How Muslims are Represented in Australian Media Muslim Australians are an ethnically diverse group of people, yet the tone of certain media reports implies that all Muslims are the same. A stereotype of hysteria, inherent violence and barbaric practices often seems to be deliberately perpetuated, either to marginalise Muslim people as the uncivilised “Other” in the dichotomy between Eastern and Western culture, or for purely commercial reasons—sensational stories guarantee higher newspaper sales The media plays a central role in how our society understands events and issues, and has the power to marginalise whole groups of Australians.
With this power comes responsibility – the responsibility of informed, fair and critical reporting. Constant negative representation implies that all Muslims are fundamentalists and support terrorist actions. This in turn creates social and economic disadvantage and discrimination. The media’s focus on Islam and Muslims has increased significantly since September 2001. Although labeling of Islam and Muslim’s as the ‘Other’ was common in media before, since the September 2001 tragedy it has become persistent.
It is easy to exploit people’s fear of terrorism by using unconnected images and headlines to confuse readers and suggest that all Muslim people approve of terrorist activities. By not placing pictures and articles in their correct context, the media encourages readers to draw their own (mistaken) conclusions. The anxiety and paranoia that this focus manipulates helps to maintain support for government policies of mandatory detention, surveillance, and its military actions such as the war in Iraq.
The motive for the association of Muslims and violence is explained in Edward Said’s discourse, Orientalism. Said argued that through a discursive conception of the Orient, the West was able to construct an image of its own identity – that is, that the West is the negative of “Oriental”, comprising of what the West as central to modern, enlightened thought and the Orient as the mysterious and often dangerous Other. Some scholars also hold the perception of media bias against Muslims.
Howard V Brasted conducted research on Muslim representation through images from 1950 to 2000. Analysis showed that Islam has received a less than fair and at times farcical press through the portrayal of images of Mosques, bearded mullahs, Muslim crowds and veiled women, which have collectively come to symbolise irrationality, fanaticism, intolerance and discrimination on an almost medieval scale. This trend worsened after September 11, 2001 with Muslims and Islam now being equated with terrorism.
Peter Manning’s research on Arabic and Muslim representation in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph found that almost 60 percent of the time reports in the two newspapers associate Muslim people with violence and terror and only 22 percent of the time see other cultural matters as being of interest. Manning goes on to state that analysis seems to indicate that the portrayals exhibited in the two Sydney newspapers are so broad-brush as to represent a new kind of racism. If such sweeping generalisations were made of Jews, black Americans, black Australians or Asians, they would be condemned out of hand as absurd.
Even smaller, independently owned newspapers use placement of images and headlines to promote an association between Muslims and violence. On its front page, Perth’s Voice News printed an article about an Australian who complained about letterbox bombings by local children. It’s heading read ‘Letterbox bombing spree hits Mt Lawley’ featuring a small image of the complainant. Also on the page a large image of two Muslim men with an article about a Mosque opening day, the small caption reading ‘Open Day: Muslims Sufyaan Khalifa and David Verney are keen to share their religion with the community.
The mosque in William Street is having an open day this weekend so if you’ve got questions about Islam in Australia, why not go along and take an inside look… ’ The positive and welcoming tone of the caption was undermined buy the image’s placement next to the much larger and unrelated ‘Letterbox bombing spree hits Mt Lawley’ article (see Figure 1). The headline ‘Letterbox bombing’ next to the image of Muslim men suggests a connection between the two unrelated articles. The press is often accused of stereotyping minorities but even when it does, it usually refrains from identifying groups by their religion.
After the 2005 Cronulla riots the media has was blamed for inciting the violent reprisal attacks. The headline in The Australian ran ‘Revenge attacks in Race war’ ‘Muslims retaliate for riot’ ‘Shots fired’ ‘Residents cars attacked’. The Lebanese-Australians were labeled ‘Muslims’. The captions on the photos accompanying the report all referred to arrested persons as ‘Muslims’. Alan Jones’ talkback radio 2GB told listeners to ‘come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge’ and even boasted that he had ‘led the charge’.
It can be difficult to demonstrate that such populist racialisation, even incitement, in the media, actually produces racist hate crime. Many of the respondents in a Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission research project on racism against Arab and Muslim Australians saw media vilification as causing the racial violence they had been increasingly experiencing since 11 September 2001. Such causal connections, however, can be very difficult to trace; rarely is there such clear-cut causality as demonstrated in the Cronulla riots.
Although the media branded Sydney’s south-west as a home of ‘Lebanese-Muslim’ crime, it selectively fails to link other crimes committed by the gangs of the wider community with their race and religion. Even if the religion of perpetrators were identified, there would have been no suggestion that the crimes were linked to their faith. When, for example, case of child molestation by a Catholic priest or priests is publicised, it is never implied that pedophilia is in any way acceptable or common to Catholics. There is no doubt that a small minority of the world’s 1. billion Muslims is impacting negatively on Western interests. However, by constantly presenting headlines, articles and images that remind readers of this ‘new enemy of the West’, the media reinforces perceptions that all Muslims deserve the label of ‘enemy’. Just as during the Cold War period the media demonised the Soviet ‘Other’, this arbiter of public opinion now focuses on the Muslim ‘Other’. Scott Poynting, et al. , believe that it has become almost a conviction amongst some commentators that we are living in a time of great fear and anxiety.
They argue that media commentators and politicians often talk about the pervasive “fear of crime”, “fears of cultural rift”, “the politics of fear”, “worry about war and terrorism”. There is talk of anxiety, insecurity and lack of safety, uncertainty, and even paranoia. Those who fear loss of freedom through actual invasion are easily convinced that Muslim dress and other customs represent cultural invasion—and that welcoming such difference through multiculturalism will equal the loss of what it means to be Australian. The West Australian news poll also revealed that one out of four people say that Muslims are a terrorist risk.
The Anti Discrimination Board reported that people who pay more attention to television news were more likely to fear terrorist attacks and support limiting the rights of Muslims. In this existing climate of fear, the media’s generalised linking of violence and Muslim’s is counter-productive to any meaningful dialogue between Muslims and the wider community. It is clear that contemporary media representation of Islam and Muslims focuses on Islamic militants, effectively demonising all Muslim people, and does not counter this with balanced coverage.
There does not seem to be any likelihood that this approach will be reassessed and tempered in the future either: the media’s commercial motivation appears to favour irresponsible journalism that does not acknowledge the negative impact that such a focus has on moderate Muslims, but rather exploits anti-Muslim feelings with a barrage of reports and references that keep Islam as the focus of topical discourse. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Kabir, N (2006) ‘Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media, 2001-2005’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 26: 3, 313-328 [ 2 ].
Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, 2003, Race for the Headlines: Racism and Media Discourse, ADB, Sydney [ 3 ]. Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, London: Penguin, 1995 [ 4 ]. Kabir, N (2006) ‘Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media, 2001-2005’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 26: 3, 313-328, p 316 [ 5 ]. H. V. Brasted, “Contested Representations in Historical Perspective: Images of Islam and the Australian Press, 1950–2000”, in Muslim Communities in Australia, eds Abdullah Saeed and Shahram Akbarzadeh, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001, pp. 206–207 [ 6 ].
Manning P, 2004, Dog whistle politics and journalism: reporting Arabic and Muslim people in Sydney newspapers, The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, University of Technology, Sydney, p15 [ 7 ]. Voice News, Perth News, Perth People, Vol 16, No. 314, 19-26 June 2004, p. 1 [ 8 ]. Kabir, N (2006) ‘Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media, 2001-2005’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 26: 3, 313-328 [ 9 ]. Kabir, Nahid, 2007, The Cronulla Riot: How One Newspaper Represented the Event, School of Communications and Contemporary Arts, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia, www. asa. org. au/conferences/conferencepapers07/papers/268. pdf [ 10 ]. Scott Poynting, What caused the Cronulla riot? Race Class 2006, vol 48 no. 1, 85-92, Sage Journals Online, viewed 17 March 2011, http://rac. sagepub. com [ 11 ]. S. Poynting and G. Noble, Living with Racism: the experience and reporting by Arab and Muslim Australians of discrimination, abuse and violence since 11 September 2001 (Sydney, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2004), . [ 12 ]. Kabir, N (2006) ‘Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media, 2001-2005’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 26: 3, 313-328 [ 13 ]. S.
Poynting, G. Noble, P. Tabar and J. Collins, Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the Arab Other, Sydney: Sydney Institute of Criminology Series, 2004, pp. 211–212. [ 14 ]. Kabir, N (2006) ‘Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media, 2001-2005’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 26: 3, 313-328 [ 15 ]. The West Australian, 14 April 2004, p. 5. [ 16 ]. Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, 2003, Race for the Headlines: Racism and Media Discourse, ADB, Sydney [ 17 ]. Kabir, N (2006) ‘Representations of Islam and Muslims in the Australian Media, 2001-2005’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 26: 3, 313-328