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The Muslim sense of hurt
By M. Zeyaul Haque

It is time to begin measures to heal those wounds, and media have a role to play here

One of the recent issues of Aerial (a BBC magazine for internal circulation) has a report on a seminar on Islam organized by Navid Akhter for the BBC’s New Diversity Centre. Rana Kabbani, a freelance producer and writer, is said to have complained at the seminar that the ‘BBC as a vehicle for promoting Islamic ideas, traditions and entertainment had been ‘very disappointing’’.

The report describes Kabbani as arguing that this great organization had failed to ‘mirror the enormous cultural changes that had taken place over the last 15 years. There was, she observed, a deeply fossilized attitude in the BBC and other institutions, which regarded Muslims either as religious extremists or an ‘easy target’ for snide jokes and patronizing asides’.

What is true of BBC is truer of other media, Indian and foreign. However, it is to the credit of BBC that it wants to undo some of the injustice and Islamophobia by asking Muslim staffers, producers, intellectuals and British officials like Dr Richard Stone of the Runnymede Trust’s Islamophobia Commission, to sit together and think of ways to mitigate this problem. Dr stone rightly advised against ‘making snap value judgements about others’. Dr Stone’s valuable advice: ‘We need Muslim representation across all types of programmes –– not just religion and current affairs. Muslims need to be shown as being part of mainstream life and contributing to vital aspects of society, including mathematics, literature and journalism’. He also corrected the common British mistake that all Muslims are Asians: ‘Muslims come from all cultures and are all skin colours’. Some of the obvious conclusions were:
v avoid cliched, limited portrayal of Islam in war and religious stories
v explore varied ethnic backgrounds of Muslims from around the globe, not simply Asia
v check use of language –– for example, would we use ‘Christian fundamentalist’ in a similar situation?
v Try to reflect a Muslim perspective in all aspects of output, including lifestyle programmes.

However, there are hardly enough media outfits in India and elsewhere which try to correct mistakes. On the contrary, there are some which take offence when one points out an anti-Muslim bias in their working. For such outfits it is a long joyride of Islam bashing, unhindered and uninterrupted.

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American Islamic Relations have recorded the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab trend in international media in which Islam is described as ‘murderous’ and Palestinians as ‘pieces of shit’ and ‘turds’. No wonder, there is little sympathy for the Palestinians among the targeted groups, while Israel milks all the sympathy and support despite being in the wrong. Media can cause great harm if it chooses to act in an unfair manner. The harm is already before us to see.

The adverse projection of Islam and Muslim image by the Western media aggravates an old Muslim sense of hurt. The slanted reporting of Islam adds to the feeling of historical wrongs committed by the West against the Islamic world. As all of us know, by the end of the 19th century, 50 out of 54 Muslim countries were firmly under the occupation of Western colonialism. The other four –– Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia –– were also not completely free from indirect Western domination and interference. Political freedom from the empire builders came at a great cost in terms of life, limb and property. The cultural engagement with the West too has not always been pleasant or easy. 

Even today the former colonies are not completely out of the shadow of the colonialists. Economic, political and cultural dominance are still a reality, albeit in a different garb. GH Jansen in his fine study Militant Islam suggests that Western hegemony, dominance and arrogance are at the root of the militant Islamic response we occasionally witness.

One of the many ways of media’s Muslim-bashing is almost the universal policy of identifying a person accused of wrongdoing by the religion he/she professes if that person happens to be a Muslim. Writing in the media column of Impact (published from London) in the December 2000 issue, Faisal Kutty observes: ‘In fact, a study of three major US papers released a few years ago by the Muslim Public Affairs Council found that religious labels were used 50% of the time for Muslims, 10% of the time for Jews and very rarely for Christians. Editors and journalists must ask why is this necessary’. This question is as pertinent for Indian media as for the US media. An anti-Muslim scandal sheet in Hindi, repeatedly censured by the Press Council of India for its irresponsible hate-mongering, resorts to this dirty trick quite frequently. Despite the censure, this paper goes on with its hate-Islam, bait-Muslims campaign.

This mass circulated daily [Dainik Jagaran] does not allow a single chance to malign Muslims slip by. For instance, look at its reporting of the shooting of the alleged Pakistani terrorist Abu Shamal in Batla House, New Delhi last fortnight. It called Shamal’s neighbours ‘sympathizers of the terrorist’ and tried to put the entire neighbourhood in the dock. Nowhere in the democratic world does the press rely entirely on the police version of a story and tries to look at police claims in a critical manner. There are any number of instances in the past when police have either knowingly or inadvertently killed innocent people and tried to cover up by fabricating false stories. 

As the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid has rightly pointed out, Muslims would be happy if the police kill terrorists. However, keeping the blemished police record in mind, it would be appropriate if the National Human Rights Commission examined the police claims which a substantial section of the English media in the country tended to regard with some caution. The killing of four innocent young men by security personnel in Kashmir after Chhatisingpura massacre is a grim reminder of such a possibility. In a democracy the press is supposed to work independently from government agencies rather than as their PR outfit. Calling an entire neighbourhood ‘sympathizers of the terrorist’ goes against the norms of fairplay which the BBC journal we quoted at the beginning of this column talks about. That is also the distinction between the BBC and a North-Indian rag.

One would like to conclude by saying that the Muslim claim to victimhood too has to be taken as seriously as any other. To begin with, the media has to examine its role in all this and initiate moves to correct its perspective and try to have a more balanced view of things Islamic and Muslim.

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