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U.K.: British Muslims Blame Media For Fostering Hostile Attitudes

Muslims in Great Britain blame the media in the country for the lingering hostility, fear, and suspicion they feel exists toward their community. They accuse some media outlets of not drawing precise enough distinctions between the mainstream law-abiding Muslim majority and the few militants or terrorists. Yet, Muslim leaders also admit that, as the war on terrorism continues, there is a need for a sustained dialogue between the Muslim community and the media.

London, 27 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "The media has to be aware that the Muslim community is a new community, already socially marginalized, and by continually demonizing it, we don't help anything. We want to make sure that more and more of the community opens up, becomes part of mainstream politics, and so on and so forth. This is happening, [but] these kind of attacks actually hamper that process." Ghayasuddin Siddiqui said.

Siddiqui is the leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain and director of the Muslim Institute. He is speaking in response to various attacks and accusations directed against British Muslims that have appeared recently in some British media outlets.
"They do a lot of harm, by implying that most Muslims sympathize with the terrorists."

Many other British Muslim leaders agree. Inayat Bunglawala is the spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. "[The British media] make obvious mistakes," he said. "For example, last April, 10 people were arrested in the Manchester area and made accompanying newspaper headlines of an alleged plot to blow up Manchester United [soccer] ground. Another newspaper said there was an alleged plot to blow up the shopping center in Manchester. And yet, all 10 people were released without charge, so all that publicity was bogus. It just created unnecessary fear in people."

He said the worst offenders are the mass-circulation tabloids. "They do a lot of harm," Bunglawala points out, "by implying that most Muslims sympathize with the terrorists."

Ali Noorizade heads the Arab-Iranian Studies Centre in London and specializes in media studies. "Of course, you have tabloid newspapers. Their center of interest and concentration is different from serious or broadsheet newspapers," he said. "They are after their readers, and some of them are pretty stupid in provoking the Muslim community by generalizing what is happening, as if all Muslims are vulnerable to this sort of propaganda, and the majority of them are ready to go and die for these crooks."

Some in the British journalism community explain the coverage by saying the popular media are often simply reflecting society and its divisions, as well as current fears about terrorism. William Rees-Mogg is the former editor in chief of "The Times," the respected London broadsheet newspaper. "Popular newspapers are popular newspapers. Let's say that they are addressing their audience, there is no doubt about that. But is the general tone of the popular press exaggerated hostility to British Muslims, as such? I don't think that, no," he told RFE/RL.

He explained that, because of the war on terrorism, British Muslims are in an unfortunate position. "I think the British Muslims are in a situation one can have a good deal of sympathy with. It's rather the same as the situation which Irish people living in Britain had during the period of the IRA atrocities. British Muslims are in rather the same position in that there is a broad suspicion that if they are Islamic terrorists, that they will be members of the Islamic community. And it's inevitably so," Rees-Mogg said.

Some Muslim leaders also complain that some in the British media do not always report objectively about the variety of opinions in Iraq. Hashem Ali is a spokesman for the Iraqi Community Association in London. "Even in the serious media, my view is that there should be a spectrum of opinions on any issue. But generally, in the majority of the British media, I would not say that there is a good coverage of the multiple opinion in Iraq," he said.

Ali said the media "can either foment unrest or distort the picture of what is happening, or be positive contributors to a better future, both in the U.K. and in Iraq." He gave an example of recent coverage that he said implied that many British Muslims support radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's insurgency.

"A week ago, it was about this issue of two Mahdi army people who are British citizens. It might be true, whatever they have said, but this doesn't reflect the common opinion of the Iraqi community here [in Britain], and this coverage is enticing tension among communities in this country," Ali said.

Noorizade agrees with this criticism, but said the British media simply differ on Iraq. "It seems that pro-[British Prime Minister] Tony Blair producers have the upper hand in British radio, while in television, some people are known to be against [the war]," he said. "Sometimes, when I watch British television, I think I am watching Al-Jazeera, because they are so hostile towards American and British troops in Iraq, and their emphasis, their exaggeration of events and relying on rumors that have not been proven, and all of these things."

Rees-Mogg reiterated that the coverage simply reflects the different attitudes among Britons to the Iraq war. "I think that the serious British press, and indeed the British press generally, has to deal with Islamic terrorism -- one of the realities of the modern world," he said. "On the other hand, the government's policy is, in fact, unpopular with about half of the population, and the press and broadcasters to some extent reflect that."

British Muslim leaders say a dialogue must continue. Siddiqui summed it up: "What we need is a greater interaction, bridge-building, dialogue between the Muslim community and the media."

Noorizade agrees. He said he would not take back his criticism, nevertheless. "As a whole, the British media are doing a beautiful job trying to prevent confrontation between religion and the society," he said. "I think they are the most fair media in the Western hemisphere."