embarking on media training courses to help improve the Muslim demographic within the industry (rather than simply focussing on the professions), meaningful cooperation seems to be the only way to resolve such a damaging pitfall in an allegedly egalitarian and representative media.
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