A war of words: Islam in the press

Today I went to a conference about Islamophobia in the British media. Run by Media Workers Against the War, ‘Under Siege: Islam, war and the media’ examined the biased treatment of Islam by in mainstream reporting, why this is and how it can be changed.

Addressing the conference Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ, railed against the prejudice of the British press and the policies of a government that tells us “the price of peace at home is a bloody war and the price of peace abroad is the curtailment of our civil liberties”.

He said: “The media has too often failed to ask the questions we need to ask if we are to make decisions as informed citizens. Such poor journalism is a recipe for driving people to extremes.”

A survey found that 91 per cent of coverage of Islam in the national press since 2001 has been negative, with more than 4,000 stories written since 9/11. Another found that 35 cent of the language used was alarmist. The most common nouns to be associated with Muslims were: extremism, suicide bombers, militancy, radicalism.

Islamophobia is rife throughout the British media, but nowhere more obviously than in the Daily Star. In the past month they have run four incendiary stories against Muslims, including: ‘Poppies banned in terror hotspots: Muslim snub to forces’, ‘Vile preacher insults our poppies’ and ‘Muslim nutters still preaching hate on our streets.’

Yet a more pervasive form has also made its way into the liberal discourse of the broadsheets. The Times, bastion of the British press, ran an article on how terrorists were using child pornography to pass messages on the internet.

As one comment put it: “This makes as much sense as to hide some crack in a bag of marijuana.”

In the UK media, ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ have become bywords for religious extremism and evil. From the moment that George Bush announced his War on Terror, words have become political tools used to demonise Muslim communities.

Louise Christian, an outspoken human rights lawyer who has represented Guantanamo bay detainees, said: “Words are important things – words are what journalists do”.

“The reaction to 9/11 changed language,” she said. “When [politicians] use the language of war against terror [they] invalidate the protection of international human rights legislation”.

Those captured in Afghanistan and Iraq, held under ‘enemy competence’, are denied the protection of the Geneva convention. There are 270 people held in Guantanamo bay, yet only 16 of these are ‘high-level’ detainees and 90 per cent have no evidence to support their detention.

Muslims have been silenced in the mainstream media, made into a scapegoat for a never ending war of ideologies. Yet in a world where jobs are scarce and scruples scarcer, journalists will do anything for a front page. The more pressure they face, the harder it is for journalists to fight prejudice and the more that minorities will lose their voices.

Speaking at the conference today, Peter Oborne, Daily Mail columnist and author of Muslims under siege, said: “I believe in truth – that’s why I became a journalist. “I remain proud of being British and proud of our traditions, but that tradition in being flouted.”

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