Since the attacks on the U.S., Islamic communities in Britain have
been targeted by extremist groups. Muslims have been intimidated,
their places of worship vandalised, 10 pigs' heads have been left
outside a mosque in Exeter and an Afghan taxi driver has been beaten
These are minor incidents against the background of violence which
engulfed America's east coast killing more than 7,000 people but
nonetheless they are indicative of the tensions which exist between
Islamic and other communities in the UK.
These tensions have not been helped by the British and foreign media
which have used value-loaded and inaccurate language, portraying Osama
Bin Laden as a "Muslim fanatic" and Islam as a dangerous religion
rooted in violence and irrationality.
The tensions have been further exacerbated by the media's avoidance of
context in relation to Arab anger in the Middle East.
Muslim Extremists, Fundamentalists, etc.
Use of emotive language linked to racial and religious identifiers has
been prevalent in the media and contributed to racial/religious
tensions as the following examples demonstrate.
- Osama Bin Laden and his followers have been described at various
times as "Muslim Fundamentalists", "Muslim Extremists", "Muslim
Terrorists" and "Muslim Fanatics".
The media should drop the word Muslim in conjunction with any of these
The Irish Republican Army are not called Catholic terrorists. The
Ulster Freedom Fighters are not called Protestant
terrorists. America's White Aryan Resistance are not Christian
terrorists. South Africa's AWB were not Calvinist terrorists.
In keeping with this tradition atrocities committed by groups claiming
an Islamic affiliation should not be described as attacks by Muslim
The hijackers in the U.S. were never more than mere terrorists -
anything else attempts to explain madness and props it up with the
terrorist's own crutch of ideology.
The media should drop the word Muslim in conjunction with Osama Bin
Laden or at least explain that Bin Laden's beliefs fall well outside
the scope of Islam.
Bin Laden is nothing more than a cult leader who attempts to
legitimise his violence through religion. Linking his actions to
religion only buys into his legitimation.
The media called David Koresh the leader of a Branch Davidian cult -
not the leader of a Christian group.
Shoko Asahara, whose AUM cult has been linked to sarin gas attacks on
the Japanese subway, has always been described as a cult leader - not
the leader of a Buddhist fringe group despite the fact that Asahara
said he wanted to teach Japan the "true teachings of Buddha".
Uganda's Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments was
described as a cult by the media after it massacred 780 of its
followers though its name alone points at Christian/Jewish influences.
Koresh, Asahara and the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of
the Ten Commandments were fanatics and madmen who the media located
outside of the bounds of their respective religions. Bin Laden
however is located within his religion despite the fact that his
interpretations of the Koran differ from the dominant orthodoxies.
- The media should drop the word fundamentalist in conjunction with
Muslim, Islamic, Bin Laden etc.
Describing Bin Laden and his followers as Muslim fundamentalists buys
into idea that Islam at its most basic level is about jihad, violence,
irrationality and madness.
Bin Laden's interpretation and teachings are not fundamentalist. In
fact they ignore the fundamentals of Islam, which seeks to create a
just and loving society under God - just like Christianity and
Bin Laden and other leaders of his ilk are not "Muslims" and they are
certainly not "Fundamentalists"; they are fantasists and fanatics.
We interpret Bin Laden's distorted imaginings as "true Islam" whereas
other religious cults with charismatic leaders are regarded as beyond
the scope of Judaism and Christianity. American TV evangelists are
derided as fraudsters but Bin Laden is regarded as a true
representative of Islam.
Islamic teachings and the Koran
The media has consistently explained the suicide bombers' actions and
motivations in relation to Islamic texts, most notably the Koran with
concomitant negative stereotyping of Islam and Muslims.
This use of the Koran ignores the fact that all religious texts are
open to interpretation and indeed similar passages encouraging
martyrdom and holy war can be found in Jewish texts and the Christian
Ironically George W.Bush warned of a crusade against terrorism. The
crusaders and their leaders used the Bible to legitimise a holy war on
Islam with the belief that if they died in battle they would be
martyrs and go to heaven.
Thomas Aquinas formulated the idea of a "Just War" and God himself
ordered massacres in Jericho and the cities of Canaan. However when
Christians commit atrocities newspapers and the media do not look for
possible explanations in the Bible.
Arab = Muslim = Arab
The media has collapsed the categories Arab and Muslim into each
Stories about the attacks have been consistently accompanied by
pictures of, and comment from, Arab Muslims. The effect has been to
collapse a racial group into a religious group.
All Arabs are not Muslim. Not all Muslims are Arab.
Portraying Muslims and Arabs as one and the same is inaccurate and
dangerous because it provides a racial basis for hatred which extends
past the boundaries of a religion. It allows extremists to identify
"Muslims" purely by perceived racial characteristics.
Furthermore the fact that the world's largest Muslim population lives
in Indonesia emphasizes the difference between the complex tragedies
in the Middle East and simple religious differences.
By showing that most of the world's Muslims are not based in the
Middle East you start to separate fact from fantasy. It becomes
obvious that the struggle in the Middle East is not one based solely
on creed or colour but rather a complex matrix of politics/territorial
ambitions/history expressed through, and legitimised by, creed and
An analogy can be drawn with the problems of apartheid South Africa
which the outside world regarded as racial but were in fact the result
of class and labour concerns which were expressed in racial terms.
It is all too easy to confuse cause, effect and explanation.
Only when the matrix of what causes the troubles in the Middle East is
resolved can a solution be suggested. As long as the Middle East
question is seen as a simple struggle between Judaism and Islam there
can be no peace.
Palestinians celebrating news of the U.S. attacks:
Video of Palestinians celebrating in the wake of the U.S. attacks were
broadcast on CNN and many other channels. However little context was
provided to explain the Palestinians' reaction, which though
reprehensible is rooted in the history of the Middle East.
Context cannot provide justification but it can provide explanation
and breed compassion.
At best the media reported that Palestinians hated Israel and hence
hated Israel's ally - the United States.
In a fast moving news story it is often difficult to supply content
and background but consequently weeks after the event when more
explanation is provided, people are already rooted in the simple,
basic facts, which though accurate are misleading in their lack of
Commentators have suggested that America's foreign policy in the
Middle East fans the flames of extremism in the Arab world. The public
should know what these policies are and what their effects are in the
Arab world. The public can make up its own mind whether the policies
are right or wrong.
America supports Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was defence
minister during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The invasion
culminated in massacres of thousands of refugees, many of them women
or children, in the Sabra and Shatila camps on the outskirts of
Surely this detail and is relevant to the debate.
Islamic Public Relations
It is evident that Islamic public relations have failed during the
aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre.
- There have been significant statements from various "Islamic"
organisations which have been extraordinary.
Terrorist groups, Yasser Arafat and Iran have all issued ground
breaking statements condemning the U.S. attacks. Unfortunately due to
the sheer mass of stories coming out of the attacks on the U.S. the
statements have been relegated to the inner pages of newspapers and
the end of news programmes.
- At the same time spokesmen for Muslim communities and groups have
unfortunately portrayed the "wrong" image on television and in other
The mistakes were exemplified by the service of remembrance in
Washington D.C. The service was performed by a Christian cleric, a
Jewish Rabbi and the head of the Supreme Muslim Council of America.
While both the Christian and the Jew appeared American to the
marrow, the Muslim cleric, wearing robes and speaking broken English,
appeared alien and un-American.
In the early days of the tragedy it was important for Muslims to
identify themselves with the mass of American community by emphasizing
similarities rather than differences especially through that most
American of mediums - television.
There are more similarities than differences between people regardless
of race, creed and colour. In the face of division it is these aspects
of common humanity which should be cultivated but it is these very
aspects which are difficult to transmit via television.
As a medium television does not lend itself to emphasising common
humanity beyond simple appearance and speech - the two very factors
which the Muslim cleric neglected.
Later on Muhammad Ali appeared on television proclaiming his pride as
a Muslim. His appearance had a profound effect on people's opinions
because he is an American symbol. Immediately all Muslims regardless
of appearance become more tangible and American - they are no longer
"the other" but part of the American community.
Television is about how you look, how you speak and very rarely about
what you think and how you feel. It is a one-way communication, there
is no chance of dialogue.
Muslims should consider their appearance on TV because TV is a shallow
medium which distorts peoples' opinions due to its technical
It is an unfortunate fact that people are scared of what they don't
understand or recognize. They need to be led to the realisation that a
man wearing a turban and a robe is still just a man and someone they
trust and recognize must lead them to that realisation.
Muslims should be themselves and proud of their culture and traditions
but they must be aware that on television people judge you on first
appearances, on looks and speech, not on your character.
While it is incumbent on the media to present Muslims in an unbiased
light it is also important for Muslims to do the best they can for
themselves by choosing the most appropriate people, both spiritually
but also physically, to transmit their messages and differences
through the television screen.
It is the press' duty and burden to ensure that it is impartial and
accurate and acts sensibly.
The right to speak to thousands and even millions of people is linked
to a responsibility to speak justly and without prejudice.
Prejudice, be it deliberate or unintentional, makes journalism into
propaganda and transforms a journalist into a demagogue.
The language and images that the media have used in conjunction with
ideas of Muslims and Islam have been value-loaded and lack
context. While the world moves on and new ideas develop we still use
the same words, in relation to Islam, that we used 10 and 20 years and
even 30 years ago.
If we cannot change the words and the symbols how can we hope to
change the future?
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