Many news on Islam shows how semiotics have been applied to generate negative images of Islam within a set framework, that can be decoded and understood in a narrow perspective; words uttered by journalists and news presenters are all too common: ‘Islamic Extremists, Muslim fundamentalist, Muslim militants and Islamic fanatics’. “They have usually been portrayed as crazed terrorists – evolving more recently into crazed terrorist Islamic fundamentalists” (Whitaker: 2004: www.guardian.co.uk).
These connotations exemplify the way the media distorts the image of Islam by portraying it to be a force with the goals to spread religion by ‘the sword’; and the followers of Muhammad’s message are violent, power driven and irrational collectivists. Again, the purpose use of selective lexicons such as “Jihad” is widely misused and misrepresented in the media. It propagates Islam as being a militant religion obsessed with warfare.
The actual meaning of the word ‘jihad’ means to “strive” for something ‘good’. The negative and misinterpreted view of Islam is forwarded by recognised individuals like Kilroy Silk, recently sacked by the BBC, wrote an article in which he depicts Islam as a barbaric religion, branding Arabs as “suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors…” (news: 2004: bbc.co.uk) and that Islam is not in touch with western values.
The representation of Muslims in the Film industry stresses the importance of deliberate misconceptions that are beamed globally. It is obvious that when Hollywood makes a film and it contains aspects of Islam, it downgrades it giving a negative view, making the West seem culturally far more advanced and as the good against the evil which is still in the early stages of evolution of civilisation. Blockbuster film such as the ‘Siege’ made before 9-11 starring Danzel Washington, is but one of the few examples used, which portrays Arab-Muslim terrorists blowing up buses and killing innocent people, and who have managed to assimilate into the western society.
“Nowhere more apparent than in Hollywood films where Arabs, unlike other racial groups, continue to be demonised on screen” (Whitaker: 2004: www.guardian.co.uk). These films create fear and hate; and urges people to be more vigilant and cautious around these peculiar people. The constant reminder in the news of Osama Bin Laden, the alleged terror chief, and the mentioning of the Taliban are reinforced into our conscious. This is supposed to remind us about what the enemy looks like; so a person wearing a beard with traditional Islamic dress signifies that he is a terrorist or a sympathiser, because he is seen to be modelled like Bin Laden. This adds to the overwhelming fear factor, which will be discussed later.
With regards to women the media generates different views about them seemingly contradictory; at first she is seen as being oppressed by her religion in terms of freedom and only recently she has become more than that. After the incident that took place in the ‘Beslen school siege’ in Russia, Muslim women who took part in the siege were codified and labelled by the media as the ‘Black Widow’, because they changed their role and became dangerous, obscure and unpredictable. As a result, if any member of the public was to pass by a Muslim woman wearing the traditional black dress “Burka”, they would instantly be reminded of the ‘Black widow’; that they are dangerous and could possibly be a potential suicide bomber, because the media has labelled them in a way that has instilled prejudice in people about Muslims
At this point it is worth mentioning how the media ridicules Islam in regards to women’s rights. When the media draws it focus on this issue, it is quick to attack Islam as a religion only suited for the needs of male governance, as it gives preferences to men over women. And its conduct in dealing with the women folk is one that is prejudice and bears resemblance to male chauvinistic attitudes. An example to bring to attention would be the wearing of headscarves, and the recent banning of it in schools and public institutions in France. Women in Islam wear the headscarves as a symbol of devotion to their religion; while at the same time observing modesty and protecting themselves against unknown strangers and onlookers. This prevents them from becoming ‘objects of desire’ as women in the West are portrayed in newspapers, magazines and films.
The media has pointed out what the French government feels about women’s headscarves, but they fail to highlight how this supposedly modern, multicultural, multi-religious France has failed to respect freedom of religion, and that the banning is viewed by Muslims and large parts of the Muslim world as act of intolerance and the act of secular fundamentalists. The media has also failed to point out the overwhelming majority of the well educated Muslim women in Europe wear the veil out of choice. The media also failed to mention that France has not fared better than the Teleban in Afghanistan who imposed the veil. Banning women from wearing it is as bad as imposing women to wear it. In both cases women’s right to choose is taken away.
The 9-11 events has endorsed the media to flood in more of this information, which has is breeding fear and insecurity that more terrorist attacks will take place. Many businesses have seized this opportunity to take advantage of promoting fear for their own gain. They produced television adverts, specifically in America; to show how in the case of a terrorist attack people are vulnerable and therefore need to prepare and protect us. So the people in America out of perceived fear purchased bomb proof shelters, gas masks, people even rushed to the supermarkets to stock up on food and household goods; fearing that Muslim terrorists are going to attack at any moment. More amazing, is how on the news channels they had diagrams illustrating levels of national security that showed when people need to be on the alert and when a terrorist attack might happen.
It seemed that the government already had its work covered. This draws some parallel to the millennium bug crisis, which turned out to be a market strategic ploy. Little did we know that, from these media constructions of fear, people were going to hate Arabs and the Muslims and make them all responsible for 9-11. The rise in Islamphobia and the backlash against Muslims grew during the aftermath of Afghanistan and Iraq war; mosques and innocent people were being attacked and rebuked, all because the media describing Muslims and the Muslim world as a threat.
This point clearly outlines how the Media has irresponsibly instigated the problem to a global scale, leading to people being looked down upon and hated by the rest, i.e. the Western civilisation; “…September 11 unleashed new “updated” versions of an “Islamic threat” as many found it more expedient to fall back on convenient stereotypes of a monolithic Islam, an historic clash of civilisations…” (Esposito: 2003: p118).
Apart from the media’s constant attack on Islam, there are times were we see more positive images about it. Programmes like BBC’s ‘Power of Nightmares’ and Newspaper such as The Guardian are seen to promote unbiased news when dealing with Islam. The Telegraph and the Times magazine still distort the true image of Islam. To conclude, this essay has demonstrated that although there are some positive representation of Islam, the Media coverage’s overwhelmingly comprise of racial, stereotypical and biased views, that have been made through cultural construction over a long periods of time, and these ideologies are now plainly noticeable in the Western Media. The notion that these values were presented only after the events of 9-11, is but a vague assumption. As the essay has clearly establishes, these values have been revived from past and updated to reflect modern state of affairs by the media.
BBC News Online (2004), Kilroy ‘regrets’ anti-Arab comments: BBC Online: http://news.bbc.co.uk