Islam and the Media: Cartoons and Context (Redux)

Islam and the Media: Cartoons and Context by Christian Christensen

(This essay was originally published in the Australian media literacy magazine, Screen Education.)

Introduction

In early 2002 – a matter of months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – I moved from the US to Turkey. Prior to this, I had lived in two countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, and traveled extensively in Europe, primarily the northern section, and a little bit in Asia (Hong Kong and Japan). My experience of visiting or living in what are called (problematically) “Muslim countries” such as Turkey, therefore, was basically nil. What I saw in and about Turkey during my four years there (I left in early 2006), gave me a somewhat better understanding of some of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, aspects of stereotyping and what has come to be called “Islamophobia”. It is my intention in this article to outline some of the things that I saw, with specific reference to the creation and repetition of stereotypes of Muslims and Islam through the media.

Islamophobia

Before getting into the details regarding media portrayals of Muslims and Islam, it would be valuable to consider exactly what is meant by “Islamophobia.” There is no single definition of the term, but the following list of “closed” views of Muslims/Islam from a 1997 report by the British Runnymede Trust is a good summary the key elements of Islamophobic thinking:

  • Islam seen as a single monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to new realities.
  • Islam seen as separate and other – (a) not having any aims or values in common with other cultures (b) not affected by them (c) not influencing them.
  • Islam seen as inferior to the West – barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist.
  • Islam seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, engaged in ‘a clash of civilisations’.
  • Islam seen as a political ideology, used for political or military advantage.
  • Criticisms made by Islam of ‘the West’ rejected out of hand.
  • Hostility towards Islam used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
  • Anti-Muslim hostility accepted as natural and ‘normal’.[1]

These narrow, xenophobic views are particularly striking when compared to more “open” ways of considering Muslims and Islam (also presented in the Runnymede Trust report):

  • Islam seen as diverse and progressive, with internal differences, debates and development.
  • Islam seen as interdependent with other faiths and cultures – (a) having certain shared values and aims (b) affected by them (c) enriching them.
  • Islam seen as distinctively different, but not deficient, and as equally worthy of respect.
  • Islam seen as an actual or potential partner in joint cooperative enterprises and in the solution of shared problems.
  • Islam seen as a genuine religious faith, practised sincerely by its adherents.
  • Criticisms of ‘the West’ and other cultures are considered and debated.
  • Debates and disagreements with Islam do not diminish efforts to combat discrimination and exclusion.
  • Critical views of Islam are themselves subjected to critique, lest they be inaccurate and unfair.[2]

Where, one could ask, do the ideas and images of Muslims and Islam presented in the first list (the “closed” view) come from? Why, one could also ask, do the views in the second list not have more weight globally?  While it would be simplistic to suggest that the burden of responsibility for this imbalance lies squarely on the shoulders of “The Media,” it would be equally simplistic to suggest that media content has not played a significant role in the creation and support of stereotypical images of Muslims and Islam.[3] Park and Wilkins point out the dangers connected to these images:

These stereotypes are particularly problematic (…) as overgeneralized and narrow portraits in both news and popular culture become accepted as conventional wisdom. This limited knowledge constrains our abilities to understand and communicate with other communities, as well as harming those who inevitably face harassment, discrimination and worse.[4]

Danish Cartoons and Stereotyping

On the topic of mediated images of Islam, one of the most controversial events in recent years was the publication of a series of cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten. [5] The incident started on 30 September 2005 when the newspaper published twelve cartoons of the prophet, with the editor arguing that the cartoons were meant to stimulate debate and discussion around issues of criticism of Islam and journalistic self-censorship. Of the twelve drawings, a number were considered to be particularly offensive: Mohammed with a turban shaped like a bomb about to explode; Mohammed (with eyes blacked out as in criminal photographs) flanked by two veiled women, holding a sword in an aggressive fashion; Mohammed standing on a cloud in heaven telling incoming suicide bombers that they had run out of virgins (a reference to the commonly-reported assertion that Muslim suicide bombers believe that they will “receive” virgins in heaven as payment for their sacrifice). The offensiveness of the cartoons was compounded by the fact that any visual depiction of the Prophet Mohammed (whether positive or negative) is considered to be blasphemous to many Muslims.

Reactions against the publications ranged from individual disapproval, to peaceful protest, to violent attacks on a number of Danish embassies and consulates.[6] On the other hand, many journalists and media commentators (particularly in Europe) argued that, even if offensive to Muslims, Jyllands Posten must be accorded the right to publish the cartoons. In this argument, free speech and free press rights outweigh any offense caused to individuals or groups as a result of that speech. The British journalist Gary Younge opposed this view when he wrote:

But the right to freedom of speech equates to neither an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive. There is no contradiction between supporting someone’s right to do something and condemning them for doing it. If our commitment to free speech is important, our belief in anti-racism should be no less so. These cartoons spoke not to historic sensitivities, but modern ones. Muslims in Europe are now subjected to routine discrimination on suspicion that they are terrorists, and Denmark has some of Europe’s most draconian immigration policies. These cartoons served only to compound such prejudice.[7]

While it is easy to dismiss the importance of media products such as cartoons because they are meant to be humorous and provocative, Younge makes the important point that the cartoons must be seen within the broader context of Danish, European and global stereotyping of Islam. We cannot simply look at the cartoons in isolation, and then wonder why people would be offended (as in, “it’s just a cartoon…why get so worked up about it?”). The combination of stereotypical images adds up to a whole that is, in many ways, greater than the sum of the parts. The images of the Prophet Mohammed, therefore, must be considered within the context of images of Muslims and Islam presented in newspapers, films, music, TV programs, books, websites, and the like. Stereotyping is not a function of one event, but of a process over an extended period of time.

Islam in the News: Mosques, Minarets and the Mysterious “East”

Having discussed the idea that images of Islam come from a variety of sources, and based upon my own research from news outlets in the United States and the United Kingdom, in this section I would like to discuss some of the ways in which Muslims and Islam are portrayed in the news media.[8] As I discussed in an earlier article in Screen Education, the news (in the form of not only television news, but also newspapers, radio and the Internet) is often seen as more “serious” and “truthful” than media products such as television soaps or action films.[9] News workers often speak of the ideals of journalistic objectivity, fairness and neutrality, and these ideals have become firmly-entrenched values in the news community. When a Hollywood blockbuster film presents a stereotypical view of Muslims or the Muslim community, one can see the portrayal as part of a broader trend of stereotyping in the entertainment industry. As unfortunate as it seems, one could argue that ethnic, religious or gender stereotypes are almost expected in entertainment: stereotypes such as the dumb blonde, the African-American gangster, the Irish drunk, the Latin lover and the Italian Mafioso.

Where we do not expect to see stereotypes, however, is in our newspapers and on our evening television news programs. However, detailed examinations of television and newspaper coverage of and from Muslim countries show that, in many cases, journalists fall prey to the same clichés and stereotypes found in more “popular” entertainment genres such as television drama and action films. Not, of course, in the sense that news programs ore stories contain fictional, stereotypical “characters,” but in the sense that the news often reinforces many of the Muslim/Islamic stereotypes found in entertainment culture. In this section, and based upon my own research into the issue, I would like to present three examples of this phenomenon.

Example 1: When Covering a Muslim Country, Show a Mosque

After moving to Turkey in early 2002, one of the first things I noticed when watching “global” news programs such as CNN International (from the US) and BBC World (from the UK), was that reports from Turkey invariably included images of a mosque, a minaret (the tower attached to mosques used to call people to prayer), veiled women, or men carrying strings of Muslim prayer beads. What was particularly striking was that these religious images were used regardless of the subject of the story. In many cases, the reports had nothing to do with religion, focusing rather on questions of economics, politics or sport. So, why, one could ask, use the religious imagery? What is the connection to the story? When covering Irish politics, do CNN and the BBC show images of Catholic churches and nuns? When reporting from Moscow, do news reporters show Orthodox priests waiving incense? The answer to these latter questions is usually “No,” which can lead us to the conclusion that journalists are generating the idea (overtly or covertly) there is something inherently newsworthy, something important, in the fact that countries such as Turkey are Muslim nations. And, by pointing this fact out to viewers, listeners and readers on a regular basis, journalists perpetuate the stereotype of the Muslim as the exotic, unusual “Other.”

I am sure that, more often than not, the use of religious images when covering countries such as Turkey is not a deliberate attempt by reporters to stereotype, but is part of a longer, broader tradition of showing Islam as something different or exotic. However, the regular use of religious imagery during news coverage from predominantly Muslim nation does, to my mind, perpetuate an “exotic” view of Islam – particularly when we consider the fact that we rarely, if ever, see corresponding imagery in coverage from non-Muslim nations.

Example 2: Religion is the Determining Factor

This brings me to my second example of how the news can perpetuating stereotypes: that coverage of events in countries such as Turkey often treats religion (in this case, Islam) as the single most important factor in understanding those events. This plays into the common stereotype that religion determines and steers all decisions made by Muslims or Muslim communities. A good example of this was the US and UK newspaper coverage of the 2002 national elections in Turkey. In that election, a party (the newly-formed AKP) with religious roots took power in Turkey following decades of ineffectual government. For those of us who lived in Turkey at the time, it was clear that the victory by the AKP had just as much to do with economics (there had been a severe financial crisis before the elections) and distrust of established politicians (corruption was rife and the AKP were seen as “clean”) as it did religion. In addition, only 34% of the population actually voted for the AKP, but, because of Turkey’s electoral system, this gave them a 67% share of parliamentary seats.

Upon reading news reports of the election in the US and the UK press, however, one could be forgiven for thinking that the vote was an overwhelming statement of religious support for an Islamist party. The following is a selection of the headlines from major US and UK newspapers in the days following the elections:

“Islamic Party Sweeps Turkish Poll” (The Guardian)

“Islamists Celebrate Landslide Victory” (The Times)

“Islamic ‘Clean’ Party Sweeping Board in Turkey” (The Daily Telegraph)

“Turkey’s Islamic Leader Moves to Reassure West” (The Guardian)

“Turkish Elections Landslide for Pro-Islamists…” (The Independent)

Again, while these headlines appear to be harmless, consider the possibility of the following headlines being written following, for example, a German election:

“Christian Party Sweeps German Poll”

“Christians Celebrate Landslide Victory”

“Christian ‘Clean’ Party Sweeping Board in Germany”

“Germany’s Christian Leader Moves to Reassure East”

“German Elections Landslide for Pro-Christians…”[10]

As we can see, the headlines are basically the same, except for the fact that the word “Islam” has been replaced with “Christian.” Yet, does the second set of headlines not appear somewhat odd, while the first set does not? The strangeness of the second set of headlines, I would argue, has to do with the fact that coverage of elections in countries such as Germany, Australia, the US, Japan, and the like, tends to include more context. That is, they do not simplify elections to the extent that the winners are defined primarily by their religious affiliation (as in the Turkish case). By downplaying issues such as economics and corruption in Turkish politics, and focusing on religion, newspapers in the US and the UK perpetuated the common stereotype that, in nations with predominantly Muslim populations, religion is always the determining factor. Muslims, this line of reasoning goes, are Muslims first, and citizens second, and make their day-to-day decisions accordingly. This process reduces these individuals (such as Turkish voters) to nothing more than robotic religious subjects, as opposed to complex people with complex economic, social and political worries and opinions.

Example 3: “Modern” West vs. “Backward” Islam

Finally, I would like to consider the ways in which the (news) media have perpetuated the idea that Islam (usually linked to the “east”) is in some way opposed to “Western” modernity and development. The very idea that Islam can be placed in opposition to “The West” is problematic, since one side is based in religion, while the other is a geographic space. Bosnia Herzegovina, for example, has a substantial Muslim population, yet would we consider Bosnia Herzegovina (a European country) to be “Eastern”? Or, do we solve the problem by considering the Muslim population of Bosnia Herzegovina to be “Easterners” while considering the Christian population “Westerners”?

The Islam/East and Christian/West divide has historically been linked to a divide between the developed/civilized world and the undeveloped/fanatical world, and this supposed split is at the root of much of what I have written in this article. The following is one example of how this split was presented in the television news media:

A while back, I remember watching a BBC World report (in the program, “Europe Direct”) in which Turkey’s future membership of the EU was discussed. In the report, two images of the nation were presented to viewers: “modern” Turkey, symbolized by a “Western” urban-dwelling woman who did not wear a veil, drank alcohol and exercised at an upscale gym; second, “traditional” Turkey, symbolized by an impoverished, veiled woman, who lived in squalor, whose children were crippled by illness, and who required help from the local mosque in order to make ends meet. So, this was Turkey: super-rich Euro-trash driving SUVs, or pathetic fundamentalists living in rat-infested hovels.[11]

The idea of the Christian West as modern and progressive while the Islamic East is backward and irrational plays into many of the stereotypes we see in the media (all media…not just the news). The stereotypes of Islamic extremists, the Arab terrorist, the illiterate nomad, the hateful imam and the brutal Islamic state are often contrasted with ideas of the Christian West as the center of rational thinking, enlightenment, peace and democracy. This is not to say that a number of countries with predominantly Muslim populations do not have significant democratic and human rights problems. Many do. But, then again, so do many countries with predominantly non-Muslim populations. The United States, for example, held up as the prototypical Western democracy, lies in the global top five for the execution of prisoners, yet the US population is rarely portrayed as savage or backward, and the US government (led by a President who claims that God speaks to him on a first-name basis) is rarely portrayed as extremist-fundamentalist.

Stereotypes such as the bloodthirsty Muslim suicide bomber or the irrational extremist, designed to provoke an emotional reaction amongst viewers, listeners and readers, mask complex socio-cultural realities which cannot be explained through images such as those published in Denmark’s Jyllands Posten. Without context, explanation and counter-images, all stereotypes – whether on screen or in print – remain in the realm of the cartoon: that is, simplistic, narrow, two-dimensional caricatures.


[2] ibid

[3] In an earlier article I addressed this issue in relation to news coverage of Turkey. See Christian Christensen, “God Save Us From The Islam Clichés.” In British Journalism Review, Vol 17(1), 2006, pp. 65-70.

[4] Jane Park and Karin Wilkins, ‘Re-orienting the Orientalist Gaze’, Global Media Journal, Vol. 4(6).

[5] For a good overview of the cartoon issue from a global perspective, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/cartoonprotests/0,,1703418,00.html

[6] For other overviews of the controversy, and for an excellent source of links to newspaper articles and websites on the incident, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danish_cartoons and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_Jyllands-Posten_Muhammad_cartoons_controversy

[8] Christian Christensen, ‘God Save Us From The Islam Clichés’, British Journalism Review, Vol 17(1), 2006, pp. 65-70; Christian Christensen, ‘Pocketbooks or Prayer Beads? US/UK Newspaper Coverage of the 2002 Turkish Elections’, The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), 2006, pp. 109-128.

[9] Christian Christensen, ‘10 “Tools” for Reading Television News,’ Screen Education, 39, 2006, pp. 98-101.

[10] Christian Christensen, ‘Pocketbooks or Prayer Beads? US/UK Newspaper Coverage of the 2002 Turkish Elections’, The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), 2006, pp. 109-128.

[11] Christian Christensen, “God Save Us From The Islam Clichés.” In British Journalism Review, Vol 17(1), 2006, pp. 65-70.

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About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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