Book Review: Pointing the Finger

by Tom Mills

A new book exploring the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the British media shows how deeply anti-Muslim racism has infected our political and our popular culture.

First published: 24 May, 2011 | Category: Culture, Media, Racism, Religion

Racism against Muslims, or Islamophobia, is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed.  It has been on the rise in Europe and the United States for years, but several recent developments are of particular concern.  In France, a law came into force last month banning the full face veil, which Nicolas Sarkozy told the Senate and National Assembly was ‘not welcome on the territory of France’.  Here in the UK, David Cameron recently launched a high profile attack on what he called ‘state multiculturalism’.  Echoing the neoconservative rhetoric of his closest political allies, Cameron claimed that Britain had tolerated ‘segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values’ and complained that when faced with ‘unacceptable views’ from ethnic minorities, ‘we’ had been too fearful to ‘stand up to them’.  It did not escape notice that Cameron’s speech came on the same day as a march in Luton by the quasi-fascist English Defence League, which has been terrorising Muslim communities up and down the country.

Cameron’s rhetoric about ‘values’ is typical of the Islamophobia of Britain’s political elites and media commentators, which in general is not explicitly racist in the narrow biological sense.  Rather people of a Muslim background are implicitly assumed to represent a threat to certain values (e.g. democracy, gender equality, freedom of speech) that are taken to be peculiarly ‘Western’ in some sense and alien to Islam or Islamic culture.  This juxtaposition of laudable liberal values and the imagined beliefs and customs of British Muslims is superficially convincing to those with little personal familiarity with Muslims or knowledge of Islam beyond Orientalist fantasies and crude racial stereotypes.  Unfortunately it has won over not just people on the right, but also many liberals and leftists.

The idea that Islam is particularly misogynistic compared with other religious and cultural traditions has played a particularly important role in attracting progressives to Islamophobic ideas.  In a YouGov poll conducted in May last year, 69% of respondents said they agreed that ‘Islam encourages repression of women’; of whom 27% said that they strongly agreed.  Only 8% disagreed. Incredibly 77% of respondents to the same survey said they knew either ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about Islam.  Asked where they received most of their information about Islam from, the two most common responses were newspapers and TV news (41% and 57% respectively).

The portrayal of Muslims in the British media is the subject of a recently published collection entitled Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media.  At £19.99 it’s a pricey book which I suspect may put off many potential readers.  This is a shame because there are some interesting and insightful contributions.  The book partly draws on a report produced for the Greater London Council in 2007 called The Search for Common Ground: Muslims, non-Muslims and the UK Media.  Robin Richardson, whose Instead consultancy led the GLA commissioned research, co-edits the collection with Julian Petley of Brunel University and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.  Also included in the book are the findings of media research conducted by the Cardiff School of Journalism (first published in 2008), as well as a number of newly published contributions.

Some of the Islamophobic comments cited in the book are truly shocking.  In October 2001 the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor John Keegan wrote: ‘This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals.’  Another choice comment from the Sunday Telegraph cited in the same chapter reads: ‘All Muslims, like all dogs, share certain characteristics.’

Shocking as such statements are though, perhaps even more concerning is the general pattern of media coverage in which such casual racism occurs.  Taking a sample of press stories from between 2000 and 2008, researchers at Cardiff University found that the most common ‘news hook’ in stories about British Muslims was terrorism, which accounted for 36% of all stories.  The second most common was ‘religious and cultural issues’; stories which according to the researchers, ‘generally highlighted cultural differences between British Muslims and other British people’.  One of the main findings of the research was that this category of stories grew substantially in the sample period, taking over terrorism as the most common ‘news hook’ in 2008.  The third most common ‘news hook’ in the sample was ‘Muslim extremism’.  Together these three categories accounted for over two-thirds of stories; meaning that the great majority of stories on British Muslims have been concerned with terrorism, extremism or problematic cultural differences.  Stories about attacks on, or problems faced by, British Muslims made up only 5% of stories in the sample, whilst it was found that Islamophobia ‘scarcely features as a news topic’.

The same research also found that ‘terrorist’ and ‘extremist’ were by far the most common descriptive nouns used in conjunction with British Muslims in the press.  This pattern of coverage has doubtless impacted on public perceptions.  In the aforementioned YouGov survey, respondents were asked to ticks words which they would tend to associate with Islam.  58% ticked extremism and 50% terrorism.

Other chapters in Pointing the Finger explore specific themes and notable episodes in British media coverage of Muslims.  Robin Richardson considers the recurring debates over ‘Britishness’.  A chapter written by three journalists examines a host of dubious stories on ‘political correctness’ in local government, which were largely manufactured by the tabloids.  Another chapter provides an account of the coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on Sharia Law, which were woefully misrepresented.  Perhaps the most critical chapter in the book explores the issue of the veil and the cynical invocation of women’s rights in support of the war in Afghanistan.  The book also includes an interesting account of interviews conducted with newspaper reporters from Muslim backgrounds, exploring some of the tensions and anxieties experienced, as well as the influence of race and class background on working practices.

The only consideration of television in the collection is Julian Petley’s detailed examination of the 2005 Panorama programme, ‘A Question of Leadership’, in which the BBC accused the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) of extremist connections.  Clearly one cannot draw any firm conclusions about the shape of television coverage from one current affairs programme and the lack of substantial evidence on this is certainly a weakness in the book.  That said, the chapter on ‘A Question of Leadership’ presents a thoughtful and thorough critique of arguments that have now become commonplace.  The main thesis presented by Panorama in 2005, that the MCB is ‘extremist’ and that new ‘moderate’ representatives of British Muslims need to be found, is an argument that has since been relentlessly pushed by Britain’s neoconservative think-tanks.  This should serve to remind us that anti-Muslim racism in the media is not simply based on ignorance, but is often serving, and responding to, concrete political objectives.  As a number of commentators have pointed out, it was only when the MCB started to question the so called ‘War on Terror’ that it came to be seen as problematic.

Indeed behind all the manifestations of anti-Muslim racism described in Pointing the Finger there lies some reactionary political agenda.  Islamophobia has been used in different ways to rally support for the toughening of asylum and immigration controls; the expansion of policing and surveillance powers; attacks on equality and diversity policies and human rights legislation; and most of all an aggressive, pro-American foreign policy.  It is the latter of course which has been the key driver of anti-Muslim racism in Britain.  This is not because the so called ‘War on Terror’ has been driven by such sentiment but because, at the level of propaganda and political ideology, resistance to Western power needs to be explained away by reference to strange cultural and religious characteristics, rather than any consideration of Western state policies, and the grievances they might create in places like the Middle East and South Asia.  Perhaps this broader political context could have been more emphasised in the collection, since without it there is a risk that the debate becomes too fixated on the media at the expense of the deeper political agendas that it serves.

Nevertheless, Pointing the Finger presents some shocking evidence and includes some well argued, thoughtful contributions.  The broad range of issues and perspectives covered illustrate well how pervasive Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism has become and how deeply it has impacted on our political and our popular culture.  Though much of the content is several years old, the issues explored are if anything now more pressing.  All the indications are that the Coalition Government’s approach to what we might call the ‘Muslim question’ will be dominated by its neoconservative wing.  The latter are extremists by any sensible definition, and as this collection shows, they have some powerful friends in the British media.

Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media is published by Oneworld Publications.

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde and a contributing editor to New Left project.

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