Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life – the media as a medium for improving religious understanding

Shenaz Bunglawala

This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

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shenazIt may perhaps come as little surprise, given my media monitoring work for Mend (Muslim Engagement & Development), that my interest in the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life should centre on the questions relating to the media but then, in the introduction setting out the purpose of the consultation, it is headlines in the media that have been selected as the primary source of information for ‘explaining what this consultation is about’. This small detail is not lost on me. Nor are the headlines that have been selected. I spend an unusually large amount of time surveying media representations of Islam and Muslims and it is interesting to me that the headlines used to express the scope of the consultation should capture the dominant frames that shape much of our understanding about religion in modern Britain:

(1)   Conflict – ‘Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles’; ‘Amritsar commemoration: Sikhs march through London’; ‘Is British Christianity under threat from aggressive secularism?’; ‘All schools must promote “British values”, says Michael Gove’.

(2)   Religious diversity and national identity – ‘Cameron says Britain should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country – and more evangelical about faith”’; ‘Amritsar commemoration: Sikhs march through London’; ‘The British Muslim is truly one among us – and proud to be so’; ‘UK’s first Hindu school could open in Harrow’; ‘All schools must promote “British values”, says Michael Gove’; ‘Is British Christianity under threat from aggressive secularism?’.

(3)   Spiritual but not religious (SBNR) or Secularism – ‘Culture, not faith, is the key to continuity’; ‘UK most sceptical in world about religion’; ‘Is British Christianity under threat from aggressive secularism?’; ‘All schools must promote “British values”, says Michael Gove’.

(4)   Religion and globalisation (ie transnational religious networks) – ‘UK most sceptical in world about religion’; ‘UK’s first Hindu school could open in Harrow’; ‘Amritsar commemoration: Sikhs march through London’.

(5)   Religion and education – ; ‘All schools must promote “British values”, says Michael Gove’; ‘UK’s first Hindu school could open in Harrow’; ‘Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles’.

The overlap of news articles and categories is to be expected. We can scarcely think about religion in a single frame sociologically or theologically speaking, and even in the media, the mention of religion is buttressed with the introduction, candid or covert, of a number of other variables. The interspersion of counter-terrorism arguments into the debate about the limits of religion in free schools as evidenced in the so-called Trojan horse debacle is one such example of this. My favourite is the use of images of Muslim women and their broods as visual aids in news articles about the UK census or the latest statistics on changes to the demographic profile of the UK. The immediate connotation of all population growth being a growth in the ‘Muslim population’ perhaps explains why the average Briton thinks Muslims make up 24% of the UK population.[i] I will admit that my categories are not scientifically defined but they fit a schema that is familiar to me, as I will elaborate.

Firstly, from the number of articles in categories 1 and 2, I see evidence that corroborates the research findings of two extensive studies conducted into media representations of Islam and Muslims. Studies by researchers at Cardiff University (2008) and Lancaster University (2013) uncovered two significant shifts in the representation of Islam and Muslims that are not unrelated and portentous. Research published in the Cardiff study, Images of Islam in the UK, found that for the period in which print media output was studied, there was a subtle shift from conflict or terrorism dominated news output toward ‘the increasing importance of stories focusing on religious and cultural differences between Islam and British culture or the West in general’.[ii] This is further developed in a more wide-ranging study conducted by researchers at Lancaster University which found that though conflict representations dominates print media output on Islam and Muslims, ‘a more subtle set of implicitly negative representations’ has overtaken the crude, ‘expressly negative representation of Muslims’.[iii] The study also found that ‘references to extreme forms of Islam or Muslims are 21 times more common than references to moderate Islam or Muslims.’[iv] While conflict continues to dominate, the plane on which conflict representations are constructed are evolving from ‘hard conflict’ frames, in the form of terrorism, to ‘soft conflict’ frames, over cultural difference and value pluralism.

“the plane on which conflict representations are constructed are evolving from ‘hard conflict’ frames, in the form of terrorism, to ‘soft conflict’ frames, over cultural difference and value pluralism”

Secondly, the binary representation of the UK as caught between competing tribes whether composed of religion and secularism or Christianity and minority religions is evident in categories 1, 2 and 3 and to a lesser extent but still present in 4 and 5. The study by Kim Knott and Elizabeth Poole into Media portrayals of religion and the secular sacred is a timely one.[v] Yes it includes a section devoted to the study of Islam and Muslims within the cohort of print and broadcast media studied but its significance rests upon its inclusion of that section of society whose numbers are rising: secularists.

My greater interest in the Knott and Poole study is that which dovetails with the research outlined above, namely the ‘soft conflict’ constructions in the media that focus on values and religious practices than the anti-systemic, anti-democratic behaviour that terrorism represents. So, Knott and Poole argue that often England and/or Britain is constructed as Christian country and Christianity equated with Britishness while Islam is portrayed as receiving preferential treatment by state at expense of Christians leading to the popularisation of the notion on the ‘marginalisation of Christianity’ and the ‘Islamification’ of Britain. But the greater value of the study is its focus on media representations of secularism, humanism and atheism. The 2011 census puts the figure of those who self-identify as having ‘no religion’ at 25.1% of the population, up from 14.8% in 2001. The second most popular response to the census question on religious identity was ‘no religion’, after Christianity and ahead of ‘Muslim’. The interplay between my categories 1, 2 and 3 are well captured in the top 3 ranked responses in this census. What the census data does suggest and what the studies show is the unease felt in society as the dominant religion recedes and new religious or non-religious communities rise.

“census data suggest and studies show …the unease felt in society as the dominant religion recedes and new religious or non-religious communities rise”

Where in this lies the media? Well, the media stoops to a binary representation focused on ‘soft conflict’. So you have the war of attrition between Christianity and secularism and of majority religions (Christianity and secularism) against minority religion (Islam). The ‘hard conflict’ prism becomes discernible in news output which deals with hard conflict cases in which Islam and Christianity or secularism are all essentialised with the former constructed as intractably violent and the latter two, as simply passive in the face of aggression. The headline, ‘Culture, not faith, is the key to continuity’ reminds me of a further finding in the Lancaster study which is illuminating if one reads the headline in the context of moving from aggressive to passive categories, from conflict (1) to spiritual but not religious (3). The study, Islam in the British nationals 1998-2009 found that “so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ often got praised in a way which implies they are good because they aren’t fully Muslim.”

Thirdly, Category 4 is a great reminder of the uniqueness of Europe in questions relating to religion. One could regard the work of Scott Thomas[vi]  on the rise of religion in the global south and its impact on Christianity, as evangelical denominations come to the fore, or the work of Berger, Davie and Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe?, in appraising this category or one need, perhaps sensibly, look at more prosaic matters – economics, emerging markets and elections.[vii] With the revival of relations with the Commonwealth countries under the Coalition and particularly the visit by the PM to Amritsar and the opening of official channels of communication with India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi in November 2012,  following a 10 year boycott after the pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, opening the UK up to new markets via the cultural capital of Britain’s minority religious communities is good for business.It’s also good politics for those astute politicians aware of the electoral impact of constituencies where there is a densely populated ethnic community/communities. Harrow East and West, where the first Hindu secondary school could open, are marginal constituencies.

what is interesting about the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ plot “is not how much religion was a part of the curriculum and teaching environment in these schools but how little about religion is in the curriculum and teaching environment of all state schools”

Which leads me, neatly, to my category on religion and education. One might think this the most important of all after a summer of headlines on the Birmingham schools implicated in the so-called ‘Trojan horse’ plot. Notwithstanding the questions raised by the three, separate inquiries launched into the scandal, what interests me is not how much religion was a part of the curriculum and teaching environment in these schools but how little about religion is in the curriculum and teaching environment of all state schools. Given the dominance of Islam and Muslims in the British media and the fact that British Muslims have the youngest age profile of all faith communities in the UK, religion on the national curriculum is a fiercely important issue. Educating young people to read beyond the headlines and to develop a better understanding of the faiths followed by their countrymen and women is crucial for the future. Not least because while 48% of British Muslims are aged under 24, 32% of those under 24 identify as having ‘no religion’, according to the 2011 census. To navigate this divide among younger Britons, decent religious education is imperative.

Reforming the media

I started with media headlines and that is what I want to end with. No discussion of headlines or content in the print media would be complete without a cursory mention of the Leveson Inquiry and its conclusions on the media’s representation of religion (and other markers of identity). We,  in our previous incarnation as ENGAGE, were privileged to be invited to present oral testimony to Lord Justice Leveson about our work on challenging media output on Islam and Muslims and improving media practices. We were delighted Lord Leveson cited from our written submission and oral testimony in his report. His conclusion that ‘The evidence demonstrates that sections of the press betray a tendency…to portray Muslims in a negative light’ is one research and experience resoundingly affirms, as I have already shown. The ‘real point’, the report states, is “whether articles unfairly representing Muslims in a negative light are appropriate in a mature democracy which respects both freedom of expression and the right of individuals not to face discrimination.”  We have long argued about this point when advocating for a review of the legislation on incitement to religious hatred, bringing it on par with the protection against incitement to racial hatred.

I look forward to following the Commission’s deliberations on this dilemma of the disparity in legislative protections for groups defined by race and those defined by religion and the inevitable retort of some who claim that religion, as a ‘chosen’ trait does not merit or deserve the legal treatment prescribed to ascriptive traits.

 About the author

Shenaz Bunglawala is Head of Research at MEND, Muslim Engagement and Development

 


[i] Perceptions are not reality: The top 10 we get wrong, Ipsos Mori, 9 July 2013.

[ii] Kerry Moore, Paul Mason and Justin Lewis. (2008). Images of Islam in the UK: The Representation of British Muslims in the National Print News Media 2000-2008. (Cardiff: Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies). P.

[iii] Paul Baker, Costas Gabrielatos and Tony McEnery. (2013). Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes. (Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press)

[iv] Paul Baker, Costas Gabrielatos and Tony McEnery. (2013). Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes. (Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press)

[v] Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. (2012). Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred. (Ashgate).

[vi] Scott M Thomas. A Globalized God: Religion’s Growing Influence in International Politics. Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2010.

[vii] Peter Berger, Grace Davie and Effie Fokas. (2008) Religious America, Secular Europe?: A Theme and Variations. (Ashgate)

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