Islamophobic tropes and content are spread through the media, both through news coverage and through entertainment, such as films and television shows. These media channels have enormous reach and influence: their output can shape people’s world views and behaviour. Biased, intolerant and bigoted stories, be this in the news or in the entertainment industry, can lead to discrimination and violence.
The Centre for Media Monitoring’s report on the British media’s coverage of Muslims and Islam between 2018 and 2020 found that ‘[a]lmost 60% of online articles across all publications were identified as associating negative aspects and behaviour with Muslims or Islam’; ‘[o]ver 1 in 5 online articles had a primary focus on terrorism/extremism’; and that ‘47% of all clips on TV news broadcasts showed Muslims and/or Islam in a manner which presented negative aspects and/or behaviour’;
and almost 1 in 10 articles misrepresent Muslims, misuse Islamic terminology and/or misinterpret Islamic beliefs and practices.
The media uses a range of devices to spread Islamophobic ideas, including framing, militaristic language, dehumanising language and the use of personal pronouns to foster division and create a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Framing is particularly pervasive. Frames are mental structures that are activated by terms. When we hear terms, they automatically evoke a certain set of frames in our mind.
The multilingual expert Dr Anna Szilágyi notes,
In the case of Islam, many of the most commonly used terms in the West activate predominantly negative or hostile frames, colouring the perception and shaping the treatment of Muslim communities by societies and states. […] [I]n recent years, politicians and media personalities have consistently used terms like “crime”, “criminality”, “no-go areas”, “gangs”, “rape”, “the rape of children”, “parallel society”, “hate”, “violence”, “honor violence”, “danger”, “threat”, and “terrorism” to describe Muslim communities or neighbo[u]rhoods. Obviously, these words activate extremely negative frames. Moreover, when used repetitively and routinely in connection with Muslim people, these frames eventually stick to the term “Muslim” and have the power to stigmatise an entire community. As a result, the term “Muslim” can automatically activate the same hostile frames as the words listed above.
Given humanity’s negativity bias, these sorts of Islamophobic and unfavourable depictions have a long-lasting influence on how audiences view Muslims and Islam. As researchers Stuart Soroka and Stephen McAdams explain, ‘negative news content is likely to have a greater, and possibly more enduring, impact than positive news content’.
Islamophobia is also rife in entertainment media. In films/TV shows, Muslim characters, when present, are often depicted as terrorist villains, as oppressors or victims of violence and/or as ‘other’. A report that surveyed Muslim representation in the 200 top-grossing films released between 2017 and 2019 from the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand highlighted how 53.7% of primary and secondary Muslim characters were targets of violence; 39% of primary and secondary Muslim characters were perpetrators of violence; and that of 41 primary and secondary Muslim characters, 58.5% were immigrants, migrants, or refugees and 87.8% spoke no English or spoke with an accent.
As the actor Riz Ahmed highlights, ‘[p]eople don’t just wake up hating Muslims. They believe a story’.
The entertainment industry has a responsibility to avoid Islamophobic tropes in its depiction of Muslims as not doing so is dangerous: ‘The Islamophobia industry’, Ahmed goes on to say, ‘is one that measures its cost in blood’.
As Ahmed highlights, the stories told about the Muslim community ‘affect the laws that get passed. They affect the people that are attacked or countries that get invaded.’
Teaching students about how Islamophobic ideas are spread in the media, and what tools are used, is vital if young people are to stand up against Islamophobia and if the discrimination and violence against Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim) is to stop.