As the current debate over press regulation takes places in the UK one of the elements of the Levison Report that has not got as much attention is that which focuses on the representation of muslims in UK media. Referring to concerns voiced by ENGAGE the report noted the following headlines, which appeared to have little factual basis but which may have contributed to a negative perception of Muslims in the UK: ‘Muslim Schools Ban Our Culture’; ‘BBC Puts Muslims Before You!’;‘Christmas is Banned: It Offends Muslims’; ‘Brit Kids Forced to Eat Halal School Dinners!’; ‘Muslims Tell Us How To Run Our Schools’. An earlier 2007 study entitled The British Media and Muslim Representation: The Ideology of Demonization found that only 4% of the articles studied were positive.
The effect of this is however far wider than would initially seem. By pursuing as large an audience as possible this is incidentally very similar to the aims of islamic extremists themselves who want to recruit as may followers to their cause as they can. Therefore opposing voices on both sides and the media, even if we concede they have done so unintentionally, have succeeded in leading to a situation that dissuades a broader co-operation and ultimately promotes misunderstanding. This has the effect of marginalizing moderate muslims and therefore makes the task of combatting and succeeding over its extremist elements even harder.
In this context terrorists and media politicians designate themselves as a sole symbol of a collective rightnesous and designate each other as the evil equivalent while the complex reality is that, in the context of the billions of individuals they represent they are neither. This promotes a moral superiority on both sides at the behest of moral clarity and destroys the possibility of a common and level field of dialogue among the majority. A specific example of this is a misrepresentation of terms such as jihad which are often incorporated in catchy tabloid headlines. Yet the reality is more complex. The real meaning of this phrase is to struggle or strive.
In contrast a more positive example of its use is its place as a core value for Islamic Relief. Islamic Relief describe themselves as ‘a leading international aid and development charity striving – note the word striving – to end poverty’. Their effort is reflected by the knowledge that they were one of the first aid agencies on the scene as part of the immediate emergency response following the Haiti earthquake disaster. Since then they have initiated a school reconstruction that has resulted in 2,500 children going back to school and established centres for vocational training to develop skills such as carpentry, vehicle mechanics and IT. Critically this is just one instance of a collective effort that spans 40 countries and 100 branches worldwide. It is an effort that is blind to geography, race, colour or religion. It is involved in issues and causes from fair trade, drop the debt, refugee week, HIV, aids, emergency sanitation, orphan sponsorship, reconstruction work and climate change. The first donation was 20p from a child, representing an extraordinary progress that thousand’s of bombs from either side can never achieve.
Considering it is the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War – and we have heard this morning of more bomb attacks in Baghdad – I passionately believe that it is also critical that we avoid another policy approach and a wider perception within society that encourages an uncritical and unbalanced view. Indeed as we now know the intelligence and reasoning used to justify our intervention seems as unbalanced and sensationalist as some of the headlines the tabloid press have printed. If we address this climate in effective manner however then it can only be harder for us to make as damaging mistakes again. Above all, we owe it to the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi’s killed due to the nature of our intervention that we learn from our past mistakes.
We must learn from history and turn challenges into long-term opportunities to learn and try to understand the problem. We must avoid generalisation and both media and political sound-bites designed to gain support for a cause like the aggressive and simplified language of G.W Bush or Bin Laden. This only reduces the solution to a simplified clash of civilisation’s and metaphors such as the war on terror. Such terminology can only draw comparison to the ‘war on drugs’ or ‘war on poverty’.
Ultimately civilians on both sides are placed in the middle and suffer the most as the politicians, sections of the media and islamic terrorists exchange ideological and very real violence on one another.