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October 14, 2009

Islamophobia in the media

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryCanadian journalist Heather Mallick faced an angry onslaught from the American media for an online column she wrote during the 2008 presidential campaign; in it, she maligned Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin as appealing to the "white trash vote'' with her "toned-down version of the porn actress look.''

Fox News unleashed its full fury on Mallick, with anchor Greta Van Susteren calling her a "pig'' and commentators on Fox message boards branding her with epithets such as “insane Pakistani Muslim.”

But even this abuse has paled in comparison to the avalanche of violent, threatening and abusive messages that have continued to come her way in the months following her Sept. 5, 2008 column on CBC.ca, entitled A Mighty Wind Blows through the Republican Convention.

Even Canadian media organizations have been on the receiving end of negative and threatening American responses, including anti-Semitic slurs. (Mallick is neither Muslim nor Jewish.)

Messages on the Fox News website even extended to making sweeping anti-Canadian remarks. One person wrote: "Those morons up north just can't keep their ignorant mouths shut when it's really none of their socialist business . . . the People's Republic of Canada is no friend of the USA!''

But what if similar comments were made by a writer or journalist smearing Islam, or bashing Muslims; or what if a cartoonist was to publish a satiric sketch illustrating that the Prophet Muhammad was a “terrorist”?

What kind of media reaction would have ensued? The answer is … none.

Then, and only then, every Western journalist and editor would suddenly become a passionate defender of “free speech” or “free expression” and would be quick to condemn anyone suggesting otherwise.

Why the double standard?

Not only are present-day media organizations full of Islamophobes (which is bad enough); but an entire industry has emerged since 9/11 as part of the American “war on terror.”

This new industry sanctions, condones and promotes Islamophobia and pays Islamophobic writers, speakers, commentators and other self-styled “experts” handsomely for their books and articles, as well as giving them wide public platforms from which to express their views.

Many seasoned journalists will tell you “off the record” about just how much Islamophobia goes on in today’s mainstream media. But few are brave enough to write about it.

“Media has no bounds when it comes to Muslim bashing,” says Ray Hanania, one of the brave ones, an award-winning American columnist and author.

“Steve (Huntley) my former editor (at the Chicago Sun Times), has fashioned himself as one of the leading promoters of anti-Muslim hate,” wrote Hanania in his August 16, 2008 column. “He has company at the Sun-Times, although the ranks of Muslim bashers have been weeded out in the newspaper’s transition from bully pulpit under Racism Baron Conrad Black [and] returning to respectable journalism again.”

“I had to laugh when I read Steve Huntley’s column in Friday’s Chicago Sun Times,” says Hanania. “Citing one of the most racist anti-Muslim newspapers in America, the Wall Street Journal, [Huntley] notes that Muslims have protested to Random House over a new book called ‘The Jewel of Medina.’ ... The protests have led Random House to not release the book. The book is about the Prophet Muhammed who led and founded the Islamic religion that ‘only’ a 5th of the people of the world observe. The book has been described as scurrilous and vicious and pure anti-Muslim hate.”

“And here’s Huntley, arguing that it’s sad when voices are silenced because of bigotry. What a hypocrite. Huntley served on the Sun-Times board at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-Arab voices were not only silenced and prevented from being articulated, but when the hate-mongering against Muslims and Arabs was at its ugliest and most vicious crescendo. (You still see remnants in Neil Steinberg’s column, which teeters between heights of phenomenal writing ... to the lows of vicious demagoguery when his topics are Arabs and Muslims. At least he’s changing.)”

In their book At War with Metaphor: Media, Propaganda and Racism in the War on Terror, Canadian Professors Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills document racist representations of Muslims as animals in post-911 media and public discourse, linking this to hate crimes and prisoner abuse.

Steuter and Wills argue that “the abuses of Abu Ghraib were part of a systemic continuum of dehumanization. This continuum has its roots in our public discussions of the war on terror and the metaphors through which they are repeatedly framed. … [T]hese metaphors, if left unexamined, bind us into a cycle of violence that will only be intensified by a responsive violence of metaphor.”

Steuter and Wills examine go on to examine compelling examples of animal, insect, and disease imagery that influence, shape, and limit our understanding of the war on terror. Tying these images to historical and contemporary propaganda through a strong analysis of media filters, At War with Metaphor shows how deeply the news media (print, illustrative, spoken and online) are invested in continuing the use of damaging, dehumanizing metaphors for “the other” in our midst.

As one review puts it: “[By] analyzing media through the lenses of race and Orientalism, [Steuter and Wills] invite us to hold our media and ourselves accountable for the choices we make in talking war and making enemies.”

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at  

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