Muslims in the media: it’s a story familiar to us. Negatively portrayed, demonized and stereotyped. Yet there are also certain topics on which where we’re accepted and even praised by the media. How exactly does this love-hate relationship work?
One of the key features of our media engagement over the years has been that we are always spoken for – Muslim motivations, intentions and actions can seem to be explained by the media without Muslim input. So in a sense, our engagement is not really required at all.
The Muslim can only have a voice in categories already established by an Islamophobic media, within the co-ordinates which conform to their pre-set narrative of what, according to them, a ‘Muslim’ ought to be – most often this involves condemning certain things and pledging allegiance to certain others.
It is more than just a simple bias or generalization against Muslims, but an entire conversation about us which operates in specific ways. The media’s control over the discussion is not only seen in the biweekly fear mongering over Muslim-youth radicalisation, but also the topics where they “celebrate” us, couched in terms of multiculturalism and diversity.
One particular way in which the media discourse works is that the problem of “Islam” is used to articulate other problems. Fears about social and economic change are embodied in the exaggerated threat of “Muslims”, an example being the recent commotion over the Halal industry and its supposed funding of terrorism. The former PM Tony Abbott’s rhetoric similarly wove together the problem of immigrants, radicalisation and anti-terror legislation; all these problematics of Australian culture serve as a basis for how Islam and Muslims are talked about – always in those terms and in relation to those issues. The “truth” of the matter – that no halal does not fund terrorism, that no, there is no problem of “radicalisation” – becomes irrelevant as this linkage of domestic issues to a foreign and fearful Islam takes hold in the public imagination.
Caricatures of Islam thus become simple ways of understanding a complex and perturbed political climate, and the figure of the Muslim conveniently encapsulates the ‘problem’ itself, to which all discontent can easily be attributed.
Another element to the media discourse when it comes to Muslims is a historically charged racism. We see undertones of this in most media portrayals; there is a subtle assumption that Muslims are simply foreign in relation to the values held sacred to the West; that we are not liberal, not democratic; that we are oppressive and irrational.
This relationship is very much present today and is seen quite viscerally in tabloid media, with their obsessive portrayal of the ‘Muslim’ as a near-existential threat to Western society and everything it holds dear. Both our speech and our silence is manipulated in accordance with this prefigured idea of Islam – we are continually asked to condemn that which we should not be.
In regards to our engagement with media, we are put under continual pressure to vindicate ourselves, to clear ourselves of crimes we’ve never supported, let alone committed, to prove to them that we are not terrorists.
There is much to be cognizant of in this engagement, and how it is elicited from us. Knowing that Islamophobia is an entire framework which has prefigured positions for us to fall into, we have to be aware of whether we are actually ‘engaging’ or simply putting up a hollow opposition which does nothing but confirm the parameters already set.
When we attempt to combat the media by telling them the ‘truth’ about Muslims in face of their false portrayals, the vocabulary of conversation remains the same. “Terrorists”, “radicalisation” – they say we are guilty, we assure them no, we’re innocent; but such terms remain the firm coordinates of any discussion on Muslims. The positions taken on them differ greatly, but their centrality is never questioned. We are always subject to these accusations and our allegiance or defiance is kept topical – and this is precisely the way in which the media works.
We always feel obliged to respond to them within a perpetual debate about our allegiance or defiance. Yet by speaking within this conversation of theirs and in the terms they want us to – that either we’re with them (‘moderate’), or against them (‘radical’), we tacitly accept the stereotype that it is within us – within our Islam – that the answer to their anxieties lay, not in greater discussion of politics or history. It is in this way that the media controls us: they are able to define us, represent “us”, and keep us as the central thing under consideration.
What this achieves is that we are only ever seen through the lens of ‘terrorism’, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘security-threat’, whether in denial or confirmation of it, Muslims are forever to be thought of in such terms. We are constructed to always be scrutinized and questioned as to our loyalty.
It is this framework that we ultimately need to reject: and therein lies the key to the community’s interaction with the media going forward.
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