Representing Islam and Muslims in the Media: An Academic Debate

by The Editorial Team Published on: 17th December 2008

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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.


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 (1975-2005) by Thomas Deltombe (Paris, La Découverte, 2005).

The subject matter of Plenary Session 3 was “The Multiculturalism Debate”, about which three papers were presented. First, Kenan Malik asserted that the multicultural debate is in large part a debate about how one defines a ‘community’ and decides who speaks for it. The term ‘multicultural’ has come to define both a society that is particularly diverse, usually as a result of immigration, and the policies necessary to manage such a society. It has come to embody, in other words, both a description of society and a prescription for managing it. The trouble is that the descriptive and prescriptive aspects of multiculturalism all too often get conflated. Far from being a response to a culturally plural society, multicultural policies themselves have often helped create the communities to whose needs those policies are supposedly a response. In doing so they have helped undermine diversity, not engage with it. To illustrate this paradoxical situation, Kenan Malik looked at recent developments in Bradford, Birmingham and East London.

Addressing the issue in his lecture entitled The multicultural state we’re in: Muslims, ‘multiculture’ and the ‘civic re-balancing’ of British multiculturalism, Tariq Modood affirms that British multiculturalism is alleged to have buckled under various Muslim-related pressures. Indeed, some intellectuals, commentators and politicians of different political persuasions have pointed to evidence of a ‘retreat’ to be found in an increased governmental emphasis upon ‘integration’ and ‘social cohesion’. One response to these developments, from defenders of diversity related politics, has comprised a discursive re-orientation of British multiculturalism to focus upon an anti-essentialist ‘multiculture’ that can transcend the alleged hitherto reification of British multiculturalism. In his lecture, Tariq Modood offered an alternative appraisal of British multiculturalism. “We contest the idea that British multiculturalism is subject to a wholesale ‘retreat’ and suggest instead that it has, and continues to be, subject to a productive critique that is resulting in something best characterised as a ‘civic re-balancing’. Simultaneously, and rather than seeking comfort in a de-politicised ‘multiculture’ view, we defend the ideal of a dynamic political multiculturalism, comprised as an outgrowth of discourses and policies originating from a Racial Equality paradigm inaugurated by the first Race-Relations Act (1965). It is argued that this tradition has successfully and legislatively embedded a recognition of ‘difference’ – with the goal of promoting equality of access and opportunity – into Britain’s self-image which has led to some significant accommodations for certain groups. Muslim minorities are currently seeking similar accommodations and this is one means of achieving greater civic inclusion for Britain’s Muslim minorities”.

The same theme of Islam and the Multiculturalism Debate was debated in Panel 19, where Vincent Crone lectured on The Rise and Fall of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Andrea Meuzelaar on Angry Muslim Mobs on Dutch Television: the Rushdie Affair Before and After the Murder of Theo van Gogh, Paul Nesbitt-Larking & Catarina Kinnvall: Representing Islam and Muslims: The Challenges of Essentializing the Essentializers, and Antonius Rachad on “Representing Muslims and Arabs in Canadian Newspapers”.

5. Islam and Popular Entertainment

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Figure 8: Front cover of Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate by Kenan Malik (Oneworld Publications, 2008).

Islam and Popular Entertainment was the subject matter of Panel 4 in which Ahmed Khalid Al-Rawi talked about “The Image of Arab Muslims in the 1970-80s English Popular Fiction: Clash of Cultures or Religions?”. He considered that after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and due to the oil embargo which Arabs imposed on the West, the image of the Arab character in English popular fiction changed mainly from a bloodthirsty terrorist towards a more distorted one. This new picture was related to a Western fear that the unprecedented Arab wealth could be used in endangering the West’s interests in the region and sometimes in the West itself. Hence, the image of a wealthy Arab womanizer, who was stupid and debauched, appeared. Then, he would be generally transformed into a Muslim fanatic determined to destroy the Western dominance in his country. Popular fiction writers dealt with this new image because they simply reflected the prevalent stereotypes in their societies, yet they emphasised the shortcomings of the Arab culture particularly in relation to intercultural marriages and the treatment of women. This paper discusses the following novels: Harold Robbins The Pirate (1974), Maggie Davis The Shiek (1977), Michael Thomas Green Monday (1980), and Laurie Devine Saudi (1985), and it makes some references to other similar novels.

As a matter of fact, the rhetoric of those novelists implies that the cultural problems like maltreating women are widespread among all the members of the Arab societies, and they are directly linked to Islam. This overgeneralization technique is partly due to ignorance of the Arab culture and prejudice against Islam. Unlike the majority of Arab writers who relate the shortcoming of Western cultures to their secular orientations and never to their Christian roots, many English popular fiction writers relate the shortcomings of the Arab culture to Islam and try to interpret the events and the motives of the characters accordingly.

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Figure 9: Front cover of 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World. Chief Editor Salim al-Hassani; co-editors: Elisabeth Woodcock and Rabah Saoud. Forward by Sir Roland Jackson. Manchester: FSTC, 2006 (Source).

In the same panel, Catherine Curran Vigier lectured on “The Conversion to Militant Islam in Film and Literature in France”. Her paper proposes to consider the way in which a character’s conversion to political Islam is presented and contextualised in three different narratives which have been either moderately or very successful with the public and critics in France. The first document is the 8-part television drama La Commune (The Commune) which was shown on Canal plus in November and December 2007. The second is the novel L’étoile d’Alger (The star of Algiers) by the francophone Algerian writer Aziz Chouaki, a film version of which is to appear in 2008. The third document is the international bestseller L’Immeuble Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building), the film version of which was shown on Canal plus in the fall of 2007. This paper argues that despite the different geographical and cultural settings for the narratives – Paris, Algiers and Cairo – a common thread is visible in the way in which the decision of key characters to engage in political activity under the banner of radical Islam is represented. While each of the documents describes social and economic injustice, hardship and frustration, the key element in the person’s “conversion” to extremism is in fact violence – the experience of violence and the participation in acts of violence. Thus the decision to engage in a form of political action – whether terrorism or community activism – is detached from the experience of injustice and discrimination and placed in the domain of the psychological. The traumatised, socially isolated or manipulated characters lend support to the perception of politically engaged Muslims as irrational fanatics on the one hand, hopeless utopians on the other.

In this same panel, Ali Isra lectured on “Comedic Representations of Islam in American Pop Culture” and Priyasha Kaul on “Religion, Identity and Nationalism” [1].

6. Women and Islam

Panel 5 was devoted to Women and Islam. Several papers were presented in this area. Tereza Capelos talked of “An Experimental Test of Political Tolerance: Understanding the Impact of Fear, Anger, Values and Gender on Evaluations of Islam”. Her focus was on the role of political values and gender on expressions of political tolerance towards Islamic groups. “In an experimental setting with Dutch participants, I manipulate the emotional appraisal of an interaction with a fictional Islamic group, and examine how emotions of anger or fear interact with support for democratic values and gender to determine expressions of tolerance judgments in the Netherlands. I show that support for democratic values mediates the impact of fear but not anger. Specifically, while it reverses the otherwise negative impact of fear on political tolerance, it has no effect under conditions of anger. I also show that women experience significantly more intense negative emotions than men, but their levels of tolerance are indistinguishable from their male counterparts. This research is timely in this era of widespread threat perceptions, where support for tolerance and civil liberties is eroding”.

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Figure 10: The famous photograph “Union Jack Veil” taken by Peter Sanders. The photograph is part of the exhibition The Art of Integration which has been exhibited in 2006-2007 in London and at British embassies in 20 countries (Source).

“Being a Muslim Women’s Chaplain” is the title of the lecture made by Anita Greenhill, Terry Biddington and Nadia Estwani. The lecture presented the findings of a six month pilot project exploring the viability of, and response, to the presence of a woman Muslim chaplain at a Higher Educational Institute in the United Kingdom. The paper presented an outline of the project, descriptive dialogue and a narrative of the project, outlining the experience encountered when establishing a Muslim women’s chaplaincy in the UK. This project has significant implications, as the pastoral role of women in the Muslim community remains largely under researched. Furthermore pastoral roles available to Muslim women are predominantly associated with the woman’s role within the family. Research already conducted, such as Women Living Under Muslim Law (1997) has shown that the complexities of being a Muslim in contemporary societies occupies a broader context for women than their familial role alone. As stated in Women Living Under Muslim Law (1997, p. 21) “To me, to be a Muslim today or any day seems exceedingly hard. For, to be a Muslim one has to constantly face the challenge first, knowing what Allah wills or desires not only for humanity in general but also for one’s self in particular, and then of doing what one believes to be Allah’s will and pleasure each moment of ones life.” This project aims to encourage and facilitate the pastoral role of a woman Muslim chaplain and their contribution to the everyday life for Muslim’s as a means to enhance the experiences of student life for Muslim women in Higher Education. In particular, the authors of the paper believe the results of this study will have further application for other HEIs considering how to address critical issues relating to the care of Muslim, and other non-Christian, students.

In her speech, entitled poetically “?People Think Our Lives are Dark’: Diasporic Resistance to the Metaphoric Darkening of Female Islamic Identity”, Chloe Patton asserts that metaphors of positive transformation are often structured around the binary poles of darkness and light. In Plato’s cave allegory a move from darkness to light serves as a metaphor for the positive effect of intellectual education upon the soul, while for Kant the transition from an imitative state of consciousness to one that is rational represents “enlightenment”. In other transformational metaphors darkness and light operate as the metaphorical stand-ins for entire religions, cultures or even continents. “This paper is concerned with the contrast between the metaphorical move from darkness to light that often figures in contemporary Western representations of the female Muslim body and the way young Muslim women choose to represent themselves. Focussing on visual representations of the Islamic headscarf, I explore how this transformation metaphor has recently been played out in a variety of contexts, from media coverage of the unveiling of Afghani women after the US-led invasion of 2001 to recent debate over the right of young women to wear headscarves in French schools. Drawing on the findings of a visual ethnographic study involving members of a Melbourne Islamic youth association, I examine how young Australian Muslim women, when presented with the opportunity to create photographic self-portraits, used the headscarf to challenge dominant visual representations of their identity as dark. I argue that this illustrates Hall’s (1990) claim that identity is constructed from within representation, and constitutes corporeal engagement with the Australian public sphere”.

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Figure 11: Front cover of Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Minority Rights, edited by Stephen May, Tariq Modood and Judith Squires (Cambridge University Press, Paperback, 2004).

The representation of Muslim women in the media was the subject of another lecture presented by Bushra H. Rahman on “Images of Muslim Women: A Case of International Magazines Time and Newsweek, 1979- 2002″. The author departs from the generally assumed assumption that media texts do not “mirror” realities as is sometimes believed; they constitute versions of reality in ways which depend on the ideological disposition, social positions, interests and objectives of those who produce them. Some scholars argue that the way this powerful organization, particularly the Western media, has misrepresented Islam and Muslims only reflects a good deal of bias and ethnocentrism. The images of the Muslim female in particular have been systematically dehumanized and disincarnated. The study of the images of Muslim women has become particularly pertinent in the present political scenario where the wide impact of religion on politics is evident, especially since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. At the same time the threats to the Western world from the Muslim world are being asserted. A popular view of ‘clash of civilizations” between east and west is projected in the works of Samuel Huntington in 1993. The proposition is that the most serious threats to the West, is Islamic “fundamentalism” and that the values of Islam have more than superficial resemblance to European fascism. However, Huntington’s work is severely criticized by Said in 2003 as “a recycled version of the old war thesis, that conflicts in today’s and tomorrow’s world will remain not economic or social in essence but ideological, and if that is so then one ideology, the West’s , is still point or locus around which for Huntington all others turn”. The researcher endorses that a critique on Orientalism is not meant to create a division as advocated by Huntington. She draws her insight from Edward Said’s work, and intends to focus her work not as a ‘crisis manager’ but as a student of civilization and as a ‘reconciler’ between the civilizations. The objective of Orientalism is to study the historical dynamics of the experiences of the East and the West at certain point in time. The idea is not to play up ‘the conflict of East and West.’ Orientalism is meant to be a study in critique, not an affirmation of warring and hopelessly antithetical identities. This academic endeavour is to understand how the construction of identity, in the present case Muslim women, is bound up with ideological bias and power and to uncover how systematically, in a particular historical and socio-political context stereotype images of Muslim women are framed in the media. The spirit is to explore those socio-cognitive processes (propounded by van Dijk in 2001) which are underlying discourse on Muslim women. The asymmetrical relations shown in the discourse, of superior ‘Us’ and inferior ‘them’ may be unintentional but needs to be addressed with a spirit of minimizing the confrontation. This spirit of understanding the ‘Other’ may also help in stopping the reactionary negative behaviour of the ‘Others’. She believes that we must move beyond a monolithic worldview that sees Muslims and Muslim world as a unity. Similarly Europe or the West should also be appreciated in their diversity and complexity. The research examines how and in what context Time and Newsweek magazines constructed the images of Muslim women from the year 1979 till 2002.

7. Representation and mis-representation

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Figure 12: Front cover of Only Half of Me: Being a Muslim in Britain by Rageh Omaar, the British television news presenter and writer (Viking, 2006).

Panels 11 and 12 were dedicated respectively to Museums, Islam and Representation and Islam, Muslims and (Mis)Representation. Focussing on a case study of representing Islam in one of Uk’s most prestigious musemus, Malik Ajani lectured on “Objects, Knowledge and Representation: A Glimpse into the Rhetorical Discourse of the British Museum”. The British Museum was founded in London in 1753. The museum literature articulates a pedagogical motive, where the institution claims to advance understanding of the cultures it represents. “Upon reading this, one could inquire: what kind of understanding is represented within the discourse of such institution? By investigating such a discourse, one would aim to discover the subjectivities and rhetoric in which knowledge-power relations are carried. Bennet, in writing about the birth of the museum suggests that often there is a mismatch between the articulated rhetoric of the institution and the actual functioning of the institutional technologies that is part of the overall discourse. This is because there are illusive goals and rationalities at play that are harder to isolate. The purpose of this essay is to take glimpse into the discourse associated to the British Museum, with one focal point being its exhibit of `The Islamic World`”.

Turning to explore museological representations of Islam in another British museum, Yasmin Khan studied in her paper “Islamic Science in the Science Museum: A Case Study in the Representation and Interpretation of the History of Science”. This paper begins by exploring the internal workings of the Science Museum as an ‘intellectual institution’: how it deals with the history of science in general, how this consequently affects the interpretation and representation of Islamic science, and how this is then received by the audience – since in our current politically sensitive climate, any museological display of Islamic related themes are laden with repercussions. This critical analysis includes an examination of the historical, social, cultural and philosophical issues surrounding the existence of the Science Museum and how these issues affect the interpretation of its collections, with specific regard to Islamic collections. Are the legacies of Orientalism, colonialism and imperialism still evident in the displays, discourses and rhetoric of the Museum? From a comparative viewpoint, are there Eurocentric interpretations of ethnographic collections in other British museums, or are some museums more successful in mitigating this risk than others? How does this contrast with the modes of representation of other international museums? Is there a general need for a change in museological paradigm and praxis? In visioning the museum of the future, the Museum is being redefined as an agent for facilitating social change. For instance, a plethora of lessons can be learnt from the impact of the 1001 Inventions touring exhibition which sought to highlight our common Muslim heritage. Yet without the long-term commitment of the wider museum sector to address Islamic civilisation themes within the capacity of their own contexts, there is a danger that the limited benefit gained from other ambitious initiatives will merely be transitory and possibly risk being disregarded as an unintentional exploitation and commoditisation of Islamic history and culture. However, new exhibitions have already continued to prove that they too can be a powerful force in changing public attitudes towards religion, such as the recent Sacred exhibition at the British Library. Global politics and the perceived threat from the ‘war on terror’ have precipitated a further reappraisal, or at least refinement, of the assumed responsibilities of cultural institutions. Museums are now slowly beginning to recognise the need to assume a greater responsibility for encouraging a deepening understanding of the richness and diversity of Islamic culture and values at a time when the dangers of religious intolerance and cultural prejudice are heightened.

Under the title “The Politics of Display: Representing Islam in a Museum Setting” Mirjam Shatanawi made a talk in which she addressed the question ?what role museums can play in the public debate on Islam’. She observes first that the representation of Islam in European museums has a long tradition that is rooted in colonialism. In the past decades, changing perceptions of the social role of the museum has prompted museums to take up alternative positions in the public debate on Islam. In this paper, the speaker explores this phenomenon using a recent exhibition as an example: Urban Islam was developed and shown at the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam (2004) and the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland (2006). The exhibition set out to explore contemporary Islam in different parts of the world. In order to do so, it presented the individual stories of young Muslims living in five cities around the globe and their search for an Islamic identity in a rapidly globalising world. Through the use of interactive tools, the exhibition aimed to serve as an arena for debate. “In my paper I will discuss the negotiation processes that took place during the making of the exhibition as well as its reception by press and visitor groups. The ethnographic background of both museums, and its specific legacy of colonialism, framed the reception of the exhibition. Yet the dissimilar national contexts in which Urban Islam functioned determined its results. The different religious and ethnic make up of museum audiences as well as variations in the national political discourse had a profound effect”.

In Panel 12, “the (Mis)Representation of Islam and Muslims” were lectured upon by four speakers. Fist, Daniele Cantini studied the “Feelings and Reactions of Muslim Youth to Representations of Islam in Europe and United States”. His paper analyses the various ways in which Muslims (and non-Muslims as well, even if in a lower tone) understand, and react to, the representations of Islam given by Western media. Drawing on a previous PhD research, which was conducted in Amman, Jordan, he approaches this issue and the consequences that it entails from different points of view. “I will first discuss what young Jordanians perceive “the West” to be thinking about them, the bias that they feel upon themselves as Arabs and especially as Muslims. I am not interested here in the accuracy of the critics they make to the media system in “the West”, rather I will concentrate on what they feel as being the more common stereotypes and bias on Islam – interestingly enough, many Christians of Arab origin react negatively to such stereotypes as well. I will then turn, through the analysis of two examples, Theo Van Gogh’s assassination and the cartoons on the Prophet that appeared in some Danish media, to the reactions these events provoked among some students. I will finally try to establish some patterns of reaction, that is, how young people react to the representations of Islam they feel that are imposed upon themselves – often according to their social status and to what they believe their future lives will be like. I will try to show that their reactions are quite understandable in the context of their everyday lives and especially if their ambitions and expectations are taken into consideration”.

In the light of the metaphoric expression “Through the Mirroring Lenses of the Self”, Danila Genovese seeks to understand the “Representation and Self Representation of ‘Radical’ Islamism in the UK”. In the aftermath of the London bombings of 7th July 2005, the revelation that the bombers were UK citizens -with one exception- British born has soon led some social scientists, academics, politicians, and journalists to dub London ‘Londonistan’: a centre for fanatic militants- ‘mullahs’- and ‘extremist’ teaching. This paper aims at examining the phenomenon of representation and self-representation- in relation to ‘radical’ Islamists in the UK- as interrelated. The study is conducted through a ‘collative’ analysis, between the author’s several interviews and personal chats with the leaders and members of parties considered as radical, like Hizbu ut Tahrir, Al Ghurabaa and the Saved Sect, and the articles, the news and the papers produced by several leading media institutions and eminent scholars on the phenomenon of radical Islamism in the UK. “My argument is that there is a ‘mirroring effect’ between the essentialized representation of Islam and Islamism proposed by the Orientalist approach and the self-representation voiced by the ‘radical’ Islamists themselves”. In other words, there is a sort of paradoxical dynamic, which means categories imposed from above, that become unconsciously internalised from below, although both parties propose an inverted image of what is in reality: the mirroring effect. “My point here is that the dismissal of this element in the analysis could mask a refusal to address our own failure to make a serious political examination of the phenomenon itself. The hope is that this paper will contribute to such an analysis as a prelude to framing ‘real’ issues, choices and instances”.

The representation of Islam in another national context is addressed by Wang Jianxin, who talked on “Representing Islam in China: A Case Study on the Religious Motifs of Uyghur Sermon Poems.” There are 56 officially-confirmed ethnic groups in China, 10 of them are Islamic believers. The Uyghurs have a population about 9 million, which takes nearly the half of 20 million China’s Muslim population. Though the basic factors of the cultural tradition of the Uyghurs belong to the typical ones of the oasis peasants living in Inner Asian desert areas, still their cultural traditions are strongly influenced by other two great world civilizations, Islamic and Chinese ones. In the nowadays, similarly as other Muslim ethnic groups in China, the Uyghurs are facing a quick transformation of their social structure and cultural norms, for which, Islamic teachings play a critically important organizational function from the local side of their society and culture, and Chinese political systems concern about officially-constructed social framework from the outside. It seems highly necessary that they always have to choose flexible stances between the two, by making clear their own point of view toward various socio-cultural events and even conflicts. Religious intellectuals in the Uyghurs, especially the socio-cultural leaders, are both the scholars teaching Islam and the administratively-appointed clerics responsible for the controlling of the spiritual world of their people at local mosques. Some of them use Uyghur folk poems to teach and preach their people, with the motifs and meaning of their sermon texts highly inspired by Islamic theology and the spirit of social criticism. They are always at the critical points of against bad social events and behaviour, therefore taking the risks of being against corruptive social trends and offending political powers, but they never forget their holy work to make Islamic remarks on daily happenings. In this study, Wang Jianxin concentrates on the analyses of Uyghur sermon poems that he collected in many fieldwork visits to Uyghur religious personals in the Turpan Basin, in 1990s, showing the way in which Uyghur religious scholars using Islam as a tool for social criticism as well as the way in which they accommodate their social changes.

In her conference on “Islam as Civic Duty: Young Leaders, Rebellion and Conformity”, Lucy Michael remarks first that the diversification of opportunities for minority ethnic community leadership (Anwar and Werbner, 1991) seen in Britain in recent years has compounded the effects of generational and social change to produce distinct new political representations of British Muslims. This in turn has resulted in new opportunities for young leaders to emerge within Muslim representative organisations and in competition with established leadership. In this paper, attention is paid to the capacity of young leaders to engage with Islam both as a resource for radical thinking about social justice and citizenship issues and as a resource for political strength in representing the needs and desires of Muslims. Evidence is produced from a study of young leaders in two English cities to illustrate how they envision Islam both as inspiration for and mobilisation towards social change, and do so in ways that demonstrate both rebellion and conformity with civic society at large. In particular the paper addresses the question of how diverse views on representations of Islam are reconciled within Muslim organisations, examining three different types of organisation popular with young people, and how the negotiation or reconciliation of these positions impacts on the resultant activities of group members and on the growth of social networks protruding from these groups. There is room, the paper concludes, for greater depth of thinking about how young people manage popularly radical views within their own peer groups and, therefore, about appropriate responses to representations made by young leaders.

8. Social Cohesion

Dedicated to a crucial issue, Panel 14 dealt with “Islam and Social Cohesion in Britain and France” in four conferences. Salman Al-Azami devotes his paper to the “Representation of Mosques in the British Media”, that he analyses from the community perspective. A contemporary report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission finds ‘structured’ and ‘institutionalized prejudice’ against Islam and Muslims in the western media. In recent times, Mosques have become centre of increased media attention. A number of stories, features, reports or documentaries published in the past year depict a negative picture of Mosques in UK. The paper examines three contemporary criticisms of British Mosques published in 2007 – a report by Think tank Policy Exchange, an article on The Daily Telegraph and a Channel 4 Documentary – and investigates whether these criticisms have influenced the attitude towards Mosques by the local community. The author considers three Mosques mentioned in these publications – The East London Mosque, The London Central Mosque and Birmingham Central Mosque.

Comparing two Europeans national contexts, Sylvie Bernard-Patel devoted her paper to “A Comparative Study on Islam and Identity in Britain and France”. Within the Muslim population in Europe, around two million live in Britain (mainly Southern Asian) and five million in France (mainly Maghrebi). The Muslim communities in the two countries have a certain number of features in common, but there are significant dissimilarities which can be attributed to two sets of factors. First each country’s traditional relationship with its settled immigrant populations (related with the legacy of the colonial period) has constructed a social mode of reception (and rejection) which is specific to that society and which the Muslim population had to face. Second the internal structure of these populations and the groups which have achieved overall authority in the expression of their identity are not identical in the two countries. The conflictual link between the national model of settlement and the assertion of identity by Muslim population has been established in each case. In Britain, the model of integration of communities as organised blocs has encouraged the expression of a single Islamic identity. However, its limit was demonstrated in summer 2001 when Britain experienced some of the worst race related riots. In France, the dominant Republican model of integration of individuals (bypassing communities) has given rise to more differentiated forms of expression of identity as demonstrated in the Islamic veil controversy in 1989-1990 and again in 2003. Based on comparative research conducted in secondary schools in Britain and France, this paper presents a comparative account of Muslims in Britain and France by looking at how the two societies have respectively ‘embraced’ Islam and how Muslim identity is constructed.

With the paper of Pnina Werbner on the UK Muslim diasporic public sphere “From Local (Benign) Invisible Spaces to Seditious Conspiratorial Spaces and National Media Dialogue”, we return to the British scene. Public exposés of hidden spaces where diasporic Muslims allegedly enunciate extreme anti-Western rhetoric or plot sedition, highlight an ironic shift from a time, analysed in my earlier work, when the Pakistani diasporic public sphere in Britain was invisible and local while nevertheless being regarded as relatively benign: a space of expressive rhetoric, ceremonial celebration and local power struggles. Suicide bombings on the London underground and revelations of aborted conspiracies have led to a national media debate in which Muslim leaders have come to be active participants. They respond to accusations by politicians and journalists that multicultural tolerance has ‘failed’ in Britain, and that national Muslim organizations are the prime cause of this alleged failure. Addressing this ‘failure of multiculturalism’ discourse, the paper questions, first, whether talk of multiculturalism in the UK is really about culture at all? Second, the paper explores why Muslim integration into Britain – the so-called success of multiculturalism – has come to be ‘tested’ by Muslim national leaders’ willingness to attend Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations. The public dialogue reflecting on these issues in the mainstream and ethnic press, the paper proposes, highlights a signal development in the history of the UK Muslim diasporic public sphere: from being hidden and local to being highly visible and national, responsive to British politicians, investigative journalists and the wider British public.

9. Other sessions and panels

Please click here to view the other sessions and panels of the conference.

End Notes

[1] It was expected that in this panel Urvi Mukhopadhyayi: From the Nawabs to the Jihadists: Representations of the Islamic ‘Other’ in Popular Indian Films Urvi Mukhopadhyayi will be unable to attend the conference, but the paper can be downloaded here:

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