Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
August 2012


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Same Old Story: Muslims in the Media

After a period of silence, Muslims have again been featuring heavily in the Australian media. Two of these programs, the ABC’s ‘Divorce: Aussie Muslim Style’, and Channel Seven’s ‘Behind the veil’, whilst consciously veering from sensationalist, nonetheless fall into the same old media trap of treating Islam, and thus, Muslims, as a monolith.

This is not surprising given the history of the Australian media’s one-dimensional portrayal. Even before September 11, when Muslims were featured on the news or in television programming, they were far more often than not depicted as violent or extremist or both.

It all began in 1997, when a sort of moral-panic regarding the Muslim ‘other’ exploded following the stabbing death of a Sydney teenager in the South Western Sydney suburb of Punchbowl, which like neighbouring Lakemba, has a large Muslim population. After police announced they were looking for youths of ‘Middle Eastern appearance,’ politicians quickly jumped on the bandwagon blaming ‘Lebanese gangs’ for the murder whilst talkback radio shows trumpeted about ‘out of control’ immigrant youths.

The stage was set and the characterisation of Muslims as the violent ‘other’ was to continue in various forms of media. In 2000, the ABC program BackBerner satirised the album A is for Allah by Muslim convert Yusuf Islam, joking that the album was released by ‘Mecca Records’, and included the songs B is for Bomb, C is for Clitoridectomy, and D is for Dismemberment. The Australian Broadcasting Authority upheld a complaint against the ABC.

In the first half of 2001, Sydney was gripped by the so-called ‘Gang Rape trials’, also in Sydney’s South West. After Anglo-Australian girls were targeted by a group of mostly Lebanese youths, columnist Paul Sheehan declared gang rape intrinsic in Muslim and Arab culture, citing as ‘proof’ that urban immigrant poor from the same backgrounds had committed similar crimes in France. The Australian obviously agreed: it ran a front-page story headlined, ‘Rape Menace from the Melting Pot.’

The implication is clear; these violent actions stemmed not from the individuals concerned but from Arab Muslim culture itself. Of course, this was exacerbated by 9/11 and the Bali Bombings in 2002 when negative media portrayals appeared on an almost daily basis. One notorious Bill Leak cartoon in The Australian featured two burqa-clad women, one asking the other, ‘Does my bomb look big in this?’ Not only is terrorism portrayed as an inherent aspect of Islam but so too is the burqa.

In recent times, the media has self-consciously attempted to rectify its mistakes. Muslim commentators and journalists such as Waleed Aly and Yalda Hakim feature prominently. However, the default position, whilst moving away somewhat from the ‘all Muslims are terrorist’ trope, appears to remain firmly one of ‘all Muslims are the same.’

The fuss over the burqa appears to have largely died down but was resurrected by Channel Seven’s Sunday Night program in June this year. The story ‘Behind the veil’ attempted to give an objective view of why some women choose to wear the burqa. The operative word, of course, being ‘choose’. Whilst the program notably lacked the sensationalism that usually surrounds this sensitive topic, it also unwittingly contributed to the one-dimensional way in which Muslims are portrayed. The relentless focus on a mode of dress, that only the most conservative strands of Islam require, perpetuates the erroneous and irksome association between the burqa and all Muslim women. Full face and body coverings are not Muslim dress codes so much as dress codes that some Muslims adhere to.

Then there is the fact that Muslims only make it to our screens when their very Muslim identity is the issue. Both ‘Behind the veil’ and the recent ABC offering, ‘Divorce: Aussie Islamic Way’ are guilty of this, although the latter strayed away from the familiar burqa/are all Muslims terrorists story lines and headed into family Sharia law territory (which also has its fair share of surrounding hysteria). Whilst it provided a good insight into the struggles some Lebanese Sunni Muslim women who instigate a divorce face, it too was guilty of treating their particular problems as though they were representative of all Islam. Again, the experiences of Muslims who do not reside in Sydney, and more specifically, Sydney’s South West, and who do not fit into this narrow representation are ignored.

A couple of years ago, as a masters media student at Sydney University, I interviewed Waleed Aly, asking him why he thought Muslims were unable to transcend the one dimensional view which casts them as terrorists and religious fanatics and little else. He answered that it is the very fact that Muslims only tend to prop up in media and the public space when the issue at hand is their ‘Muslimness’. So where Church leaders are often acknowledged for their contribution to civic life and asked for their opinions ‘on social issues such as industrial relations reform, we would never even think about asking an Islamic organisation.’

In other words, Muslims are treated as though they have nothing valuable to add to society as a whole. They are figuratively cordoned off onto their ‘enclaves’ and only to be heard from when a current affairs show wants to say something about burqas, Sharia, fanatics and extremists.  In such an environment, it is not surprising that all Muslims, not just those actually portrayed in the media continue to be viewed with suspicion. As Aly told me, ‘As long as Muslims are not permitted to have a public existence outside of their ‘Muslimness’ then the process of ‘othering’ will remain alive and well.’  

Ruby Hamad