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A media war that Muslims must win

Bilal Patel is a British Muslim who argues for his community to be more pro-active in the media if they are to avoid the damaging stereotyping which leads to conflict.

Rosie Boycott, an editor of a popular British newspaper recently said of Afghanistan: '"This is a war that will be fought through the media. It is a war where we know the first casualty will be the truth."

Muslims know this better than anyone. Our fate is tied closely with the people of Afghanistan - and not only because they are Muslims too. We should be aware that how we are perceived will determine our effectiveness to educate people about Islam and the contradictions of western foreign policy in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan. And it is important that the British are educated, since Britain still remains one of the few powers which can leverage influence with the all-powerful United States.

British society will not hesitate to bomb a bunch of wife-beating zealots, never mind listen to them, if that is who they think Muslims are. It has certainly allowed the Americans to get away with the incarceration of thousands of people simply because they look like Arabs or Muslims. Many, many more in America and Britain will have been secretly monitored on the same basis. It is no surprise that the new 'anti-terror' laws are specifically aimed at people like us.

We have an uphill task convincing people that we are normal people too. Because in Britian there is a deeply rooted fear and hatred of Islam that only needed an excuse like September 11th to bring it out into the open. Since then, we've seen the sickening racial prejudices against our community re-emerging with a vengeance.
It was when I heard the magic words 'Islamic extremist' in the media on September 11th that I prayed for some of our self-appointed leaders and organisations to take the initiative and counter the inevitable anti-Muslim propaganda that was to follow. It was exactly at this moment that we needed to be primed for the media, with military precision.

It wasn't to be. The major commercial news provider ITN ran with the story, as did the BBC and all the major channels. Soon we were horrified to see members of the extremist Al-Muhajiroun being interviewed as typical Muslims. The papers had a field day with such offerings like the Daily Mail's "Fanatics with a death wish: I was born in Britain but I am a Muslim first" and "This fanaticism that we in the West can never understand". It even had a cartoon of a Muslim holding a Death To America placard, titled "Parasite". On our TV screens we saw Muslim young men burning American flags, Palestinians rejoicing and pictures of women in full hijab with their children holding up pictures of Bin Laden.

The story about young Muslims going to fight with the Taleban have prompted even the most liberal of our press, like the Independent, to argue for removal of British Citizenship from these people. Even the relatively liberal boards on the BBC website overlook this sanction for Irish terrorists waging a war against the British government, or for young British Jews who serve in the Israeli Army, presumably on the basis that the Irish and Jews aren't 'foreign'. But Muslims must always be tested for their loyalities. So we can have commentators openly calling for British Muslims who don't love their country to simply 'leave'. 

And according to some of the so-called 'respectable' press, we may be traitors but it's all the fault of the liberal elite who pampered us too much. Anti-Muslim racism, like anti-Semitism before it, is now so fashionable that people like Richard Littlejohn of the popular Sun newspaper, and also a BBC Radio 5 presenter, could unashamedly write a poisonous column defending revenge against ordinary Afghan civilians because they meant less to 'us' than Americans did. 'Us' meaning anyone, including Muslims, who disagreed with Littlejohn.

It is clear that the media has been seeking out those who speak with the loudest voices in order to make a good story. They are in business to sell news after all. And Islam, like anything else, shouldn't be exempt from valid criticism. But valid criticism is very different from a constant running down of a religious belief. So the motives of some media outlets are highly suspect and sinister. Top of the list has to be the top selling Telegraph newspaper owned by the recently knighted zionist Conrad Black, which has engaged in a tirade of abuse against Islam parading as concern for 'moderate' Muslims and Israel. Seemily innocuous commentators, like the fundamentalist Christian Patrick Sukhdeo with an agenda of his own, regularly denounce Islam as a 'religion that sanctions all forms of violence'. The American Daniel Pipes, a prolific Muslim hater, has called for racial profiling, the closure of Muslim internet sites, the isolation of the Muslim Council of Britian, and accused the BBC of being a Muslim apologist. Barbara Amiel, Conrad's own wife, kicked in with her own invective under the excuse of protecting Islam against fundamentalists. The letter sections have such enlightened views as the one which called for the execution of British Muslims who fight with the Taleban. They are just a few examples.

But we cannot point fingers and always blame the media. Because we've also allowed the media to get away with this type of stereotyping for far too long now. I do not blame Al-Muhajiroun for getting so much coverage any more than I blame the Zionist spin doctors who have been so successful in promoting Israel and trashing the Palestinians. The media is out there to be won and the people who get to it and use it will be the ones who win and their enemies will be the losers. Pointing fingers at the futility of it all doesn't get us anywhere. We should remember that a person who pints a finger at someone else will always be pointing two fingers back at himself.

Against all this misrepresentation, cynicism and self-resignation however, is hope. For reasons more to do with keeping the Muslim 'coalition' together than anything else, Tony Blair and George Bush have made it pretty clear to everyone that Islam was not to blame for what happened in America. And for the first time in it's history the Sun has followed the same line, though undoubtedly after taking 'advice' from Blair's advisers. In terms of sales, the biggest winners have been those who share Muslim views and have taken a critical line against the 'war'. They learned that circulation figures could be increased by millions by challenging the status quo.

Muslims are at last starting to take the initiative with the media. We are now seeing young and articulate Muslims on our screens on a more regular basis. People like the journalist Faisal Bodi who can challenge and debate with a confidence that we would never expect from the older generation. Also, the BBC has the largest share of British viewing figures and it appears to have a more balanced line than other outlets. It even ran the risk of censure after it screened a controversial and high-ranking Question Time programme on September 13th which had an audience including Muslims and others who were highly critical of American policy.

Even so, we have a long way to go before we can make a convincing case for Islam and Muslim views. But Tony Blair knows the media war is far from over. With Afghanistan, he has failed to win over the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Britain alone, never mind those who were always hostile to British foreign policy in other countries. Still, it will not stop the American administration taking it's 'war' to places like Iraq and as Muslims we must change the hearts and minds of public opinion and turn them against this folly. In Britain at least, we have the power and the resources and if we don't do it, then why should we expect others to?

Bilal Patel is a British Muslim freelance web programmer and former barrister. He runs the Media Watch site  and the web portal  . Contact him at  for more information on media activism

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