Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media

Written by – Stephen O’Brien 


‘Identity’, according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition is, “the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others”. By this definition, any individual can claim to be a part of multiple identities, due to affiliation or self-identification with multiple sects or societal groups.

A plural definition of identity, also defined by Merriam Webster states, “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances.”  Having laid out the basics, this article will delve into and focus on the collective identity of people who identify with the Islamic faith.

This article will discuss how the media creates and cultivates an identity for Muslims, how this affects the communities and finally how individuals utilise new media and their online identity hoping to eradicate misconceptions and generalisations centred on their collective identity.

Labelling and stereotyping are ways in which one’s brain attempts to categorise individuals, groups and things. (Morris, 1993) A stereotype can be defined as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.” (Merriam- Webster, 2016)

For minority groups in a complex society, few issues are of greater concern than “fair” representation in the mass media, which are often regarded as a sine qua non of social advancement and freedom from burdensome or even oppressive stereotypes (Fleras & Kunz, 2001). Willingly or unwillingly, connections within the brain are based off one’s preconception and experiences which influence their opinion of the subject being categorised.

Our identity as a member of a group defined primarily by race or ethnicity is just one component of an extremely complex identity structure. (Frable, 1997; Jaret & Reitzes, 1999) This extremely complex identity structure is ever changing throughout an individual’s life.

The term Islamophobia is defined by Oxford Dictionary as the “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.”  The persistent growth of terrorism in the western world following the events of September 11, 2001 has seen a rise in stereotyping and generalising “Muslims” by the media and society as a whole.

Currently residing in Western Europe, there are between 13 and 14 million people who have Muslim backgrounds, making Europe a very multi-religious society.

The growth of these multi-religious societies has been met with a shift “from anti-Asian and anti-Arab racism to anti-Muslim racism” following the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, as pointed out by Poynting and Mason. (2007)

The media creates a perception/ identity for all Muslims through news election, generalisations and stigmas. The media’s creation of these various stigmas attached to Islamic religion and Muslim identity perpetuates Islamophobia. The prevalence of Islam in the media since 9/11 has empirically seen that hardly a day goes by without stories about Islam appearing in the media. (Ruthven, 2006)


Dasic Fernandez mural in Detroit 

Therefore, media coverage of events related to the Muslim world play a significant role in informing Western and Irish perceptions of Islam and Muslims. Terms such as ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ are more frequently and familiarly used in the West due to the rise of Islamic related media coverage. (Esposito, 2005)

The coverage of Islam in the western media often reinforces the prevailing stereotypes and labelling associated with Muslims, majority with a negative perspective. An analysis of Danish media in 2011 concluded about 58 percent of the articles dealing with Muslims and Islam were negatively framed and categorised as contributing to shaping hostility towards Muslims and Islam. In about 32 percent of the news stories, the tone was neutral – meaning that the language avoided racial marking and stereotypical/Islamophobic commentary and the reporting and framing of the issue is balanced overall rather than presenting a one-sided argument. In contrast, only about 8 percent of the stories were positively framed and identified as inclusive of Muslims and Islam.”  (Jacobsen, Gudrun, Vitus & Weibel, 2012).

The media often relates to events which provide images of the militant versions of Islam, often focusing mainly on radical extremists in the spotlight. The news selection and generalising of all Muslims encourages “connections between Islam, violence and fanaticism.”  (Cesari, 2004) Traditional media coverage of the Islamic faith supplements Westerner’s knowledge and understanding of the Muslim world.  Furthermore, the media holds a central position in articulating particular discourses and defining frameworks within which we come to understand issues relating to minority groups, often reinforcing the stereotypical and radical distortions of the religion (Cottle, 2000).

Western perception of Islam as a violent religion are often based off historical events such as the crusades. It is a history filled with clashes and confrontation, competition and challenge, admiration and hatred, acceptance and rejection, a host of others conflicting feelings, attitudes and experiences (Ibrahim, 2010).  Furthermore, these views are reinforced by contemporary media coverage about Muslim extremists and terrorist attacks”.  (Smith, 2002)

The historical division between Christians and Muslims plays a significant role in the distorted image of Muslims in society, which is reinforced by the media’s negative coverage of people of the Islamic faith. It can be argued that religion per se suffers at the hands of media, but it is recognised that the media seem to have a distinct aversion to Islam and Muslims (Said, 1996).

In America, awareness of the Islamic faith is directly linked to the media’s coverage of the Muslim world, whereby “Islam has entered mainstream American consciousness, not through direct experiences with Muslims, but through the media and through the news stories in which Islam is connected with issues like oil, Iran, Afghanistan, terrorism.” (Said, 1997)

Whilst racist discourse has been identified in relation to ethnic minorities, this racial prejudice is supplemented by anti-Islamic rhetoric in almost all Western media when it comes to presenting issues linked to Islam and Muslims (Henzell-Thomas, 2001, Ahmed, Ameli, Marandi, Kara & Meraldi, 2007). A report on Anti-Islamic Reactions in the EU after 9/11 found that media attitudes ‘helped to reinforce hurtful stereotypes about Islam, particularly in the Netherlands, Greece, Ireland and Italy.’ (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, in Cesari, 2004)

Noamh Chomsky discussing Islamophobia –

Media representations of Islam are one of the main sources of difficulties for Muslims living in the West and often result in discrimination and suspicion. (Ramadan, 2004) Ireland’s media coverage of Islam being predominantly negative “has raised the Irish public’s awareness of Islam and of Islam in their midst”. (Flynn, 2006)

The impact of media representations inevitably will have a consequence from Muslims and non-Muslims in modern society. (Colfer, 2009) Edward Said’s Orientalism was written in 1978, yet after the events which ensued on 9/11, this book’s relevance is clearly evident in modern society.

Orientalism (1978) tries to offer reasons as to why when a Westerner, who might never have been to the Middle East, thinks about that area and its people, the individual already has preconceived image of what they look like, how they behave, and what they believe. Said’s book argues that there is a lens through which Westerners view the Orient. He refers to this lens as “Orientalism.” This lens distorts the reality of that place and its people. This arguments’ relevance has been reignited as media coverage conveys an ‘us and them’ mentality, which only adds to segregation and oppression, by utilising Said’s lens.

Media coverage as discussed above significantly affects not just what we think about, but how we think about certain issues, people and places. The media’s potential to be a force for good can easily backfire when disseminating messages that create and reinforce negative stereotypes and perpetuate misconceptions (Ross and Idriss, 2006).

The racial stereotyping of all Muslims as Arabs and all Arabs as Muslims during the Gulf War led to series of physical attacks, racial insults and negative stereotyping of Muslims in Australia. (Asmar, 1992) Media’s coverage of the Islamic faith on Western community has had some negative impacts on Muslim individuals. Negative stereotypes conveyed by the media can facilitate an individual’s prejudice towards individuals, groups and religions.  As a result of the distorted images, developed and manipulated by the media, Islam has been highlighted in negative and unfavourable manner (Shanzad and Khalid, 2008).

The stories of abuse that were once reported in the Victorian news media, reoccurred once again after the events of September the 11th, with; assaults on woman wearing head scarves, bomb threats against mosques and Islamic centres; and verbal abuse of Muslim woman and children in public.  (Akbarzadeh & Smith, 2005).

These empirical examples explain the very central hypothesis of social identity theory, whereby group members of an “in-group” (i.e, “us”, non Muslims), will seek to find negative aspects of an “out-group” (i.e, “them”, Muslims) to enhance their self-image (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). It is due to these skewed and prejudiced views, which are further conveyed by the media, that have resulted in some members of the in-group to act violently or inappropriately with anyone they perceive as Muslim.

Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky discussing Islamic Terrorism –

‘Opinion leaders’ play a significant role in influencing the masses when it comes to disseminating news. One relevant powerhouse influencer, Donald Trump, Republican Presidential candidate has been at the centre of controversy for his apparent generalising and negative comments towards the Islamic faith.

Trump echoed the prevailing xenophobic speech associated with the Nazi’s when he called for a “total and complete shutdown” of the United States borders to Muslims in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015.  He even went so far as to suggest Muslim Americans should have “special forms of identification”. (McNeill, 2015)

Trump’s relative ease in generalising all people of the Islamic faith has been met with public outcry. This outcry culminated in a viral social media response, specifically on Twitter with thousands of Muslim Americans using the hash tag #MuslimID. American Muslim veterans, doctors, lawyers, etc., as diverse as possible posted their various forms of “ID tags”, thereby showcasing their unique individuality. It conveyed a strong message to the public that a person who chooses to self-identify as a Muslim can also self-identify with multiple other groups and be a part of a greater, collective society.

In conclusion, Muslims, like Christians, atheists, etc., can be part of hundreds of different identities, such as being upper, middle, lower class, be black, white, young or old. It is only when one categorises self-identifying Muslims in a negative light does that create, reinforce or encourage unbalanced social comparison and thus leads to further discrimination in society.

To combat Islamophobia, it is suggested mainstream media use more neutral tones and terminology when reporting stories involving Muslim individuals, and treat comparable incidences with subjects who do not self-identify as a Muslim with the same tone. As mainstream media is consumed by virtually everyone today, it is vital for these influencers to be careful so as to not categorise the behaviours of one or a few individuals in the world to a faith base with over 1 billion global believers.

While it is inevitable that society will stop categorising people overall, there is a role the media can definitely play to prevent greater negative impact towards Muslim communities through its style of reporting news.

Most of political, economic, and cultural conflicts that have occupied the Islamic world and the West arose from erroneous international and intercultural media coverage as the primary source of information (Kai Hafez, 2000; Faatin and Mujabeen, 2005).

WORDS: 1871


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