Rethinking Islam in the Australian Media

By Abdul Qowi Bastian on 09:20 am Jul 27, 2011
Category Blogs, Globe Beat
Tags: Islam
(Reuters Photo/Ahmad Masood).

(Reuters Photo/Ahmad Masood).

On July 18, Australian television current affairs program Q&A presented a different topic than usual. On any other day, Q&A predominantly deals with politics and encourages audiences to interact and to take it up to the nation’s politicians and opinion makers. This particular show, though, discussed spirituality, faith and religion.

One of the audiences members asked the following question: “Do you agree that [in Islam] covering the face creates a barrier to human relationships whether for identification or getting to know another person?” to the panelists, raising a discussion in which I would like to partake.

Australian media, particularly national and local television news, tend to target and feed their viewers with misconceptions of the country’s Islamic communities. Mass media produce news that represents Muslims as opposing Western culture, which eventually creates moral panic in some communities.

An underlying assumption exists that media is none other than a social institution of a major element of contemporary Western society. Often, mass media deliver one-sided stories where readers or viewers rely on them as primary sources of information about Islam and Muslims. The media most often demonstrate Muslims in the most stereotypical possible ways and focus on unusual and extreme actions. Such information eventually builds unfavorable responses toward Muslims in the community.

In a way, the media encourages audiences to draw their own mistaken conclusions by not giving the full picture and manipulating audiences’ viewpoints. This ultimately leads to social segregation, and possibly ignites issues of racial violence (which are rampant in Australia) in the community. Hence, harmonious living conditions will not come into existence if Australians are being served with news that portrays Muslims as “the others.”

An Australian friend of mine, Anthony, strengthened the point I made above. He once said, “I don’t know much about Islam as I’ve never studied it. I only know about it from the media. The way I see it is that it’s very strict and I don’t agree with all of their teachings and beliefs. But I see Muslims as I see other people; everyone is different in their own beliefs, cultures and religions.”

The influence of media on audiences’ attitudes and behaviors has long been debated by media observers. The position ranges from those who view media to have powerful, often harmful, effects upon vulnerable audiences to those who assume audiences are active and in control of their media consumption. At a glance, both Islamic diaspora communities and Australian audiences are assumed to be vulnerable to media discourses. The effect of such vulnerability is the misrepresentation that Australian Muslims are being seen as “the other.”

Another friend, Alissa, constructed her opinions on Muslims based on her firsthand interactions at school. She made a clear point on the issue brought up on Q&A, “I think that Muslims should assimilate into our culture. Australia is a free country and should not have to make special considerations for Muslims and their customs. Tolerance is one thing. Changing the rules for just Muslims is another,” she said.

“I believe that they should be free to practice their religion, but only as long as they can live within the boundaries that our society deems as acceptable and fair. For example, it’s ridiculous that Muslim girls are allowed to wear a different school uniform than everyone else just because of their religion.”

So basically what she’s saying is, “I’m tolerant to your culture as long as that culture becomes exactly like mine.” I mean, what happened to a multicultural Australia?

One of the panelists from that episode, Susan Carland, a Monash University lecturer with a special focus on Muslim women and Muslims in Australia, perhaps illustrated a rather thorough and satisfying response: “Well, I think a person or a woman should be able to choose how much of her body she shows to other people and if she wants to cover her face and she feels comfortable with that and the laws of our society say that she can, then get over it. You know, I might not feel comfortable looking at people with a face covered in tattoos and a Mohawk but that’s their prerogative. If they want to dress like that, then that’s my issue if I can’t deal with it.”

Multiculturalism and settlement are a two-way street, involving change for both immigrants and the receiving society. To preserve the image of a multicultural country, Australia, through its citizens, needs to open up its hands and welcome immigrants. Islam is going to play a significant role in Australia’s future since the size of its Muslim population guarantees that a Muslim presence is here to stay. Muslims need to adapt their national cultures and religious values to live side by side with Australians to create a harmonious living condition.

What we need to do is to incorporate Islamic values into democratic society to live side by side. These two values are not mutually exclusive. We can combine Islamic culture and democratic culture in practical ways. Reforms require courage and a great deal of new thinking. If people will open up their hearts and minds, Islam can go hand in hand with pluralism.