The Arabic word ‘Islam’ simply means ‘submission’, and derives from a word meaning ‘peace’–in a religious context, it translates to the complete submission to the will of God. ‘Allah’ is the Arabic name for God, which is used by both Arabic Muslims and Christians alike. Islam is the second large religion, and is a way of life for one-fifth of the world’s population. Muslims follow a religion of peace, mercy, and forgiveness, and the majority have nothing to do with the incredibly grave events that have come to be associated with their faith. Islam is very similar to Christianity, as Muslims believe in one God, his prophets, the Day of Judgement, and His complete decision in life after death; they also believe in a chain of prophets starting with Adam and including Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Elias, Jonah, John the Baptist, and Jesus, all of which are present in the Bible. The main difference in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islamic faith, is that “God’s final message to man, a reconfirmation of the eternal message and a summing-up of all that has gone before, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through Gabriel”. They also follow the five pillars of Islam, which build the framework of the Muslim life: faith, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage to Makkah for those who are able (Islamic Text Society).There is, quite apparently, a wide-spread stigma in toward Muslims and people from the Middle East in Western cultures. In the United States specifically, this stigma was formed during the second half of the 20th century particularly due to the politics in the Middle East and because of the enormously consequential U.S. role in the region (Makdisi). Common stigmas include Arab and Muslim men as a threat to our freedoms, and Muslim women as being “oppressed, headscarf-wearing victims who need to be liberated through American intervention”(Makdisi). It’s common in our society to have the want to Westernize everything, or demote non-Western ideologies; and when someone doesn’t conform, they are seen as a threat. This is how these cruel stigmas are formed. In a TED Talk presented by Dalia Mogahed titled, “What do you think when you look at me?”, she discusses how her life as a Muslim-American was affected after the 9/11 attacks. Toward the end, she makes an awe-inspiring statement: ISIS has as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity. Now, how do these stigmas develop in our modern society, and why do they still exist?
Biased news coverage is one of the most influential factors of our perceptions on Muslims–or on anything, really. Many media and news sites have quite obvious biases which can make it difficult to find the straight facts. Research via The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism, or START, shows that “Non-Muslim Americans are supporting civil restrictions for American citizens of Muslim faith because of their exposure to media depictions of Muslims as terrorists.” One of their studies surveyed more than 700 American college students, and found that when Muslims are specifically portrayed by the media as terrorists, there is a substantial connection to high support for military action in Muslim countries. They note that, “The effect was independent of exposure to entertainment media violence in general; it was specific to media portrayals of Muslims as terrorists”. This study also found that when news footage portrayed Muslims in a positive light, support for policies harming Muslims declined. “Even limited exposure to news media can influence societal-level policies targeting Muslims domestically and internationally,” said Saleem, a START Terrorism Research Awardee.
Another one of their surveys brought in 200 participants with an average age of 37.5 years old. This one found that as exposure to news portraying Muslims as terrorists increased, so did Americans’ support for civil restrictions on Muslim-Americans. A final study surveyed more than 300 college students and adults, and revealed that short-term exposure to news media portraying Muslims as terrorists had increased support for policies harming Muslims, both in the US and internationally (Snaman).
A study was conducted in New Zealand by the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) to evaluate acceptance levels of other cultures; they received responses from over 16,500 citizens. These findings were then published in an international science journal titled “Plos One”; the authors said it showed widespread representations of Muslims in the news were contributing to lower acceptance. Whether liberal or conservative, they found that the more frequent news consumers showed both increased anger and reduced warmth towards members of the Islamic faith. “This indicates that it is widespread representations of Muslims in the news that is contributing to lower Muslim acceptance, rather than any partisan media bias. The media, regardless of politics, tend to publish violent stories because violence sells.” Lead author Dr. John Shaver added, “People tend to interpret the news in ways that fit with their pre-existing biases, seeking affirmation of their beliefs while discounting conflicting information” (Bulman).
Similar to the last cause, misrepresentation/a lack of representation of Muslims/true Muslim culture has a great effect on Western perceptions of the Islamic faith. Another study conducted by START suggests that media could have a crucial role in countering anti-Muslim ideals and stereotypes. Specifically, more balanced news coverage of Muslims in the United States, as well as worldwide, could reduce the perception that Muslims are violent. “Though results may be short-term, repeated exposure to positive media portrayals has the potential to lead to long-term changes in schemas involving outgroups” (Snaman).
As presented in works by Christopher Bail, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan, he found that since the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the media is more likely to publicise the views and actions of minority groups–this especially includes where they are driven by a divisive and hate-inspired agenda, supporting a previously quoted statement from Dr. John Shaver. Bail found that prior to 9/11, such groups rarely figured in the news. His study, published in December 2012 by the American Sociological Review, explains that anti-Muslim out-groups are more mainstream and have increased their influence since the September 11th attacks, primarily due to the United States media. He writes “I found that organizations with negative messages about Muslims captivated the mass media after the September 11 attacks, even though the vast majority of civil society organisations depict Muslims as peaceful, contributing members of American society”. As a result, he says, public condemnations of terrorism by Muslims have received little media attention, but organisations spreading negative messages continue to prod at public fears that “Muslims are secretly plotting to overthrow the American government.” “They are now so much a part of the mainstream that they have been able to recast genuinely mainstream Muslim organizations as radicals,” he told the Huffington Post. “I’m not saying the media had a direct role in facilitating these connections, but newspaper and television coverage of fringe groups with messages seeking to inspire anti-Muslim and Islamic fear and anger were given increased visibility creating the misperception they were mainstream organizations.” As a result, he concludes that media assists in helping these organisations secure funding and build social networks that they may not been able to do otherwise. He finishes with how study reveals that moderate groups, which make up the vast majority of civil society Muslim organisations, are much less represented in the news.
“We learned that American media almost completely ignored public condemnations of terrorist events by prominent Muslim organisations in the United States,” he said. “Inattention to these condemnations, combined with the emotional warnings of anti-fringe organisations, has created a very distorted representation of the community of advocacy organisations, think tanks, and religious groups competing to shape the representation of Islam in the American public sphere.” (Ilic).
A final, yet crucial, influence on Western perceptions of Muslims is social media. As of January 2018, We Are Social’s Global Digital Report shows that he number of internet users worldwide is 4.021 billion, and the number of social media users worldwide is 3.196 billion. Facebook, being the lead social media site, has reported 2.19 billion monthly active users in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Germany, which welcomed thousands of refugees in 2015, began to see a pattern of online racist abuse and hate speech emerge on Facebook. This caught the attention of Dr. Iran Awan, a professor at Birmingham City University. He blatantly writes,“In particular, the types of abuse I recorded led me to the five walls of Islamophobic hate which can be categorised as follows: Muslims are terrorists, Muslims are rapists, Muslim women are a security threat, A war exists between Muslims and “us”, and Muslims should be deported”. Among these categories, the most frequent abuse depicted Muslim women as security threats due to their clothing (76 instances), followed by the belief that Muslims should be deported (62 instances). The view of Muslims as terrorists was the third most common (58 instances), with a war with Muslims (53 instances) and Muslims as rapists (45 instances) the next most often repeated comments. Again, he reports that, “offensive phrases such as “muzrats”, “Paki”, “paedo”, “rapists”, “dirty”, “scum” and “filthy” were among the 20 most commonly used to describe Muslims during online tirades.” These terrible comments intensified following high-profile events such as the Rotherham abuse case. “These events also triggered an increase in abuse across the globe with the US and Australia seeing a large increase in inflammatory comments posted on pages like ‘Ban Islam in Australia’ and ‘Ban Islam in America’ during the aftermath.” He also found that men were found to be much more likely to post abuse, with a whopping 80 percent of all comments coming from male users of the site (Awan). Everyday, abusive comments are posted behind the safety of one’s computer. Misinformation and the freedom of social media ignite the spread of falsifications and form/strengthen biases.
Media plays a key role in the spread of stigmas and biases, as it has become plastered over our daily lives. News coverage can be both biased and unrepresentative of minorities, both of which can result in the wide belief of non-factual statements and a one-sided view. Social media is still booming, and provides the freedom to express whatever is on your mind—even if it’s harmful towards another being. The spread of ignorance will continue until we stand up and make a change.