Countering Islam phobia: The potential role of peace journalism

(Sheryaar Sethar, Hyderabad)

Cover Picture.

Representations of Muslims in the Australian media have been routinely stereotyped; have failed to reflect the diversity of origin, outlook, and aspirations of Muslim Australians; and have negatively impacted perceptions of Islam and treatment of Muslims by non-Muslim Australians. This article explores findings from a study involving content and discourse analysis of representations of Muslims in Australian broadsheet newspapers. Lower levels of Islamophobia in news articles within the sample were associated with a ‘peace journalism’ approach to reporting. Peace journalism promotes the contextualization of conflict narratives and challenges dominant news conventions such as the focus on elite, bureaucratic sources. It is therefore suggested that potentially fruitful strategies for countering Islamophobia in the news media could include the adoption of standards for conflict reporting and expanding opportunities for peace journalism in reporting on issues relating to Muslims and Islam.

Following the events of 11 September 2001, Islamophobic attitudes and acts, enacted on a variety of institutional and quotidian levels, were to severely impact Australian Muslim communities and created significant damage to communal harmony and social cohesion. This culminated in the widely publicized ‘race riots’ at Sydney’s Cronulla Beach in 2005. Although there have not been further outbreaks of large-scale direct violence between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians, inter-communal tensions continue to simmer and incidences of direct and structural violence directed towards Australian Muslims have recently risen in frequency and severity. This phenomenon has in large part been traceable to the return to power of a conservative government in 2013, which has sought to deflect attention from its unpopular economic policies through a renewed focus on generating fear and anxiety regarding Muslims and Muslim communities in Australia amid the context of a global resurgence of Islamophobia Although Muslims in Australia have been subjected to discrimination and prejudice since at least the late 19th century, anti-Muslim prejudice did not gain significant prominence in Australian public discourse until the early 1980s (Dunn, 2001; Isakhan, 2010; Kabir, 2006). This was a result of both the growth of the Muslim population in Australia during this period and a burst of interest in Islam and Muslims among Western journalists, politicians, and the public, largely as a response to key international events such as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the First Palestinian Intifada in 1987 (Esposito, 2011; Said, 1997). Indeed, despite the still negligible size of the Australian Muslim community, Muslims were among the four most discriminated against minority groups in Australia by 1991 (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1991). From the early 1990s, it then becomes possible to document the emergence of sustained and politically condoned anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia, which we can more clearly label as ‘Islamophobia’ (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2004). By mid-2001, the potential for extracting political capital through scapegoating of the Muslim community was therefore substantial. At this point in time, the governing Liberal/National Coalition was languishing in the polls, just months away from the next election, when two significant events happened to change its fortunes. One was the course towards Australian coastal waters set by the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter that had picked up over 400 Afghan refugees from a sinking ship. Australia denied entry to the Tampa, and within days, the Coalition had passed a new Border Protection Bill which played to the fears of a well-primed electorate (Errington and Van Onselen, 2007). Just weeks later came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September. Australian Prime Minister John Howard happened to be in Washington at the time. His personal experience strongly impressed upon him the significance of the event not just for the United States but for global politics (Fidler, 2011). He and his government subsequently capitalized upon the new fear of ‘terrorism’ to place still more emphasis on ‘border protection’ and ‘national security’ as the key issue of the 2001 election – and were returned to Federal Government by a landslide. During this period, the two separate phenomena – asylum seekers and ‘terrorism’ – came to be conflated in political and media accounts as ‘threats’ to Australia. Media content analytical studies have repeatedly demonstrated the forging of linkages between 258 Global Media and Communication 11(3) asylum seekers, terrorism, and Muslims. Peter Manning (2004), for example, shows that in newspaper articles published in Sydney between 2000 and 2002, which referred to refugees or asylum seekers, fully 37 per cent also contained references to ‘terrorism’; furthermore, he found that ‘threat concepts’ such as fundamentalist terrorism were strongly associated with Muslims and Islam (p. 12). Social psychological research during the past ten years has similarly demonstrated strong correlative relationships between negative attitudes towards asylum seekers, fear of terrorism, and prejudice against Muslims. In some studies, these traits were also strongly related to low levels of personal experiences with asylum seekers or Muslims, leading researchers to contend that political and media accounts were playing a significant role in the dissemination and legitimization of ‘false beliefs’ concerning asylum seekers and Muslims (Pedersen et al., 2007). This phenomenon is of course not limited to Australia. Indeed, as Dunn et al. (2007) have observed, ‘the unreasonableness and defamatory effect of media portrayals of Islam [have become] a recurring theme of any contemporary ethnographic work with Muslims in western countries’ (p. 582). There are, however, particularly clear connections between the political agenda and fortunes of the conservative Liberal/Coalition Government led by Prime Minister John Howard and the rise of mediatized anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic discourses in Australia following the events of 11 September 2001. These developments fit neatly into the pattern described by Murray Edelman (1988) as ‘political spectacle’. Spectacles enable political control to be exerted through the creation of ‘mediated dramas’ that both invoke and reinforce syndromes of ‘psychological distancing’. These can produce a ‘roused response’, based on fear and anxiety, to issues expedient to the author(s) of the drama, while distracting public attention from other issues less likely to build political support for their cause. This strategy can be successful because ‘to personify an issue by identifying it with an enemy wins support for a political stand while masking the material advantages the perception provides’ (Edelman, 1988: 68). At some point during the middle of the last decade, however, this pattern shifted. Prime Minister John Howard lost not only the Federal Election of 2007 but even his own seat, as a Labor government took office with apparent commitments to unravel some of the certitudes of its predecessor. The incoming government pledged that child asylum seekers would no longer to be kept locked up in detention centres. Australian troops in Iraq were brought home from a theatre of war Labor said that they should never have entered in the first place. For a while, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Australia even appeared to be moving towards a more even-handed approach on a totemic issue to some in the Muslim community, namely, the Israel–Palestine conflict (Lynch, 2011). Although the incoming government did not ultimately deliver upon all of its promises, the late 2000s were characterized by a marked subsidence of racist attacks upon Muslim individuals and communities and a muting of Islamophobic rhetoric in Australian political discourse, in comparison with the heightened tensions of the mid-2000s – the context within which the Cronulla Riots had occurred. The study upon which this article is based, therefore, sought to explore the characteristics of media reporting during two key points within this period: the 2004 Federal Election campaign, during which the Howard Government and its exclusionary rhetoric were still largely unquestioned within the mainstream media, and the 2007 Federal Election campaign, when a more critical lens was being applied to understanding and analysing the failures of the ‘War on Terror’ Anderson 259 and to acknowledging the detrimental effect upon Australian society of anti-Muslim ‘dog-whistle’ politics and policies.

Studies of racism in the media have frequently found that ethnic or racial minorities appear in a relatively small proportion of press articles, and when they are present, they are largely represented in negative ways or are spoken ‘for’, rather than being quoted directly (Teo, 2000; Van Dijk, 2008; Wilson and Gutiérrez, 1995). Many studies analysing stereotypes or negative representatives of ethnic minorities have further focussed on investigating the issue of minority or other outgroups being frequently represented as a ‘problem’ in the news media (Lynch, 2008). This method of analysing representations of minorities builds upon the findings of Galtung and Ruge’s classic study, in which they demonstrated that ‘news’ is traditionally focussed upon problems, rather than solutions (Galtung and Ruge, 1965). In this study, I found that from the four data sets analysed, Islam was identified as a ‘problem’ most frequently in The Australian in 2004. In total, 30 per cent of the articles in this publication at this time were coded as explicitly representing Islam as a ‘problem’. In contrast, the lowest percentage of articles identifying Islam as a problem and the highest percentage of articles which specifically identified an alternative problem or no problem at all were from The SMH in 2007.2 Rather unsurprisingly, there was a correlative relationship between articles which represented Islam as a ‘problem’ and articles which were highly Islamophobic. As has been established in much of the literature on Islam and the media, the linkage between Islam and violence is particularly widespread, with the majority of this emphasis characterized by a conflation of terrorism and Islam. The proportion of articles on the three subjects of counter-terrorism and national security, terrorist violence, and violent conflict in Islamic countries was highest for The Australian in 2007 and lowest for The SMH in 2007. Within the category of ‘violence and Islam’, the proportion of articles on the different subjects within this broader category of Islam and violent conflict differed significantly. In The Australian in 2004, for example, ‘terrorist violence’ was the subject of a full 23 per cent of the stories; in 2007, by contrast, ‘terrorist violence’ was the subject of just 2 per cent of the stories – exactly the same proportion as for The SMH in the same year. The proportionally high number of stories on ‘terrorist violence’ in 2004 did not necessarily reflect an extremely high number of individual terrorist attacks or incidences of violence. Instead, it reflected an overwhelming number of articles reporting on slightly 264 Global Media and Communication 11(3) different aspects or developments of a limited number of actual incidents, in particular the aftermath of the Jakarta Embassy bombing, which occurred on 9 September 2004, just prior to the start of the period under analysis. Articles discussing matters such as terrorist violence, which generally had a preponderance of Islamophobic frames, were characterized by a lack of contextualizing information which would make the violence that was being reported explicable in any way. In very few articles from either publication or time period did articles directly cite the views and perspectives of Muslims other than extremists: quotations from Muslims were more frequently from extreme clerics or militants than from ordinary Muslims and were often utilized to bolster Islamophobic arguments rather than to give voice to Muslim perspectives.

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