The Media and its Representation of Islam and Muslim Women
An article written and researched by Sairra Patel at SAIRRA_PATEL@HOTMAIL.COM [An edited version of this essay will be appeared in April 1999 in a collection of essays entitled Young Women Speak: A Message to the Media, edited by Jane Waghorn and published by the Women's Press - London]
In June of 1995 an event seen as an international tragedy took place in that an American government building in Oklahoma City was bombed. This atrocious act of terrorism killed many innocent people, including children. The following day a British newspaper, Today, carried the headline "In the name of Islam", accompanied by a picture of a fireman carrying the charred remains of a dead baby. It was then very quickly established that the bombing had, in fact, been carried out by Christian militants. This incident illustrates a trend which has emerged in the media - the demonisation of Islam and Muslims. The word 'Islam' means 'Peace', and also 'Submission to the will of God'. The Islamic religion and way of life is essentially one which provides total harmony and fulfilment to its followers, yet the media does not portray this image. In television, films, books, newspapers and magazines Islam is presented as being a backward and barbaric religion. It is seen as oppressive and unjust; and more then this it is seen as being most oppressive to women. These various forms of media misrepresent Islam in different ways, but overall achieve the same negative result - the creation of 'otherness', and from this a growing barrier of misunderstanding and hostility between Islam and its followers, and the West.
The form of media which reaches most people in Britain on a daily basis is television. It therefore has the power to communicate with and influence people at all levels of society. Television offers a source of information which viewers often accept as being factual, and thus use as a basis to form their own ideas. Therefore it should provide an accurate picture of what it seeks to portray. With regards to Islam this is rarely the case, instead only two stereotypical images of Muslims are offered. On the one hand we have characters from films and dramas, such as BBC 1's 'Eastenders' and BBC 2's 'This Life', who are Muslim, though only by name. These characters are Western conformists, totally adopting Western values and culture. There remains no sign of their religious or ethnic identity, and should the issue of their cultural background be mentioned it is treated as a cause for embarrassment. The other, and more common stereotype is that of the violent religious fanatic. In current affairs programmes we are constantly offered the image of Muslims as savage terrorists, killing innocent people with no remorse. No insight is given as to why some Muslim organisations carry out acts of violence. What results from this is that the common people, the viewers of these programmes, recognise and accept only the labels - and therefore with 'Islam' they immediately associate negative images. As can be seen, two extremes emerge, and with this the question arises of whether these are the only types of Muslims that are acceptable to the Western media. One upholds the status quo while the other provides sensationalism, neither being a true reflection of the majority of Muslims. Myself as an example, I am a practising Muslim women with all my values stemming from Islam, yet I also adopt some Western ideas and institutions, having been born and brought up in the West. I therefore represent many Muslims who are rarely depicted in the media; proud of my Islamic identity though aware of my position in the West. Directly related to this, an issue which is close to my heart, is how the media depicts Muslim women.
Rana Kabbani, in the introduction to Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of the Orient, discusses how a journalist from the magazine Vanity Fair came to her for material on an article about Islam. When this article was published Kabbani was disappointed to say the least:
"It was one more unrelieved catalogue of horrors about Islam ... it ignored any of the important debate within Islam about the rights of women. It distorted every sentence I had uttered ..."
She concludes that the article was "intellectually dishonest", but that "the whole Western debate about Muslim women is a dishonest one". Being a Muslim women, it is this misrepresentation that hurts me the most. With no insight into Islam, journalists and writers condemn the religions attitude to women. Only recently, in July of this year, an article in the newspaper The Telegraph claimed that an Islamic school of great influence in Deoband, India believed and taught that women are the source of evil. I am acquainted with the ideas of this school, and know that it does not make such a claim - to the contrary it teaches men to respect women, and to know their rights. In newspaper and magazine articles and on television in general, we are portrayed as being weak and submissive to a religion which seeks to oppress and dominate. Muslim women who choose to cover themselves are pitied, and are thought the victims of a patriarchal and misogynistic religion. However, for a large proportion of women this simply is not the case. In Islam we have a of place respect and equality. Despite the beliefs advocated by the Media, our religion does not offer us a lower status than men, as the Noble Qur'an clearly illustrates:
"And for women are rights over men / similar to those of men over women." (2:226).
And as the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) stated, "Women are the twin halves of men". Over fourteen hundred years ago Islam gave women rights which women in the West have only been given during this century, such as the right to own property, the right to inherit and the right to make a contract in ones own name. Annie Besant, who was writing in the 1930's, observed that, "It is only in the last twenty years that Christian England has recognised the right of woman to property, while Islam has allowed this right from all times. It is a slander to say that Islam preaches that women have no souls". Women are seen as the spiritual and intellectual equals of men, though again this is not the image presented. The hijab (the garment worn by Muslim women to cover the hair), is another issue of contention. The media presents it as being an enforced condition, though for most Muslim women it is a voluntary act which signifies their allegiance to Islam, as well acting as a symbol of their faith. The negative images built up around the Muslim way of life has influenced the ideas of many of my non-Muslim colleagues at University who have implied in conversation that I wear the hijab because I am forced to by my community. Many have been surprised and enlightened when I have spoken about my true reasons, and furthermore that I chose to convert to Islam from another faith. Where the public believes that they are being presented with educational material about Islam from a reputable and reliable source, all that they are being provided with are the confused opinions of individual producers and journalists - many of whom begin their research with preconceived ideas and aims.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the World. To this fact the media has again managed to attach a negative stigma. It claims that this spread has taken place in the Third World, and in deprived communities in the West, such as the black people in the inner-city areas of Britain and the USA (documentaries have been made in Brixton and the Bronx following this theme). It is therefore, according to them, an isolated phenomena amongst people of lower standing in the larger community, which does not affect the majority of those in the West. Such a presentation is again untrue. Although it does appeal to the sections of the community mentioned above (who are just as important as any other section), Islam appeals to many different people from many different walks of life. Islam is able to provide satisfactory answers to every question posed by the individual, and thus provides them with total peace of mind; something which many Muslims would argue no other religion can provide. Islam's appeal is universal, illustrated by the book Islam - Our Choice, in which testaments are given by people of many different professions (Lords and Barons, statesman, diplomats, scientists, doctors, scholars, writers, social workers, preachers) from all over the World (England, the USA, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Holland, Australia, Japan, Poland, Canada, Ireland, Sweden) as to why they chose to convert to Islam. Importantly, within these people are also women. If Islam is the misogynistic religion which the media claims it is, then this conversion to Islam by women brought up in the West would not make any sense. This supports my claim that the debate within the media regarding Muslim women is indeed an unfair one.
In the past some influential figures of the West have attempted to provide an account of Islam without prejudice. In his writings in the 1770s the great German writer and philosopher Goethe concluded that "If this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?". Another authority in the literary field, Thomas Carlyle, gave a lecture in 1840 to the "intellectual elite" of London entitled "The Hero as Prophet. Mohomet: Islam", this also did a lot to dispel myths associated with Islam, in an age where the religion was thought of as savage and barbaric. Countless other less influential figures within the West have also documented fair and unbiased presentations of Islam, yet in the current climate such open minded investigation seemingly no longer exists. Many young British Muslims are coming to the conclusion that Western discourse, of which they believe the Media to be a large player, is set against them, only satisfied when documenting them in a distorted light. The term 'Islamophobia' has emerged within these circles, and can be used to summarise the collective feeling of rejection and alienation that is being experienced by Muslims within Britain. At the hands of the Western media British Muslims face marginalisation, having their believes and practices ridiculed and degraded on a regular basis.
Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, and the Rushdie Affair that followed its publication demonstrates this marginalisation. Rushdie's novel makes a crude play with the sacred beliefs of Muslims; in effect he laughs at what he considers an irrational and ignorant people. Muslims world-wide were unsurprisingly deeply shocked, insulted and angered by the novel. In London a peaceful march in protest took place, in which many of my close friends participated - however, a small handful of youths became unruly, resulting in clashes with the police. Again the media chose to give the event a negative image, with news programmes giving coverage only to the small minority who became violent. The focus also turned to Ayatollah Komeini's fatwa (simply translated as 'ruling', and not as the 'death sentence' as the media has claimed) for Rushdie to be executed. The idea of Muslims as an irrationally violent people was again put across by the media, yet no mention was made of the fact that Khomeini's fatwa only applied to Shi'ite Muslims, who make up less then twenty percent of the Muslim population in the World. Throughout the Rushdie Affair the media came down heavily against Muslims; journalists and writers spoke out in support of Rushdie, and his right to freedom of expression. No voices lent support to the hurt suffered by the Muslims - to my memory only one writer, Roald Dahl, spoke out against Rushdie, and his insensitivity in insulting the beliefs of Muslims. Another sharp lesson was also learnt by Muslims within Britain due to the Affair; the limitations of the law in providing them with protection, and therefore the limitations of equality for all in Britain. When Abdul Husain Choudary attempted to bring summonses against Rushdie and his publishers, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate in London ruled that the law of blasphemy in England and Wales protected only the Christian religion.
Why does the media choose to misrepresent Islam and Muslims in such a manner? The question is one with no defined answer. Many, myself included, may first consider that ignorance is at its roots - that those in control of the media simply are not well informed on Islam, and that this comes through in the articles and programmes they produce. However, on further reflection this argument can easily be dismissed. There are too many good sources from which the true Islam can be researched, and found. There are books written within the West by Muslims, by converts to Islam, even some by non-Muslims that reflect fairly on the religion. There are monthly magazines published by Muslim organisations in Britain, and now there are even web-sites and CD-ROMs available with Islamic themes, and these show what Islam really is. With all this information it would be impossible to simply believe that the researchers are ignorant with regards to Islam. Many Muslims now have an alternative and more sceptical answer, that the media purposely misrepresents Islam as it challenges the order of the West. It commands an allegiance which goes beyond boundaries of wealth, nationality, sex, race or culture. It is a threat, and as such, it is treated as the enemy. Many have associated the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments in the media to the end of the Cold War - Muslims will now argue that with the fall of the USSR, Islam is the new common enemy of the West. Such ideas reflect the extent of the damage done to the Muslim community. The media has a great power, and how it chooses to exercise this power directly affects people. It is a propaganda machine of the highest order. The way in which this powerful organisation has mistreated and misrepresented Islam and Muslims is unjust, but furthermore dangerous. This subject warrants and desperately deserves further debate and investigation, which I sincerely hope it will receive in the near future.
Rana Kabbani, Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of the Orient, (Pandora: London, 1994).
Annie Besant, The Life and Teachings of Mohammed, (Madras: 1932)
Ibrahim Ahmed Bawany (Ed.), Islam - Our Choice, (Ankara: Turkish Religious Foundation, 1997).
Byron Porter Smith, Islam in English Literature, (New York: Caravan, 1977).