This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Who speaks for us? The ‘who’ and ‘how’ of faith representation
In the last decade many Muslims in Britain have come to regard the press as an institution that consistently misrepresents their interests and paints them as unreasonable or politically extreme. Yet a growing number of Muslim organisations have started to take steps to improve Muslims’ media representation, including concerted efforts to introduce new Muslim spokespersons to the British public.
Today, if you want to get your views across, politically, you need to be visible, which means gaining media coverage. The old adage that there is no such thing as bad press may hold for celebrities, but for political actors media coverage importantly shapes their opportunities for gaining public legitimacy for their views and achieving their goals. Most social movements and NGOs see media coverage as an important resource for gaining support, but also the quality of coverage they receive matters. Media representation shapes their chances of winning the argument by sounding reasonable, convincing and appealing to others, including supporters, opponents, and the silent majority who stand in between. Over the last decade of ‘clashes of civilizations’, ‘culture wars’, and resonant political debates across Western democracies about religious symbols in public life –headscarfs, burqas, minarets and so on – there has been no shortage of column inches over issues relating to Islam and the position of Muslims in their societies of settlement. Much of this coverage has been negative, narrow and stereotypical in its depiction of Muslims. Those who talk about ‘Islamophobia’ in Western societies, see hostility towards Muslims as a sort of embedded psychological phenomenon similar to ‘racism’, and usually seek evidence to support their claims from mass media discourses. In this contribution, I want to report some research findings on how Muslim activists have tried to work and mobilize goals on behalf of their community within what appears to be a hostile environment of mediated politics about them. Have Muslim activists been able to gain a voice in the British politics about them? And, to what degree does media coverage matter in helping them to serve their community?
“The media’s need for sensationalism meant that representation of Muslims was left in the hands of camera-friendly but non-representative individuals.”
We interviewed activists from 21 associations whose self-ascription was ‘Muslim’, regardless of its name or of how other groups defined it. Our aim was to collect a wide range of experiences, across faith denominations, national and ethnic backgrounds, scope and political level of activity, and including organisations that were relatively more religious or civic/secular in motivation. Simply put, we wanted to hear the ‘story’ of working within the mediated British political environment from as many different organizational voices representing the Muslim community as possible. This was our road into seeing the problems and dilemmas through our activists’ eyes. Overall, we found a significant congruence in the opinions expressed by the activists.
Bad news: the context
First, the media coverage and representation matters to them, and makes their life hard. Virtually all activists cited ‘the media’, directly or indirectly, as one of the greatest constraints facing their own organisation’s attempt to survive in a competitive environment. Only the Ahmaddis failed to raise this issue unprompted as an important restriction on achieving goals. Second, interviewees thought that the UK media are biased in a negative way when they cover Muslim issues. At face value this is not surprising, but negative coverage also had an impact on organisations’ efforts to position their community as part of UK community life. They all had stories and anecdotes to tell about their own negative experiences with journalists. Activists expressed frustration with journalists who they thought were limited and lacking in professional imagination when covering Muslim affairs. It seemed to them to be virtually impossible to gain attention for the full range of social activities that they undertake with Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Instead media coverage is only about religious and cultural controversies. Journalists would see a ‘news value’ for a potential story only if it was possible to roll off the oft-repeated cultural clichés about wearing burqas or niqaab, claims about the treatment of women in Islam, or about the supposed link between Islam and extremism or anti-semitism. Abu Kawser’s (Becontree Heath Islamic Society) experiences were typical:
We approached the local media to report about a bike we gifted to the local police for community cohesion and fight anti social behaviour, but they never published it. Instead they created a story about us being anti-Semitic. We explained that was not true, but still after that … they took a statement from the Quran and did not contextualize it. We gave them the context but they did not accept it. They did not mention the community service we are aiming to do … free IT tuition, weekend classes, they completely ignored it, and used the word mosque in every statement, and it does not mention it is a community centre.
Taji Mustafa, from Hizb-ut- Tahrir, an organization that has been on the verge of being banned a few times, told a story about how difficult it is to get ‘good news’ stories across:
Among our women there is a joke: in the Quakers’ house near here, Hizb-ut-Tahrir women had an event on cohesion and Muslims living with others, inviting non-Muslims, and they had nearly 1000 women…and there was nothing [in the media] on them. If it had been five of them who did something wacky, something that could have complied with the narrative, the papers would have been full.
“Faced by a difficult mediated environment, a new generation of activists have started to respond from within Muslim associations by implementing media strategies to try to get their own messages across.”
Most interviewees also expressed grave concerns about ‘who’ the national media selected to ‘represent’ Muslims. It was widely felt that the media’s need for sensationalism meant that representation of Muslims was left in the hands of camera-friendly but non-representative individuals. In some cases, it was claimed that the individuals were selected precisely because their views were extreme and not representative of Muslims. For example, more than one interviewee used an analogy of the media’s selected spokesperson being as representative of Muslims, as Nick Griffin, the leader of the extreme right British National Party, would be for the majority ‘white’ population. While some interviewees recounted this perceived problem of the media’s selection bias in terms of a conspiracy theory – i.e., the media wanting to represent Muslims in this way – others saw it simply as poor professional journalism due to lack of education, and pointed out that some sections of the British media that were better than others:
British media could be a lot better … how many times has Anjem Choudary been on TV? How is he supposed to be representative? His sixteen, twenty followers … that is nothing compared to the two million Muslims in the UK. It is like giving Nick Griffin a platform, or the EDL person…it gives them a degree of respectability. … [I]t is not consistent across the board that is why I do not believe in a conspiracy theory.
Paul Salahuddin Armstrong, Association of British Muslims
The national media is terrible. Omar Bakhri Mohammed was interviewed on UK TV even if he had been expelled, to comment on a UK issue. They like calling Anjem Choudhry as he will say everything bad that people want to hear. So, on the whole the media in UK is worrying. … Nationally, even Channel 4 shows stories that are not even stories, they are fabrications, and people believe it. When the audience hears similar things all over again, they may start believing them. It is not openly hostile…but if you only put Nick Griffin on every day, people would think that all British people are like that, so the media can create misconceptions.
Rizwan, Bristol Muslim Cultural Society
Some better news: the response
Faced by this difficult mediated environment, a new generation of activists have started to respond from within Muslim associations by implementing media strategies to try to get their own messages across effectively. In part, this has meant taking up the tasks of representing the Muslim community within British society, something that faith leaders do not really prioritise. Ishtiaq Ahmed from the Bradford Council for Mosques discusses media training courses and recounts how adaptation was necessary for the community’s ‘voice’ to be heard publicly:
The faith leaders generally are not very good at interacting with the media. There are many positive stories and many positive examples of work, which should be shared widely. The media offers us the opportunity to do this. However, often the view is taken that the media is only interested when things go wrong. However, we could do more to be proactive about our relations with the media. All this is about confidence and skills.
A number of organisations, including Bradford Council of Mosques, Bradford Muslim Women’s Council, Islamic Society of Britain, and Muslim Council of Britain, set up training courses so that their members could deal with inquiries from journalists. Generally, the aim was to be proactive and achieve media attention for the whole range of activities, especially social ones, that an organization undertook for the ‘common good’ of the whole community.
“Away from the media spotlight, demands for group-specific cultural recognition may not turn out to be so incommensurable, nor so important to Muslims, as they are often presented.”
In addition, many organizations implemented public campaigns, in part through the internet, to shape the representation of Muslims. During our research, the case of Usama Hasan, was salient. He is an Imam at a London mosque, who was threatened after delivering a sermon on Darwin and evolution in Spring, 2011. Here the key issue for Muslim organisations (and subsequently for the reporting mass media) was ‘freedom of speech’. Several organizations we interviewed – Bradford Council of Mosques, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Association of British Muslims, Islamic Society of Britain, Sharia Council, and Muslim Council of Britain – had participated in mobilizing a public campaign in support of Hasan to defend freedom of speech in mosques. This public campaign was driven in the first instance by an on-line petition, while the British Muslims for Secular Democracy and Islamic Society of Britain invited Usama Hasan to speak at public events. Such mobilisation activities achieved a limited degree of mass media resonance that presented Muslims on the side of ‘freedom of speech’. The point here is that Muslim organisations adapted their communication strategies in a way that tried to shape the issues that such cases are linked to, and the positions that Muslims have tended to be associated with.
At the same time, this activism has also had a transformative effect on their internal discourses and the issues they campaign on. Nearly all organisations we interviewed mentioned the Usama Hasan case as proof of their commitment to civic values, including ‘free speech’. Not that they were ever against ‘free speech’, but they have learnt to address the British public domain in its own language and terms. They try and shape the way they are publicly represented (by others), while getting across their own views.
In addition to redressing the balance, this is important because it allows Muslim organisations space to potentially gain more recognition from within British society for their social activities. Unlike British journalists, for Muslim activists, it is not all about ‘culture’. It is more about building a space for the Muslim community within the local community. Bradford is in many respects unique, but an example from our interview material is instructive about the commitment of activists to social community goals. The Bradford Council for Mosques decided not to use visible religious symbols in a sports hall that it built with the local community in order to make a public environment open, symbolically, to the wider non-Muslim local community: ‘If you walk around the centre you will not find a single religious symbol, and this is deliberate. We do not want, in any way, our users to come into the centre and think this is a religious centre and not for them. We do not want anybody to feel they cannot use it’.
This example runs counter to the media resonant stories of ‘culture clashes’. It demonstrates an instance where a Muslim organisation has prioritized a shared common need for providing a social service through interaction with the local non-Muslim community. It demonstrates that away from the media spotlight, demands for group-specific cultural recognition may not turn out to be so incommensurable, nor so important (to Muslims), as they are often presented, after all.
Paul Statham is Professor of Migration in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, and Director at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR). He has published two collaborative monographs, two edited volumes, more than 25 book chapters and 20 articles in journals including the American Journal of Sociology, Ethnicities, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and Harvard International Review.
 Marta Bolognani and Paul Statham, ‘The Changing Public Face of Muslim Associations in Britain: Coming Together for Common “social” Goals?’ Ethnicities 13, no. 2 (1 April 2013): 229–249. Funded by the European Commission as part of the FP7 EURISLAM project.
 Ahmadis are members of an Islamic reform movement founded in the 19th Century. Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, though their legitimacy is disputed by some Muslim groups.
The image of Anjem Choudary is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of Yusuf Islam is included courtesy of Eva Rinaldi. Both images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.