Telling Muslim tales

About the author
Mukul Devichand is a producer for BBC Radio 4.

The next time a news story about Muslims breaks, go and stand outside one of the many British mosques or inner-city shops that sell alcohol-free perfume and Islamic books, or any other place where Muslim Britons gather. You may well see someone like me milling among the crowds: a journalist reporting British Islam. We plead for quotes. We answer repeated demands to explain the "line" we are taking.

We are sincere in our aims. But we often leave empty-handed, a sign of a growing distrust of the media among Muslims in this country: should establishment journalists and their media outlets care?

While producing a BBC Radio 4 Analysis about the subject, (called Telling Muslim Stories), I found leading British media voices have strong opinions over a dilemma they believe goes to the heart of their role in a liberal society: whether the media has a responsibility to help foster social cohesion, or instead to interrogate and take to task aspects of Muslim culture which could be seen as threatening.

Mukul Devichand is a producer for BBC Radio 4

This article draws on research done for a BBC Radio 4 programme in the Analysis series – Telling Muslim Stories – broadcast on 28 December 2006. The programme is produced by Mukul Devichand and presented by Charlie Beckett, director of the Polis centre at the London School of Economics

Language and reality

For all the stories about Muslims, there remains a widespread belief among Britons (80% of those canvassed in one recent poll) that "political correctness" inhibits them from discussing Islam. At the same time, it can seem that such inhibition is a myth: within a few days in October 2006 alone, the broadcasting media was full of reports with a "Muslim" theme - from Muslim face-veils threatening integration to alleged Islamist extremism in universities, from a Muslim officer excused from guarding the Israeli embassy to white-on-Muslim violence.

Yet, as a hit video on YouTube asks, "who hijacked Islam?". It was played to me in an east London radio studio from which Muslim women make Unveiled Voice, an alternative current-affairs podcast from a Muslim perspective. These women told me they felt powerless in the face of what they see as a manufactured onslaught on their faith. One, Rosy, said: "you're just one person or you're just a community and you haven't got the tools or the power that the media has."

Part of the disconnect is easily explained: not enough people in the newsroom are familiar enough with Muslim cultures to stop coverage spinning out of control. But the truth is you'd be hard pressed to find an editor who is against more diversity in the newsroom. Rageh Omaar, the former BBC and now al-Jazeera reporter, believes something more fundamental is afoot with British journalism. "It's not just simply about how Muslims are portrayed in the media," he says. "It's really a sense that there is a failure of public service in the media to inform non-Muslim Britons about issues relating to the community, about issues relating to the Islamic world."

But isn't there a contradiction here: can the media really be failing to inform while publishing so many Muslim stories?

Some feel the problem is in the language used about Muslims. They are "always thought of as something other, something alien, people who perhaps don't respect 'us', don't want to fit in with 'our' way of life", says Tariq Modood of Bristol University - one of the country's key thinkers on multiculturalism.

Asked about the run of Muslim-related headlines in October 2006 after British government minister Jack Straw launched a "debate" about the face-veil, Modood said: "I could see that it was going to end up making Muslims feel we're going to be misunderstood, and we're going to be harried and harassed anyway, so why bother with this lot?"

Also in openDemocracy on the experience and arguments of Muslims in Britain:

Fareena Alam, "A humane Muslim future" (8 March 2005)

Mohammed Sajid, "The gap between us: British Muslims and 7/7"
(18 July 2005)

Maruf Khwaja, "Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures"
(2 August 2005)

Abdul Wahid, "Tony Blair and Hizb-ut-Tahrir: 'Muslims under the bed'" (9 August 2005)

Ehsan Masood, "British Muslims must stop the war" (30 August 2005)

Tariq Modood, "Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7"
(29 September 2005)

Tina Beattie, "Veiling the issues: a distinctive debate"
(24 October 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "British Muslims: ends and beginnings"
(31 October 2006)

Liberals and others

But people of Muslim background are just a fraction of the British population, and practising Muslims even fewer - so the debate in newsrooms is not about losing audiences. Instead it is about morals: how to report a community from which political radicalism and violence has come, but which is also an extremely plural entity and a vulnerable minority. Some liberal voices in the media now argue the threat to democratic life from radical Islamism should be addressed, even if that involves raising uncomfortable issues (see for example Fred Halliday, "The Left and the Jihad", 8 September 2006).

"I think journalists are right to see themselves as the guardians of liberal values," says Martin Bright, political editor of the New Statesman. "It is not contradictory ... to attack the government for its authoritarian use of illiberal laws ... at the same time as developing a sophisticated critique of the authoritarian, totalitarian ideology of radical Islamists," he says.

Rageh Omaar thinks this is alarmist, even a sort of virility test for British liberalism. "I think the vast majority of people who fit within that framework define their sense of being liberal, being western ... against Islam," he says.

"The genie has been let out of the bottle ... there is this shrug of the shoulders assumption that, yeah, there is something there, Islam kind of does threaten our liberal sensibilities and it is the right thing to have a go first and prod and question."

Prodding and questioning is, of course, what journalists do best. And there may actually be sufficient common ground between those who argue journalism must ask the hard questions of Muslims, and those who fear what may happen if Muslims are treated as the "other".

Truth and discomfort

Take for example the thorny issue of political Islamic movements - many linked to Islamist parties in the middle east and south Asia. Liberal journalists who have reported on these links have come under fire. But Yahya Birt, a scholar at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, central England (an institution which has been closely scrutinised by journalists), says British Islamic movements ought not to reject all reporting of their ideas. These movements do display "a very damaging reticence to publicly distance themselves from the kind of simplistic and crude kind of anti-west rhetoric that say emerged in the 1930s onwards in the Muslim world," he says.

The reason they're not doing it, says Birt, is "because they feel it would be disloyal and they would be selling out; but if they did, "they would be liberating themselves" from this historic legacy.

Yahya Birt is highly critical of the way the media reports on Islam. But he also says a more nuanced style of reporting and critique that recognises the changing dynamics within these Muslim movements - while remaining honest about their controversial ideas -would benefit both the wider society and Muslim movements themselves. "Rather than holding a whole community to account," he says, the news media could "understand how certain political agendas are promoted and played out and resisted ... within Muslim communities."

Journalists' questions can imply unfair sentiments - treating Muslims as the "other" - but they can also get at uncomfortable truths that benefit all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, if exposed. The sociologist Tariq Modood says: "The way that most of the reporting covers these stories, you wouldn't think that the Muslim community itself was in a state of shock and anguish and turmoil."