My speech at the launch of the Platform on: Muslims in the media
The Muslim community’s relationship to the media is undoubtedly a fraught one. From those producing it to those featured in it, studies tend to paint a fairly bleak picture.
The search for Common ground report by the GLA in 2007 pointed to the pitfalls faced by those Muslims lucky enough to find employment in the media – and they are few and far between. Problems included anything from feeling pigeon holed, to assumptions they ‘must’ know everyone in the muslim community, to the very reasonable request of going undercover to infiltrate al Qaida. One line which stuck out for me in the report was when one journalist commented: “The thing is I’m a professional journalist, not a professional Paki”, pointing to the essentialisation and reification of his identity in his workplace.
Of course, the essentialisation of Muslim identity doesn’t just concern, nor does it primarily concern journalists. The findings are even more damning when we look at how Muslims are actually portrayed in the media.
From the terrible Turks/Pakistanis/bearded brown guys threatening Jack Bauer in the popular TV series 24, a show which shaped the debate on the legitimacy of torture in America, through to films, like Iron Man in which bad and backward Arabs – Or are they Pakistani (who cares, right, they’re ‘bad’ Muslims ?!) seek to thwart the efforts of technologically savvy, ‘good’ Americans seeking to save the world from impending Islamic doom – let’s face it, Muslims are never the goodies.
Few of us need to see the stats to corroborate the feeling that Muslims are poorly represented in the public sphere. From the outright false headlines such as “Muslims offended by pig in Natwest advertising” or ‘Muslims seek to ban Christmas’, through to the inane – “Muslim cabby bans guide dog”, numerous studies, including a recent report by the Cardiff school of journalism have pointed to the pervasiveness of prejudice against Muslims in both print and visual imagery, which the report concludes “compounds a view of Islam as dangerous, archaic, irrational” and also conflates it with terrorism.
Interestingly, they also found that from 2008, stories focusing on cultural and religious differences exceed the volume of stories on terrorism for the first time.
This of course is a worrying development which reflects a shift in the broader discourse on what constitutes extremism, from previously widely accepted definitions based on violent actions, we are now facing a definition premised on the holding of views allegedly incompatible with “mainstream” British values, to use the language of the Prevent report.
Now it is my feeling that Cameron has taken a lot of slack over this term ‘mainstream’, which I think is in fact, patently clear. So let’s be fair to the PM and let’s look at the ‘mainstream’ view of women, an issue we are told which is to be central to the definition of extremism.
Say in football? Pretty mainstream, right? Clearly neither Andy Gray nor Richard Keys, two of football’s most famous faces, had received Camron’s memo about gender equality when they stated, referring to a female referee: “Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her.”
OK, so we set the bar a little low there.
Just a few bad eggs – we get it, we’re Muslims after all, we understand the concept of a few renegades tarnishing the entire community! Let’s look at politics instead. That’s pretty mainstream – oh – wait, hold on – not sure this one is going to work either…
Wasn’t it our very own PM who only recently made the rather gauche gaff of telling a female shadow minister to “calm down dear” – playing on the perennial ‘hysterical woman’ cliché, and almost just as bad, popularising Michael Winner’s stupefyingly irritating catchphrase. No, perhaps we simply misread that one – we just didn’t get the gag, too over-sensitive and politically correct. But what about the Tory council candidate who was recently forced to resign after it came to light he was referring to local women as ‘slags’ on his facebook page – are we misreading that one too? Or the case of Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen , who has just been arrested on suspicion of sexually assault – is there something I’m missing?!
The proposition that “women’s rights” are a mainstream British value might be laughable on a number of fronts if it wasn’t so obviously discriminatory in its focus – one can only presume the latest Prevent brigade won’t be sent to monitor derogatory views of women in lap dancing bars and gentlemen’s clubs (including the Conservative Party’s favoured gentleman’s club, the Carlton Club, which as early as 2008(!) granted women “equal status” as members) – no, one can safely assume this latest initiative speaks only to Muslim misogyny – which you’d be forgiven for assuming is the only type around!
And incidentally, might I ask, why we are taking gender equality lessons from a government whose cuts have been the worst for women since the creation of the welfare state – when 70% of the government’s proposed “savings” will be made by slashing, freezing or cutting women’s incomes – where lone mothers will be the hardest hit, losing 18.5% of their income as a result of the cuts – where over half of the 300 women’s shelters nationally are facing the threat of closure – a government which had to be taken to court by the Fawcett society to ensure it complied with existing equality legislation!
But let’s get back to the problem shall we – we were talking about Muslims.
Let’s stay focused on what the real problem is here people.
According to Cameron “under the doctrine of state multiculturalism we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”- while I’m certain a man whose personal fortune runs in the millions may know a thing or two about “living apart”, and a party which considers auctioning off internships a form of meritocracy certainly knows a thing or two about encouraging that sense of ‘living apart’ – sorry, again -wrong focus – I’m talking about the ever increasing gap between rich and poor when what we’re supposed to be discussing are Muslim ghettos. I’m obviously easily distracted.
If we haaaave to discuss these, lets at least get some facts straight. According to the 2001 census, the most recent data we have on the matter, the most segregated religious groups geographically are Jews and Sikhs, while those people most isolated from meeting people from other ethnic groups are in fact this country’s ethnic majority group.
Indeed, while failure to accept liberal values and a propensity for isolationism are considered markers of un-britishness if you’re Muslim (and we’re told, it is only a step from there to full blown terrorism – you join the dots!) one can safely assume the Haredi Jewish community of Stamford Hill, will be safe from misguided Prevent strategies aimed at teaching British citizens how to be British.
In his Munich speech, Cameron bemoaned the fact we have allegedly “failed to provide a vision of society to which they (i.e the iffy moslemz) feel they want to belong” but is it any wonder when those very same people are being dictated a set of values from above and denounced as un-British if they’re seen to question them – and what does being British mean exactly and who gets to define it?
Apparently not young British Muslims.
Away from all the political manoeuvring and sensationalism, the misrepresentation of Muslims in the public sphere is a critical issue when one considers that eight out of 10 Britons have no close contact with Muslims. In addition, research by the EMRC has pointed to a symbiosis between anti Muslim hate speech in British politics and media and anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Speaking from personal experience, having lived the shift from unquestioned, non-Muslim Briton, (despite having a French passport at the time), to suspect not very white-maybe-brown-ish Muslim citizen (despite now having a British passport), the disparity between the treatment afforded to Muslims as compared to other citizens is all the more striking to someone who’s lived the difference. Which other community has to worry about being monitored at the doctor’s surgery or in their tutorials?
I usually say to people who really don’t get it, put on a scarf for a week and see how you go – grow your beard and shun alcohol for a while and watch gradually how people’s attitudes to you harden, how you are suddenly called upon to prove your most basic humanity, even by those you’ve known for decades.
Confronting the ignorance, the misrepresentations, the stereotypes and offering a contribution which moves beyond the reactionary responses in which we are continuously called to define ourselves in opposition – ‘We are NOT terrorists’, ‘we are NOT extremists’, is not an empowering way to view ourselves. It is essential we move beyond this defining ourselves in the negative, to presenting what we are actually about.
Instead of what we’re not, let’s hear about what we ARE about.
I recall an exchange I had a few years back now with Dr Timothy Garton-Ash, on the issue of free speech. I said to him at the time that I didn’t and I don’t think the issue is really about curtailing free speech in any real way, ring-fencing anything or anyone from criticism, but the real issue for me is one of unequal power relations.
Edward Said (whom I incidentally must plug as your essential summer read) defines Orientalism as the ability of the ‘Occident’ to define the ‘Orient’, over and above itself. I consider the same principle as intelligible when we consider much of what we read and hear about in the media today about Muslims. In other words, the dominant discourse about Muslims, talks ‘to’ and ‘about’ Muslims, without properly engaging Muslims themselves on how they see themselves. In other words, it defines Muslims over and above how Muslims define themselves, with all the intended plurals which such a definition should and does entail.
At the time, his response to me was “then, fight the power relations”, which I’ll admit I felt was somewhat convenient and a tad predictable – perhaps I should have asked for a step by step guide on how, when our access to positions of power are so curtailed, we are meant to do so. But in any case, I consider initiatives like today’s (the launch of the Platform), an essential part of that struggle to make ourselves heard, on our terms, about the issues which are of import to us.
It is for these reasons and many more that I decided to get involved with the Platform – those who get to know the Muslim community tend to realise the nuances, the diversity, the eclectic nature of our ummah and recognise the many young and some not so young Muslim men and women making reasoned, intelligent and critical contributions to the issues of the day. It seems obvious to me that contributing in this fashion is an essential part of our obligation as Muslims, to enjoin the good and forbid evil, to seek to render our society a fairer, more humane place where every soul has the opportunity to live and flourish to the fullest. But it is also blindingly obvious to me that the platform for such voices to be heard is not always available. And so creating our own opportunities, making our own Platform is an essential step in ensuring we do our utmost in our commitment to the overarching theme of justice which permeates the Quran.
In a society in which the sacred has largely been banished, the idea that religion has anything positive to contribute to our public sphere is pervasive. While most people consider God a parochial relic from a bygone era, young people of faith have an important role in reminding broader society of the value of faith and its relevance to the modern era, and initiatives like the Platform are a window into the rich, spiritually-infused contribution Muslims have to make to the issues of the day.