The media is a powerful social agent, with the capacity to influence individual disposition, attitude, and behaviour. Its influence is often deep and far-reaching with the potential to impact on both individuals and groups.
Minority diaspora communities such as Muslims in the West often suffer from negative caricatures and portrayals in the media and in the process become victims of exclusionary pressures because the caricatures and portrayals implicitly project Muslims as having “alien” characteristics which do not correspond with Western mainstream values and ethos.
Generally, the Western media’s approach to Islam is “orientalist” that essentialises Islam. There is always a recurring language such as “Islamic terrorism” and “Muslims extremists” used by the media which ultimately paints all Muslims and Islam with a single brush and in the process devalue and depletes Muslims and Islam’s rich diversity.
The essentialist portrayal of Muslims and their faith constructs them as the “alien other”, as puerile, and even uncivilised ethnic groups who need to be securitised and managed. The negative media portrayals of Islam and Muslims have been constant. The basis of this is in the Western understanding of Islam which is Westocentric or Eurocentric.
This understanding is developed within the framework of Islam-West relations which is more about the rivalry and political hegemony than about religion per se.
Since the events of 11 September and subsequent bombings in London, Madrid, and Bali, Muslims and their faith have come under intense media scrutiny particularly in the West. They have progressively been perceived as culturally alien.
Muslim immigrants are projected as people whose culture and values are incompatible with the Western way of living and are a threat to political stability and national security. This kind of understanding of Islam and Muslims is the result of both international and local events.
The events form the basis of the view that for Muslims, even those born in the West, religion and politics are interconnected and that Islam is anti-modernity bent on destroying the modern West.
International terrorist attacks were undertaken by locally born Muslims such as Madrid and London bombers and the local crimes committed by locally born Muslims such as the 2000 Sydney “Lebanese gang rape” produce a perception that Islam is a purely political ideology and is working towards the destruction of the West.
Media research has shown that in the past several decades Muslims have been seen as a separate group from mainstream Australian society and that an underlying assumption exists that consider Islam as a foe because it is incompatible not only with Western values and ideals but the entire Western civilizational project.
In Australia, for instance, the events have ignited intense debates relating to Muslim women wearing the niqab (face covering) [often spoken in the media as burqa – a loose garment covering the body from head to toe] and the implementation of shari’ah (Islamic law).
The media have been portraying niqab-wearing Muslim women as submissive, uneducated, oppressed, and victims of male violence who need to be rescued and liberated from patriarchal cruelty and shari’ah being draconian and archaic with no place for it in the modern world.
This is clearly a misrepresentation of Muslims and their faith and it can be said that this kind of misrepresentation has the potential to fuel racism and Islamophobia which have roots in cultural representations of the “other”.
It has become typical of some sections of Australian media and certain politicians to portray Australian Muslims and Islam in a pejorative and derogatory way.
Some scholars argue that this lead to constructing Australian Muslims as the new “other”. The impact of this has had a detrimental effect on the lives of many Australian Muslims straining the relationship between them and the wider Australian community with many in Australia questioning Muslim commitment and loyalty to the country.
In doing so the media reproduces a set of images of Muslims and Islam and these are often images in which Muslims and Islam are depicted as “Other”. They are described as fundamentalists, religious fanatics, terrorists, suicide bombers, and violent.
These descriptions are given credence by linking Islam and Muslims to certain contexts such as war, conflict, violence, and disunity and end up becoming Muslim stereotypes. Since Islam and Muslims are presented with these negative descriptions they are then continuingly vilified in the broader society.