A new report has found that, since 2000, two thirds of newspaper articles about Muslims in Britain portray British Muslims as either ‘a threat’ or ‘problem’ and increasingly utilise negative and stereotypical imagery.
The forty-page report, entitled Images of Islam in the UK, set out to analyse a representative sample of newspaper articles in British tabloids and broadsheets between 2000 and 2008. In particular the authors, the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, sought to engage with the ‘routine, everyday coverage of British Muslims’ over and above the coverage which occurred around key events, such as 11 September 2001 attacks and 7 July 2005 London bombings.
A growing focus
Coverage of British Muslims was shown to have increased significantly year on year, and by 2006 had reached a level twelve times higher than that in 2000. In both 2007 and 2008 coverage continued above 2005 rates, although it had dipped slightly from the peak in 2006. The authors describe how this coverage generated a momentum all of its own, ‘lasting well beyond and independent of’ the newsworthy events of 2001 and 2005.
Consistently negative ‘news hook’
At the same time the report found that the context in which British Muslims were portrayed was of a consistently negative nature. The main focus, or ‘news hook’, for a third of stories on British Muslims was either terrorism or the ‘war on terror’ over the period of the survey, whilst religious and cultural stories highlighting the cultural differences between British Muslims and other British people amounted to 22 per cent. Eleven per cent of all stories focused on Muslim extremism. In stark contrast, only 5 per cent of all stories covered ‘attacks on or problems for British Muslims’ and ‘the notion of Islamophobia scarcely featured as a news topic’.
A significant yet subtle shift in story focus involves the steady increase in the proportion of stories which focus on religious and cultural differences, to such a degree that by 2008 these stories had overtaken terrorism as the single largest subject matter. It could be argued that this change in focus reflects the shift in British government policy, under the cloak of the ‘community cohesion’ framework, which quietly insinuates that ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ are mutually exclusive identities.
The knock-on effect is that coverage of stories about anti-Muslim racism and attacks on British Muslims are elbowed out: from 10 per cent in 2000 to only 1 per cent in 2008.
Pervasive cultural stereotyping
The report found that four of the five most common story threads associated Islam and/or Muslims ‘with threats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values’ whilst only 2 per cent of these stories suggested ‘that Muslims supported dominant moral values’. In particular, the report highlights a number of stories which frame Britain as ‘becoming a place of Muslim-only, “no-go” areas, where churches were being replaced by mosques, and Sharia law would soon be implemented’.
This insidious perception of Islam as a threat or a problem was further enhanced by the choice of descriptive language in the articles surveyed: the most common nouns employed in relation to Islam or Muslims were ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ whilst the most widely used adjectives included ‘fanatical’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘radical’ and ‘militant’. In all, ‘references to radical Muslims outnumber references to moderate Muslims by 17 to one’. This choice of descriptive language was consistently used by both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers.
‘Single Muslim male’ or ‘unidentified male Muslim group’
The newspaper articles surveyed also appeared to rely on a stock set of images: that of the ‘single Muslim male’ or ‘a group of unidentified Muslim men’, often portrayed as either praying or preaching. The insinuation behind these portrayals of groups of Muslim men is, states the report, that they are ‘the object of rather than the source of statements’. Moreover, ‘a group of unidentified Muslim men is seen as an image that “speaks for itself”‘: British Muslims are portrayed as one undifferentiated mass.
A recent report by the Institute of Race Relations, entitled Integration, Islamophobia and civil rights in Europe, concluded that the presence of an Islamophobic discourse across Europe was ‘the primary barrier to integration’. This discourse was, the report found, constructed and disseminated ‘by political parties, the media and the “liberati” in pursuit of an assimilationist agenda’. The findings of the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies complement and support these conclusions.
Images of Islam in the UK makes for a stimulating and thought-provoking read. It is delicately argued and convincingly supported by a powerful body of evidence, and effectively demonstrates the degree to which the portrayal of British Muslims in the print media has been hijacked by an Islamophobic climate, which resorts to lazy racial stereotyping and the repetition of negative and damaging stock stories.
Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies report, Images of Islam in the UK: The Representation of British Muslims in the National Print News Media 2000-2008 (pdf file, 901kb)