The Misrepresentation of Muslims in the Media

Adapted from a speech given to Home Group Housing Association, Leeds, 1st October 2014
Undoubtedly, the biggest news story of the moment is the rise of ISIS, or Islamic State. Islamic state is a horrifically violent and extreme jihadi group, even more violent and sectarian than Al Qaeda, and now controls large areas of Syria and Iraq. Whilst ISIS is undoubtedly a frightening force which is worthy of worldwide attention and condemnation, it is important to separate the warped ideology and barbaric practices of this group from the vast majority of peaceful Muslims. Horrific crimes carried out in the name of religion are abhorrent to the average Muslim Briton as they are to anyone else, but many newspaper headlines have sought to whip up panic about British Muslims. Boris Johnson called for any Muslims travelling to Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to be presumed guilty of terrorism until proven innocent. Voices across the media said that they had not heard British Muslims condemning ISIS… This thought in itself is problematic, it assumes that Muslims are guilty by association, that if they have not explicitly said otherwise, Muslims condone these barbaric acts. Imagine a similar case where all white Christians were assumed to support the actions of mass murderer Anders Brevik until they issued a written statement to the contrary.
The other problem with the idea that British Muslims have not been condemning ISIS, is that it is simply not true, it’s just that the media had not been covering this response. For example, Shuja Shafi, of the Muslim Council of Britain has issued a statement saying “Violence has no place in religion, violence has no religion” 100 Sunni and Shiite religious leaders produced a video denouncing the Islamic State, saying they wanted to “come together to emphasise the importance of unity in the UK and to decree ISIS as an illegitimate, vicious group who do not represent Islam in any way.” And young British Muslims started the #notinmyname campaign, you can watch a video of this here: #notinmyname.
Negative reporting of British Muslims in the media is not a new thing. A study of 352 articles in a week during 2007 found that 91% of articles about Muslims were negative and a Channel 4-commissioned survey of 974 articles from 2000 to 2008 found that two thirds portrayed British Muslims as a ‘threat’ and a ‘problem’. References to ‘radical Muslims’ outnumbered references to ‘moderates’ by 17 to one. This negative reporting on Islam, has a large part to pay in stirring up Islamophobia and trouble. Tell MAMA, which records anti-Muslim attacks, recorded 219 attacks in August this year, double the number in January. The organisation stresses that these reports are just the tip of the iceberg, with many feeling unable to speak up about the abuse that they are facing.
Islamophobic rhetoric is not just being communicated by the mainstream press. Increasingly people are getting their news via social media. Recently an angry post landed on my Facebook wall urging me to save Peppa Pig from the clutches of evil Muslims. The source of this anger was a parody video by a Muslim comedian, which had been taken at face value and elicited a visceral response. Even The Muslim Council of Britain was forced to issue a statement to say that they were not calling for a ban and knew of many Muslim children that enjoyed the show.
One of the most pernicious purveyors of misinformation and prejudice in this forum is an organisation called Britain First. A far-right political party and street movement, Britain First says that it is a Christian organisation. It campaigns against Muslims and immigration, encouraging its members to carry out actions like invading mosques, mass emailing and letter writing in a campaign to “Put Britons First”….When it talks about Britons, it just means people who are White and Christian. Britain First uses Facebook as its main platform to gain interest. They cleverly use jokes and emotive pictures, which may be completely unrelated to their cause… For example, pictures of mistreated animals… to gain shares and likes. In their latest campaign of hate, Britain First are using the shocking and terrible news about the young girls who were exploited by men of Pakistani heritage in Rotherham, as the focus of their activism. This terrible case has recently hit the headlines due to the publication of an independent investigation into the response of the authorities and their failings. In this instance the majority of perpetrators of this abuse were Asian men of Pakistani heritage and the newspaper headlines all followed a similar pattern, blaming a culture of ‘political correctness’ for the authorities’ lack of action.
In the face of such terrible news, there is a temptation to look for an easy reason, a way of shifting the blame which means that there is no need for introspection. However the actual report into the investigation is 153 pages long. It only briefly mentions the fact that some staff were afraid to mention the ethnic origins of the perpetrators for fear of being seen as racist. This was a piece of the jigsaw, but far bigger factors in this were that the girls, (who were White and Asian), were often in care, or from poor backgrounds, with chaotic lives, and so their complaints were dismissed and they were blamed for their circumstances. Because they could be difficult to work with, complaints were not pursued. The issue was not prioritised by the police and local authority services were over-stretched.
There is also nothing intrinsic in the culture of Pakistani communities that makes Pakistani men more likely to be abusers. Statistically 80-90% of abusers in this country are White British men. In this instance, the reasons are likely to be practical. In Rotherham, the majority of men employed in the night-time economy: in takeaways and as taxi drivers, are of Pakistani origin. The abuse is also not connected to Islam. The men were heavily involved in drink and drugs, things forbidden by the religion. As Nazir Afzal, the Crown Prosecution Service’s lead on child sexual abuse, says it is vital not to attack a whole community because the actions of a small number of men. “Criminality begins and ends with the criminal, and not collectively with the law-abiding communities.”

The lessons to take away from the tragedy of the abuse in Rotherham are about the importance of listening – not to the voices in the media who are intent on creating divisions and hate in return for profit – but to those who are the victims or targets of abuse, whether that be exploitation, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ageism or ableism. When we are united in working together to fight these true injustices and support the most vulnerable in society we will be able to create a society where everyone feels included, safe and valued.

Sarah Soyei, Head of Partnerships: sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

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