Friday, November 23, 2007

Study shows 'demonization' of Muslims

An article recently reported that a research study in London found that Muslim images in the media were predominantly ‘negative’. Here are some excerpts:

Research into one week's news coverage showed that 91% of articles in national newspapers about Muslims were negative. The London mayor, Ken Livingstone, who commissioned the study, said the findings were a "damning indictment" of the media and urged editors and programme makers to review the way they portray Muslims.

"The overall picture presented by the media is that Islam is profoundly different from and a threat to the west," he said. "There is a scale of imbalance which no fair-minded person would think is right." Only 4% of the 352 articles studied were positive, he said.

Livingstone said the findings showed a "hostile and scaremongering attitude" towards Islam and likened the coverage to the way the left was attacked by national newspapers in the early 1980s. "The charge is that there are virtually no positive or balanced images of Islam being portrayed," he said. "I think there is a demonisation of Islam going on which damages community relations and creates alarm among Muslims."

I conducted a similar study twice regarding articles in the U.S., where I compared Muslims/Islam in the media pre and post 9/11. Not surprisingly I found very similar results. Muslims are currently one of the most scrutinized, misrepresented and vilified people. Many factors have played a role in the way Muslims are perceived, one of which, perhaps with the largest responsibility, is the media. It is hard to comprehend how journalists can speak with such authority. The word choice in articles can affect a person so much as to enlighten them, in consequence, to the immense power journalists possess to create such images, portray people and events, and mold the opinions of their readers. Islam is judged by the public through these pre-existing stigmas and stereotypes which are then only perpetuated more.

Not only is it sad that most of America's only connection to Muslims is through the media but also, unless you were on the streets of New York or standing outside the Pentagon on 9/11, these events were framed and explained to us by the media as well. Edward Said’s Orientalism helps to describe this conscious othering and demonizing of the Arab and Islamic worlds that influences and is commonly perpetuated in the Western mainstream media. When you think about it, this is an institution that is very powerful as it possesses orientalist tendencies and creates the discourse such as body of language, labels, symbols and representations that are used to describe and characterize Islam. Thus, Muslims find themselves in the forefront of Bush’s “war on terror” having to be examined at airports, deported, held in secret prisons without evidence and without a proper trial. They are deemed guilty without proven guilty while the majority turns the blind eye without second guessing their guilt.

The “war on terror” in Iraq as well as 9/11, is a testament to the powerful role the media plays in influencing our perceptions. Americans were led to believe that somehow Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks. The vague suggestion that Iraq was involved—by invading them as part of the post 9/11 "war on terror”, not only confused and misguided Americans, but can also be argued that it contributed to a certain conceptual cohesiveness of the Middle East in the minds of Americans that is false and deeply damaging. Specifically, it drew subtle links between the violence in Palestine, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, and now Iran, creating a deceptive picture of the terrorist-filled "Middle East." Terrorism is America's favorite bad guy and evildoer, guilty as charged. It has become the sinister monster that has plagued these first years of the 21st century.

Furthermore, what’s sad is that terrorism and Islam have become linked in the minds of many Americans, especially after 9/11. Some believe that there has been somewhat of a positive change with shows such as “Little Mosque on the Prairie” and “Aliens in America” that seek to inform the larger community in what Islam truly is. However, I wonder if we’ll ever see a big top selling blockbuster movie where the main character is Muslim “and” a hero. Will Muslims become the next “token black person” in movies and shows? I personally don’t know though, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see in the coming years.

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