Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Western Media Coverage of Islam and Muslims

The portrayal of Muslim peoples and culture in the non-Muslim media has long been problematic. Whereas exclusion from mainstream media is common, where coverage does exist it often perpetuates negative stereotypes and presents Muslim culture in a critical manner. Yacine Houhoud Tamsamani, writing for Morocco World News, examines the  problem. 

The important role that the mass media are playing not only in keeping people informed, but also in shaping public attitudes about political and social issues is well recognised. Broadcasting has a crucial role in shaping how majorities, by and large, think about minorities. The latter have been often portrayed by the media in negative stereotypes. The image of Islam and Muslim minorities has been among those depicted in a negative way especially since past 9/11. This has crucial and significant implications because it addresses a controversial issue, which is the view of non-Muslims in relation to Muslim communities.
Many studies have addressed the fact that representation of Islam and Muslim views are almost absent from the media. A case in point is that of British Muslims, whose representativeness is very low. According to Byrne (2008), only 11% of the British Muslim population are represented in the media. He adds that the media’s usage of few individuals and organisations does not do justice to the complete spectrum of views held by British Muslims and the ethnic diversity of Muslims in Britain. In other words, all British Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds should be given opportunities to express their opinions, otherwise this exclusion, according to Byrne, might not be helpful for British society.
Likewise, Richardson (2001)[1] commented “Muslim communities are almost excluded. However, when they do appear, they are included only as participants in news events, not as providers of informed commentary in news events; and therefore, that the issue and concerns of the communities are not being served by the agenda of the broadsheet press.” These findings of his analysis of representations of Islam and Muslims focused on British broadsheet newspapers. This includes Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, The Times, and two British broadsheet Sunday newspapers; Sunday Independent, Sunday Times.
Hollywood films in other areas have also been made. Shaheen, a professor of mass communication at southern Illinois University and the author of Reel Bad Arabs [2] devoted much of his work to the subject of Arab representations in the media. In the post 9/11 era, he gives a better understanding about Arab stereotypes perpetrated in the media. He surveyed over 900 films and found that very few depicted Arabs and Muslims leading normal and healthy lives (Shaheen, 2003).
However, not all representations of Arabs and Muslims named in the media are negative. There are many prominent Arabs who could be recognised as positive role models. In an article entitled Demonising Arabs in the Movies? Exploring Islamophobia, Landes (2007) makes the point that Alexander in the film “Syriana” and Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia” are some examples of these positive Arab characters. There are also many organisations and institutions that work towards ensuring more accurate and positive representation of Arabs and Muslims. Hookers in some areas have represented positive stereotypes about Muslims. The ninety-nine, a new common book series in which the heroes are Muslims as can be seen in the negative representations of Islam and Muslims in the media (2008).
It is now abundantly clear that there is a number of increasing powers in covering, both in the print and the electronic media. It was Cottle (2006) [3] who argues that a powerful position for the media helps to represent group minorities either in positive or negative ways.
At present times, these positive representations are few and far between. It is very clear that much will remain to be done to promote fair representations of Arabs and Muslims. Representing Arabs and Muslims realistically in the media will benefit western societies on how to battle discrimination and racism. It will also increase self esteem and pride of Arabs and Muslims, and will encourage them to have more positive and healthy views of themselves.


[1] Richardson, J. E. (2001) ‘British Muslims in the Broadsheet Press: A Challenge to Cultural Hegemony?’ Journalism Studies, Vol 2, No 2, 2001. 

[2] Shaheen, J. (2003) Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Arris Books. 

[3] Cottle, S. (2006). Ethnic minorities and the media: changing cultural boundaries. [Media: ethnic minority’s Ethnic minorities]. Buckingham: Open University Press. [edited by Simon Cottle.]. 

This article first appeared in Morocco World News and is reposted with permission 

Yacine Houhoud Tamsamani is an MA student in philosophy, Arts and Media at Staffordshire University, in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA from Al-Qarawiyyin University, in Fez, Morocco. He is interested in traditional Arabic and Islamic Studies, as well as contemporary Islamic issues (Islam, Muslims, Multiculturalism, Justice, terrorism).



Jed Carosaari said...

I read Shaheen's book. Even got to meet him once. Powerful stuff. 900 films. Only 50 with positive non-stereotypical portrayals.

DP215 said...

Is this a specifically Muslim issue? In general, media tends to focus on the views of the majority, not the minority. And movies are equal-opportunity stereotypers - whether you are muslim, female, black, asian etc... there are plenty of negative stereotypes in Hollywood. I'm guessing that the Arab Muslim press often neglects the viewpoints of Christians and Jews living in the community.