‘Islamist’, ‘Jihadist’, ‘Islamic State’. How tragically ironic that each of these words is associated with violence and hate when in reality the word Islam means peace. Language is a tool of mass construction and a weapon of mass destruction. It has the power to shape minds and societies, therefore it is a great responsibility on those with power to use it wisely in order to ensure that whole truths are communicated. The media and reporting industry is perhaps one of the most important players in constructing world views. It is responsible for the manner in which we perceive societies, organisations, and religions.
Islam seems to have a target on its back in mainstream media. The language that is used to describe crises that occur internationally is so filled with Islamic terms that has occasioned a largely negative, and lamentably incorrect, view of Islam. Since 9/11, the media has taken many steps to ensure that Islam is portrayed in a negative light and has since been shown as a religion that incites violence and hate.
In associating words such as ‘Islamist’ and ‘jihadist’ with each other – out of context – we are legitimising the claims of terrorists who claim to be attacking in the name of Islam. Islam has made it very clear that peace is the utmost priority. The Holy Qur’an states ‘…whosoever killed a person, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso gave life to one, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.’[i] Indeed, this is not a verse that is taken lightly and it continues to be upheld in true Muslim communities. His Holiness, the current worldwide spiritual head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, recently said: ‘Thus, the truth is that Islam has always been diametrically opposed to any form of terrorism or extremism. Furthermore, whilst I accept that the evil acts of some Muslims have greatly damaged society, I do not accept that it is only Muslims who are to blame for the volatility of today’s world. Many commentators and experts are now openly saying that certain non-Muslim powers and groups have also played a role in undermining peace and social cohesion.’[ii]
Therefore, every time that the media uses the adjectives ‘Islamist’ and ‘Muslim’ to describe an attack or the perpetrator, they are giving legitimacy to the agendas of the attackers. They are playing into the hands of the terrorist groups.
A study showed if there is an attack and the perpetrator is a so-called Muslim, it gets five times more coverage than were the perpetrator a non-Muslim.[iii] As a result, the stereotype is further reinforced. This biased reporting has been a failure on the part of the media whose responsibility it is to cover the news honestly and impartially. Most people would agree that the news should be impartial, however since the dawn of journalism, each agency has had an agenda to stick to, whether it be political, religious, or secular. The careful selection of words has been known to subliminally highlight certain ideologies. For example, if someone sees the poor as victims, he or she may describe them as economically deprived. This term suggests a theory and ideology of wealth distribution, the lack of equality, and also, subtly, points the finger of blame at those who are not deprived.[iv]
In the same manner, when describing an attacker as a Muslim, it may seem at first as a trivial adjective to describe the attacker, however there is a subtle indication that the attacker’s religion is a direct causer of their actions. Isn’t it curious how we never hear any mention of the religions of non-Muslim attackers? Is it not strange that the Ku Klux Klan, a hate organisation that has had up to 4 million members at its peak is not associated with Christianity, despite the vast majority of the members being active Christians? [v] There is a clear bias with the intent of marginalising Islam, branding it as a dangerous ideology rather than a religion of love and peace.
The most frustrating aspect is, that despite all the stories that are reported on Islam, the Muslim voice largely goes unheard in the media. Instead of media agencies telling us what to believe about Islam, surely it would be better to hear from the Muslims themselves. The media needs to report on issues that concern Muslims with a focus on getting a wide range of Muslim voices. This would go a huge way to challenging the implicit media bias on Islam.
[i] Holy Quran Chapter 5 Verse 33, Translated by Maulawi Sher Ali
[iv] Language and Media Michael L. Geis