By Judith Escribano, Head of Communications at Islamic Relief UK
I never thought I’d be the victim of Islamophobia – I’m not a Muslim, after all. But working in comms for an Islamic charity, Islamic Relief UK, I have come to accept that it is now part and parcel of my everyday life.
I’m not alone, obviously, and what I face is a tiny fraction of the Islamophobic abuse my Muslim friends and colleagues face. In our office, the social media team regularly reviews offensive remarks on our social channels, weighing up whether to ignore, rebuff or report them. In fact, so hateful are some of the comments, we even have a dedicated police officer to whom we report. Likewise, my colleagues in the media team frequently have to respond to Islamophobic reports in the press about our work.
So just how widespread is Islamophobia in the media and why does it influence all of our work?
Mainstream media: Offensive reports and negative stereotypes
Anyone interested in the subject of Islamophobia in the media must follow the incomparable Miqdaad Versi. Assistant General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, Versi records examples of Islamophobia in the British press and, where possible, gains corrections on inaccurate stories. It’s practically a full-time job.
As Versi says in his article Islamophobia not an issue in the British press? You’ve got to be kidding, anti-Muslim sentiment is rife in the mainstream media. Surprisingly the editor-in-chief of the Daily Express, Gary Jones, agrees. He has admitted that many of the stories published in the paper prior to his arrival had contributed to an “Islamophobic sentiment” in the media and that its front pages had sometimes been “downright offensive”.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the news can see that Islamophobic comments are promoted by broadcasters as well, with right-wing extremists invited onto news and political programmes on a regular basis, often without being challenged about their Islamophobia. Sadly, chasing ratings seems to be more important than acquiring balance or reasoned debate.
So why do editors and broadcasters allow such words to be published or spoken without question? Versi is frank on this issue: “Let us not kid ourselves. Stories that play on the public’s fears and feed their prejudices are popular.”
In The role of the media in the spread of Islamophobia Sam Woolfe argues that “the media uses bold and harsh language to promote this kind of fear because bad news sells”. This constant drip feed of bad news focussed on Muslims and Islam merely “propagates and reinforces negative stereotypes of Muslims (e.g. that Muslims are terrorists, criminals, violent or barbaric).”
Drawing the line: Using the Riz Test
Such biased, negative coverage, however, doesn’t just appear on the news or politically-focused programmes. No, just think about last year’s inexplicably popular TV programme Bodyguard, which focused on Islamic terrorism. It pandered to every single stereotype of a Muslim: the cowed and oppressed woman (wearing the niqab) and the terrorist suicide bomber.
It broke every single rule of the Riz Test, which adopts five criteria to measure how Muslims are portrayed on film and TV. To put is simply, if the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by their ethnicity, language or clothing), one should ask: Is the character…
- Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
- Presented as irrationally angry?
- Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
- Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
- If male, is he presented as misogynistic? Or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
If the answer to any of the above is yes, then the film/TV show in question fails the test. It’s that simple. Try it next time you watch a TV show, the news or read the paper. You’ll be surprised how few actually pass the Riz Test.
The power of the media: Real consequences
So, are Muslims disproportionately bad or does the media focus only on the bad stories?
In Spreading Islamophobia: Consequences Of Negative Media Representations, Muniba Saleem in fact highlights how current negative representations of Muslims in the media actually propagate harmful behaviour. Saleem explains how, given the extent to which the British public is influenced by the media, negative portrayals of Muslims in the media result in an increase in “negative attitudes towards Muslims” and “support for policies that harm Muslims.”
Having worked in international development for the past 25 years, I have myself noticed exactly the same thing when I first came to work at Islamic Relief. In my blog on Islamophobia, I point out how many of my friends and family automatically had negative assumptions about Islamic Relief based not on their knowledge of the charity, but on their ignorance of Islam and Muslims as a whole.
Given that only 5% of the British population is Muslim, it is likely that most people in the mainstream know very few Muslims, so their negative perceptions are unlikely to be based on actual experiences. Instead, they are much more likely to be based on what they have seen or heard in the mainstream media. Some of this is, of course, based on the reporting of terrorist acts perpetrated by Islamists. Yet in relative terms, are Muslims actually committing more terrorist acts than anyone else?
Well, the figures speak for themselves. Recent research undertaken after the brutal murders in Woolwich found that in the decade prior to that event, press coverage on Muslims and Islam in British-based newspapers had increased by around 270% and 91% were of a negative nature. What’s more, Islamists are three times more likely to be called ‘terrorists’ in media coverage of attacks than those on the far-right. Islamists were (rightly) referred to as terrorists in 78% of news coverage, however far-right extremists were only identified by this label in 27% of articles.
Social media obviously plays its part too. When each terrorist attack happens, a flurry of offensive tweets are unleashed. Journalists in search of a quick soundbite and so-called balance seek out soundbites from the worst offenders. Thus people like convicted criminal and former-EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, gain a disproportionate amount of coverage.
Islamophobia in the media: The effects
The reality of Islamophobia in the media affects Muslims in every area of their lives. Here at Islamic Relief, every time we carry out a fundraising or advocacy campaign, we have to think carefully about how this will be reported in the press and on social media. Of course, every NGO worth its salt should carry out a risk assessment on its campaigns. However, not every NGO has to think about how their words or stories might be twisted by an Islamophobic (often far-right) agenda.
As Ramadan begins, we launch our latest campaign featuring an inspirational quote from the Qur’an on buses in major cities asking: “Can you be 5:32?” This Qur’anic verse states: “Whosoever saves a life, it is as though they had saved the whole of mankind”.
It’s a beautiful inspirational quote which reminds Muslims of the sanctity of life and recalls our own mission – to transform and save lives. Nonetheless, we had to prepare ourselves for potential backlash. Some of the many questions we had to consider at length included:
- Would we be attacked for advertising on buses, with people asking why we do so when Islamic terrorists have blown themselves up on buses?
- Would we be told we were only allowed to put this message on the bus because we have a Muslim mayor?
- If we quote the Qur’an to illustrate a positive point, will another quote be parroted back at us by far-right extremists to highlight what they think of as a negative quote?
- If we go on TV or radio to defend the campaign, is there a possibility that the interview will get hijacked by Tommy Robinson?
- Is there a possibility that our ads will be vandalised?
- Will we be asked to justify the actions of the Sultan of Brunei (making homosexuality punishable by death)?
Are we being paranoid? Are we looking too much into things? Absolutely not. All of the above and more have happened to us over the past year alone. It’s horrid that as we prepare for the holy month of Ramadan – a month in which Muslims partake in immense charitable giving – that we should have to prepare for an Islamophobic backlash in the media and on social media. Yet this is the reality.
So next time you see a negative headline about a Muslim or Islam, ask yourselves what’s the real story behind the headline? Likewise, as you tune into a new TV show, film or video game featuring a Muslim character, ask yourselves ‘does it pass the Riz Test?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then simply switch it off. Please. As a non-Muslim, I can confidently say that such features do more harm than good. Islamophobia in the media threatens us all, whatever our faith and cultural background. It’s time to put an end to this abuse, today. Be aware of media bias, use the Riz test and ensure that you’re not propagating harmful Islamophobic narratives. We all deserve better.