The representation of Muslims as the ‘other’ in western media has been central to political debates on society, culture, migration and war, particularly since the events of 9/11.
Furthermore, “the reach of today’s global media conglomerates and the tangled machinations of international politics give the[se] structures of representation […] a fierce power,” Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin argue in Framing Muslims. In their important and thought-provoking book, Morey and Yaqin, both literature scholars in Britain, look at the many ways in which stereotyped images of Muslims are defined, ranging from political rhetoric to popular television series such as 24. The authors also examine dimensions such as the sensational news coverage of honour killings, the subversive wit of the comedian Shazia Mirza and blatant media manipulation by right wing extremists, Muslim or Christian.
Morey and Yaqin point out that Muslim presence in Britain dates back many centuries to trading contacts with the Mediterranean and North Africa. The book comments briefly on the changing relationship between the Christian church and its “competitor” Islam, beginning with seventh century Muslim ascendancy in Europe. The loss of Muslim power in Europe in the 13th century coincided with the European Renaissance, which looked to Europe’s Graeco-Roman past; the once-influential Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) were marginalised. This reinforced concepts employed during the Crusades, that Islam was a “civilisation enemy”.
Furthermore, the prolonged Europe-Ottoman rivalry and Britain’s colonial ascendancy promoted notions of a “backward and irrational orient struggling under the yoke of Islam”.
This rhetoric played on images of ‘oppressed’ Muslim women in need of rescue from male Muslim tyranny, “a trope with tremendous emotional appeal and longevity,” which continues to be employed today. The authors provide a biting critique of medieval sources and “ahistorical” research to discuss contemporary issues, laced with erroneous perceptions of Muslims as a single monolith. These are summed by the all-too-familiar images of the bearded fanatic, the veiled woman and the pseudo-westernised potential terrorist. As a result, acts of violence ranging from New York and London bombings to domestic crimes have come to be regarded as the Muslim reality. This has placed great stress on inter-racial relations.
Framing Muslims points out that British anti-racist movements in the 1970s were inspired by the political activism of “the post-civil-rights movement” in the United States. In Britain however, concepts of “black identity or a black political ethnicity” were confronted by “a second cleavage” — between West Indians and Asians, who were historically and culturally different. This complicated British discourse on multiculturalism. In 1988, The Satanic Verses affair proved the “defining moment for British Muslim identity”: Muslims became a political category perceived to be at odds with the norms of civil society. A decade later, following racist incidents, a British report “Islamophobia: a challenge for us all” explored anti-Muslim prejudice coinciding with Tony Blair’s election and the new slogan, “Cool Britannia”. The era saw films about British Asians such as East is East, Bend it Like Beckham and the television series Goodness Gracious Me. But a “backlash” decrying multiculturalism and asserting ‘Britishness’ and ‘British values’ soon followed. These attitudes were fuelled by 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Danish cartoons. While several British channels portrayed Islam positively through films such as Tariq Ramadan’s The Muslim Reformation and Ziauddin Sardar’s Battle for Islam, others continued with sensationalist programmes on “problematic ‘Muslim issues’,” which, coupled with “heavy handed” official attempts to intercept possible “radicalisation,” increased racial tensions.
Framing Muslims details the growth of various Muslim organisations, purporting to be representatives/leaders of British Muslim. Many such groups, including the Muslim Council of Britain, were fostered, wooed, and indeed groomed by the British government, but difficulties arose when they refused to support government policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Throughout, Morey and Yaqin refer to the diversity of Muslim life. They explain that in the aftermath of 9/11, Muslims were posed questions about “their conflicting allegiances” between religion and the state — a supposition which ignored the history of nationalist movements in Egypt or South Asia where debates between the secular and non-secular were an intrinsic part of politics. The co-authors assert that politician Baroness Sayeeda Warsi raises valid issues when she suggests that “the idea of representative figures for minority communities essentially contributes to their continued ghettoisation.”
Framing Muslims devotes considerable space to the representation of Muslims in British and American films, ranging from docudramas to thrillers. The excellent, informed critical analysis covers well-known productions such as 24, Dirty War, The Hamburg Cell, Spooks and Yasmin, among others. The discussion highlights the significance of “recurring images” of (troubled or troubling) Muslims in the popular media which “map into dominant political attitudes”. The book deals with the “dialogic process” between western stereotypes and “the Muslim groups’ deployment of these stereotypes in order to re-present themselves” and leads up to the fascinating chapter, “Performing Beyond the Frame: Gender, Comedy and Subversion”. This touches on the hijab issue in France before exploring a new commercial “global Islamic cosmopolitanism” expressed through marketing, including the creation by an enterprising American Muslim couple of “Islamic dolls”. These toys, complete with hijab, jilbab and a huge wardrobe, are promoted as the “Muslim alternative” to the blonde and curvy Barbie doll. As Morey and Yaqin point out, it remains debatable whether hijabi dolls “break out of the frame of stereotyped representation” or “whether the stereo- type is merely reinforced through the universalising of a female Muslim subject”. The authors also examine the parodic performances of the comedian Shazia Mirza: she wore an austere hijab but subverts western images of subservient Muslim women through her “feisty personality” and “her willingness to squeeze humour out of uncomfortable topics and confront audience expectations head on”. Although Mirza challenges stereotypes, Framing Muslims suggests that there are inherent contradictions and that “the performer may become trapped by the persona she has created”. Mirza, increasingly burdened by “representing Muslims,” has stopped wearing the hijab.
Framing Muslims draws parallels between the media headlines at the Pastor Terry Jones threat to burn the Quran in the United States and Anjem Choudary’s threat in Britain, to stage a march commemorating Muslim deaths in Afghanistan to disrupt a gathering of mourners for British servicemen. Both Jones and Choudary knew that their statements would receive publicity, and having conveyed their bellicose messages, had no need to carry out their threats.
In conclusion, this invaluable book tackles one of today’s most pressing issues and highlights how the “clash of civilisations” is being played out. The co-authors suggest that it requires political will to addresses social, political, economic and international issues coupled with the need to listen to a greater diversity of voices, before stereotypes — and the inevitable animosity they generate — can be meaningfully resolved.
The reviewer is a writer and critic
Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation After 9/11 (IDENTITY POLITICS) By Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin Harvard University Press ISBN 978-0-674-04852-2 246pp. $27.95