At an international conference on “Islam and the Media” organised by the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado-Boulder in January, many of the participants, including myself, examined the negative stigma attached by the media to Islam and Muslims, especially after 9/11 and various terrorist attempts made in the name of Islam by extremists and militants operating on the fringes of the larger mainstream Muslim community.
In his influential 1981 book, Covering Islam, the late author and literary theorist Edward W. Said captured public attention regarding how experts and the media have determined the way we see Islam. At the heart of Said’s analysis is the notion that media coverage of Islam has closely associated Muslims with militancy, danger and anti-Western sentiment.
In 1997, the Runnymede Trust, a UK-based think tank that promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain, echoed the same idea in “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All”.
A similar tendency was employed to read the events of 9/11 in 2001. Analysing these events, a good number of pundits, analysts, journalists and politicians believed that what we witnessed in the 9/11 attacks and its aftermath was a “clash of civilisations”, that is, a battle between Western and Islamic civilisations as predicted earlier by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.
For the past three decades, scholarly studies on Islam and Muslims in the media have heavily relied on frameworks such as Said’s analyses, Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory, Islamophobia or cultural racism to analyse the questions regarding representations of Islam and Muslims in the media. These frameworks still have a big influence on current studies. In fact, a good number of papers presented during the recent “Islam and media” conference were based on these frameworks.
Of course, the use of such frameworks undeniably shapes the outcome of such findings and analysis. The problem, however, is that at the heart of the above approaches is a binary way of thinking which puts the West on one side and Islam on the other.
Why is the media so obsessed with this binary approach? In my opinion, the binary style of thinking raises two issues.
First, it provides no space for understanding the productive side of the encounter of people with different cultural and religious backgrounds. In a society characterised by increasing complexity, society cannot be just simply painted black and white. After all, society is not static. It has always been dynamic.
Second, the binary approach, which includes the idea of “West versus Islam” or the civilised versus the uncivilised, has been developed upon the premise that media discourse has the power to control the unjust social representations of other cultures or religions. This premise assumes that people are basically trapped, or even imprisoned, in a fixed context of clash. As a result, the binary approach is inadequate for the complex challenges faced by a multicultural society.
The news, however, is not that bad. As we move on to a new decade, a continued exploration of cultural or religious representation based on dialogue offers more hope to the encounters of people from different cultures and faiths than what is currently portrayed in the media.
Indeed, people of different cultures or faiths are naturally strangers to each other. For the possibility of recognising and respecting each other to occur, a courageous step should be taken through which must move toward the other and allow the unusual and strange to become internalised.
In this way, as argued by Zali Gurevitch, Professor of Anthropology at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, one’s uniqueness is recognised and differences are accepted without hostility. If studies of media representations of cultures and religions give more space for analysis based on dialogue-centric approaches, in today’s multicultural society, we would move forward with more confidence and hope.
* Gabriel Faimau is a Ph.D. researcher, focused on the representation of Islam and Muslims in the British Christian media, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.thejakartapost.com.