Islam in the British media (2) By Muhammad Jameel Yusha

Other issues that may require a fatwa can be the involvement of Muslims in politics or the issue of how to address inheritance where they are a minority and there are no shari’a courts to address their needs.

But what we see in the British media is the appropriation,  of the word fatwa and used only in negative stories, many times associated with death, bad behaviour or criminality. Take the following example from the Daily Mail newspaper:

The historian, his wife and a mistress living under fatwa” (Headline 8th February 2010).  The text of the story suggests that “With their close ties to David Cameron and illustrious careers in academia and publishing, they were a formidable couple. But last night it appeared that the 16-year marriage of celebrated historian Niall Ferguson and former newspaper editor Sue Douglas has ended. The Harvard professor has left his wife for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a glamorous Somali lawyer threatened with death for scripting a film critical of Islam.”

As you can see from the text, the story was about divorce, but because it is a story that fits the bill of the “Muslim stereotype” it was linked with the word fatwa in the headline to attract the attention of the readers of the newspaper by reminding them how bad Muslims are?

Other examples in the newspaper includes “Dial-a-fatwa that bans naps, raffles and tattoos: Muslim scholars issue 350,000 decrees in 2010” (Headline 28 December, 2010); “‘Fatwa on your head?’ Controversial adverts that help Muslims abandon Islam appear on New York buses” (Headline 27th May, 2010).

These kinds of headlines and stories are not restricted to the Daily Mail. A search through BBC’s website also reveals that stories about Fatwa are related to punishment, crime, death or terrorism. For instance on 12 May, 2011, BBC’s Asia website carried the following headline “Bangladesh lifts fatwa ban but forbids enforcement” with the text of the story explaining that “The Bangladesh Supreme Court has ruled that clerics can issue fatwas – Islamic religious edicts – but said that they cannot be enforced. A high court ruling 10 years ago banned fatwas altogether after several women were sentenced to brutal punishments

Even the liberal Guardian newspaper is no different when it comes to the use of the term. A search through the Guardian website also suggest that the use of the word is restricted to stories about Salman Rushdie’s satanic verses, stories about terrorism, punishment etc in fact sometimes even using the term satirically to mock the Muslim community. An example of that was a commentary written by Mai Yamani on Monday 29th October, 2007, the comment entitled “War of the fatwas: Saudi Arabia has unleashed its ultimate weapon in its battle against terrorism: Wahhabi clerics armed with fatwas”. Yamani suggested in the article that “What the kingdom claims to offer is a lead in the “war on terror”. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s rulers have rallied to the cause, deploying their ultimate weapon: a barrage of fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by prominent Wahhabi clerics”.

An analysis of the above text will help us to understand the intent behind it, first of all the headline was framed within  the context of war discourse; the words and phrases used are unleash, weapon, battle, and  terrorism. This was made even clearer in the text with the use of phrases like “clerics armed with Fatwas”, a “barrage of Fatwas” etc.  Although the average reader of the Guardian is seen as educated, middle class and liberal, how many of them do understand the meaning of a “fatwah” as it affects the daily lives of Muslims, let alone distinguish it from its negative portrayal by the news media in Britain or elsewhere around the world? The words Jihad (striving in the path of God), Madrasa (school) and sharia (Islamic law and a guide on how a Muslim should lead his life) have almost lost their Arabic meaning in the global media because of the way their use has been distorted.

The third reason for the negative portrayal of Muslims is purely ideological. Since the fall of communism, the West, United States in particular was looking for an enemy. The next formidable force that fits the bill is Islam. As such with the contribution of political scientists like Samuel Huntington and other right wing scholars, Islam took centre stage in the media. Stories about Islam and Muslims provide a selling point.

This picture was complicated further by the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. Since then Islam and Muslims have been classified as the enemy which has taken the place of communism. This picture has more or less become a guiding principle in different news rooms. When a reporter sends a story, or a commentator contributes an article about Islam or Muslims, be assured that once it gets into the hand of the editor, the stereotypes “extremist”, “fundamentalist”, “terrorist” will be inserted.

Unless proved otherwise, any violent attack within the minute it occurs, pundits will be invited into the news room to confirm that it is the work of “Islamic fundamentalists” or “terrorists”. A recent example is the Norwegian attack by Anders Behring Breivik. Within minutes of the attack the media rushed to blame Muslims as the alleged perpetrators. Later it was discovered that it had nothing to do with Muslims, but with a Christian right wing activist. And suddenly the framing of the story changed completely.

For instance on 24th July 2011 the BBC stated that “the lawyer representing Anders Breivik, the 32-year-old Norwegian man charged with Friday’s shooting spree at a summer camp and bomb attack in Oslo, has said his client has admitted responsibility”; The Guardian on 23rd July, 2011 reported that “The killer began just after 5pm; it was two hours before 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, wearing the uniform of a police officer and protective earplugs against his own deafening gunshots, apparently ran out of ammunition and was arrested by police Swat teams sent from Oslo.” As for the Daily Mail newspaper, it reported on 24 July 2011 that “the 32-year-old Norwegian man arrested for gunning down children on a holiday island and detonating a car bomb in Oslo has been named locally as Anders Behring Breivik.”

So in both the BBC which claims to be impartial, the Guardian with its liberal approach as well as the Daily Mail, Anders Behring Breivik is neither a terrorist nor an extremist, he is simply a 32 year old Norwegian man. If Anders Breivik had been a Muslim, how will the story be framed? You know the answer.

Of course not all journalists in Britain or in the West accept the use of stereotypes. The exceptional work of journalists like Robert Fisk who writes for the Independent newspaper and one of the few journalists who have an in-depth understanding of the Muslim World comes to mind. John Pilger is another exception with his decisive and informative contribution on how the news media becomes a tool in the hand of the corporate world and politicians eager to mislead the public.

In the academia, the works of researchers like Dr John Richardson author of (Mis)Representing Islam: The Racism and Rhetoric of British Broadsheet Newspapers, Dr Elisabeth Poole author of Reporting Islam: Media Representations of British Muslims, Professor David Miller, author of Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq; and many more have contributed in unearthing the bias of the media in representing Islam and Muslims. Despite the contribution of these great minds, they still remain lonely voices, so when the question is asked on whether the media in Britain is a friend or foe? The examples cited earlier will help you to answer the question.


An earlier version of this piece was originally presented at Creating Hope Conference organised by the Muslim Association of Britain, New Bingley Hall, Birmingham, United Kingdom. 17-18 December, 2011



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