Muslims oppressed by press: An inside perspective
Glasgow University’s Muslim Students Association organised an Islam awareness week panel, discussing how Muslims are often subject to unfavourable press.
Negative press against Muslims in the UK has been growing since 9/11.This hostile rhetoric has been perpetuated by the aftermath of subsequent terrorist attacks such as the incident at Westminster this year and the Paris attacks in November 2015. These attacks have triggered an increase in xenophobia towards Muslims, which has been exacerbated by the media with its association of radical terrorism in the name of Islam.
Numerous arguments and articles stutter around the context of Islamophobia. A cluster of mainstream media organisations are categorized as “Islamophobic” for their use of emotive language, with buzzwords such as: radical; fanatical; fundamentalist; extremist; and militant when referring to Muslims.
At ground level Muslims are trying to disassociate themselves from extremists by using social media campaigns and the hashtags #notinmyname and #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists which have proved popular on social media.
— Luna (@LunaARights) February 18, 2017
In Glasgow, GUMSA (Glasgow University Muslim Students Association) organised an Islam awareness week from the 20th to the 24th February. Between conferences, dinners and multicultural meetings, we attended a panel discussion on how Muslims are blighted by negative media coverage called “Oppressed by Bad Press”.
The panel featured Shaykh Ruzwan Muhammad, a graduate in Geopolitics and Arabic from the University of Glasgow who co-founded the Solas Foundation that focuses on offering quality and transparent religious consultancy in the areas of Islamic ethics and education; Zara Mohammed, the president of Federation of Students Islamic Societies; (FOSIS) Areeb Ullah, a journalist and student activist who writes for newspapers such as, The Guardian, middleeastwye and Vice News; and Joshua Brown, who is politically linked to communist activism.
This event was chaired by Amjid Bashir, member of the Justice of the Peace for the Sheriffdom of South Strathclyde and Dumfries.
The discussion started with a simple question:
“Are Muslims oppressed by the press?”
Ullah expressed his journalistic perspective that misreporting Islam and Muslims was one of the fundamental issues characterising this oppression and that the tendency to perpetuate stereotypes emboldens Islamophobia. He commented that “fake news is the creator of narratives that never existed”.
Headlines published by Daily Star Sunday and The Sun led to exasperated sighs as they were projected to the room. Considering bigoted statements such as “Collections at UK mosques ‘fundraising for terror’” and “1 in 5 Brit Muslim’s sympathy for jihad”, Ullah advised others to make complaints to public organisations protected by UK law; such as IPSO and the Editors Code of Practice.
According to a report published by the University of Leeds regarding Muslims and the media, the authors discussed how it tailors Muslims as the new “folk devils”, creating a new wave of moral panic: “A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to became defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible … [P]ublic concern about a particular condition is generated, a symbolic ‘crusade’ mounted, which with publicity and actions of certain interest groups, results in…moral enterprise [or] ‘the creation of a new fragment of the moral constitution of society.”
Zara Mohammed then spoke about how Muslims were living under oppression, affirming: “we just developed a culture of digestion without being critically thinking about it”.
She added: “Should we be silent? Is our community shutting off and trying not to engage, in order not to be blamed?”, Bashir wanted to know if as Muslims they had any fault in the way they are silently portraying themselves and if there can be a total negation of any relation with the radical Islamic movement, jihadis.
Shaykh Ruzwan Muhammad took a deep breath: “There is a narrative of radicalisation which is completely alien to Islam but it is within the Islamic narrative. And that is one of the things that Muslims refuse to accept. They say the problem of radicalisation is foreign police, which I don’t agree.”
Inherently connected to media and Islamic policies, he stressed there was a lack of support from native discourse in speaking up for Muslims: “Mosques are not willing to engage, people are not willing to give statements. If you complain about the portrait of Muslims in the media you should look into the mirror and ask why I am not engaging.”
Ullah offered an opposing view and blamed the media when it comes to engagement with Mosques and others ancient religions: “Journalists ask questions that they know will have a controversial answer. So the press needs to be aware of this tendency, and be conscious of who they are profiling. That is why a lot of people are very afraid to talk towards media.”
To resolve this issue Ruzwan indicated an option would be to appease bad press concerning Islamic culture: “We can’t just perpetuate stereotypes and talk about oppression, we need to strive for journalists and their ethical concerns for the world we live in. Everybody should support investigative journalism.”
From the back of the lecture theatre, a low, hoarse voice asked shyly: “What can we do when our families don’t let us speak out? They are more scared than me. I want to engage with people, show them that I am not a scary Muslim. And I want to tell to my community that there is nothing to be embarrassed about, I want them to let me be active!”
“Give yourself some liberty of choice. Just keep in mind that with the media you need to take your time and think how you are going to engage. You need to know how you are going to contribute towards what people already know.” Ruzman replied, in a somewhat paternal tone.
With the panel discussion drawing to a close, the speakers’ views became increasingly heated. Trying to find the best suited summary, they urged for a more pragmatic approach, Zara Muhammed was the first one:
“The battle we are facing is misinformation. Tackling the issue with head on can be done in certain levels, as building relations with people and the world, to find what are Muslims are all about; writing, supporting good and positive journalism. These matters; going to core organisations that hold governments to account, that challenges to the higher ground.”
Joshua Brown ended the discussion by stating that “there needs to be a collective response. Islamophobia exists and we have the responsibility to recognise it and do something about it. Because Islamophobia doesn’t tackle only Islam, it tackles unity, community and dehumanises, creating a false consensus.”
His closing words of wisdom rang true:
“neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”