Muslim identity: The impact of narratives

Muslims need to take control of their own narrative, the editorial team from MPACUK argues.

“Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter” is an African proverb. Meaning that until the oppressed tell their story and resist the false narratives of their persecutors, the oppressors will always be seen as the hero.

There have been numerous studies conducted on the impact of narratives and the influences they have on an individual and societal level. If a narrative is repeated often enough it is solidified in the minds of the masses and perceived as being truthful. So when a group of people are continually shown in a certain light the public start to believe these narratives as being true, which subsequently leads to changes in their own behaviour towards the subjects.

Braddock and Dillard (2016) conducted a meta-analysis in relation to the impact of stories and what effect they have on people. The findings revealed that narratives can indeed impact the audience’s beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviours. Slater and Rouner (2002) conducted research in relation to the extent in which narratives can influence people’s opinions and attitudes. The outcome was that the more people identify with a character, the more likely they will accept opinions expressed by the character as being truthful.

Narrattives are powerful. They can plant ideas, change minds, and distort the truth. Over the decades we have seen this prevalent in the Western media in relation to Islam, Muslims, and Muslim countries.

Islam is continually portrayed as being violent and incompatible with Western values and society. And like any narrative, if repeated often enough it becomes the dominating story in the public sphere and is perceived as reality. The constant peddling of the narrative may also cause some Muslims to start questioning their own belief system especially if they are not aware of alternative narratives.

And although it may seem that the hijacking of the Muslim identity took place following 9/11, there has been much evidence to suggest it began decades before. In order to malign a community the vilification has to have been instigated years before in order to solidify agenda-driven narratives in the minds of the masses. Once these narratives have become accepted by the public, the perpetrators can manipulate their agendas more easily without public opposition.

Oppressive narratives in history

Dehumanisation and vilification happened in societies before us too. The use of propaganda heavily contributed to the rise of the Nazis to political power. Hitler in his book Mein Kampf wrote about his use of propaganda to form a particular narrative about Jews in Germany. He wrote: “Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people… Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea.”

Filmography, radio, music, publications, art, education etc were all used to build a narrative of Hitler as a strong leader that Germany needed to become a great nation again. Moreover, it was used to push hostility towards Jews; socially, legally and physically excluding them from society. The narrative painted Jews as backwards, violent, sexual predators who were a burden on German society, and if not controlled, they would take over Germany.

Nazi Germany’s demonisation of the Jews led to later genocides

As a result, hundreds and thousands of Jews were rounded up and poisoned in gas chambers, hunted out of their homes and taken to concentration camps where they were starved, tortured and often worked to death.

Narratives were also used to keep black slavery alive. Slaves were depicted as unintelligent, useless, barbaric, sexually violent, and if ever set free they would cause havoc in society. This narrative not only justified kidnapping Africans from their homeland, binding them in chains of slavery to work day and night for free, gave them no rights, entitlements or even allowed them a lifestyle choice in a foreign country, but it also justified the need to keep them under control.

Slaves were not allowed to read, write or learn. Instead they were whipped, beaten, brutally tortured, or publically lynched if they resisted. Female slaves were often sexually abused, raped and used for the pleasure of their white masters. In fact, in 1669 a law was passed allowing slaves to be killed if they resisted authority.

After the abolition of slavery, 150 books, autobiographies, and news articles were written by as many as 6,000 former slaves including Frederick Douglas, Olaudah Equiano, and Harriet Tubman narrating accounts of their time spent in captivity. The aim was to present a truthful narrative on how cruel, oppressive, unjust and un-Christian like slavery was, and to prevent slavery becoming accepted in mainstream society again.

The rise of Islamophobia

In order to understand the rise of Islamophobia, one must understand when and how the rise of Orientalism occurred. Orientalism is the reference to the West’s patronising representations of people from Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Professor Edward W. Said, a Palestinian American academic political activist and literary critic, wrote: “Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.”

By producing narratives of Arabs as backwards, barbaric, subhuman beings, the West created feelings of entitlement to resources owned by Africa, Middle East and Asia because the “civilised” West was more deserving.

Edward Said also said: “In newsreels or news-photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.”

Jack G. Shaheen surveyed and stated that as many as 900 Hollywood films (with only a dozen being positive, and 50 being balanced) painted Arabs in a negative light, promoted stereotypes, and propagated cultural misrepresentations.

Shaheen writes that Arabs were depicted in films as the enemies of the West; being brutal, heartless, inferior, religious fanatics that were determined to terrorise civilised Westerners.  Till this day popular American TV programs continue to paint Muslims as enemies of the West. And this dehumanisation hasn’t only been limited to Hollywood. Bollywood cinema has not been shy in depicting Muslims as terrorists and the enemies of the state either. The impact of repeated narratives has an impact on how these communities are viewed, and consequently how the public will treat them.

There have been continuous reports of brutality, discrimination and injustice faced by Muslims from people in authority as well as the public. The Home Office reported religious hate crime to have been increased by 40% in a year across England and Wales, with 50% of religiously-motivated attacks in 2017-18 being directed at Muslims – predominately Muslim women.

Muslims have to bear the brunt of hate stirred up by far right organisations. They have to endure continuous discrimination in the public sphere, suffer whilst their places of worship and schools are being attacked, and witness the U.S. president occasionally take to social media to attack Islam and Muslims, whilst remaining silent when fatalities against Muslims occur.

Muslims also face discrimination within the workplace. In 2018, a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) highlighted the discrimination Muslims continually face in relation to employment. These include not being considered for interviews due to ethnic-sounding names, not being considered for the position itself because of the way they look (headscarf or long beard), or not being paid the same as their white colleagues.

Research conducted by Sheffield Hallam University, led by Prof Jacqueline Stevenson, reported that “Muslims are being excluded, discriminated against, or failed at all stages of their transition from education to employment.” The research found a number of issues Muslims faced in relation to employment such as bullying and harassment in the workplace, having to work “10 times as hard” compared to their white colleagues.

Muslims have also been subject to spying. In 2010, a report found an undercover police operation took place in the UK whereby thousands of Muslims were placed under permanent surveillance. There was no consultation, no regard for the law, or any oversight. This surveillance soon dripped down into nurseries and schools, where toddlers as young as 3 years old were monitored for signs of radicalisation. National Health Service employees are also asked to report signs of radicalisation to authorities.

For decades there have been debates regarding the Muslim women headscarf and face veils, with some of these narratives labelling the attire as a mark of male domination, backward culture practises, a restriction of a woman’s freedom and a security threat. Some countries have even gone as far as banning these in the public sphere.

It is no wonder then that a 2011 study by PEW revealed that 82% of Muslim Americans stated that they experienced feeling “extremely unsafe” and the majority of those who took part in the study developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of hate crimes, abuse and harassment.

Why is there an anti-Muslim narrative?

Propaganda forces masses of people to see others through a different lens. It is an incredibly powerful political tool. More than $200m in the US was spent towards manufacturing Islamophobic propaganda between 2008 and 2013 according to a report by the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California.

According to Nathan Lean, the author of “The Islamophobia Industry,” Islamophobia began way back in the 1970s when the U.S. moved away from the USSR and instead started taking an interest in Middle Eastern countries for oil. Lean goes onto argue that presenting Islam as a violent religion “makes it easier for states to justify foreign policies that benefit them.”

Depicting Muslims as the enemies of the West, and propagating fear and mistrust against Muslims allowed Western governments to gain public support for illegal Western foreign intervention in Muslim oil-rich countries. Islamophobic narratives keep alive Western means to achieve political and economic gains in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. As Lean suggests, until the West “is no longer engaged in military conflicts with Muslim-majority countries for its own political and economic gain, Islamophobia will continue.”

The result of Islamophobia has made way for the massacre of millions of Muslims around the world. Hundreds and thousands of Muslims were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan war. Across the globe many more have been attacked, killed, raped, their homes destroyed, livelihoods taken away from them, or been wrongly imprisoned. The irony is that the dominant narrative is that Islam and Muslims are barbaric, violent and irrational when in reality Muslims are the biggest victims of terrorism.

In fact, Americans are much more likely to be attacked by white supremacists than a religious terrorist. Far-right extremists have murdered more civilians than any other group of domestic extremists since Sept 11, 2001.

The “Anti-Defamation League’s Centre on Extremism” reported between 2008 and 2017 white supremacists and far-right organisations were responsible for 71% of terror-related fatalities.

In 2017, analysis by the news site “Quartz” revealed 60% of terror-related incidents were driven by right-wing organisations/individuals and Islamic extremists committed 7 attacks. The media bias screams volumes, and as there are none or little counteracting narratives the Islamophobic narrative has become dominant.

Rewriting the Muslim identity

Negative narratives prevent the empowerment of people and communities. They dehumanise people to the extent they become free from independent thought, killing their confidence and creativity.

Muslims were and are great inventors, intellectuals and contribute heavily to society on a daily basis, but the Islamophobic narrative doesn’t allow society to acknowledge this. Algebra, hospitals, surgical instruments, maps, clocks, cameras, hygiene practises, flying machines, universities, coffee, wouldn’t be possible without Muslim inventors. Not to mention the significant contributions by Muslims in Geometry, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy etc.

And as we made no or little attempt to challenge the narrative painted about Muslims, by not writing our story we allowed the massacre of our brethren, we allowed our rights to be taken away from us, and allowed Islam and its principles to be attacked. A strong Muslim narrative would make Muslims the heroes of their own story.

So where do we start? Firstly, we need to recognise that it is an Islamic duty to stand up for our rights and other Muslims worldwide. Secondly, it is vital that we find common ground in wanting to fight the Islamophobic narrative, ridding ourselves of sectarian differences and uniting as an Ummah for the greater goal.

Furthermore, we need to understand that if we don’t write our own story, we will continue to be punished, oppressed and discriminated. If we don’t stop these narratives, people and the future generations will continue to believe the fallacies out there. As there has been little or no opposing narrative, the lies and poison have spread to the extent where Muslims are hated everywhere.

We need to acknowledge that we are the victims of terrorism, and not the other way round, and in order to do this we need to learn the narrative of hate against Muslims; we need to read, analyse, criticise what we hear in the media and challenge it if it is dehumanising, false, or racist.

We must show our support to those who speak up and expose war crimes. We should also join a political party and start actively challenging the human rights abuse of Muslims within it. We need to push our mosques and Islamic institutions to teach and advocate that Muslims become politically active in order to challenge Islamophobia.

A strong Muslim narrative will make Muslims heroes of their own story once again, because until the lion learns how to write every story will glorify the hunter.

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