It is generally true to say that the American and British media have a shallow and dilettantish understanding of the race and ethnicity of the ‘enemy’ in the ‘war on terrorism’. These enemies who are principally Arab and Islamic extremists or fanatics represent, demographically, a miniscule percentage of the Muslim world. Nonetheless, the Western media’s presentation of ordinary Muslims is often identical or almost identical to their presentation of Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists. Both are shown as hateful and zealous religious extremists whose first aim is to overthrow Western democracy and freedom. There is often hardly even a crude attempt to discern between and present differently genuine terrorists and ordinary, peaceful and law-abiding Muslims.
It is as if the Arab media were suddenly to infer from the IRA bombings of Britain in the 1980’s and 1990’s that all white Irishmen are inclined to commit terrorism. No thinking Muslim could ever contemplate a suggestion as ludicrous as this; Muslims legitimately ask in protest therefore why their race and ethnicity should be portrayed so simplistically and crudely in the Western media. The uniform and monotonous image of Arabs and Islam promoted in the media arises from that media’s lack of comprehension and empathy with the Muslim world and the Islamic religion.
Only a more thorough and objective analysis of the Islamic world can push back the media’s impulse to be influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes about Muslims. If this re-orientation and re-education takes place it will be possible to wash away from the minds of the general public popular illusions about the involvement of Muslims in the ‘war on terrorism’ – for instance the assumption that Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Britain all share the same terrorist inclinations as Al Quaeda or the P.L.O. This essay explores the Western media’s perceptions of the Arab race and of Muslim ethnicity, and suggests how these perceptions influence its coverage and commentary on the ‘war on terrorism’.
‘The Islamic teachings have left great traditions for equitable and gentle
dealings and behavior, and inspire people with nobility and tolerance.
These are human teachings of the highest order and at the same time
practicable. These teachings brought into existence a society in which
hard-heartedness and collective oppression and injustice were the least
as compared with all other societies preceding it. … Islam is replete
with gentleness, courtesy, and fraternity.
(H.G. Wells, 1932)
H.G. Well’s eloquent words are one example from many of a long tradition in the West of admiration and appreciation for the civilization of the Arabs and the religion of Islam. Of late, the Western media has forgotten about the cultural achievements born in the Islamic world and seems no longer able to discern between the general Muslim public and the extreme groups of Muslims who commit atrocities such as the September 11th attacks or this week’s bombings in London. Our newspapers and television stations typically present Muslims – be they terrorist or civilian! – in the following way.
They are either groups of young Muslim men torching American flags in the streets of Palestine whilst wielding rifles; or they are a crowd of agitated Muslims outside a mosque in north London preaching lessons of jihad; or they are the inculcated and indoctrinated disciples of the Quran. The implication in all these examples is that all Muslims are susceptible to the temptations of terrorism and can be seduced by leaders such as Osama Bin Laden. There is of course a patent absurdity in such a simple presentation: the massive majority of Muslims in all countries oppose, for instance, the train bombings in Madrid or the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
This image is sustained by the propaganda of stations such as CNN, ABC, and the BBC, who often display scenes of Arab children waving signs showing the face of Osama Bin Laden or Mohammed Omah, to imply that young children are on a large scale manipulated and recruited into terrorist causes. Newspaper slogans shout ‘This Fanaticism that we in the West Can Never Understand’ and ‘In the Heart of London Demands for Holy War’ . If Muslims so unreflectingly projected upon modern Christians all the terrors that have been carried out in the name of that religion, and if Christians were to glimpse that projection, then we might have far greater empathy with the present simplistic image of racial and ethnic incitement in the Muslim world.
By promoting such racial and ethnic prejudices the Western media reveals what one scholar calls its Islamophobia (Tape, 2003). In Britain, newspapers such as The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Express and the Daily Mail recklessly promote Islamophobia when they know the true nature of affairs is far less simplistic than they suggest. Amongst these misrepresentations perhaps the most serious is that which paints Islamic ethnicity as an intransigent and monolithic structure that systematically abuses women, squashes human rights, and loathes democracy. The media’s subscription to this political idea is highly dangerous. It convinces television and newspaper audiences that the actions of a few fanatical terrorists are typical of Muslims generally and so perpetuates an idea that the ‘war on terrorism’ is against a far wider segment of the Muslim world than it really is. For instance, British newspapers frequently imply the similarities between terrorist cells training and operating in Afghanistan or Iraq and the activity of Muslim communities in north London or Bradford
James Bignell’s book Media Semiotics (Bignell, 2002) and S. Rampton’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (Rampton, 2003) have showed that television, newspaper and radio audiences intrinsically trust the message they are given – no matter what form this media arrives in. Thus the responsibility upon the media to make an accurate portrayal of race and ethnicity as an influence upon the ‘war on terrorism’ is even more essential. Yet the media’s language about Muslim race and ethnicity often fails to separate Muslim terrorists from Muslim civilians.
As an example, the recent Runnymede Trust’s ‘Islamophobia’ survey (Runnemede, 2004) found that 85% of members of the British general public thought the terms ‘terrorist’, ‘extremist’, ‘fanatic’ and ‘fundamentalist’ synonymous with ‘Muslim’. Such a warping of the truth can only have been facilitated by the media’s own indiscriminate use of these terms. Moreover, whereas ten years ago these terms were only thought to be synonymous with Muslims abroad, now words such as ‘fanatic’ are being associated with British Muslims who are British citizens also.
How then did the Western media come to possess these theories about the race and ethnicity Islam and its influence upon Muslim terrorism? The Runnymede Trust’s 2004 report illustrated that ideologically, spiritually and culturally Islam is perceived as the ‘other world’ by the Western media, and as the diametrical opposite alternative to Western democracy. The media cements an ‘us and ‘them’ conflict that makes the rift between the two civilizations appear far wider than it is – remember, of course, how many Muslims live in Britain as legitimate British citizens and who are an essential part of that civilization.
But The Daily Mail for instance still produces inflammatory headlines such as ‘Fanatics With a Death Wish: I Was Born in Britain, but I Am a Muslim First’ . Slogans like these are intended to make wider the perceived ethnic differences between Christians and Muslims, and to imply that Muslims give their allegiance to terrorist cells before their country – of course, most Muslims are fully abiding citizens. Moreover, all credible Islamic councils and Islamic scholars in the U.K. explicitly condemn the actions of men like Bin Laden – though such condemnations are rarely reported at depth in the media.
R. Ferguson argues in The No Nonsense Guide to Terrorism (Ferguson, 2003) that the mainstream Western media is largely complicit in promoting stereotypes they know to be false; at the same time they ignore acts of equivalent terrorism authorized by their own governments or committed by their own citizens. The Quran is represented equally simplistically and is implied to be a reservoir of motivation and justification for terrorists. Little attention is given by the media to the fact that the Quran is in the enormous majority of instances used for the spiritual enlightenment of Muslims -- and only rarely for the purpose of justifying jihad or terrorism!
Likewise, the media is to be reproached for sensationalizing and dwelling upon the lives of lone extremist clerics such as Abu Hamsa. The Daily Mail, for instance, in September 2001 featured the same provocative photo of Abu Hamsa on seven consecutive days (Sep 13th-20th) even though he is a radical and unwelcome figure in the mainstream British Muslim community. This disproportionate focus upon the lives of extremists is intended to fix in the readers’ or listeners’ minds the prejudice that all Muslim’s share opinions like those of Abu Hamsa. In the words of Tape:
‘Abu Hamsa has become the press’s mythical, personified construct that
incorporates all the Islamophobic stereotypes that have become the
pretext for much contemporary reporting. He is the Islamophobe’s
The effect of such media campaigns against ordinary Muslims is to, paradoxically, increase the likelihood of terrorists being created in Britain. In Britain the sensationalized images of extremist figures are now being mixed up with accusations that these figures are illegal immigrants who are accepting benefits whilst absconding from their duties as British citizens. Since the media has already established that these figures are typical of Muslims generally, it becomes easier to suggest that ALL Muslims are illegal immigrants abusing their status in British life waiting to betray it.
All these points were eloquently portrayed in a caricature published in the Daily Mail on September 25th, 2001. A image is shown with a group of young Muslim men waiting before the Houses of Parliament waving posters proclaiming ‘Death to Britain and America’; the quotation beneath says: ‘Parasite: (Chambers English Dictionary): a creature which obtains food and physical protection from a host which never benefits from its presence’. The implication in this crude cartoon is that this definition of a ‘parasite’ is applicable to all Muslims and not just terrorists associated with Osama Bin Laden. Thus through the parts of the media’s manipulation of the true state of affairs, millions Britons are duped into support for a largely phantom war on terror – phantom when applied to the majority of Muslims.
Gunter Grass, the eminent German novelist, has said that it is not preposterous to call analogies between the gross distortion of truth by Nazi propaganda against the activities of the Jews in Nazi Germany and popular European sentiments towards Muslims Grass has even suggested that Islamophobia induced by misrepresentation of the ‘war against terrorism’ could become so intense as to produce a repetition of the Kristallnacht incident in 1938. Grass says that the intention of this media technique – practiced assiduously and methodically by the major U.S. news stations – is to demonize the enemy to such an extent that it is possible to justify almost any action against them.
The celebrated French social-scientist Jean Baudrillard argues that modern media is ‘hyper-realistic construct where the real and the imaginary continually collapse into each other’(Baudrillard, 1990) . In other words, the judgment of the public is so easily won that they near automatically believe whatever is presented to them about the war on terror. Noam Chomsky has written at great length on this subject of media inculcation and terrorism (Chomsky, 1989, 2001). Chomsky argues that modern news had a fundamental institutional bias towards white elites in America and Britain. Thus in his film Manufacturing Consent (Chomsky, 1992) Chomsky says ‘Propaganda is to democracy what the bludgeon is to the totalitarian state’ – an instrument for the coercion of opinion.
The racial and ethnic predispositions of the Western media create a basic prejudice against news that does not conform to their mindset. Thus news has to pass through five ‘filters’ – a filter of ownership, profit making, government organization, pressure groups, and popular journalistic conceptions – before it can be passed to the public. When Chomsky’s model is applied to the media’s coverage of the war no terror it produces striking results. Chomsky speaks of ‘Paired examples’ whereby news that has passed through these five filters receives a totally different presentation to news that has not.
For instance: the train bombings in Madrid passed these filters and so received the appropriate thoroughness and responsible coverage appropriate to the disaster. On the other hand, the indiscriminate destruction of a school in Baghdad in which fifty school-children die does not pass the filters and so there is little or no coverage of the Arabs and Muslims who perceive this act as an act of terrorism against them. Chomsky has on this point that ‘The wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism’ (Chomsky, 2001). By this definition the United States were terrorists in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Chomsky accuses the media of failing to give any precise definition to the terms ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ or ‘war on terrorism’. The advantage of such nebulous and foggy concepts is that they go unquestioned by the general public because they have no precise shape.
Although some of Chomsky’s opponents think the idea of ‘manufacturing consent’ is almost a renewal of the idea of ‘false consciousness’ in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (Marcuse, 1990) – a novel in which the general public are so indoctrinated by propaganda that they need special elites to advise them how to think – he is universally admired amongst the West for, amongst other things, demanding that the mainstream media question more thoroughly their assumptions about Islam and its influence upon the ‘war on terrorism’.
In the final analysis, theories and misconceptions of race and ethnicity have produced a fundamental and unnecessary bias in the Western media’s coverage and discourse on the ‘war on terrorism’. Moreover, this war threatens to spill over into a war of ideologies where the secular democracy of the West is in combat with the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes of the Middle East. There are many responsible journalists and media organizations working in the West who are aware of the subtleties and intricacies of the ‘war on terrorism’ and who conscientiously make the distinction in their coverage between Muslim terrorists and the vast bulk of ordinary Muslims who reject terrorism.
The British newspaper The Independent is an outstanding example. All too often however this simple yet vital distinction is lost. Muslim’s of all attitudes, behaviors and beliefs are huddled together to be demonized by the press as zealous religious extremists intent on overturning Western democracy and civilization. Prejudiced theories about the racial and ethnic constitution of Islam and Muslims feed these misrepresentations. The vital task for the future of American and British journalism is to educate themselves deeply about the racial and ethical makeup of the Middle East so that they might provide the ‘war on terrorism’ more objectively and perhaps facilitate conciliation between ordinary Muslims and the West.
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