Four strategies to combat media Islamophobia

Roshan Muhammed Salih outlines four strategies that Muslims should employ to counter the media Islamophobia which targets us daily.

I’m not going to spend much time convincing 5Pillars readers that the British media is Islamophobic because I think most of us take that as read. But if you’re still in any doubt please read this report by the journalists Peter Oborne and James Jones.

Instead I’d like to concentrate on the way forward. What can we do to make the mass circulation media less Islamophobic? To make it actually value the contribution of Muslims to this society? And to make it treat us as equal citizens and not see us through the lens of counter-terrorism?

I’ll be arguing that in order to do that we need to advance our narrative on our own terms as far as possible; to change the rules of the mainstream media game; and not fall into traps that are laid for us or give ammunition to our enemies.

Left-wing media

First of all, we should go beyond our critique of right-wing media uniquely when it comes to Islamophobia.

We all know that the Murdoch Papers, The Daily Mail, The Express and The Star have an overtly anti-Muslim agenda, but I would argue that supposedly liberal, left-wing papers like The Guardian and The Independent also do, just in a more subtle way.

And so does the publicly-funded BBC and the supposedly liberal Channel 4.

Just a few examples to illustrate my point: The Independent seems to base its editorial stance on Islam and Muslims on the views of Maajid Nawaz. Is he their spiritual advisor? As for the BBC, programmes like Newsnight and Panorama have become bywords for anti-Muslim hit jobs, and journalists like John Ware have honed this art.

And who can forget the Channel 4 News journalist Cathy Newman earlier this year lying about being kicked out of a mosque and then sitting back and watching the Islamophobic backlash unfold?

Of course the left-wing newspapers and the BBC don’t promote hatred of Muslims in the way that The Daily Express or The Daily Star does by blatantly misleading stories or not-so-subtle innuendo. And yes they do sometimes carry editorials explicitly sticking up for Muslims when they’re attacked.

Channel 4's Cathy Newman
Channel 4’s Cathy Newman

Nevertheless, they are still part of the Islamophobic culture we live in. Their reporting of the Muslim community is predominantly done through the lens of counter-terrorism and by journalists conditioned by Western liberal values who probably find Islam’s social conservatism repulsive.

So when Muslim spokespeople appear on their shows they’re often harangued and treated differently to other guests. The topics chosen are also designed to put the Muslim guest on the back foot – such as “Islam and homosexuality” or “Sharia law” or “Islamic extremism.”

These left-wing newspapers and TV outlets also regularly conflate so-called non-violent extremism with violent extremism. So a Muslim who has socially conservative views that Western liberals may object to or someone who politically stands for Palestine and against Israel is presented as some sort of “potential bomber” or “terrorist appeaser.”

I think the CAGE controversy from earlier this year was a good example of how the right-wing and left-wing media can work in tandem to foster Islamophobia.

You will remember that there was a seemingly co-ordinated media attack against CAGE after they attempted to argue (admittedly quite incoherently) that Muhammad Emwazi’s actions were partially caused by security service harassment.

CAGE’s Asim Qureshi took the brunt of the onslaught, and was labelled an “apologist for terror.” His argument that MI5 was complicit in turning a pleasant young man into a monster was drowned out by the cacophony of condemnation. But the media didn’t stop at attacking Qureshi’s arguments. No, they played the man and not the ball with egregious personal attacks against him.

So please let’s not let the supposedly liberal media off the hook just because they occasionally say a few nice things about us and because they haven’t quite got their pitchforks out yet like the right-wing media has.

Strategy 1: Build our own organizations

My number one strategy is to organize ourselves so that we can effectively advance our own narrative and get our own story out rather than reacting and firefighting when crises happen.

This is what I sought to do when I launched 5Pillars with Dilly Hussain in April 2013. I felt that there still wasn’t a quality community media platform out there which was independent and professional, so we insisted on the following principles:

  • Independence: We are financially independent and that means that we are editorially independent.
  • Quality journalism rather than the sub-standard fare we are usually fed.
  • Grassroots focus instead of promoting the usual suspects who already have a high profile.
  • Non-sectarian approach serving all the community rather than just one section of it.
  • Anti-PREVENT and anti-imperialistic to the core.

And in nearly three years we are already Britain’s number 1 Muslim news online platform and the national media regularly picks up on our stories.

Compared to 20 years ago we have indeed come a long way in developing our own media and we do have an independent voice, but the quality of that media still leaves a lot to be desired and it also tends to push a certain sectarian or state agenda.

So if we complain about Islamophobia and media demonisation a lot we also need to support the work of those who are countering it. And if we don’t we have no right to complain about it in the first place.

Strategy 2: Get into mainstream media

I would never want to be the “white man’s monkey” and work in mainstream media because I used to do exactly that and my spirit was crushed by having to follow the agenda of my line-managers. But I do think that Muslims with strong constitutions should.

The fact is that the Muslims who tend to become influential in the mainstream media are generally not practising ones and don’t really represent the hopes, concerns and fears of their community.

Does Mishal Hussain represent Muslim community concerns?
Does Mishal Hussain represent Muslim community concerns?

So I’d like to see Muslims who actually spring from the community and share the its values make it into the mainstream, because brown faces talking the white man’s lingo (like Mishal Hussain) aren’t going to change anything.

I wouldn’t hold my breath though. Ultimately I think the system does crush the individual so even the most sincere, community-sensitive Muslim journalist will only be able to achieve a few ripples of success in the mainstream but won’t be able to change the overall culture.

In fact the presence of one or two genuine community representatives in the mainstream may even allow the likes of the BBC to argue that they’re representative when they’re not.

But maybe I’m being overly cynical and I do believe we have to work within the system as well as outside of it.

Strategy 3: Engage with the mainstream but only if you’re treated equally

We should only participate in shows where we are guaranteed to be treated equally to all other participants.

So we should realise that when The Daily Mail rings us up for a quotation on – let’s say – a “Muslim grooming” story, they are only using us for a bit of balance in an article that will otherwise bash the community. So in helping them we are just giving credibility to their story.

And we should be aware that when Andrew Neil or Nicky Campbell invites us onto a “debate” we will be harangued with irrelevant “do you condemn stoning to death” type questions, while other participants will be allowed to speak freely without pressure.

On the other hand, if the interviewer is fairly neutral and if the format allows us a fair crack of the whip then we should definitely engage in debates on the hot issues of the day, even the most challenging ones.

So we should engage with the mainstream as much as possible but let’s not be a performing monkey in the “good Muslim, bad Muslim game.”

Nicky Campbell's shows often demonise Muslims
Nicky Campbell’s shows often demonise Muslims

On the one hand you have the “good Muslim” – Maajid Nawaz most often – who blames everything on “Islamic extremists.” So much so that the viewing audience ends up thinking all Muslims are extreme. And on the other hand you have the “bad Muslim” – very often Anjem Choudary – who castigates Britain and non-Muslims so much that the viewing audience will begin to hate Islam.

Either way, Muslims lose.

Receiving a media invitation from a big broadcaster can be really hard to turn down, especially if we have big egos and want to publicise our work and ourselves. But ultimately, we have to put the community before our careers.

Let’s not fall into these traps that are laid for us and give credibililty to the media narrative by playing along with their silly games. Instead, let’s try to change the way the media behaves by changing the rules of the game.

Having worked in the mainstream media myself, I know that researchers and producers want to mount the best programme they possibly can. And if they know they’re being systematically boycotted and accused of Islamophobia and racism they might just decide to shift to a debate where they can book decent guests.

Or at least they’ll note the community’s displeasure and think twice the next time they want to stitch us up.

Of course, some will say to me – if responsible members of the community refuse to appear on these shows then the media will simply book someone else.

To that I would say: they probably will in the short-term and will look foolish for doing so, but as long as the boycott persists they will have to change the way they approach things in the long-term.

Strategy 4: Hold the mainstream to account

This might seem fairly obvious so I won’t say much about it but we do need to keep banging on about how Islamophobic the media is and sending in lots of letters complaining to media editors and the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

We also need to take Islamophobic outlets and journalists to court as the threat of litigation will shut people up quicker than most things.

I would also suggest that Muslim groups should deliver training courses to mainstream journalists and major organisations on how they should write about Muslims.

But again, this is only one part of the strategy. Asking The Daily Mail et al to be nice to us is ultimately like asking Hitler to be nice to the Jews.

Muslim bubble

Despite everything I’ve said above I do also believe that Muslims need to be introspective.

Many Muslim community activists now exist in a sort of “Muslim bubble” where their opinions and strategies are simply re-inforced by fellow activists. This, of course, isn’t always a bad thing because it’s essential that we encourage and support each other, especially when we’re being attacked. But it can also lead to lazy group-think and to mistakes which cannot be rectified easily after the damage has been done.

So while our intentions may well be to advance our narrative and counter Islamophobia, the wrong media strategy may well end up damaging our narrative and feeding Islamophobia.

I think CAGE’s Mohammed Emwazi strategy and Asghar Bukhari’s “Mossad-ate-my-shoe viral video” from this year are good examples of that.

Was Asghar Bukhari's video a PR own goal?
Was Asghar Bukhari’s video a PR own goal?

Asghar, you might remember, claimed he was being harassed by Mossad who were moving his slippers about to confuse him. But whatever the veracity of his claims, he ended up giving his enemies an excuse to laugh at him.

We must understand the psychology of the wider audience. Arguments that may wash in the Muslim community may well gain no traction in the majority non-Muslim community in which we live.

So when we go on national television and say: “Muhammad Emwazi was radicalised by the security services” (which would be a controversial argument within the Muslim community itself), the majority audience will think: “How does that justify him beheading all those people?”

When we say he was “a beautiful young man” they will think: “why is he praising a bloodthirsty killer?”

When we refuse to condemn Muhammad Emwazi for committing those crimes on the basis that his actions have nothing to do with us, the majority audience will hear: “He’s evading the question because he really sympathises with him.”

So by humanising a serial killer and by refusing to condemn him for justified-yet-complicated reasons, we are allowing ourselves to be put on the back foot.

And instead of spending the little airtime that we have talking about what we want to talk about – such as the role of foreign policy and the security services in radicalising Muslim youth – we spend all of the time trying to fend off irrelevant questions about whether we are apologists for terror.

As for the Mossad-ate-my-shoe stuff, I won’t even bother explaining why that was a PR own goal.

What will this achieve?

Now I’m not pretending that my above recommendations will solve our problems overnight.

After all, the mainstream media has been Islamophobic for a long time and that will take a long time to fix. And ultimately the political environment that we live in determines the attitude of the media.

Muslims are a minority in this country and to some extent or another we will always be fighting an uphill battle to claim our rights. So even if the community unites and implements my recommendations to the letter (which of course they won’t), the Islamophobic stories and TV programmes will continue.

So it’s a case of hunkering down, getting organised, being brave and doing the best we can.

This article is taken from a speech Roshan delivered to an IHRC conference on Saturday. You can follow him on Twitter @RMSalih

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