Shenaz Bunglawala

Engaging young Muslims with the media and civic society

Focus on the media and Muslims which is primarily concerned with false and damaging representations can frame Muslim individuals and communities as passive, disempowered victims. This chapter analyses the strategies of the ENGAGE organisation to enhance critical media literacy in society at large and encourage Muslims, particularly young Muslims, to engage vigorously with mainstream media, civic society, the political process and wider community life. It also examines the social and political imperatives which are driving this enterprise and concludes with several critical observations on diversity and press regulation in the light of matters emerging through the Leveson Inquiry.

Keywords: media and Muslims, representation of Muslims, media literacy, civic society, media engagement


A key plank of our work at ENGAGE involves documenting and challenging Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim prejudice and racism. Our focus is shaped both by research illuminating the frequency and persistence of negatives frames through which Muslims are identified and portrayed in the media, and what we perceive to be the causal effects of these negative stereotypes on British Muslim communities, that is, threats to their security and wellbeing.

Our focus is further determined by what we understand to be a gaping hole in policy on improving community cohesion, community resilience and social bonds at the local and national community levels in response to the divisive and dangerous ideas promulgated by far right social movements and political parties.

As Eric Randolph (2009 no page number) observed in an article reviewing the Government’s previous counter-terrorism strategy and the implications for social cohesion: ‘...the glaring hole in the government’s discussion [on social cohesion] is its failure to discuss the role of the press ... Islamophobia remains rampant in Britain’s mainstream press. Muslims are continually identified either with terrorism or as culturally incompatible with the British way of life.’ Randolph refers to the findings of the Cardiff University study, Images of Islam in the UK (Moore et al 2008), which identifies a shift in media narratives from a conflict paradigm to one focused on the cultural incompatibility of Islam and Muslims with British society. He notes the tensions in policy linking counter-terrorism to social cohesion against the backdrop of the cumulative impact of negative media reporting on Muslims. Thus: ‘... stories about Muslims have increasingly been focused on their perceived failure to assimilate into British society. It consistently fails to see its own role in this process – the effect of constant negative caricatures appearing on front pages across the country.’

It is the social consequences of ignoring Islamophobia in the media that informs our work and directs our interest in encouraging young Muslims to engage more critically with the media and civic society. The media, local and national, plays a tremendously important role in enabling and influencing intercultural communication and understanding. And yet, the role and significance of the media, and the challenges it presents to policies intended to improve individual and communal experiences and understanding, in our estimation, are all but overlooked. It is this oversight that informs and influences ENGAGE’s work on media literacy and critical engagement.

Islamophobia and the media

Islamophobia is defined by the Open Society Institute report on Muslims in 11 EU cities as comprising of an ‘irrational hostility, fear and hatred of Islam, Muslims and Islamic culture, and active discrimination towards this group as individuals or collectively’ (OSI 2010: 18). In the absence of an agreed working definition of the term, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency concludes that though the phenomenon is identifiable in outcomes, biased motivations that inform anti-Muslim abuse and attacks, a clear definition, conceptual and working, is more problematic. The OSI definition is one we use in the absence of another, but our acceptance of it is positive and not just neutral.

The reference to an ‘irrational hostility’ and ‘fear and hatred of Islam, Muslims and Islamic culture’ encapsulates the various facets of this modern racism. Its irrationality, often depicted in apocalyptic scenarios of a ‘Eurabia’ takeover of Judeo-Christian Europe, and its targets, the religion of Islam, Muslims and Islamic culture, neatly captures the beliefs, individuals and symbols that come under scrutiny and attack by Islamophobes.

While various studies have highlighted the media’s biased, often harmful, representations of Islam and Muslims (Poole 2002, Morey and Yaqin 2011, Petley and Richardson 2011, McEnery et al 2012), the social effects on British Muslims of the steady drip-feed of an anti-Muslim media narrative is less well documented and appreciated.

The media narrative is variously pursued through the amplified and exaggerated use of divisive and provocative Muslim actors; blurring the distinction between the Muslim majority and a confrontational fringe, and the reductionist, selective frames used to convey news that is related to or has a resonance with Muslim communities. The predominance of frames of reference in relation to Islam and Muslims that draw on tropes of terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism, or Muslims as disloyal and isolationist, or Islam as inherently incompatible with British culture, produces empirical results such as those found by McEnery et al (2012) which demonstrate that ‘…explicit references to extremism were also found next to the word Islamic 1 in 6 times across all the newspapers – indeed it is likely that Islamic is now difficult to use in a neutral way as it is so heavily laden with negative overtones and disapproval’ (emphasis added).

Further research, post 9/11 and 7/7, places particular emphasis on the media as an auxiliary power influencing and affecting popular attitudes towards Islam and Muslims in the UK, and Europe more broadly. For example, an OSCE roundtable meeting convened in May 2006 on ‘The representation of Muslims in public discourse’ observed that the ‘impact and reach of the media meant that misrepresentations and stereotyping of Islam and Muslims had negatively affected public attitudes and contributed to a public climate of hostility towards Muslims’ (Roundtable Report 2006: 5).

The media’s role in constructing Muslims as an alien presence in society is frequently cited by Muslims as a core problem obstructing mutual understanding and respect for the Islamic faith. Successive social attitudes surveys shed light on these shifts in popular attitudes and the widespread perception among the minority and majority populations of a rise in anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility (British Social Attitudes survey 2010, Citizenship Survey 2007-2008).

The Citizenship Survey 2007-2008 on ‘Race, religion and equalities’ found that the proportion of people who felt there was more religious prejudice in the UK than five years ago increased from 52 per cent in 2005 to 62 per cent in 2007-2008. Of the 62 per cent who felt there religious prejudice had increased, 89 per cent believed Muslims as a group experienced more prejudice than other religious groups in Britain compared to five years ago.

It would be naïve and irresponsible to expend our energies on tackling anti-Muslim sentiment in society and not focus our attention on the media and media output. With the inevitable rise of alternatives to traditional media outlets and the growth in popularity of foreign based broadcasters, such as Al Jazeera and Press TV, among Muslim consumers, whether as a direct result of frustration with domestic outlets or merely reflecting a benign pattern of diverse and plural media consumption, tackling anti-Muslim sentiment and prejudice in society requires participation in the ‘national conversation’ and, therefore, a focus on the national press and broadcasting. Though local media fares better than national media on balanced, fair and representative portrayal of Muslim communities (OSI 2010), media ownership and the decline of local and regional newspaper industry in the UK makes the focus on national media all the more important.

Challenging negative stereotypes

From the work we have done with Muslim communities in the UK, it is clear there is widespread acknowledgment of the significance of the media’s role in fomenting divisions and misrepresenting Islam and British Muslims. But for every complaint we hear on the role of the media and the bias prevalent in particular titles, much less is said or mentioned of the use made by Muslims of the Press Complaints Commission or more direct forms of redress, such as letters to the editor or journalist concerned.

It is not always a simple matter of an aggrieved Muslim not knowing the channels available to seek redress of grievance, though that is sometimes the case. It is also a permissive attitude among Muslims, perhaps other minority groups too, that excuses lapses and misdemeanours on the part of journalists, sub-editors and editors, allowing for media output to go uncorrected and unchallenged.

Though the study by the Open Society Foundation on Muslims in 11 EU cities found that ‘negative media coverage has also provided the impetus for individuals, civil society, and public entities to respond with greater engagement in media discussions and to focus on the need for encouraging and supporting more Muslims working in the media’ (OSF 2010), in our experience Muslims are still at the steep end of the learning curve.

What is changing, and what we are committed to changing, is the culture of media consumption among young British Muslims. We want them to be more critical and less apathetic in their reaction to media output that denigrates and disparages their religion, identity and community. We want Muslims to claim their share of interest and responsibility for changing the way journalists report on and the way editors arrive at decisions on covering stories related to or of relevance to British Muslims. We want Muslims to see the media as a vehicle for reporting the multiple and mundane contributions Muslims make to their local communities and to national life.

Studies show that those who have direct experience of minorities are less likely to hold or accept views that are denigrating of that minority group. While the argument is a reasonable one to advance in relatively mixed or cosmopolitan parts of the UK, the drawback is that in more ethnically homogenous regions Muslim minorities are either disadvantaged or unduly burdened, due to minority, majority ratios. The media can in such cases play an important role in connecting citizens and providing a platform for interaction and exchange that might otherwise prove more onerous.

As we undertake our workshops on media literacy nationwide, equipping Muslims with the learning, skills and tools to challenge reporting on Islam in the media, so are we using the workshops to urge them to exploit the opportunity offered by the media to communicate with their local communities and the country at large, on issues that matter to them. A conversation is only truly national when all the composite parts are involved. No national conversation could be national without the vocal and visible representation of Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities in it (Campion 2005). The responsibility for staking out representation is one, we believe, is shared by the industry and minority groups. As a guest speaker, a subeditor for a northern regional newspaper said at one of our literacy workshops, you need Muslims working in the media and presently, there are too few.

‘Critical literacy’ and media regulation

An interesting dilemma we face in our work with Muslims is one over authenticity and authority. We sometimes get asked whether Muslims challenging stories that are inaccurate or misleading is more authentic but lacking in authority, and whether non-Muslims challenging the same story will be perceived as authoritative but not authentic. Put another way, the question asked is does it take a Muslim to challenge Islamophobia in the media?

Our answer is no, and that authenticity and authority are context-specific much of the time, but not all of the time. While we would not expect non-Muslims to advance theological or Islamic defences to arguments made in an article on, say, headscarves, nor would we expect them to dismiss articles which convey notions believed to be wrong on the presumption that their intervention is the least authentic.

Engaging young Muslims in the media and civic society is a task not without a teleological end. Our destination is as much a guide in our endeavours as our current experiences and the body of evidence already assembled on media representations of Islam and Muslims.

A diverse society deserves a diverse media. But diversity is not desirable as an end in itself, nor desirable for its instrumentalism. Diversity is desirable for presenting us with a portrait of our society as it is, reflecting all the ethnic and religious groups that comprise it and providing a platform for multitudinous exchanges that can override the Islam/British dyad that obstructs the ability of Muslims to identify with the media’s depiction of their religion, identity and community.

Petley and Richardson (2011) argue the need for teaching ‘critical literacy’ as a way of reading and dissecting media output in order to better scrutinise it and uncover latent and overt bias in the way media reports on Islam and Muslims. They argue that schoolchildren should be taught to question the extent of generalisation, dichotomy, simple binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in media reports etc. so that such output is assessed more rigorously than be consumed without question. It is a valid point and one that merits wider application.

As an organisation working to improve Muslim engagement with the media and civic society, better press regulation is, for us, one aspect of challenging Islamophobia in the media. But what is just as important to us is the observance of the civic duty, by young Muslims and others, to challenge the media and to resist the naturalisation of anti-Muslim prejudice that in turn creates an environment congenial to hatred and Islamophobia.


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