It's them Zionists wot dun it!
Anyone who is sad enough to frequent Muslim Internet forums, as I am, will no doubt be familiar with some of the more challenging explanations for negative media representations of Islam. Journalists, newspapers and indeed the entire corpus of the Western media may be labelled ‘Islamophobic’, with justifications for labelling copy as racist ranging from personal interpretation to the use of sophisticated definitions of Islamophobia, such as that developed by the Runnymede Trust (1997). Justifications can also involve an appeal to ‘Zionists’ as a traditional enemy of Muslims, varying from the quite credible appeal to the organised Israeli lobby – although this may be invoked over news stories other than Palestine, down to the more conspiratorial idea that every negative story about Muslims its part of a Zionist plot.
Muslim and non-Muslim sceptics frequently dismiss such analysis using crass and homogenizing explanations which accuse the majority of Muslims of being anti-Semitic. These sceptics appeal to studies which allege a widespread belief amongst Muslims of Jewish involvement in 9/11 and point to the introduction of Judeophobic propaganda into Muslim majority nations after World War II, where it was used to demonise the newly formed State of Israel (Johnson, 1987). This itself appeals to, and is no doubt drawn from, media discourses which represent Muslims as primitive and credulous. In fact, Muslim understandings of the way in which their faith is represented by the mainstream media varies and is better understood when located in the contexts of minority groups’ self-understandings of negative media coverage and the concept of cultural literacy.
Muslims are not the first minority group to adopt explanations of racist media coverage that draw on conspiratorial concepts. A study carried out by Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ross (1995) into media understandings amongst ethnic minorities in Britain indicates that conceptions of the press as a racist cabal are not new. The problem with such ad-hominem arguments is that, were they true, news coverage of minorities in Britain would be far more negative than it currently is. Moreover, crude appeals to Islamophobia are challenged by Muslims who work within the mainstream media. The blunt war-cry of ‘Islamophobia’ also fails to acknowledge significant differences between journalists who take an anti-Islamic stance. When the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) voted Poly Toynbee “Islamophobe of the year” in 2004 alongside Nick Griffen, it merely demonstrated that some Muslims were unable to differentiate between an over-passionate secularist and a fascist bigot. Such misunderstandings – along with the muddle of media comment on forums and blogs - point to a lack of media literacy amongst British Muslims which desperately needs to be addressed.
At present, there is only one substantial investigation into Islamophobia in the media in Britain, that of Elizabeth Poole. This concludes, on the basis of very substantial evidence, that Islam and Muslims are represented by the media within a narrow and negative framework. But the explanation detailing the nature of this framework, how it developed and how it is sustained, is not easily reduced to the kind of sound bite and polemic that appeals to users of Net forums and indeed some blogs. Islamophobia is racism, and as such, has its origins in the racism which was constructed as a result of Orientalism and European colonialism. These racisms have been reformulated with the rise of Islam as the ‘new enemy’ of the West and the shift to faith-based identities amongst ethnic minorities. The key factor which sees these racisms perpetuated is a media which, as a result of market forces, is highly consensual and conservative in what it defines as newsworthy. This consensuality is achieved by relying on established discursive frameworks which surround topics such as Muslim education and fundamentalism. These frameworks define both what is considered news and the language used to construct news stories and comment across the media.
This explanation does not deny the agency of individual journalists, but can be criticised for failing to highlight the institutional processes contributing to Islamophobia, such as the impact of Conrad Black’s neo-conservative alliances on the representation of Muslims in The Telegraph whilst he was its owner. However, these explanations emphasise process as an important facet of how news coverage becomes Islamophobic and hence pose a challenge to conspiratorial explanations as well as indicating a way forward. At first sight, the cultural and literary turns implicit in the concept of discourse might suggest these explanations are inaccessible to Net forum users unfamiliar with the relevant facets of post-structuralist theory. Fortunately, Poole succeeded in presenting her research in a way which opens it up to wider use, by providing categorical examples of how specific topics are discussed so that established discourses can be challenged. In my view, one of the future roles of the British Muslim intelligentsia must be to articulate these topical frameworks in a way which facilitates wider democratic action by Muslim Net users seeking to challenge Islamophobia in the media.
Poole. E. (2002) Reporting Islam: Media Representations of British Muslims (London: I B Taurus)
The Radical Islamist