Do Muslim lives matter? Western journalism and the Orientalist bias

Syrian city of Aleppo

The mainstream media’s selective outrage when reporting the loss of white western lives in comparison to Muslim lives is no unintentional mistake, it’s orientalist journalism in action, writes Hasent Lais.

If the history of human atrocity is confirmation bias, then Muslims are more than justified in harbouring an acute sense of unfairness. The scant reporting on the Chlorine gas attack in Aleppo’s Zebdia neighbourhood, compared to the extensive coverage of lone wolf attacks against Europeans, is testament to the callous representation of humanity in the post-enlightenment era.

Herein lies an uncomfortable truth which the Eurocentric disposition must come to terms with. That is, underlying the double standards in reporting Muslim and non-Muslim deaths is Orientalist contempt for the other.


We cannot do justice to any discussion on the sabotaging of humanity without referencing the acclaimed work of the late public intellectual Edward Said. According to Said, Orientalism was the intellectual tradition of 19th century European scholarship, premised on a binary typology of advanced and backward races. In his magnum opus, Orientalism, Said argues that Islamic culture and civilisation had been converted into a theatre for western representations, where the “Orient”- Middle and Far East-was ultimately distorted in the writings of the Franco-British intelligentsia as a “surrogate and even underground self”. The intellectual ferment of that period served as a raison d’être for imperialism, and what he calls, the “positional superiority” of the Occident (West) over the Orient.

Edward Said
Edward Said

Said draws attention to the objectification of non-western peoples- in particular the Muslims “inhabiting the decayed Ottoman Empire”- documented in works such as Christoph Meiners’ Outline of the history of mankind. Meiners’ designation of the “ugly black race” as a subordinate species in need of refinement by the purified Caucasian stock, exemplified the racial snobbery which typified a large corpus of orientalist literature.

The same white saviour complex informed the writings of natural scientists like Georges Cuvier, whose subdivision of races, and black and white dichotomies in Le Regne animal are no less abhorrent than his contemporaries. A common thread tying such supremacist scholarship was the notion that Muslims were not merely inferior but inert and lifeless beings that would make for interesting dispatches and case studies.

Islam and the West

The relationship between Islam and the West is complicated enough without having to locate this tension in epistemology. But those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Therefore, one of the several starting points when grappling with this reality is to trace the disparaging scholarship of Islam in the writings of Dante, Gibbon, and other vanguards of western literature and history who contributed to the shaping of this discourse by inheriting a medieval polemic, which monolithically represented Muslims as bloodthirsty nomads and a scourge to civilisation.

While orientalism as an academic discipline has all but dismantled, it has bequeathed to journalism the same power structure and sense of entitlement which allowed it to historically legitimise the inferiority of non-Europeans. As most European scholarship on Islam occurred through the prism of this Orient-Occident distinction, Islam’s coverage in the mainstream media today is very much the cumulative effect of the malicious generalisations streamlined in medieval and early modern academia, which has survived generations, and is now endorsed by a particular strand of journalism which can’t shake off its neo-colonialist impulse.

Therefore, to fully comprehend why the deaths of innocent Europeans pull at the heartstrings of western journalists instead of those who die in the Muslim world, a deeper study into the aforementioned historical encounters and racism which took root in classical European antiquity is required.

Muslim lives matter

The sobering truth is that a selective humanity is reinforced today through the media’s resurrection of the worthy-unworthy binarism. This simply reflects how Orientalist ideals have become internalised in print, broadcast and popular culture over successive generations. From the corpse-strewn pavements in Manbij to the homes reduced to rubble by US scorched earth policies in the densely populated villages of Yemen and Pakistan, hardly any are newsworthy enough to make a ripple in the western press.

(Image: Middle East Monitor)
(Image: Middle East Monitor)

When they are cited, it is with far less poignancy, and not accompanied by the outpouring of grief we’re accustomed to when the victims are western.

Muslim victims simply do not appeal to our compassion or arouse our collective solidarity. They are not worth the column inches as they do not constitute the conventional norm by which human suffering is measured, unlike their privileged European counterparts in Nice and Normandy who are eulogised by Presidents, celebrities and social media outlets.

There are no Facebook flag filters to commemorate dead Muslims or concerted hashtag campaigns to galvanise millions of tweets in their honour.

Not that these are ideal expressions of sympathy but the shameful silence in the wake of Muslim deaths is symptomatic of a subconscious “otherising” and cultural arrogance, which justified European colonial subjugation of presumptively inferior races centuries ago.

The suggestion that European casualties of lone wolf attacks are more deserving of bereavement than the victims of “self-inflicted Muslim wounds” in the internecine civil wars in Syria and Iraq, only circumscribes our moral compass with blurred caveats which seek a political context to rationalise which lives are sacred, and which ones are not. It is placing a condition on the ideal of humanity which ought to be invoked unconditionally. If European blood is a special case that merits attention, we’re basically admitting to picking a side and letting its interests lead our conscience on a leash.

Much of the western journalism on the Muslim world cannot claim neutrality because the jury on Muslim blood is inextricably tied to the deterministic body of theory and practice propounded by Orientalists of old. This collusion of ideology and industry is a constant reminder of the extent to which our information producing apparatus known as the media is racially constructed. It is only through interrogating the condescending historic narrative, and inoculating themselves against the function of orientalist logic in their everyday vocation that journalists can disengage from the politics of empire. In doing so, they’ll make not only a novel contribution to the postcolonial canon but humanity at large.


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