The Paranoid and Abhorrent Obsession with Muslims in the Media
By Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
In an article in the Guardian in December last year,1 Pankaj Mishra had put his finger on what he called the “paranoid and abhorrent obsession with Muslims” in the media and the “depressing spectacle” of “talented writers nibbling on clichés picked to the bone by tabloid hacks.” He referred to the occasion when Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch polemicist, speaking to a gathering of what The Spectator called “Britain’s biggest brains – politicians, editors, academics”, announced that they were “actually at war, not just with Islamism, but with Islam itself.” Apparently, or so they were told, “a good Muslim has no choice but to strive to establish Sharia law”. Martin Amis, one of the more prominent cliché-swallowers, had also proclaimed at that time that Islam is “totalist”, and that “there is no individual; there is only the umma.” Well, one might say, in Martin Amis there is no individual, there is only the chattering group mind in the grip of vacuous clichés.
Mishra comments that “never perhaps in history has so much nonsense been so confidently peddled about a population as large and diverse as this planet’s billion-plus Muslims.” As he says, “we should be concerned that ideas regarded as intellectually null and morally abhorrent in any other context are not only accepted and condoned but also celebrated as bold truth-telling”. And we should be equally concerned that any public conversation about Islam “will be dominated by an isolated and vain chattering class that, rattled by a changing world, seeks to reassure us by digging an unbridgeable trench around our minds and hearts.”
In an article entitled “A dirty game, but thousands want to play” in the New Statesman in February 2008, Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at the University of Kingston in the UK, winces at the rotten state of British journalism, and reminds us of damning criticism from a host of distinguished people of the way in which the very currency of journalism has been debased, including leaders of faith communities, captains of industry, judges, academics, foreign observers, politicians, writers, and journalists themselves.2 The prevalence of a culture of shallowness, negativity, and cavalier carelessness in checking facts is exerting a corrosive influence on public life and breeding a toxic cynicism in the public mind. As Cathcart says, “if the market demands cooked-up sensation before all else, there will be little room in it for talent or scruple.”
The intellectually null and spiritually vacant opinions of the likes of Amis and other self-appointed commentators on Islam and Muslims are reminiscent of the way in which the Serbs differentiated and isolated the Muslim community in the Balkans. As Norman Cigar has shown, the Serbs did this by creating “a straw-man Islam and Muslim stereotype” and “setting and emphasising cultural markers” that focused on Islam and the Muslims as alien, threatening, culturally and morally inferior, or perversely exotic.3 The Serbs applied the label “Islamic fundamentalist” freely to all Muslims, who were seen as reflections of the “darkness of the past”. They claimed that “in Islamic teaching, no woman has a soul”; that “the tone of the Qur’an is openly authoritarian, uncompromising and menacing”; that the reading of the traditional tales in A Thousand and One Nights predisposed Muslims (in their words gave “subliminal direction” to the Muslims) to torture and kill Christians; that the destruction of places of worship belonging to other faiths is an obligation on all Muslims, and so on. It is quite clear, he says, that these Serbian orientalists, “ by bending scholarship and blending it with political rhetoric….defined Islam and the local Muslim community in such a way as to contribute significantly to…. making genocide acceptable”. And what allowed them to play such a role? It was “the extensive media exposure they enjoyed in Serbia”, as much as “their participation in official propaganda campaigns abroad”.4
Now Britain is not the Balkans, and the possibility of genocide within these shores seems very remote. But the demonisation of Muslims can and does lead to other forms of blatant oppression in our societies (internment, criminalisation, guilt by association, discrimination, disproportionate surveillance, stigmatisation, stereotyping, derogation, and abuse), not to mention rendition and torture beyond our shores, and the champions of what Pankaj Mishra calls the “tattered banner of liberal democracy” who delight in castigating and bating Muslims need to take responsibility for the toxins they pump into the public mind and heart.
A recent review of the new book Islamophobia by Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg refers to an “orgy of bigotry” in the depiction of Islam and Muslims in editorial cartoons in America and Europe. “In the world of political cartoons, Muslims are decadent, sensual and prudish. They are violent, aggressive and yet cowardly. If this inflames Muslim passions, even that is regarded as proof that they do not understand freedom of expression and further fuels the fire of prejudice. In the end, the authors offer some hope, as they suggest that editorial cartoonists are beginning to move beyond jingoism to see the complexity of the Muslim world. In the meantime, if we Americans ask ourselves why we are afraid of Islam, one answer will be that in part we have frightened ourselves with cartoons that neither illustrate nor illuminate anything but our own ignorance.”5
1 Pankaj Mishra, “A paranoid, abhorrent obsession”, The Guardian, 8 December 2007.
2 In assembling his criticisms of the debased state of journalism, Cathcart draws on Alastair Campbell’s recent Cudlipp lecture, Jeremy Paxman’s damning criticisms, and the new book Flat Earth News by Nick Davies.
3 Norman Cigar, The Role of Serbian Orientalists in Justification of Genocide Against Muslims of the Balkans, Islamic Quarterly: Review of Islamic Culture, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, 1994.
4 Norman Cigar, ibid., quoted in Henzell-Thomas, J,. The Language of Islamophobia, Exploring Islamophobia Conference, University of Westminster School of Law, London, 29 September 2001.
5 Review in the Dallas Morning News (27 December 2007). “The book begins with a review of how negative images of Islam were shaped out of the earliest encounters between Christians and Muslims, and were both perpetuated and further distorted by colonialism and its efforts to justify suppression of Muslim societies. Gottschalk and Greenberg then turn to an ongoing source of such images - editorial cartoons. They illustrate lucidly how American and European editorial cartoonists continue to draw on inaccurate and irrational images of Muslims and Islam in their commentary on contemporary political events… The cartoons make no distinction between Muslim sects or societies, using similar images for Muslims from Morocco to Java.”