Negative Media Coverage Of Muslims Led To Trump's Rise

These events did not just happen overnight.
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan ― There is a golden rule of compassion: do unto others what you would have others do unto you. Yet, in today’s world, we have seen racial and religious hatred directed towards women and minorities mainstreamed. Violent hatred in the West has reached an all time climax, with some of President-elect Trump’s supporters promoting the KKK and even Hitler with graffiti on school and campus walls and acts of harassment and intimidation towards minorities across the U.S.. Recently, Chinese girls on university campuses have tweeted about how they have been abused and told to get out of America. Muslim women have had their hijabs pulled off violently and even set on fire. African Americans who have lived in America for generations have been abused and violently told to “get the f***k out of this country, b**ch!” Mosques, synagogues and churches have sadly become sites of racial and religious abuse. The rise of President Trump in the U.S. (and for those who did not vote for him do not give up hope for he may be as good a president as he is a successful businessman?), the success of Brexit in the U.K., the increased popularity of Golden Dawn in Greece and the potential presidency of Marine Le Pen in France did not come out of the blue – the scene has been prepared for them, consciously or unconsciously over the last few decades.

I have been watching with deep concern over the last three decades a systematic attack on a certain minority community ― Muslims and their faith identity, Islam. When I was living in the U.K. as a scholar more than two decades ago, I recall the systematic negative reporting on Islam in general and Pakistan in particular. Like so many other friends of mine (non-Muslims and Muslims), this problematic coverage bothered me because first, it was not always factually correct and second, it was vitriolic. I wrote to Channel 4 in response to a negative documentary they released but nothing came of this feedback. The reporting only became worse with every incident of terrorism in which a Muslim was involved. Every time there was an incident, the universal pain of the attack would be forced to become obscure by the use of such terms as “terrorism,” “militant” “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamism”― unnecessary and provocative terms that associated extreme violence with the religion of Islam and the global community of Muslims ― in the media to describe the perpetrators. This is surely a terrible mistake, which I hope intelligent thinkers across the West would pick up.

Indeed, scholars like Muhammad Bauben in his book Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West (2007) have pointed out the negative association of violence with Islam since the crude times of the crusades in Western popular thought and later in scholarship. Yet the global community of Muslims, consisting of more than 1.5 billion ordinary people, are “normal” people who aim for decent lives for their families ― work, jobs, education and above all peaceful living. But sure there is a crisis in the Muslim world of lack of education and opportunities. There are many scholars who keep warning against labeling any community, let alone the Muslim community, but the media in general have not heard the rational voices of caution. Every explosion is associated with Islam, a world faith that, like any other Abrahamic faith, promotes compassion and a peaceful way of life. We have to separate the religion from the acts of its deviant followers who are in fact far from ideal Muslims, they are mere criminals.

The very word Islam is rooted in the term salaam, which means peace. The Islamic names of the Abrahamic God are the Compassionate, the Most Kind and the Most Merciful. The Prophet of Islam is considered a “Mercy unto all of Humankind” (Rehmat al Alamin). Yet, for decades the media day and night labeled Muslims as terrorists ignoring political (not solely religious) motivations, the extreme economic depravation in Muslim countries as a result of colonization, neo colonization and the support of corrupt leaders who mismanage funds. But the vast majority of Muslims have nothing to do with the problem, yet the problem is that they are seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

Sociology teaches us that negative labeling can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you tell a child “you are bad,” s/he will grow up bad; if you tell a child s/he is good, s/he will have a positive self perception in mind and grow up good. Much the same impact comes from labeling an entire community. When I talk to young students and teachers on campuses, many young Muslims have become demoralized and their dreams held back by this extreme labeling in the media. Islamic heroes overnight have become villains across the West and names that stand for something beautiful and glorious have become something to shy away from. Suddenly, if you were named Ahmed or Muhammad, you would find airport officials scrutinizing your every move and your name placed on the dreaded SSSS list, which stands for “Secondary Security Screening Selection” and puts you under extra security checks while traveling. This is despite the fact that every male Muslim in popular Islamic tradition, as a follower of the Prophet Muhammad, has the name “Muhammad” before his own given name. Few people know that both Ahmed and Muhammad mean “the praised one” in Arabic.

Take the following news story about the Muslim world, for example, which surprised me once again for giving an inaccurate portrayal. Last Easter in Lahore, Pakistan, there was a bomb blast in a park crowded with hundreds of children and women. More than 340 people were sadly injured, and tragically about 61 Muslims and 14 Christians died. The tragedy of losing each life is painful and absolutely unacceptable for people of all faiths. And, of course, Islam forbids senseless violence, killing or harm to self and others. As the Abrahamic God in the Holy book of Islam, the Quran, instructs people of belief: “We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one killed a single person…it would be as if he killed all of humanity: and if any one saved a single life, it would be as if he saved the life of all of humanity” Quran 5: 32.

In the aftermath of the Lahore bombing, people in Lahore, regardless of faith, rushed to give blood and help the victims. Neighbors (Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, all) reached out to each other in humanity, not on the basis of religion. But such mainstream media outlets as the BBC and CNN, which are widely respected and trusted, wrongly reported the incident as a “Muslim attack on Christians during Easter”. CNN’s Sophia Saifi posted on the 28th of March 2016, a report with the title “In Pakistan, Taliban’s Easter bombing targets, kills scores of Christians”. Other journalists characteristically jumped on this misleading bandwagon. John Allen, for example, in The Spectator penned down an article titled: “The Lahore attacks are just the latest atrocity in a war on Christians”. Other newspapers around the world also merged figures and facts to create a scene of hatred of Muslims against Christians. Worst of all, they dismissed the deaths of Muslims in larger numbers and merged all 61 Muslim deaths into the 14 Christian deaths: Breitbart reported, “Muslim Easter-Day Massacre Kills 72 Christians in Pakistan.” There were papers internationally, with their own national interests, who followed this line of merging fact with extreme exaggeration. When I spoke a few months later with colleagues at a peace conference in Philadelphia, they all admitted to being misled by the reporting. Although Muslims had been victims themselves in larger numbers, the viewers of media had thought that Muslims had killed Christians on Easter, and this had reconfirmed the wrong image of Muslims as terrorists. In this rushed misinformation output, the media here was clearly throwing kerosene on the fire of hate and global divisiveness.

I appreciate the sensationalist nature of the media and the human desire to amuse by new and shocking news, but I do not accept irresponsibility and output of misinformation, especially when millions of human lives are concerned—each (whether Christian, Muslim or other) due their full worth of dignity and respect. Yet these negative images associated with Muslims of ‘violent people’ affect the daily lives of ordinary Muslim children in Western schools, young people on university campuses, bewildered refugees arriving to seek asylum, women who look Muslim and so many others. The media, as in the above example, played a disharmonious role; it was wrongly giving a message to the world that Muslims were attacking Christians, when in reality, Muslims and Christians were both the victims of violent extremism in this terrible inhumane attack. The media was also confirming once again the negative image of Pakistan – an impoverished and politically turbulent country, but one that is stunningly beautiful with a rich culture and wonderful religious diversity. Pakistan, not many know, also has deep civilizational roots (going back 7000 BC in Mehrgarh, Balochistan) and a fabulously hospitable people who have been unfairly labeled negatively in western media for far too long.

All sensible human beings feel deeply sad and empathize with every terrorist victim, but labeling and blaming a huge community of human beings (who happen to be Muslims) for the crimes makes people angry, psychologically insecure and unhappy on both sides. For years, some have said such labeling is a conspiracy to blame and marginalize Muslims; I have worried that this dehumanization will lead to ‘othering’ and eventually bring out the agitated and violent elements in society and pitch one community against the other. According to Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, and a leading scholar on contemporary Islam, targeting Muslims for extra scrutiny is step one on a slippery slope, the likes of which have sparked conflicts the world over. Today, Islam and Muslims are targeted, but tomorrow, another community will be targeted, and then another, until all are consumed by the fires of hatred and xenophobia.

I am reminded of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem (1892–1984), which provokes the guilt and responsibility that comes with not acting and speaking up for others who are labeled, attacked, dehumanized and then exterminated, which can only lead to all becoming silenced ―a terrible guilt on the collective conscience of our humanity. One, for instance, that the Germans today carry for their Nazi past. Although the following poem is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the subsequent annihilation of their chosen targets, group after group, its themes are universal and especially relevant in today’s atmosphere. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which I visited a couple of years ago in DC, prominently features the following quote from the poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me!”

What the media has not realized is the role they have played in initiating the first steps onto this slippery slope – by giving popular voice and coverage to one negative version of the picture they have painted Islam as the villain and Muslims as the black sheep. But the problem is that labeling and demonizing Islam in the popular media has created space for ‘othering’ and this negative vitriol has misfired and led directly to anti-establishment anti-liberal movements in the West. This shift is a major setback for all that those positive humanistic intellectual values that the West and its outstanding universities stand for and represent. Millions of Middle Eastern, Asian and Far Eastern students seek knowledge in the West precisely because of its ideals of respect for human dignity and freedom.

There is an explicit connection between sensationalized coverage of Islam in the West and the rise of Islamophobia. Islamophobia is defined as “anti-Muslim racism”. The central findings of the European Islamophobia Report 2015, published by SETA, are that “Islamophobia works without Muslims” and “functions as a successful means to mobilise people.” Islamophobia tells us more about the Islamophobe than it tells us about the Muslims/Islam.” (Bayrakli and Hafez, 2016: page 7). Islamophobia overestimates and exaggerates Muslim populations making them seem as a growing threat and also, despite being non-violent, Muslims are “deemed violent and are considered to be terrorists” (ibid). The combination of the fear of terrorism and the ‘refugee crises’ leads to the idea of “Muslims invading Europe”. This also consequently gave rise to anti establishment campaigns such as the Leave campaign, Trump’s campaign, National Front, etc. It worries me that the middle way which allows for compassion and respect for others is no longer popular and even violently rejected by the masses. I find this increasingly so in the east as in the west and those who seek the middle path find their ways increasingly narrowing.

The European Islamophobia Report 2015 notes the “hysteria” created by newspapers and “spreading the feelings of suspicion” in relation to refugees in America and Europe who are mostly victims of war and persecution (2016: 41). Although victims of wars imposed on them and their children in their home countries, these Muslims are bewildered refugees freshly arrived on the shores of Europe and America, they are painted and labeled as perpetrators and aggressors. In Austria, for example, since 2015, “The immigration waves of refugees have sparked an increasing number of activities” by the right-wing “Identitarian Movement Austria”. In a propaganda scare video, the IMA proclaimed an imagined threat of losing their homeland: “We are the heart of Europe […] All this vanishes today. […] The land of churches and castles becomes the land of mosques and Kebab booths. A secure peaceful land becomes a land of criminality and a land of terror Islam. They take our homeland […]” (ibid: 32-33). The parliament did not take action to correct Islamophobia as there is an already existing right wing party in parliament, the FPO Chairman declared, “We are the real PEGIDA” (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the Occident) (ibid: 33). According to the Report, Austrian “regulations reconfirm institutional racism” especially towards Muslim immigrants (ibid: 43). Subsequently, laws have been passed banning symbols that are part of the core Islamic faith, such as the Shahada – the oneness of God (ibid: 44).

The right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (the FPO) has become part of the government coalition and its leader the vice-governor, “re-emphasized his claim during the elections campaign that Muslims shall not be welcomed as refugees” (ibid: 36). I am reminded of the struggle refugees from other Abrahamic faith communities had to endure before they were accepted: on the 13th of May 1939, the German transatlantic liner St Louis with 937 persecuted Jewish refugees fleeing from the Third Reich and terrible events such as the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom had travelled through oceans and miles towards America to seek asylum. But they were not allowed to disembark from the ship. Jewish refugee passengers from two other ships – the French Flandre and the British Orduna were also not allowed to disembark. Both the St Louis and the Flandre were tragically compelled to return their exhausted and demoralized passengers to Europe, a part of which had rejected the refugees and had sadly set out to destroy them. I would encourage my Muslim community - some of whom deny the holocaust – to imagine yourself and your children in this position. Be empathetic to the pain of others and I encourage others to be empathetic to the pain faced by Muslim refugees today. Indeed, the empathetic part of Europe reached out to save the Jewish refugees and take them in as asylum seekers: Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium all took the refugees in until the holocaust when many sadly perished. Today Germany has learnt from its past and is playing that empathetic role by accepting refugees from Muslim countries. The vital concepts of compassion and empathy – to feel someone’s struggle and pain – is what makes us a sophisticated human civilization and these concepts may help us understand and raise our voices for others in whose shoes we once were.

Empathy is not however, what is happening everywhere. During the recent Viennese election campaign, the discourse on refugees from Syria and other Muslim countries dominated the newspapers and media debates who reported that Daesh fighters may be amongst the waves of refugees. In the midst of the ‘refugee crisis’, the Austrian daily Die Presse gave the Hungarian PM Viktor Orban a long interview coverage with heavy Islamophobic overtones arguing incorrectly that “Muslims will soon be more in number than we are” (ibid: 37). To this, the FPO Chairman argued that “an Islamisation would occur since the majority of refugees were Muslim” (ibid). “The chairman held a policy statement that was shared on Facebook more than 34,000 times and viewed nearly by 2 million people, were he argued that Daesh may send fighters to Europe” (ibid: 37). The report also highlighted the media’s role in sensationalizing racist portrayals of the situation and thus increasing anti-refugee sentiments (ibid: 193). Fear logos have been spread with the homepage stating: “RAPE REGUGEES NOT WELCOME: Stay Away!” As a result of the Islamophobic hype in the media, new Austrian Islam laws were put in place in which financing mosques with foreign money became illegal and citizenship would be withdrawn if any Muslim was found to have links (ibid: 37).

In France, after the waves of attacks, French Muslims told us during a research project,[1] that there was little representation of their perspectives in the media when such incidents happened. It was not that Muslims did not want to speak out but that, they said, they were not given the chance to do so. Exclusion of adequate Muslim representation in the media, negative attitudes and discriminatory policies are highly dangerous, not just for Muslims, but for all communities. The very idea of humanity and ‘civilization’ is undermined when we remove trust and respect for others. All this labeling had to backfire: as a result of decades of misinformation about one community, the xenophobic rhetoric surfaced and has resulted eventually in an anti-establishment, anti-sematic, anti-other feeling in the west, leading to Brexit, President Trump, and possibly Marine le Pen in France.

Being a global citizen and a scholar, I am worried about the direction we are taking as a world community. Also being on the receiving end of the hatred and prejudice towards my community, I have felt strongly for years that this Islamophobia would misfire and lead to widespread hatred not just against Islam and Muslims, but against other communities who differ from the mainstream. With the rise of Islamophobia, anti-semitism and anti-all other racism has raised its ugly head, as we have seen in recent times. As a director of three peace building centers, I have doubled my efforts in recent years to teach the subjects of empathy and respect for humanity. My teams and I have developed innovated peace courses on deeper understanding and respect for humanity which has led to young boys in Pakistan, for instance, change their perspectives from intolerance to peaceful ideas. In the UK, through our courses, Rabbis and imams began to form bonds of friendships and, through this, worked in their communities to build bridges. Our Centre for Dialogue and Action team put together textbooks on valuing diversity and teaching acceptance. Yet, I feel that our small efforts are like wading through water through all the challenges that we face in human encounter. In contrast the media, with a few glimpses, has painted a generalized and inaccurate picture of one of the world’s largest communities that spreads widely across the entire planet, with new images spanning the globe in a matter of seconds following an attack. It has to be emphasized again, and especially in the media, that the attackers are not Muslims, they are mere criminals.[2]

In support of the media, I do feel that the media has an orotund voice, tremendous reach and powerful platform and could do far more to improve how it covers all communities, particularly Muslims and Islam. The minds in the media need to look into how it could serve as a voice for building peace and interfaith relations around the world and counter any movements in the West that lead to fear of others and to violent hatred. This is because the UNESCO world report notes: “the limited range of representations in the larger media and communication networks tends to promote the creation of stereotypes through what is often called the process of ‘othering’, whereby the media tend to fix, reduce or simplify according to the dictates of standardized programmes and formats. Among the multiple strategies designed to eliminate stereotypes, media and information literacy initiatives can help audiences to become more critical when consuming media and also help to combat unilateral perspectives. Media literacy is an important aspect of media access and a crucial dimension of non-formal education; it is imperative that it be promoted among civil society and media professionals as part of the effort to further mutual understanding and facilitate intercultural dialogue.”

On a constructive note, the media could work more with Muslim scholars and bring them in to represent themselves and their own ideas and not have so called “experts” who barely understand Muslims or Islam speak for them. The so called “experts” have given misleading information leading to serious misrepresentation. As I have tried to highlight the power of scholarship and interfaith education is essential content for the media today: the media, must ask itself, what can we do to help heal the wounds of the world community by strengthening these positive causes? How can the media be a genuine bridge between world communities? Media personnel have got to ask how they can foster confidence in all countrymen regardless of faith, and how they can empower the marginal and minorities; another important question is are we (the media) presenting the picture fairly? In a contentious debate are we playing a neutral role or a biased one? As an ordinary consumer and well-wisher of the media, I want to see the media as an informer of knowledge, positivity and above all of peacebuilding.

With reports of serious, concerning and growing Islamophobia and anti-semitism in the West [3], there is no doubt, as the World Report of UNESCO points out, a need for new and dynamic ways of introducing tools of cultural diversity in education, media and policy. This will be the key to successful coexistence and countering conflict in the 21st century. Unless we connect global messages given out in the media with intellectual thoughtfulness inextricably interlinked with ideas of empathy and respect for others, we will be heading straight towards disaster— a devastating clash, possibly Armageddon. I see the media as a key player - the cause and cure – a possible healer for a world, which can, even now, turn towards deeper understanding, genuine respect and compassionate empathy.

[1] Research project, Journey into Europe, led by Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed.


[3] See European Islamophobia Report 2015 by Enes Bayrakli & Farid Hafez. SETA.

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