In August, the UK’s Channel 4 broadcast the documentary “Islam: The Untold Story”. Presented by historian Tom Holland, the programme examined the issue of whether, as Muslims believe, Islam was born fully formed in all its fundamentals, or whether it evolved gradually over many years. It triggered sharp criticism and a flood of complaints to Channel 4 and the UK’s communication regulator Ofcom.
Many Muslims and non-Muslims viewed the programme as poorly researched, biased and unbalanced in terms of the arguments presented. Some critics claimed that Holland’s piece ignored pertinent scholarly material on Islamic history, and the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) accused him of “selective scholarship”, saying his work was “clearly biased”.
“Muslims in the European Landscape”, a 2012 report by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue and the British Council found that media coverage of Muslims is generally negative and that the coverage has an adverse impact on the attitude of non-Muslims. And British Muslims and non-Muslims alike have argued that Holland’s work has contributed to the existing misunderstanding of and negative attitudes towards Islam and Muslims.
But the question that begs answering here is, what is the solution? Amid the powerful influence of media, can British Muslims dispel the pervasive negative stereotypes and take proactive steps to promote multiculturalism in the United Kingdom?
The answer is they can. However in order to do so, they must leverage the very medium that has played such a powerful role in swaying public opinion for the worse.
The Channel 4 documentary was not the first of its kind to elicit such strong reactions from British viewers. The debate over whether Muslims are inaccurately represented in the media is not new. Numerous reports have found that the Western media systematically portrays Muslims in a negative light. A Greater London Authority Report published in 2007, for example, found that “facts are frequently distorted, exaggerated or oversimplified” and that “the tone of language is frequently emotive, immoderate, alarmist or abusive”.
The distorted image depicted by the media has a detrimental effect on society at large, as it intensifies prevailing attitudes and increases cultural divides. Media disseminates information that shapes people’s views and attitudes. Consequently, it has immense power and influence over the form of dialogue or debate between Muslims and non-Muslims.
A representative portrayal of Islam in the media is crucial because the impact goes beyond the UK’s nearly 3 million Muslims and affects communal relations throughout the country.
Muslims need to take a proactive approach to change the Western view of Islam by extending the positive contributions they make within their communities to the broader society. Making sure their voices are heard when it comes to condemning extremism, acts of violence and the oppression of women is vital. Muslims need to increase awareness that Islam does not promote, but rather condemns, extremism in any of its forms.
It is unfortunate that extremist groups so often steal the limelight. However, this puts a greater responsibility on Muslims to ensure that the true voice of Islam is heard. Speaking out against these issues through the mass media is crucial. Educating non-Muslims by encouraging, rather than avoiding, debate on these issues is key.
The London-based Muslim lifestyle magazine Emel is a good example of an initiative that promotes “positive and confident messages about the Muslim communities in the UK”. Covering a vast array of topics, including art, history, fashion and politics, the magazine stands to inform wider British society about what, in many cases, are shared interests between Muslims and non-Muslims. More initiatives like this are needed because they provide a representative view of the diverse communities within British Muslim society, and a platform to voice their opinions.
To truly integrate into society and change the existing views held by non-Muslims, British Muslims need to redefine and broaden their communities. Instead of waiting for attitudes to change, they need to invite non-Muslims to work together to build a truly multicultural Britain by focusing on their commonly held values and beliefs rather than their perceived differences. In order to spread these messages, British Muslims must actively participate in all aspects of the media – be it as interviewees, talk show guests, producers, editors and even owners.
Playing a central role in the media, Muslims can trigger a paradigm shift, and the multidimensional identity of British Muslims can emerge, in all its diversity.