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Anti-Muslim bias: Green light to yellow journalism

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By S. Tausief Ausaf


What is common between the Western and Indian media? Both are insatiably hungry for anti-Muslim angles in negative stories. And after 9/11, it has become convenient for them to link any Muslim individual or group to any imaginary terror threat. Unverifiable and contradictory gibberish, rapidly morphed into an official line and endlessly repeated on channels and papers, compels gullible viewers to accept the “story” as truth.


Some British tabloids shamelessly thrive on sensation. They can stoop to any level to sell. To them, Muslim extremism is a big story. Muslim moderation is not. The harrowing experience of Inayat Bunglawala, media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, is still fresh in mind. Daily Express denounced him in a big bold headline as a “fanatical extremist” who condoned, if not plotted, terror attacks against Prince Harry. All Bunglawala had said in reply to a reporter’s call was: “Regrettably Harry might be a target while on armed service in Afghanistan.” The reporter twisted that fact and consequently the paper had to pay Bunglawala £45,000 in libel damages.
The Sun, an expert in linking imaginary terror plots to Muslims, splashed on Dec. 9, 2010 a screaming front-page headline: “Al-Qaeda Corrie threat.” The story claimed that “cops” were “throwing a ring of steel” around the studios in Manchester after being “tipped off” that a high-profile show “could be hit by a terror strike.” It was complete nonsense. The paper had to eat crow the next day with a clarification: “… We would like to make clear that while cast and crew were subject to full body searches, there was no specific threat from Al-Qaeda as we reported. We apologize for the misunderstanding and are happy to set the record straight.”


Daily Mail (called “Daily Fail” by a section of readers because of its shooting-from-the-hips style) has a penchant to highlight baseless stories implicating Muslims. On Dec. 5, 2011 its headline announced: “Alarming rise of Muslim honor attacks.” The paper described honor killings as “punishments usually carried out against Muslim women who have been accused of bringing shame on their family,” in the caption under a photo used to illustrate the story which features Muslim women in various forms of Islamic dresses. The best part is this: A spokesperson from the Metropolitan Police Service was quoted as telling the paper that “honor-based violence cuts across all cultures, nationalities and faith groups — it is a worldwide problem.” How the Mail linked the ugly phenomenon to the Muslim community exclusively is beyond comprehension.
Media’s Islamophobic cousins in America are not far behind in the competition to sensationalize issues for greater TRPs. In the winter of 2010, the leader of a tiny cult of idiots announced plans to stage an “international” day of Qur’an burning in Gainesville, Florida. Since it was perfect spicy stuff to put Islam on trial, the media decided that Terry Jones’ idiotic plan was the most important news in the country. At a press conference, Jones lied to everyone that he was going to call off his 9/11 burning show because he had reached a deal with the people behind the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan.


The truth that few Americans know is: An organization called the Cordoba Initiative was granted permission by the appropriate authorities to turn an old factory in Manhattan into a community center. The proposed center was to include a basketball court and space for different religious communities to have interfaith relations. It was also going to have a place for Muslims to pray, if they liked. But the story wasn’t digested. Why? Because people were told by the media that what was planned was a “Ground Zero mosque.” Of course, the planned community center was not, strictly speaking, a “mosque.” And it was most definitely not “at Ground Zero.” Most of US channels and papers preferred to blow this issue out of proportion, sidelining more relevant issues like the nation’s unemployment crisis.


How could some Australian journalists lag behind while their colleagues were busy milking “Islamic terrorism” stories dry? Canberra had to make a formal apology to Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef for his wrongful detention in 2007 over failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow. Haneef was detained and charged with giving support to a terrorist organization after his SIM card was wrongly linked to the attempted car-bombings. The whole yarn about Haneef’s SIM card being found in the vehicle used in the Glasgow incident – on which the case for the doctor being a jihadist conspirator rested – turned out to be fiction peddled by anonymous “sources.”


Coming to India, no right-wing media organization considers itself complete until it has taken credit for some stories having Muslim-militancy angles — rightly or wrongly. And in order to circumvent a libel suit, they know, a small corrigendum or clarification at the bottom on Page 17, if necessary, anyway goes unnoticed.


Seven Muslims arrested for blasts in the Indian town of Malegaon in 2006 were released on bail. As usual, media frenzy accompanied their release with journalists telling them to make the victory sign. The same newspapers and TV channels had accepted the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorist Squad’s (ATS) claims that these Muslims had planted the bombs that killed 37 people from their own community, while taking lightly claims made by Malegaon Muslims that the boys were falsely accused. At the release, the lawyers of the accused and community leaders from Malegaon were being chased for interviews, but there was no sign of the ATS heroes. Media didn’t deem it necessary to explain their own conduct, and no one took the ATS men to task.
Since the first deadly blasts in Mumbai in 1992, people have developed an automatic perception that there is a Muslim behind every terror strike. To some extent, this bias is shared by the police and intelligence agencies as well. Every time there is an explosion, under pressure from media and the government, police round up Muslim boys linking them to hard-line groups and declare them terror plotters. Blind media, unfortunately, swallow the story because it sells.
While the Manmohan Singh government’s recent electoral gimmick of not allowing a controversial British writer at the Jaipur Literary Festival may have won the UPA votes of some semi-educated Muslims in the coming elections, the episode also brought to focus a regrettable trend in the Indian media of completely ignoring religious sentiments of the country’s principal minority while endlessly promoting and glorifying Salman Rushdie whose one-point agenda is vilification of Islam. Self-censorship was thrown out of the window by a section of the media in order to be seen as the champion of the freedom of expression.


Some years ago, Indian newspapers were awash with reports about Muslims protesting against the suggestion that all children studying in schools be forced to sing the Vande Mataram song, which, several papers, channels and politicians declared, was India’s “national song.” Refusal to sing this song, they claimed, was a thoroughly “unpatriotic” act suggesting thereby that Muslims by definition were “anti-national.”


Eminent Indian journalist Yoginder Sikand aptly summed up the issue: Media projection and coverage of the Vande Mataram controversy was cleverly contrived to put Muslims in the dock and to defend a certain vision of Indian nationalism that is framed in “upper” caste Hindu terms, in which Muslims, Dalits and other non-”upper” caste communities have little or no space for their identities, aspirations and interests. Few “mainstream” Indian papers cared to mention crucial facts of the history of the controversial song. The Vande Mataram is part of a novel, the Anandmath, which reeks of anti-Muslim hatred and is the rallying cry of radical Hinduism.
Media’s role in a sensible society is to report objectively without being bitten by the bias bug. The moment channels and newspapers, websites and radio stations start taking sides disregarding the other side of the story, they become liabilities. The prevalent anti-Muslim bias can be tackled to a great extent if Muslim graduates join journalism and try to put the record straight. In India, the majority of Muslims read Urdu newspapers that have a limited reach and the intelligentsia get no idea of their problems. The Muslim voice goes unheard because there is a little presence of committed Muslim journalists in English-language papers and channels. Time the Muslim community woke up from its slumber and took genuine steps to safeguard its interests.


(Courtesy: Arab News)
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