Islam in the Media: Normalising Islam
In 2002 the Daily Telegraph and Sydney’s talkback radio shows reported a case of gang-rape as a Muslim / Lebanese issue. This became one of the year’s most dominant stories and did irreparable damage to public perceptions about Muslims in Sydney.
The continued debates around terrorism and suicide bombing, the hijab and integration, immigration and values has further aggravated the successful integration of Muslims in Sydney.
Muslims are like the fat kid in school or the kid with glasses, easy targets. And Muslims are easy targets. They look different, there are groups concentrated in suburban enclaves in south western Sydney and most significantly they are very devout in their practice.
Its like the nerd or study geek in class, he works hard and actually takes maths seriously, as if he was there to learn something, the other students scoff at him and taunt him for being the teachers pet, when all he wants to do is get on with the practice of learning and improving himself.
18th C European Orientalism has ensured us that Islam remains outside of the norm. A mysterious, debaucherous and cultic faith which aims to undermine our righteous Christian values. One can imagine the caricature of the bearded Muslim lurking around bus stops and schoolyards ready to pounce on our innocent youth, to viciously rape and debase them.
Edward Said in his seminal work “Orientalism” describes the Orientalist as one who:
constructs, and the very act of construction is a sign of imperial power of recalcitrant phenomena, as well as a confirmation of the dominant culture and its ‘naturalisation’.
As far back as 1891 William Muir wrote in The Caliphate, Its Rise, Decline and Fall,:
the sword of Muhammed and the Qur’an are the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty and the Truth which the world has yet known.
French philologists Ernest Renan who wrote L’Avenir de la Science in 1848 said,
“the Semitic race (Arab and Jew) appears to us to be an incomplete race, by virtue of its simplicity. This race – if I dare use the analogy- is to the Indo-European family what a pencil sketch is to a painting; it lacks that variety, that amplitude, that abundance of life which is the condition of perfectibility.”
What Renan tried to do was to reduce the Orient to a kind of human flatness, which exposed its characteristics easily to scrutiny and removed from it its complicating humanity.
Analysis of contemporary media related to Islam will show a common thread. The negative coverage, the depiction of Muslims as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers with one aim in mind and that is to undermine Western values and ideals, this thread is aimed at de-normalising Islam, making it alien and threatening. As our prime minister often says, “They hate us for our freedoms and our way of life.”
The Muslim is the antithesis to everything that we enjoy as a part of a healthy democracy.
The cartoons of the 19th C and early 20th C depict Muslims and Turks as lust-thirsty womanizers and evil and backward agents of the Orient.
The recent Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet, although offensive is nothing new. This existed in the late 1800’s and to a large extent went unnoticed by the Ottoman empire which was basically the Islamic world at the time.
But all of this works towards reinforcing the common thread. The media has become the vehicle to propagate that thread and to reinforce the stereotype of the antagonistic Muslim heathen who is antagonistic to our way of life.
In mainstream print, television news and radio talkback, the topics about Muslims confirms that they are not part of the team, they don’t want to integrate, they only want to convert us all to Islam, subjugate our women and cheat the system.
If we look at the television and movie industry for example, we observe in Arnold Schwarznegger action movies we see Arnie killing the Muslim terrorists and saving the world from these smelly unshaven Arabs who just have nothing else to do with their time.
In shows like 24 our all American hero Kiefer Sutherland comes across a Turkish family who has lived in the states for 7 years going about their business yet even a normal family as this one is actually embedded in to the society as a sleeper cell awaiting orders. When their orders are finally released they wreak havoc upon the innocent Americans and even though good triumphs over evil, eventually, the antagonists die fighting and with their dying breath they blurt out in an anti-American communistic slogan like “death to the infidel”.
Yet what if we look at programs where one may not at first suspect to look? The Simpsons. A very clever satirical look at ourselves. Would you agree?
The program makes fun of just about everything and everyone.
The Christian fundamentalist next door, the Jewish entertainer with a triple heart by-pass and a smoking addiction, his over-bearing Rabbi father, the Hindu Indian Quickee mart owner taking short cuts and changing used by dates, the eccentric Scottish gardener, the nerdy school principal who still lives at home with his mother, the stingy polish bartender, the alcoholic lay about, the corrupt police chief and the mayor, the comical Italian mafioso, the escaped convict Snake, a black plant co-worker, and of course the evil white millionaire nuclear plant owner who exploits his workers and his faithful assistant with latent homosexual tendencies. The show has covered a number of stories from Free masons to sending up celebrities and presidents. Yet what is missing, in this all-American city of Springfield? Does Springfield have a no-Muslims immigration policy?
De-normalising Islam has been a part of the agenda for over three centuries.
Our Australian media is not as sophisticated as our US counterparts but it takes a lot from its big brother across the Pacific. And to a large extent Islam has been de-normalised in Australia.
Australians are a bit more accommodating than the Yanks.
Only when we start to see Muslim characters on Home and Away, or Muslims reading the 6 o’clock news and when Muslims are not associated with terror and anti-social behaviour and instead with positive stories that tell us how wonderful they are we may begin a process where Islam and Muslims are normalized.
In 2001 when I took position as Media Officer at the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils the media often expressed their relief that the Muslim community finally had a media spokesman that they could liaise with.
Since the 2002 Sydney gang rapes, there have been some observable changes in the media, which is partly due to the proactive efforts of the Muslim community. The Muslim community has in the past five years accelerated their activity and efforts to engage with the media and to assist them in building better relations, providing resources and information to enhance media coverage.
The Muslim community is by no means a homogenous unit but they clearly have identifiable institutions and entities. One issue affects all Muslims.
Therefore, anything that is highlighted in the media has dramatic effects on the ground.
Briefly I will mention three recent cases and compare the styles of reporting which will underline my point.
The reporting of sheikh Taj Al Din Al Hilali’s comments about Muslim women who dress scantily described as uncovered meat, created media history.
Between September and December 2006 there were 1331 articles written about Sheikh Taj Al Hilali.
In the months before there had been only 87.
The media frenzy surrounding the sheikh led inevitably to his final demise. The community were fed up with the negative impact that he was having on them and ousted him in a coup which led to appointing the less complex and elderly Victorian imam sheikh Fehmi Al Imam.
There is no doubt that Sheikh Taj was demonized and the media persisted its relentless investigations and innuendoes and finally he felt the pressure emotionally and physically, succumbing to his heart condition.
Whether you like him or not, the sheikh is definitely an interesting character and has added colour and controversy to the Muslim community.
Faces of Islam
But as quickly as it came the madness ended. And suddenly we were excruciatingly dragged thru a feel good fest of faces of Islam in one solid week of articles, a brainchild of the Fairfax newspaper. After a three month relentless attack on Sheikh Taj the SMH decided to make amends for the very tough time it experienced because of the words of one man.
While I personally did not like the series on the basis that it kept Islam on the periphery like a freak show, it was to say the least an attempt to portray Muslims fairly and positively.
This was quite unprecedented. In the past the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian had covered very positive profiles of Muslims but not at this level and this caliber. But it did not do this on its own. There has been a number of personal efforts by individuals and organizations such as ours who have forged relationships with journalists and producers and Chiefs of Staff, thereby providing good spokespeople and building a rapport which has affected the attitudes of reporters and decision makers with in the media.
With some hard work and commitment Muslims have actually made a difference to the attitudes of the media, and we have reached a turning point although there is a very long way to go.
During the Haneef case this turning point became evident. For the media this was a gift however the media were grasping at straws, even though this was another Willie Brigitte case, the reporting was much softer and in general slanted in Haneef’s favour. The tide was finally turning, journalists were sick of the bad Muslim tag and were willing to give Haneef a chance. Bungle after bungle led to the freeing of Haneef and the media turned on the immigration minister.
The media in this case kept the pressure on the police for answers and for transparency. The weak link was that it was handled as a criminal matter and not under the new legislation. This enabled the media to closely follow the case.
However, it did not excuse either the police, the immigration minister and the PM for that matter of jumping to the conclusion that he was guilty. The media was also tending to indicate that where there is smoke there is fire.
The reporting of Islamic issues has increased in the past five years and many journalists are aware of the impact that they are having on the Muslim people by the way they report. The situation is very complex and involves many layers.
The Muslim community is a very under-developed community, most of its organizations are unprepared and lack the skills to work with the media, they are undisciplined and dysfunctional, they still have their ethnic rivalries and nepotistic tendencies, mostly powered by men who came here from abroad with out dated views and mentalities. They are also out of touch with a community which statistically has 70% of its members under the age of 30. That is a staggering statistic.
But the second generation of Muslims are now taking measures to change the status quo. Not only are we undertaking media training and engaging with media professionals, we are monitoring the media and taking them to task when the code ethics is breached. We have pooled our resources together and sought advice and assistance from media professionals such as Peter Manning and academics to strategize and create media savvy homegrown spokespeople. All of this has made a difference.
The next phase in my belief is that Muslims will cease their siege mentality and become more confident in working with the media, as they mature as a community, there will be more institutions dedicated to this cause and slowly we will begin to reduce our presence in the media an attempt to normalize Islam.