Representing Islam and Muslims in the Media: An Academic Debate

In 5-6 September 2008 the Universities of Manchester and Surrey organised in Manchester an international conference "Representing Islam: Comparative Perspectives". The meeting attracted over 100 eminent national and international speakers and a large audience. The conference was primarily concerned with the representations of Islam and Muslims in our modern world and the relationship of this representation/mis-representation with current social and political issues. The following article presents a short report about some of the most important debates discussed in the conference.

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Table of contents

1. The conference and its scope
2. Plenary speakers
3. Islamophobia and the Media
4. The Multiculturalism Debate
5. Islam and Popular Entertainment
6. Women and Islam
7. Representation and mis-representation
8. Social Cohesion
9. Other sessions and pannels

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Figure 1: From the poster of the Conference.

1. The conference and its scope

Figure 2: The main building of the University of Manchester.

In 5-6 September 2008 an international conference Representing Islam: Comparative Perspectives was organised jointly by the Universities of Manchester and Surrey. The meeting, in which over 100 eminent national and international speakers participated, was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Britain.

Initially, the "call for papers" of the conference claimed that representations of Islam have a profound influence on political cultures and national identities, as well as on attitudes to immigration, security and multiculturalism. The complexity of the notion of 'Islam' and the heterogeneous responses that it elicits are such that there is no uniform approach to its representation and social construction. The conference addressed this complexity by treating the comparative dimension of recent representations of Islam, encompassing different nations, political institutions, media institutions, and cultures. The conference was primarily concerned with the press, television, radio, film and the internet. However, it also included other channels of communication, such as translations, speeches or pamphlets, political discourse, and the visual arts.

The comparative emphasis of the meeting was achieved at several levels: that of the single paper, that of the panel, and that of the conference as a whole. Papers and panels were therefore invited treating single nations or media outlets, or adopting a comparative perspective. The organisers of the conference anticipated proposals on topics emanating from the fields of Political Communication, Communication Science, Media Studies, Film Studies, Cultural Studies, Sociology, Social Psychology, Translation Studies, Sociolinguistics, and Modern Languages.

During the meeting, the co-organiser of the event Professor Stephen Hutchings announced plans to launch a new research centre which will examine a range of issues relating to modern Islam. The Centre for the Study of Muslim Civilisation in Our World will be based in Manchester University, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures and begin work in 2009. Professor Stephen Hutchings said in particular: "This conference will be primarily concerned with the way Islam is portrayed in the press, television, radio, film and the internet. Speakers come from all five continents including the Arab world, Europe, America India and Malaysia."

Figure 3: Manchester University (40x50cm, acrylic on board), painted in 2001 by Michael Gutteridge (Source).

He added: "The Centre for the Study of Muslim Civilisation in Our World will be dedicated to looking at Islam in the Muslim-Arab world as well as Europe. It will focus on issues of inter-faith cohesion and tension, and hopes to inform social policy in the UK and elsewhere, as well as contributing to mutual understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities throughout Europe."

The conference organisers are: Professor Stephen Hutchings, Dr Galina Miazhevich (University of Manchester); Professor Chris Flood, Dr Henri Nickels (University of Surrey). The venue of the conference was at The Samuel Alexander Building at The University of Manchester. An edited volume based on selected conference papers will be published.

For more information, see the following links: Programme of the conference and Keynote speakers.

2. Plenary speakers

The plenary speakers in the conference included:

Thomas Deltombe (France, journalist): In his book "Imaginary Islam: The media's construction of Islamophobia in France", the political scientist and journalist Thomas Deltombe reveals certain parallels in the way Islam is perceived by the French media and by ultra-conservative Muslims. In France most of the members of Muslim minority hail from the former French colonial possessions of Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria. Deltombe's preparation for the book included analyses of numerous press articles and of the two most important TV stations in France: the privatised "Channel One" TF1, and the public broadcaster France 2. Deltombe examines their coverage of Islam in the period from 1975 to 2005.

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Figure 4: Poster of the lecture "Britain and Islam, 1650-1750: Different Perspectives on Difference" by Linda Colley (London School of Economics), on October 15, 1999, at The Lewis Walpole Library Lecture, Yale University Library (Source).

Alisher Khamidov (Kyrgyzstan, journalist): Alisher Khamidov is a journalist originally from Kyrgyzstan. From June 1998 to July 2001, he served as Director of the Osh Media Resource Center (OMRC), a nonprofit independent media association in southern Kyrgyzstan. He has also acted as the regional coordinator of the Central Asian Media Support Project. Khamidov has written a series of articles on religious and ethnic conflict in the Ferghana Valley and political developments in Kyrgyzstan and in Central Asia, and is a frequent contributor to Eurasianet and IRIN. Khamidov is pursuing his PhD in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. More here.

Kenan Malik (England, writer and broadcaster): Kenan Malik is an Indian-born British writer, lecturer and broadcaster. He is Senior Visting Fellow at the Department of Political, International and Policy Studies at the University of Surrrey. He is a presenter of Analysis on BBC Radio 4 and has written and presented a number of radio and TV documentaries. His books include The Meaning of Race (1996) and Man, Beast and Zombie (2000). He is trained in neurobiology and the history of science. His main areas of interest are the history of ideas; the history and philosophy of science; the philosophy of mind; theories of human nature; science policy; bioethics; political philosophy; race, immigration and multiculturalism. More here.

Tariq Modood (England, Bristol University): Professor Mohood is the Bristol Director of the Leverhulme Programme on Migration and Citizenship, with UCL, which consists of 8 projects running between 2003-08. He is directly involved on projects on social capital and gender; national identity and religion; and higher education and globalisation. He is completing two books on Muslims and multiculturalism, and co-editing three books: on ethnicity and social mobility in the US and UK; on nationalism, identity and minority rights; and on multiculturalism in Europe. He is co-editor of the journal Ethnicities and a regular contributor to the media and to policy discussions. More here.

Greg Philo (Scotland, Glasgow University Media Unit): Professor Philo is based at Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Applied Social Sciences, University of Glasgow. He is also Research Director of Glasgow University Media Unit (Glasgow Media Group). The Media Unit is a research based grouping of academics within the sociology department of Glasgow University. The purpose of the Group s work is to promote the development of new methodologies and substantive research in the area of media and communications. Professor Philo s research interests are in the area of the media and cultural reception. Greg Philo has recently written a report on Cultural Transfer between Britain and China for the British Council.

Elizabeth Poole (England, Staffordshire University): Dr Poole is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the School of Humanities and Social Science, Staffordshire University, UK. She is an Award Leader of MA Media Management and Media Futures. She specialises in the area of race and representation, new media and audiences. Dr Poole has significant postgraduate teaching experience and published widely in the area of Muslims and the news. (Reporting Islam: Media Representations of British Muslims, 2002; Muslims and the News Media, co-edited with John E. Richardson, 2006). More here.

Salim Al-Hassani (Manchester University & Chairman of FSTC): Previously Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Manchester and currently professorial fellow in the School of Languages Linguistics and Cultures, Professor Al-Hassani is an acknowledged world expert in his field and has received numerous awards. His special interest is the Muslim Scientific Heritage in our world. He is presently Chairman of the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) based in Manchester. He is the Editor in Chief of and founder of the 1001 Inventions global education initiative. Author of numerous publications on Muslim Heritage, he is the Chief Editor of the ground breaking book 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World (Manchester, 2006). More here and here.

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Figure 5: View of the London Central Mosque (more commonly known as Regent's Park Mosque for its location) (Source).

Tariq Ramadan (England, France, academic and theologian): Professor Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Islamic Studies. He is currently Senior Research Fellow St Antony s College (Oxford), Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan) and at the Lokahi Foundation (London). He is a Visiting Professor (in charge of the chair 'Identity and Citizenship') at Erasmus University (Holland). Through his writings and lectures he has contributed substantially to the debate on the issues of Muslims in the West and Islamic revival in the Muslim world. He is active both at the academic and grassroots levels lecturing extensively throughout the world on social justice and dialogue between civilizations. Tariq Ramadan is currently President of the European think tank: European Muslim Network (EMN) in Brussels. More here.

3. Islamophobia and the Media

In the Plenary Session 1 on Islamophobia and the Media, Thomas Deltombe lectured on "Imaginary Islam": an ideological weapon in the French public debate. He observes that paradoxically, Islam is not the only target of Islamophobia. This is the conclusion that can be drawn when one studies public discourses produced in France in the last 30 years. From the 1979 Iranian "Islamic Revolution" to the 2004 banning of the "Islamic veil" from state schools, French opinion makers have forged what can be called an "imaginary Islam" thanks to which the elites could define a new political consensus and assert a conservative conception of national identity. With the emergence of the misleading concept of "Islamism" in the 1990's, this "imaginary Islam" constructed by the media industry and the political forces turned into an ideological instrument that casts suspicion on various segments of the population and creates dangerous censorship effects.

Turning to the education system and trying to shift public perception of the role of Muslims and their contribution to present day science and civilisation, Salim Al-Hassani presented a lecture on "1001 Inventions verses 1001 Nights: Shifting Public Perception of a 1000 years Amnesia". A cursory survey of the traditional media, new media and school curricula revealed startling results in the form of a widespread public perception that after the fall of the Roman Empire, there was an extraordinary dank period that lasted for about 1000 years, from about 600 CE to the European Renaissance in the 16th century. This temporal segment in human history is supposed to be empty of any civilisational activity and is generally called the "Dark Ages". In fact, such a conception of history is a misnomer, for precisely during this millennium there was an exceptionally rich burst of civilisation that manifested itself in a dynamic scientific tradition and intellectual activity that radiated from Baghdad (after it was founded in 762 CE and became the capital of the unified Islamic Empire) and along a glittering crescent through North Africa and into Spain and Southern Italy. For many years, people in the West associated Baghdad with stories such as the 1001nights (or Arabian nights) and today there is negligible information in schools' curricula or in the media about the enormous inventions and innovations from that period that still affect our lives.

Figure 6a: History of Science and Civilisation as taught by many education systems.

Figure 6b: History of Science and Civilisation as it should be taught.

Such amnesia has a negative impact on people's attitudes and tends to reinforce stereotyping of Muslims and at the same time nourishes a superiority complex in the attitudes of non-Muslim Americans and Europeans. This gap reinforces the divide in that people in the Muslim world associate the "West" with negative traits and those in the West, especially Americans, say nothing or little good about the Muslim world. There is a worldwide hunger for dialogue, but the language used has, in the main, been confined to religious or political dialogue. This has unfortunately been met with limited success.

A new language based on cultural inter-dependence, especially the cultural origins of inventions, seem to bring a fresh air into the atmosphere, creating new possibilities for mutual respect and at the same time inspire a paradigm shift amongst the new Muslim generation. With this firm conviction, FSTC built a global initiative, the 1001 Inventions project that took up the challenge of using edutainment techniques to transfer historical information trapped in library archives into the popular domain, in particular the Global Digital Audience. An interactive touring exhibition, accompanied by a book, a teachers' pack, a website (, a set of educational posters and a series of lectures were launched in March 2006 in Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

The information is conveyed by taking the viewer/reader/visitor on a journey through zones showing such inventions, which we currently find or use, in the home, school, hospital, market, town, world and universe. The academic material is conveyed through a web portal after the usual peer reviewing and rigorous scrutiny for correctness and neutrality. This web portal has become the number one source on all aspects of Muslim civilisation in particular those relating to science, technology, culture, history and art.

The lecture presented by the Chairman of FSTC was intended to:

1. Discuss the extent to which this project has engaged, inspired and more importantly shifted public perception on both sides of the divide. The results of a professional field survey as well as the experience of the teams from project partners (Foundation of Science, Technology and Civilisation, The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, the University of Manchester and the Muslim Youth Foundation), and numerous sponsors and supporters government and public institutions, were analysed.

2. Reveal some results of recent work carried on "Curriculum Enrichment" in partnership with the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Association of Science Education (ASE). An example of amnesia is the frequent jump in text books from Greek names of scientists to Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo and Newton.

3. Highlight some of the requirements for "Media Enrichment", especially in the new media sectors such as Google, Yahoo, U-tube, and discussion forums and blogs like Wikipedia or popular games like Second Life. An example of the huge imbalance in the digital information space may be witnessed by googling the name of some Muslim inventors and comparing them with popular western scientists and inventors. Searching, as at 30 June 2008, the name "Da Vinci" gets 43.5 million search results and Isaac Newton get 4.2 millions. However, "Zheng He", who is not only a Muslim but also a Chinese and who in 1421 constructed the largest fleet of uniquely designed junk ships that chartered the oceans of the world in the world (each of the size of a football stadium), gets 227,000 whilst Muslim pioneers like "Fatima Al-Fihri" (the founder of the first university in history), "Ibn Al-Haytham" (the father of optics and the inventor of the Camera Obscura) and "Al-Khawarizmi" (the founder of Algebra) and other significant Muslim inventors, most get below 50,000.

In the same session, Greg Philo presented a paper in which he examines contemporary arguments about Islamophobia and how they relate to issues such as world conflict and the manner in which this is represented in the mass media. He gave specific examples from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also points to what can be done to better inform the public on these matters.

4. The Multiculturalism Debate

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Figure 7: Front cover of his book La construction médiatique de l'islamophobie en France (19