The Middle Eastern media pushes an image of a united Muslim community which is against Western influence in the area as being the dominant identity of Islam; yet reporting by Arab and other regional media reflects the fractured nature of the religion. There are four main issues to assess when looking at representations of Islam; the representation of women, extremism, sectarianism, and of course the “Muslim Street”. I am using the news media as the basis for this discussion. An identity crisis has been gradually developing between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which becomes evident through reporting on the sectarian warfare in Iraq and other conflicts zones. As is the case here in the West, there is always a level of focus upon extremist Islam in the Middle Eastern media. The news media shows varying levels of support and opposition to militant elements of Islam depending upon the context of the situation and the reporting. The dominant narrative of an all encompassing Muslim identity, the “Muslim Street” is reinforced by Muslim responses to the misrepresentation of Islam; and in the reporting of such events. Since many media in the Middle East are funded by influential religious groups or political parties, very little open dissent from dominant representations are given room to exist.
This sectarian backing of media companies in the Middle East is partly responsible for the increasingly divided sectarian nature of the Muslim community (particularly in Iraq). Views and reporting in the Middle Eastern media is often built upon a sectarian basis, for example on the 12th October, 2006, the Jeish al-Mehdi militia launched an attack in the Iraqi town of Khan Bany Saad east of Baghdad. IraqiRabita.org, a Sunni-backed agency reported the attack as a “mad rush” which “besieged and heavily pounded” the village with rockets and mortar rounds; to which “brotherly Iraqi resistance fighters” responded quickly, forcing the militiamen to “flee the scene”. The article claims that the extremist militia required the support of a “conspiring police unit” to exit the area; an accusation leveled at further damaging the reputation of the Shiite controlled Interior Ministry. (Iraqi League Correspondent in Diyala, Translation: Mr Nashwabn Abd, 2006). This kind of reporting is not uncommon from religious or government-backed Middle Eastern media companies. To reiterate the idea that reporting of conflict in the Middle Eastern media is often based upon sectarian lines one only needs to look at the recent Hezbollah//Israel debacle.
Hezbollah’s decision to cross the border onto Israeli soil and capture two Israeli soldiers initially received much hostility from major Sunni-backed media agencies. Saudi journalist Hussein Shobokshi a Saudi columnist for the Sunni Arabic daily newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat (backed by Saudi Arabia, printed in London) and host of al-Arabiya’s current affairs show “Al Takreer” (broadcast from Dubai) said the only beneficiary of these actions could be the Shia Islamist government in Iran. Mr Shobokshi added that though Hezbollah is “a Lebanese party” the Iranian hand is “more than visible” and its intentions are not always innocent (Shobokshi H, 2006). Tariq al-Homayed the Sunni editor in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, also responded to the actions with vocal opposition to the Hezbollah decision stating: “Mr. Nasrallah bombastically announced he had consulted no-one when he decided to attack Israel, nor did he measure Lebanon’s need for security, prosperity and the safety of its people. He said he needs no ones help but Gods to fight the fight”. As the conflict continued and both sides of the “Muslim Street” began speaking out in opposition to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Sunni and Shia media alike quickly became very supportive of Hezbollah’s resistance to occupation (Rising, D. 2006).
After the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Sammara, Iraq on February 22, 2006 Arab media placed the blame squarely upon “Zionists” and “occupiers”; the Shia Irani regime’s state-controlled media outlet, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) claimed the bombing was part of a “Zionist” strategy to “create a divide between followers of Islam and push Iraq towards a civil war”. (Ayatollah Khamenei, 2006). The language used in the article emphasizes unity amongst Muslims and presents fractures in this unity as being the result of Zionist or Western meddling. This is in-line with the dominant narrative of a united Muslim identity, the “Muslim Street” which spans across the streets of Arab, Middle Eastern and other predominantly Muslim nations. Unfortunately secular and moderate followers of Islam have not isolated extremist elements from the Muslim Street, and as such their messages and identity is skewed by the actions of those extremists.
Identity exists on many levels; but for the purpose of this essay we will assume there are three main levels; a personal identity, a cultural identity and an “imaginary” identity. The personal level in this case is an individual Muslim: they choose whether they are Sunni or Shia, whether to wear a hijab, burka or no traditional clothing at all. (Riverbend, 2006). They choose whether they believe in Islamist politics or if they prefer secular ideologies. They choose whether to be a moderate or an extremist. They even choose their level of identification with the dominant cultural identity of Muslims; but they can’t choose to be totally devoid of it. Unfortunately for moderate Muslims representations of the Muslim Street are associated with violent, reactionary thinking in both western and Middle-Eastern media. This can be seen in the disproportional representation of the reactions by not-so-moderate Muslims in response to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s printing of provocative cartoon depictions of Mohammed,, one of which depicted Islam’s highest prophet as a suicide bomber.
Many Muslims are secular and believe that religion is an issue between them and god and “not something that should involve society” (Simsek, B. 2006). Many of them did not respond violently or make threats in response to these cartoons; rather they formed a group with the hope of counter-acting the extremist views of Danish Imam’s and other extreme members of the Muslim Street (Gudmundsson, H. 2006). Unfortunately their voices were drowned out even in the Middle Eastern media by the actions of extremists who preach Jihad and Sharia laws; the disproportional representation of extremism leaves moderate Muslims with a violent image painted across their true identities; creating an “imaginary identity” fit for consumption by those whose views are less-than-friendly to Islam. This leaves us with one final issue: Islamic law (Sharia) and the representation of Muslim women in the Middle Eastern media.
Muslim women are grossly underrepresented in the English language Middle Eastern media and as such we must look outside of the news media for representations of women. Women play important roles in the social and economical function of Islam and of Middle Eastern nations themselves; but due to the patriarchal nature of Muslim society these roles have traditionally been down-played and often completely ignored by the Middle Eastern media (Trinnier, M. et al. 2005). Muslim women are exploited for use in advertising similarly to the sexually-driven way that Western media exploits western women. They are portrayed through song as a source of seduction, temptation and as the cause of much suffering to Muslim men. In films and drama’s women are often portrayed as working in low-end jobs or as dancers, they are portrayed as either in need of a man, or as housewives; very rarely is a woman portrayed as succesfull, be it as a housewife or in business (al-Dhaheri, A. M. 2000).
This representation is not accurate; using the example of Iraqi women writers from the Olivebranch Network one can see that Muslim women can be independent even in the worst of times, despite their own fears of doing so; like Miraj when she decides to go out and get her flavoured milk (Miraj, April 27, 2006). They can hold successful jobs working important positions for important media companies such as the editor of the Reuters translation room in Baghdad (Linda Albermani, 2006.). They can even confront deadly situations like Miraj when she walks around her home carrying a gun to protect herself and her family by possible murderers when her fear is sparked by something abnormal (Miraj, September 13, 2006). Muslim women are so underrepresented in the Middle Eastern news media that it is virtually impossible to find any form of representation of them in English language articles.
All though the Arab and Middle Eastern media is becoming increasingly diverse with the proliferation of satellite TV technology and the emergence independent broadcasting companies there is still a long way to go before they become truly representative of their populations. Heavy-weight religious elite’s and political leaders still control much of what makes it out; particularly in the English language versions of Middle Eastern media, and as such their perceptions and representations are skewed to fit their different agenda’s. Muslim women are underrepresented and when they are they are presented as being less worthy and useful to society than what they actually are. Religious divisions and difference are often overlooked in an attempt to present the Muslim Street as having a united identity which surpasses all ethnic and sectarian issues; but this is not accurate. One can see through examples even from within the media itself that sectarian issues fuel debate and influence the representation of events, groups and issues. Islamic extremism is disproportionately presented in Middle Eastern media just as it is in Western media; because it is controversial and people want to hear about it; not necessarily because it is supported. All in all the representation of Islam in the Middle Eastern media has a disproportional focus on men, on extremism and a lacking of focus on the actual sectarian and ethnic differences between Muslims; should it accomplish dealing with these issues it would be much more accurate in its portrayal of Islam, and maybe then Western media would follow suite and not be able to get away with perpetuating Muslim stereotyping.
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