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Expert comment: Why the media needs to take responsibility for its language when writing about religion

newspapers Thursday 5 May 2016

Dr Salman Al-Azami, Senior Lecturer in English Language, calls for journalists to take more responsibility for the language they use when writing about religion.

The media has an undeniably significant influence on how the majority of the community, many of whom may be unfamiliar with other cultures, perceives ethnic or religious minorities. 

According to Stewart Hoover, a leading American academic on religion and media, “It is through the media that much of contemporary religion and spirituality is known.” As a very important, and sometimes the only source of information about the minorities, it is essential that the media play a responsible role in representing them. Unfortunately, this is not what we witness in mainstream British media, particularly while representing Islam and Muslims.

In my forthcoming book, ‘Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis’ (Palgrave), I looked at the relationship between language and power in the depiction of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) in the British media.

I undertook my own linguistic analysis and I also showed the same news stories to religious and non-religious groups to gather perceptions. What was found in the study is that the media represent the three religions differently. The coverage of Islam is overtly negative, there is mixed coverage of Christianity (with Evangelical Christians getting a bad press), and there is little coverage of Judaism as a religion, as it is mostly confined to issues related to Israel.

My research found that the British media look at Islam from an ethnocentric perspective, considering Western culture as the only ‘civilised’ culture and any religious or cultural practice that is different is portrayed as ‘other’, and therefore not acceptable. For example, terms like ‘shocking’, ‘disturbing’ ‘forced’ ‘imposed’ etc. were used in a Daily Mail article on gender segregation in Islam implying female oppression of the highest order.

Gender segregation is a frequently covered topic in the media, used to castigate Islam without any effort to know its underlying reasons, nor is there any investigation to find out whether it is actually forced or not. Most participants in my study, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, observed that the media rarely takes Muslim women’s perspective while talking about gender issues in Islam. Furthermore, gender segregation in other religions, for example, Orthodox Judaism is rarely covered in the media. The comparison is almost always between Muslims and the rest of the British population. Another significant problem in the media is considering integration as a one way process, hardly mentioning that the majority of the community also need to play their role.

There is a culture in the media to portray the faith of a Muslim individual if there is anything negative about them, whereas if the perpetrator is a non-Muslim, then their faith is hardly an issue. A worrying recent development is the way the London mayoral election campaign has turned into what appears to be nasty Islamophobic propaganda by some politicians and the right wing media outlets where the Labour candidate Sadiq Khan’s faith is alleged to be the reason for trying to link him with a so- called extremist Muslims, when his rival Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith had also met the individual in question. It is interesting that Mr Khan’s faith as a Muslim is in the spotlight while Mr Goldsmith’s Jewish background plays no role in the media coverage.

There is no evidence to suggest that the media deliberately undermine Islam and Muslims all the time, but almost all research in this field agrees that the media is not playing a responsible role while representing Islam, and this is dangerous. Ethnocentrism and lack of cultural understanding of Islam came out prominently in my investigation into why there is negativity on such a large scale.

Who benefits from these negative and sensationalistic media portrayal of Muslims?

A comprehensive academic study on media discourse on Islam by Baker et al. (2013) concluded that some members of the British press are playing into the hands of the extremists and reacting in exactly the way the terrorists want. The consequence is that Muslims are looked at suspiciously by a large section of the wider public resulting in a dramatic increase of Islamophobic attacks in recent times by far right extremists. Baroness Warsi, former Chairman of the Conservative Party said a few years ago that Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test, and the way the media portrays Islam has a big role in this attitude towards Muslims.

On the other hand, terrorists use these examples to prey on impressionable young Muslims, using them to argue that the West has waged a war against their faith. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of our society, but that freedom needs to be practised to create a fair and just society free from prejudice and hatred. The media therefore needs to reflect on these issues while fulfilling their duties.

Dr Salman Al-Azami is a Senior Lecturer in English Language at Liverpool Hope University. His book ‘Religion in the Media: A Linguistic Analysis’ (Palgrave) is due to be published at the end of May.



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