Do we hear enough Muslim voices in the media? Hosted by News UK on 17 November 2014, our panel discussion included New Statesman writer Myriam Francois-Cerrah, freelance journalist and playwright Iman Qureshi, Huffington Post political director Mehdi Hasan, Guardian acting women’s editor Bim Adewunmi, and Sara Khan, director of Inspire, a women’s human rights organisation. It was chaired by Women in Journalism (WIJ) chair Eleanor Mills, who is editorial director of the Sunday Times.
As Mehdi Hasan, pointed out, Muslims are often seen as the ‘other’ by the media, which perpetuates a ‘them versus us’ mentality. Not unlike what other discriminated-against groups – Asians, black people, immigrants and gays – have experienced over time.
Tabloid headlines such as “Muslims tell us how to run our schools”, “BBC puts Muslims before you” and “Muslim peer is charged over ‘texting’ death crash” all treat Muslims as separate from the reader and seek to exacerbate any seeds of resentment that may lie within people, according to Hasan.
Eleanor Mills said she recognised the responsibility of speaking up. “As a woman journalist, diversity in the media is not just about black people and Muslims,” she pointed out to panellists. “I feel passionately that since I am there [in that position], it means I can make a difference and I want my voice to count and to be heard, and I want to use it to campaign.”
For Bim Adewunmi, the situation is less clear-cut. She has a Nigerian background, and passionately argued that while she was happy to contribute to the debate on Muslim representation, she was loath to become pigeonholed. She said she had many interests and facets to her identity other than her religious background.
Iman Qureshi was altogether more laid-back, saying if she did not want to comment on a subject, she wouldn’t. But Quereshi also pointed out how the media was perceived as a friend to Muslims. She said there was a fear among some people she knew that “the media will take our stories and misrepresent them”. She also argued for more positive and diverse portrayals, such as her firsthand experience of telling her father she is gay and being accepted. “You don’t hear stories like that enough,” said Quereshi.
Adewunmi said that there were Muslims from many different nationalities – challenging the perception of Muslims as “a monolith” and a group which is not internally diverse. “There is an idea that Muslims have to be from the Asian subcontinent [Pakistan, India]. No one talks about Indonesian or Nigerian Muslims,” Adewunmi told the audience.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah warned of the media’s “fallacy of neutrality” because, as she pointed out: “Generally, white, middle-class straight men are the ones seen as neutral and not everyone else.”
A particular point of contention was the “Making a Stand” campaign in The Sun newspaper. The front page featured a woman with a Union Jack hijab with the headline: “United Against IS”. Sara Khan, whose organisation seeks to address inequalities facing British Muslim women, had led the campaign along with concerned British Muslim women who were keen to be involved in such a movement. Khan said the campaign helped to educate the would-be and actual Islamophobes who may read The Sun.
But Cerrah disagreed. She said: “I think it’s really important to point out that as good as these intentions might be in terms of a local initiative, and I support the idea of Muslim women taking on their own battles, which they’ve always done, but most people haven’t heard about it. But we can’t ignore where voices fit into the broader discourse…and that broader discourse is one within which there is the presumption of guilt – all Muslims feel it.
“So to absolve ourselves of that guilt, we must prove our Britishness and that is the point at which I say no. I have no obligation to prove to you that I am any more loyal than any other citizen and I don’t need it to be on front cover of The Sun to prove that I am British. Actually, I think its quite humiliating to be put in the position where Muslims essentially have to be seen as apologising for the actions of people they have nothing to do with.”
Khan argued back, offering another angle: “From my perspective, the idea that we did the campaign to show we’re British… that has nothing to do with it! This was a campaign that Muslim women wanted to do… they wanted to make a stand… No where in the literature for the campaign does it say we are apologising for IS… Taking it down that avenue misrepresents what the campaign is about.”
From the discussion, it was clear that a diversity of opinions and views exist within the Muslim “community” that are not always heard in the media.