Orientalist and Islamophobic Discourses: Comparing Muslims Representation in Western Media After 9/11 and Now

Since the 9/11 tragedy, the West and Muslims have experienced an uneasy relationship. Many Muslims in the West faced hostility because of their similar faith with 9/11 perpetrators. Since “media discourse is the main resource of people’s knowledge, attitudes and ideologies” (van Dijk, 2000, cited in Ameli et al., 2007, p. 8), news outlets have had a role in constructing the stereotypes that enable such hostility. This essay argues that after 9/11, the media portrays Muslims as a threat to Western society, especially Western security and culture. This essay also believes that such depiction is still prevalent today, notably among far-right media outlets. To support this argument, this paper will use critical discourse analysis to investigate how Muslims are represented in the media and point out underlying ideologies that influence the news. It will draw from various academic literature to discuss media representation of Muslims after 9/11. This article will also critically examine two examples of recent Muslim-related news from two British media, The Guardian and The Daily Mail.

When we talk about representation, meaning about a particular subject is constructed through language; thus, we must identify the dominant discourse (Hall, 1997, cited in Ameli et al., 2007). Discourse is “a group of statements which provide a language for talking about a way of representing the knowledge about a particular topic at a particular historical moment” (Hall, 1992, cited in Ameli et al., 2007, p. 10). Critical discourse analysis (CDA) aims to discover connections between discourse practises, social practises, and social structures (Faircough, 1993, cited in Kabgani, 2013). This essay will utilise van Dijk’s CDA that emphasises social, discourse, and cognitive analysis (van Dijk, 1995, cited in Poorebrahim and Zarei, 2013). The social analysis looks at the societal context of the use of language. Discourse analysis closely examines the use of language in the text, such as metaphor. The cognitive analysis focuses on the ideologies that “indirectly influence the personal cognition of group members’’ (van Dijk, 1995, cited in Poorebrahim and Zarei, 2013, p. 59).

In the aftermath of 9/11, the media wrote more articles about Muslims. For example, The Sun, a British newspaper, during 2001–2002 period saw 658% increase in articles incorporating the word ‘Muslim’ compared to 2000–2001 (Whittaker, 2002, cited in Saeed, 2007). Baker et al. (2013) found that in the British media, the word ‘Muslim’ frequently collocates with ‘world’ from 2001–2003 and with ‘extremists’ from 2001–2002 in the British media. In addition, the term ‘Islamic’ collocates firmly with the word ‘militants’, ‘extremists’, ‘Jihad’, and ‘fundamentalism’, even before 9/11 (Baker et al., 2013). This quantitative research reveals the news outlets tendency to link Muslim or Islam with negative words.

Such portrayal is widely believed to have emerged due to the context of the 9/11 tragedy. While 9/11 was shocking to the world, we cannot neglect that the unfavourable description of Muslims was also shaped by the policy responses that followed. Under the leadership of the United States, many countries declared a global war on terror (GWOT), allowing them to take extraordinary security measures, including the use of force. The US and its allies attack Iraq, drone strikes on Al-Qaeda, airport security check that disproportionately targets Muslims, and other counterterrorism programs contribute to the unfavourable sentiment towards Muslims.

How exactly are Muslims represented in the news? This paper will discuss examples from several academic literature. In the early days after 9/11, The West Australian newspaper wrote a headline ‘Delighted’ with a photo of Palestinians rejoicing at the tragedy (Kabir, 2006). Kabir (2006) stated that the news portrays all Muslims supporting terrorism because the Palestinians are predominantly Muslims. This essay believes that the portrayal is also grounded on Palestine versus Israel ‘conflict’ generally seen as a religious conflict between Islam and Jewish. Indeed, Kabir (2006) mentioned how one reader left a comment on the Letter page that he/she withdrew support for Palestinian because of this news. Hence, the news paints Islam as a violent religion, thus threatening the West.

The following example is from US news media. Samaie and Malmir (2017) analysed how media tries to create discursive construction of social actors by looking at the metaphor used. They found sentences such as “Ramadan-when devout Muslims flock to mosques…”, “Tens of thousands of Shiites fled into the marshes around Basra, and were hunted down…” and “In Dakha, the capital of Bangladesh, nearly 10,000 Muslims, pouring out of mosques…” (Samaie and Malmir, 2017, p. 1358). They noted that these metaphors show the prejudiced discourse of the media and indicate that “Muslims who flock together in groups are slaughtered, butchered, and hunted by either the Islamic extremists or the police” (Samaie and Malmir, 2017, p. 1357). This essay also highlights how the use of metaphor contributes to dehumanising Muslims. The term flock and hunted down are usually used with animals, while pouring out is generally paired with inanimate objects, such as water. Thus, the news painted Muslims as unworthy and unequal to other humans (white people) that could result in hostility and discrimination because the people are seen as less human.

Finally, Poorebrahim and Zarei (2013) analysed several renowned international news media headlines. The headlines they found included “The suicide of reason: Radical Islam’s threat to the West”, “Islam overtakes Catholicism as world’s largest religion”, and “Does Islam fit with our law, Is a clash of civilizations looming?” (Poorebrahim and Zarei, 2013, p. 66). They pointed out that these headlines draw the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In addition, ‘the suicide of reason’ in the first headline implies that Islam is irrational (Poorebahim and Zarei, 2013). I would argue that the term also paints Muslims as religious fanatics that are anti-reason; thus again different from the West that champions reason.

The second headline incites that the Christian world should be cautious of Islam because they have more followers (Poorebahim and Zarei, 2013). In addition, this essay sees that the impact of this headline could be more severe if the audience is concerned with the crusade and Islam-Christianity competition throughout history. The third headline suggests that the clash could happen at any time (Poorebahim and Zarei, 2013). While it was a good point, this essay underlines the construction of Islam as ‘other’ that could be noticed simply by looking at the term ‘our law’. Whose law is it? There is no explanation; however, we could easily understand that it is ‘the West law’, reinforcing the contrast identity between the West and Islam.

The next question is why Muslims are represented in that way? The answer could be obtained by analysing the underlying ideologies that form such construction. Many scholars have linked Muslim representation in media with Orientalism which Edward Said introduced. Fundamentally, Orientalism is how the West sees the world: binary between ‘them’ and East civilisation as Orient (Said, 1978, cited in Poorebahim and Zarei, 2013). In doing so, the West positions itself as the more superior, modern, and civilised society, while the Orient–including Muslims–as backward, barbaric, and inferior (Saaed, 2007). This belief has been used to justify colonisation and imperialism since the West constructed that colonial rule will also benefit the Orient (Ameli et al., 2007). This discourse has become embedded in Western society; thus, when media with majority white journalists write news about Muslims, they have had the idea that Muslims are different and represent them as Orient in their news.

In addition to Orientalism, Islamophobia also influences how news outlets represent Muslims. Islamophobia could be generally defined as the fear of things related to Islam. Islamophobia is seen as the ‘new racism’ or ‘cultural racism’ linked to ethnicity (Saeed, 2007). Hall et al. (1992, cited in Saeed, 2007, p. 446) noted how notions of the biological race had been renewed by cultural definitions based on national belonging and identity. Hence, Muslims are ‘Orient’, and we should ‘cautious’ about them. News organisations see that Muslims’ culture is incompatible with ‘our’ culture and see that Muslims’ practice is threatening ‘our’ culture. Furthermore, Muslims are ‘barbaric other’ and threaten ‘our’ security because they are fundamentalists that support terrorism.

Twenty years after the 9/11 tragedy, how Muslims are portrayed in the media today? This essay will discuss two news articles from The Guardian and Daily Mail regarding Prevent, a counterterrorism program in the UK that mandated local authority staff and other professionals to report someone suspected as radical (Daily Mail, 2021). Daily Mail is a prominent right-wing newspaper, while The Guardian is a well-known centre-left newspaper.

First, the essay will analyse the news title. Siddique (2021) from The Guardian published the news on 18 October 2021, ‘More Prevent referrals linked to far-right extremism than Islamist’. The title’s tone is neutral, aiming to tell the audience about the story of Prevent in an objective way without any bombastic words. In contrast, Daily Mail published the news on 21 October 2021 with the title ‘Prevent terror de-radicalisation scheme has been hijacked by political correctness and ‘Islamophobia’ claims while disproportionate resources are dedicated to far-right, claims report.’ In this title, Daily Mail used ‘hijacked’, a negative connotation term widely used during the 9/11 tragedy. The word ‘hijacked’ is followed by ‘political correctness’, the use of language that tries to prevent offending certain groups in society (Roper, 2020). The title implies that Prevent is ‘hijacked’ by people who fear offending Muslims or risking being labelled as Islamophobic. In addition, the use term ‘disproportionate’ indicates that this situation should not happened. In other words, it assumes that Prevent’s top target should be Islamists, not right wing extremisim, and Prevent has failed to do its job.

The second analysis will examine the news content. Aside from statistical data derived from the Home Office’s official report, both media also wrote additional explanations regarding the Prevent program. The Guardian wrote, “The Prevent programme has been dogged by claims of being a cover to spy on Muslim communities…”. It also mentioned how human rights groups boycotted a governmental review on Prevent because the review’s leader, Sir William Shawcross, had spoken anti-Muslim statement in the past. These parts have a sympathetic tone towards Muslims. The first sentence tried to paint that Muslims are victims of the Prevent program. The second one suggested that Muslims could be affected by the Prevent program again because the review leader has a hostile view towards Islam.

Meanwhile, Daily Mail mentioned that the report was released in the aftermath of David Amess murder. The murderer, Ali Harbi Ali, British-Somali muslim, was referred to Prevent but was released because the assessment process found not enough risk. Thus, Daily Mail suggested that the attack happened because of the Prevent failure. Furthermore, Daily Mail quoted an intelligence source that “far-rights do not present the same risk as Islamists by any distance”. While Daily Mail specifically used the term Islamists to differentiate from Islam or Muslims in general, such distinction does not become helpful when media overwhelmingly cover the attacks. Of course, there are radical Muslims and moderate Muslims. However, how can the public–white people–differentiate between them? Hence, following a terror attack, the tension and sentiment towards Muslims could increase because of the media portrayal. Indeed, The Guardian also published some other news regarding Somalis in the UK that faced death threats and news about the Muslim groups prepare for rising hostility after David Amess murder (Townsend, 2021; Sabbagh, 2021). In comparison, Daily Mail did not release any news about these hatreds towards Muslims and only focused on the attack.

In conclusion, the news media largely represent Muslims as a threat to the West, especially its security and culture. Such portrayal had started before 9/11 but intensified after the attack, with the US and its allies launching GWOT. Using the critical discourse analysis, this essay has demonstrated that Muslims are often depicted as supporting terrorism, uncivilised, and conflicting with Western identity. These representations are rooted in Orientalism and Islamophobia that sees Muslims as ‘other’ and ‘dangerous’. Even until recently, negative images continue to be painted by the right-wing media with evidence from Daily Mail. Meanwhile, centre-left media such as The Guardian has a more favourable view towards Muslims. Further questions could be explored, including why right-wing media still represent Muslims negatively? Is there any connection between their ideology and Orientalism and Islamophobia? Who is behind the hegemony of the discourse that Muslims are a threat?

This essay was written for News, Politics and Power final exam with some minor revisions.

Bibliography

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Baker, P., et al. (2013) Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes The Representation of Islam in the British Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Sabbagh, D. (2021) UK Muslim groups brace for rise in hate crime after killing of David Amess. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/oct/17/muslim-group-to-issue-hate-support-after-killing-of-david-amess (Accessed 6 January 2022).

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Siddique, H. (2021) More Prevent referrals linked to far-right extremism than Islamist. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/nov/18/more-prevent-referrals-linked-to-far-right-extremism-than-islamist (Accessed 6 January 2022).

Townsend, M. (2021) Somalis in UK targeted with death threats and abuse after David Amess killing. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/24/somalis-in-uk-targeted-with-death-threats-and-abuse-after-david-amess-killing (Accessed 6 January 2022).

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