The mass media and the current wave of Islamophobia sweeping the United States and Europe: Probing the correlation between Islamophobia and the flurry of negative portraits of Muslims in the mass media, in print, on the Internet and on television.
Turn on the TV, open a newspaper, go online and it is there: Islamophobia in its many themes: Muslims’ demographic numbers are instilling fear in us; they are coming to impose Sharia on us; they are all a bunch of backward terrorists who want to colonize and Islamify the Western world and to take our Christian and Jewish women and cover them head to toe in burkas. The bottom line it all adds up to is that “they” are coming and they are dangerous. Soon it seems, the impending doom of the East will be all over the West, and we will end up as part of a slave caravan. The world as we know will never be the same again. Soon those Muslims over there will be here, smothering us. On the streets, at least in so much of the public mind, bayonets are at the ready.
The fear that someone is coming to America to threaten us, to take away our freedoms, and to force us into submission is not new. “Perhaps the closest parallel to today’s hysteria about Islam is the 19th century fear spread by the Know Nothing movement about the “Catholic menace’” (Kristof, pg10). The Know Nothing Party flourished at a time when a fierce hatred of Catholics was raging in the United States. Catholics were thought to be more loyal to the “Beast in Rome” than to this country. One hundred and fifty years ago with Catholic churches burning around them, White Protestants entertained the same notions seen today with Muslims. Through the political cartoons of Thomas Nast in the late 18th century, one finds the same themes; this time it is there in your face for everyone to see in the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly. For x, who studied closely the political implication of Nast’s cartoon, the negative view of the Catholic Church in Nast’s cartoons “echoed nativist themes from the Know Nothing 1850’s”. During the debate over the public school, he write, “brilliant” Nast who became the central figure over the “power of the press”, in many of his anti-Chatolic cartoons, invoked strong language and images to depict the Catholic Church as the enemy of republican government. (Pg 176- 183) Nast made cartoons depicting Catholic priests in the shape of vicious crocodiles or ape-like Irish immigrants carving up the Democratic Party. Hideous-looking papists and their priests are everywhere. Clearly the purpose here is not merely to inform, but to inflame. The caricaturist Nast wants us to feel something about his subject matter just as contemporary Islamophobes want us to feel hatred about theirs.
“As Maher Al-Hajji and Jack Nelson (1997) have observed on their political potency, “One of the strongest weapons a newspaper uses to forcefully state a point of view is its editorial cartoons” (394). “As images rather than statements, political cartoons can express popular sentiments and perspectives without acquiescing to the demands of journalistic objectivity that prevail in most of the rest of news pages. In this domain, Muslims as terrorists, or as violent, uncivilized people, are the most common sorts of Muslims portrayed today, as in the past (Al-Hajji and Nelson 1997; Palmer 1997).”( Jackson, pg.11-15)
In 9/11, the useful incident, and the legacy of the creel committee, Cristopher Sharrette, argues that in order to understand the Muslims presentation in the media, one need to consider the historical pattern of U.S. involvement in interimperial and colonialist war, a pattern that demonstrates the use of “ a persistent, recurrent set of strategies designed to force public acquiescence in the state policing of the U.S. colonial domain (126). Long before President George H. W. Bush hired a public relations-instructed Kuwati refugee to present bogus tales to Congress of Iraqi atrocities as a rational for Gulf War I, the government created a propaganda apparatus designed to involve the U.S. in one of the worst conflagrations of the twentieth century. The massive propaganda effort that transformed public attitude toward U.S. involvement in the World War I is mostly known as the Creel Committee. ( Sharrett, 127)
In his book, Media Control, Noam Chomsky, names the Creel Committee the first modern government propaganda and goes in detailed to describe the propaganda, its effect and implication. “The population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European war. The Wilson administration was actually committed to war and had to do something about it. They established a government propaganda commission, called the Creel Commission, which succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world…. There was very strong support from the media, from the business establishment, which in fact organized, pushed much of this work, and it was, in general, a great success.”
The evidence that such media campaigns affects public opinion is plentiful. The spectacular successes of the so-called Creel Committee in turning a peaceful population into a hysterical frenzy of jingoism is one case in point. The Creel Committee, a propaganda apparatus set up in 1917 to turn American public opinion against Germans, drove Americans into World War One. By making up stories about German atrocities — “atrocity propaganda” is its name in the business – then circulating these claims in the media of the time, the Creel Commission became an instrumental force in inflaming negative feelings of Germans in the United States. Bogus claims that German troops in 1916 were throwing little Belgian babies upon their bayonets or were pulling little Belgian babies to pieces inspired the war spirit.
In a similar vein, one can find similarities on the issue of Sadaam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. This time the atrocity propaganda was not little Belgian babies but poor little Kuwaiti babies who are being murdered in their incubators by beastly invading Iraqi troops. This fiction was created by public-relations firm Hill & Knowlton, and no doubt had an impact on molding American public opinion in favor of the subsequent American invasion. Simply that such firms will invest time and money in such endeavors is in itself a testimony, I feel, to the power of the media in making public opinion. And now the agenda and the enemy is Islam and the mass media again is in the thick of it: generating negative opinions and thus molding the public mind and their attitudes towards Muslims.
[ during the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the government of Kuwait spent more that $11 million on one PR film (Hill & Knowlton) to campaign on behalf of Kuwait. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in the 1990s, the state of Kuwait realized the importance of PR and hired the services of Hill & Knowlton, one of the largest PR firms in the US, whose one of its goal was to convince the Americans that Saddam Hussein should be kicked out of Kuwait … The story- Iraqi soldiers had let 312 babies die after removing them from their incubators at three hospitals. At the end of the war, the New York Times and ABC News reported that the story was false and to create by the Kuwaiti government to evoke US sympathy to invade Iraq [Rowse,1991]
Having established that the media can mold public opinion, I shall now explore and analyze how it is affecting attitudes towards Muslims in America and Europe and describe its measurable impact on American and European public opinion. This paper documents four recurrent themes in the post 9/11 mass media: that Muslims are terrorists, that Islam is a sexist, repressive religion, that Muslims are plotting to colonize the Western World, and that Islam is an inherently violent and intolerant religion.
All Muslims Are Terrorists:
In his literature review, author Fred Vultee mentioned articles that analyzed discourse for ways in which the favorable characteristics of “us” and unfavorable characteristics of “them” are constructed and maintained. Under this concept, he argues, extremist acts by individual Muslims or Muslims states will be apart of a unified patterns while events in the Western world will appear as isolated events not tied to religion (628).
This polarization probably found no greater example more recently than the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” The mosque story remained for months the focus of a media frenzy and is quite telling about underground feelings towards Muslims in America. In December 2009, the news that an Islamic community center was being built two blocks away from the site of Ground Zero hardly merited a mention in the mainstream press, with the exception of an article in the New York Times. ( *) In May and through the efforts of far-right wing pundit, Pamela Geller and her Islamophobic colleague, Robert Spencer, director of JihadWatch.com, the story started to gain momentum. Geller was calling it the “Mega Mosque.” The location, according to Geller, was not just insensitive, but on her blog AtlasShrugs2000 she stressed the terror ties of some Muslims surrounding it, including its developer, Sharif El-Gamal. Articles in The Washington Post and Salon.com the same week reported that the mainstream media “picked up on angst about Park51, the planned cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan, only after Geller began blogging about it”. In the following weeks, Geller became a chief spokeswoman against the project, appearing on Fox, CNN, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and NBC Nightly News.
Fox News also weighed in on the issue and used it as a platform to take many pot shots at Islam. A ‘news’ forum dogged by claims that it spread hate and suspicion about minority groups for years, Fox News Channel has been a key player in portraying Islam in a scary, negative light since 9/11 (Vultee, Shahzad and Khalid, Nacos and Torres- Reyns). In Fox News: Where You Can Bash Islam with Impunity, Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog group, provides a retrospective of the many recent anti-Muslim statements made on Fox News or by Fox News personalities. The report, published in October, revealed how Fox News used the Ground Zero mosque controversy as front for attack on 9/11 truth. For instance, during an appearance on the October 14 edition of ABC’s The View, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, was asked why building an Islamic cultural center near ground zero was “inappropriate.” O’Reilly responded: “Because Muslims killed us on 9-11.” The following day, in Fox News’ Fox & Friends, Brian Kilmeade defended O’Reilly’s View comments by claiming the show’s hosts “were outraged that somebody was saying there’s a reason — there was a certain group of people that attacked us on 9-11. It wasn’t just one person. It was one religion. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” Kilmeade later repeated the false claim that “every terrorist is a Muslim” on his radio show. ( ) Bill O’Reilly and his repeatedly claims which views as Islam as a “problems” had led him to be named in a report published two years ago by media watchdog FAIR as being one of American’s “Dirty Dozen” leading Islamophobes. (X) Media Matters also reports that Fox repeatedly hosted “anti-Muslims conspiracy theorist Pam Galler” to discuss the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque despite the fact she has made outrageous statement about president Obama and Islam. On the August 11 edition of Fox&Friends, for example, Geller compared building the Islamic center near ground zero site to building a “ ku klux klan shrine” near a black church in Alabama. (Media Matters).
The media frenzy that Park51 was being used to generate was not confined, of course, to Fox News. CNN also weighed in heavily on the issue. In fact, CNN has also been placed high on the list of media organization strongly biased against Muslims. (Shahzad &Khalid and Nacos&Torres- Reyns) In an extensive nine year study, investigating the coverage and portrayal of 12 Muslim countries, it was found after 9/11, the American media excessively used some terms such as “Islamic terrorist, Muslim fundamentalist, Shia extremist, Islamic Jihad, Arab killer, and Islamic suicide bomber” to name a few. The first to be blamed in creating distorted public perception of Islam mentioned was CNN. (Shahzad and Khalid).
In a July 20, 2010, interview between CNN’s Deborah Feyerick and the developer of Park51, El-Gamal, Islam is clearly identified with terrorism. When a defensive El-Gamal shot back about Jews and Christians having prayer centers exclusively without stirring controversy, Feyerick was unequivocal. “But Jews didn’t bring down the towers…but Christians didn’t take down the towers,” she rallied. She did not explicitly say that all Muslims brought down the towers, but through the context of the conversation and the issue her message is clear: All Muslims are terrorists. As Feyerick voice-over talked about a community center, a pop-up on the screen described El-Gamal as the “Ground Zero Mosque Developer.” Muslims are building a mosque, a “victory mosque,” as Geller called it on FOX, at Ground Zero and CNN was getting involved in selling the same message and a more odious one conflating Islam and terror.
Across the Atlantic the media message about Muslims has hardly been any better. Author Diana Frost argues that dominant representations of Muslims in the British media “make clear the associations between Muslims and terrorisms. Thus, as Muslims are demonized in dominant stereotypes, they become the Other.” (Frost p. 565). “Representations of Islam portray a violent religion that is undermining of British norms and values that threatens British cultural identity and security.” (565 p. Frost)
As results of anti-immigration laws, which reinforce existing racist attitude towards these who perceived as Muslims, hostile attitude toward Muslims have became normalized in the press. (566)…571- the power of the media to constract
According to Kumar, “most public discourse in the United States continues to uphold the myth that Muslim women are victims in need of rescue and that the West, an enlightened entity, can play a progressive role in such a context.” (Kumar, p 262). Perhaps this theme found not better fit than in the recent controversy surrounding the Muslim veil or burka. Calling the veil a “symbol of subservience,” French President Nicholas Sarkozy spearheaded a highly publicized media campaign against it. The result of the ban has made matters worse in France, “leading to greater discrimination against, and ostracism of Muslim women.”(Kumar, p. 262) One also found the alleged misogyny of Islam being driven in seemingly endless stories about Sharia.
In a news segment aired in August, Fox News presenter, Sean Hannity, for example, passionately made the case again that Islam is synonymous with misogyny. Hannity was named in a report published two years ago by media watchdog FAIR as being one of American’s “Dirty Dozen” leading Islamophobes. (X) Hannity used the issue of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s apparent support for Sharia to segue into claims, circulating often in the so-called conservative media, that Muslims have a hidden agenda to impose Islamic law or Sharia up on us. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, for example, is an exponent of it, according to Hannity. Clearly trying to use the issue to malign Islam as mysoginistic, Hannity brought on Ms. “Fair & Balanced” herself, Pamela Geller. A respectable academic was absent from the discourse and what we heard from Hannity was that under Sharia law, women “get stoned to death for adultery” and that “women can’t drive and where women can’t get an education.” We get the picture: Imam Rauf, symbol of “moderate Islam” is not what he seems and that in addition to suspicious ties with terrorism favors Sharia, and since Sharia law means backwardness, per-Enlightenment, moderate Islam also means misogyny (6), (7).
Islamization of the Western World. FOX
In 2008, Vultee (2009) found in the course of 12 weeks 39 stories and images containing the emerging “Islam-as-treat” theme.
“Several broad conceptual areas reflect the coincidence between elements of news practice and elements of Orientalism. The most relevant are the reification of Islam as a single object and…the impending loss of cultural institutions if assimilation continues.” (p. 628 Vultee) That Muslims are terrorists and misogynists is not the only claim being charged against Muslims in the media across the Western world. Another common theme popping up in is the allegation that Muslims are trying to colonize the West. The end of white Christian hegemony is close. The conservative Daily Mail in Britain, for example, prints figures predicting frightening statistics on Muslim population growth. Author Fred Vultee writes in Fox News and the Construction of Islamic Peril that Fox has twice used the claim that Muhammad is “on the verge of becoming the most popular name in the United Kingdom.” (pg.262, Vultee) Over a three year period from 2007 and 2010, three media sources, in addition to Fox, used the same story. The BBC, the Daily Mail as well as the Daily Telegraph all used the same.
They repeat a claim made by infamous Islamophobe, and media darling, Geert Wilders, that the most common name now among newborns in four major cities in Holland is Muhommad. As Geller would agree, Muslims are threatening to take over. A close friend of Geller, Wilders, on the heels of recent political success in Holland, frequently makes the rounds in the American and European media charging that Muslims are trying to turn Europe into “Eurabia.” Like the Daily Mail, which supported the rise of Adolf Hitler until the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, Wilders makes similar dire predictions about birth rates. Again, as with the claim alleging that Islam equals terrorism, we find fringe opinions out of the mouths of the mainstream media. Recently, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer have started a website called Stop The Islamization of America to stem the supposed tide and have endorsed the demonstrations against mosques by far-right wing group The English Defense League (9) and (10). Formed over a year ago, the EDL has figured in media reports during their “Stop The Mosque” campaigns against the so-called mega mosques in Harrow, London, Dudley, northern England and by the World Trade Center, in New York City. Especially troubling here is an analysis of their rise and the media’s contribution towards Islamophobia by eminent British academic and expert on the far-right in Europe, Dr. Mathew Goodwin. (11)
Inherently Violent, Intolerant Islam
“Representations of Islam portray a violent religion that is undermining of British norms and values that threatens British cultural identity and security.” (565 p. Frost) Terror. Mysogyny. “Breeding like mosquitoes.” If these claims aren’t enough to mould public opinion against Muslims, the allegation that they are just inherently violent is another view making the rounds of the mass media in Europe and the United States. None more pointedly it seems than the recent controversy sparked several years ago following the depiction of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, Jylland Posten, in September, 2005. “One of the clearest depictions of the argument that Islam is inherently violent can be found in a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed…The logic that follows from this depiction is that Islam came into being with at its core.” (p. 267, Kumar). Occurring in a country where Islamophobia is, like far-right wing politics, on the rise, the cartoons sparked violence throughout the Muslim world and only served to underscore the claim that this is Islam –intolerant, inherently violent. Who can forget the images of the reaction of Muslims maddened by the cartoons going crazy in Pakistan, the Middle East and Indonesia? Death threats against the cartoonists also made headlines as the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh who was murdered, allegedly, for his film submission which was critical of the treatment of women in Islam. (12) Since the 1990s, the views of Samual Huntington, author of the Clash of Civilizations, have been gaining ground, i.e. the claim about “Muslim propensity toward violent conflict.” (p. 259, Kumar)
Another figure who weighed in on the violent nature of Islam was Pope Benedict. The story, needless to say, made front-page news. Paraphrasing a 14th-century prophet, the pope equated Catholicism with “reason” and Islam with violence and a lack of reason (13). It seems like these mad mullahs are everywhere, terrorizing us and out-breeding us because, as the Holy Father might agree, Muslims are just too irrational and backward to be anything else. These are perceived character traits of Islam. As Pat Robertson, a media mogul and TV evangelist, has shouted on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Islam is not a religion of peace, as Muslims claim; in the words of the veteran TV evangelical preacher, “Islam is violent political” ideology (14). The violent history of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church does not seem to figure with either of them in their analysis. Then there is the claim that if Muslims do not get their Ground Zero Mosque, then they are going to go nuts and kills us. An appearance by Imam Rauf on CNN’s Larry King Live that not building the community center would only emboldened the extremists was twisted into a perceived and veiled threat. ( X )-[in September 8 interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf abandoned his conciliatory rhetoric and recast his plan as a protection racket. If he doesn’t get his, he said, “ anger will explode in the Muslim world.”(Push Back Hard- James Taranto,2010)
A Positive View of Islam:
With all these violent representations of Islam and Muslims in the mass media, one has to ask, in trying to turn away from the negative, where are the positive images? If a media frenzy fueling fears about Muslims can become the focus of obsessive coverage of one religious group, one has to ask: where are the positive images and have they gotten the same quantity of coverage? The answer is unfortunately obvious since positive coverage does not seem to exist. “The fact is that many prominent American Muslim groups have clearly and publicly denounced the acts of terror in the name of Islam as barbaric, heinous and just plain wrong. Though they religiously sent out press releases and e-mail statements after each attack, somehow their message doesn’t seem to penetrate.” (p.30, Nacos, Torress-Reyna) The claims that Islam is a peaceful religion, that Muslims are not culturally homogenous, and that Islam is as diverse a religion as Christianity seem to have been lost in the mass-media melee. Coming on the heels of the July 7, 2007 terror attacks in London, an anti-terrorist fatwa by Muslim followed and as a first was a very significant event. (p.30, Nacos, Torress-Reyna) However, as significant as the fatwa was when it was announced at the National Press Club not long after the London attacks, “the news coverage in the mainstream press was spotty and not at all prominent.” (p.30, Nacos, Torress-Reyna) Thus, there clearly isn’t parity between negative and positive coverage of Muslim; the former exceeds the latter by far.
One shouldn’t then be surprised when one reads public-opinion polls and finds that views of Muslims across the West is unfavorable. The spectacular rise of the far-right in Europe since 9/11 also shouldn’t shock anyone and should be seen as a sign that Islam is the enemy. In fact, anti-mosque campaigns across Europe have been central to their rhetoric. The alleged threat Muslims pose “can in turn lead to hostility, racial violence and hate and the social marginalization of such groups.”(Frost p. 565). Recent research polls amplify Frost’s findings. “The public continues to express conflicted views of Islam,” reports the Pew Research in August 2010. Of those polled, only 30 percent in August, during the height of the Ground Zero Mosque story, expressed favorable opinions of Islam and Muslims. Favorable opinions of Muslims were down 11 percent since 2005. Views about Islam being violent had not changed much since 2009 with roughly 40 percent of those polled believing Islam to be inherently violent. Similar numbers said the opposite. That conservative news shows were the more aggressive in depicting Muslims and had an impact on their audience also appears to be underscored through the same findings, with Republican votes twice as likely to view Muslims in a negative light when compared to Democrats. “Saeed suggests that British Muslims are portrayed as an ‘alien other’ in the media and this misrepresentation can be linked to the development of a kind of racism. Islamophobia, that has its roots in cultural representation of the other.”(p. 577, Ibqal).
Considering the volume of coverage the Islamic world receives through the lens of the Western media, one might think that the public is well-informed knowledgeable about the religion. This is not so according to the findings of the Pew Research Center. As in previous pew Research surveys, most Americans say they know little about the Muslim religion. Currently, 55% report they are unfamiliar with the Islam world, breaking down to 30% who do not know very much and 25% who know nothing at all about the Muslim religion and its practices; 35% say they know some about the religion while just 9% say they know a great deal (X). Across the Atlantic, the consensus is similar: “Many people in Britain have little understanding or knowledge of Islam, except for a prejudiced ignorance and distorted view that dominates much of the media.” (Frost, p. 572)
In September of this year, an ABC/Washington post poll found that after the terror attacks of 9/11, American public opinion towards Islam was ten percentage points more favorable than when polls were conducted again on September 11, 2010. Could the claims made in the mass media about the Mega Mosque, “Victory Mosque”, Sharia and so on have something to do with these findings? I think so.
But polls are not the only way to measure attitudes toward a focus group. Protests and attacks against mosques across America and Europe are also testimonials to a shift in public opinion for which the mass media carries a heavy responsibility. “The number of instances of vandalism at mosques and the threats to those involved in proposed new mosques continue to increase, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.” (quote in Christian Science Monitor.) Over the past few years Islamophobic parties in Holland, Austria, Sweden, France, and England have been making significant gains in elections. For example, notorious Islamophobe, Geert Wilderis, is now part of the Dutch cabinet. Sarkosy in France has been accused of appealing to the Islamophobic attitudes of far-right wing voters. Echoing statements from the far-right across Europe, Sarkosy has said burkas are “not welcome” in France. (4) “Press coverage adds to the hostility and alienation felt by people generally and boosts the political capital of those on the far right (p566, Frost). British academic and expert on the far-right, Matthew Goodwin, credits the sympathetic view of Islamophobia that the mass media presents as being “ particularly significant” to the rise of the English Defense League. He accuses the British Establishment and the mass media in particular of being “relatively sympathetic toward Islamophobia.” A 2008 Gallop opinion poll in 21 countries found “an increasing rift in understanding between the western world and Islam.” Europeans, according to the poll, were most afraid and saw cultural disintegration as a possible consequence of Islamic influence on the continent (17).
“Today, the folk devils described by Cohen of the 1960s have been replaced by equally threatening groups seen in those who are followers or supports of Islam.” (Frost, 566).