Discourse and Muslims: More than just Media

September 26, 2016

In order to engage in a serious discussion of Muslims in Britain, we must begin not with the problems of Muslims but with the problems of Muslims and the problems of British society

Photo: David Lisbona


Photo: David Lisbona

Over the past few decades, an increasing number of people--predominantly of the white population --are uncertain as to what the makeup of Britain, Europe, The West, etc. really is. Initially the presence of ‘others’ was used as a marker to gauge to what extent one belongs or not. Despite ethnic and religious differences and varieties in social status, the presence of others has raised doubts about Britain’s value system and aroused the suspicion that what is truly British is also somehow contained in these ‘others’. This is because the British value system is challenged by these others, and demands are made that what is truly British now should contain multicultural dimensions in order to adequately reflect the changing nature of society.

One avenue for exploring and discussing this process is in the media. Currently the media presents consumers with a wide choice of sources, including Internet, television and print sources--each offering varying degrees of balance or objectivity in covering news and social issues. Media can be seen as a vehicle for spreading negative stereotypes of ‘others’ and ‘minorities’, in turn these spread and gain traction. One example where this can be seen is in the current discourse about Muslims and Islam in Britain.

The demand that what is needed is a change in the 'moral behaviour' of Muslims, especially poor disenfranchised men--who, the government says, are either radicalised or in danger of being radicalised--highlights the actions of a few while ignoring the possible government responsibility for the circumstances that created the conditions for radicalisation in the first place. Such thinking asserts the notion that Asians, Muslims in particular, need to develop ‘a greater acceptance of the principal national institutions’ and assimilate to ‘core British values’. This thinking also highlights the demand for further regulation and surveillance of Muslims in order to manage non-white communities.

Muslims are often discussed in the press in relation to violence, such as: We love death more than you love life. What we did today was a direct retaliation of your Insulting of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) and also in retaliation of your crusade against Islam/Muslims on a global scale. It is of the greatest honour for us to do what we did. Muslims are often presented as wearing traditional or specific items of clothing: “Students wear salwar kameez and skull caps, typical of Pakistan, and study a mixture of the national curriculum and Islamic studies”. It is also present in alternative examples such as, “Sisi is said to be a religious man, and his wife, unusually, wears the full niqab (face veil).”

These examples highlight stereotypical religious values and the way Muslim men and women relate to each other. Press reports also describe the success and failures of the regulation of Muslim people, for example: 

An Iraqi drug dealer who claimed his life would be in danger at home because of his Western tattoos ‘has been granted a human right' to stay in Britain. In the latest outrage under Labour's Human Rights Act, Hesham Mohammed Ali won a tribunal appeal against moves to kick him out. The 36-year-old former wrestling promoter based his case on his tattoos and the fact he is in a genuine' relationship with a British woman - despite having two children by different women with whom he now has no contact.”

A Discursive Approach

In order to analyse this phenomenon, we must first separate the common understanding of discourse (i.e., a formal discussion of a topic) from the more useful technical term discourse as employed by Michel Foucault. Foucault described discourse in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) as a number of statements formed into a system. A structure is brought to this system through the ordering of the statements according to their correlations and functioning. This structured system of statements constitutes an object to be discussed, and can transform it, depending on the presupposed system of knowledge or knowledge base which is used. For example, Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1978) argued that there was a systematic discourse by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.

The portrayal of Muslims in Britain can be analysed in the same manner. The media is a prominent method for managing and producing the image of Muslims in society. Using Foucault’s concept of discourse, the way that Muslims and Islam are discussed in the news constitute a collection of statements which form a system, where the statements can be categorised according to certain implicit rules.  These statements form the discourse on Muslims in the British Press and are (following Said’s argument) the result of political, sociological, military, ideological, scientific and imaginative orientations. Such orientations are promoted by the prominent or dominant group(s) in British society. Such groups make statements which may change the way people look at Muslims and Islam towards a perception in accordance with the group’s presupposed system of knowledge. Media is one of the methods in which this discourse engages many people simultaneously, but there are others, of course, such as education.

Different social agents increasingly struggle to get access to or take control of discourse as part of their own (strategic) goals, because of the concentrated ownership of the institutions that govern the media. In turn, this has resulted in a stranglehold on the production and dissemination of media products. As a consequence, the life of organisations and people in everyday contexts have become subjected to an increasingly ‘mediacratic’ regime. Mediacratic societies are ones where a fusion of political power and media has taken place, i.e., the power-holding institutions carry out their activities with the use of media institutions. Mediacracy is, then, a definition of political engagement whereby political activity is carried out via mediation. Governance is heavily involved in media and utilises mass communication mechanisms as a strategic element in its political activity. One can see that in the struggle for power, policymaking, and public debate media is increasingly used. Examples include investigative journalists, spin doctors, and press releases. In this context media influence both politics and publics by shaping political decision-making processes and public opinion. This means that perceptions of reality are mediated due to outside influences beyond our control affecting our positioning in a social context. Public communication is becoming more and more a reflection of the way in which media reports are produced and circulated.

Photo: Roberto Trombetta

Photo: Roberto Trombetta

The Logic of Media

Because of mediacracy, corporations as a consequence promote dominant discourses and present them as the generally accepted discourse, or the common values of society. Mark Fishman, in his book Manufacturing the News (1977), argues that: "News workers are predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual because news personnel participate in upholding a normative order of authorised knowers in the society. Reporters operate with the attitude that officials ought to know what it is their job to know. (…) In particular, a news worker will recognise an official’s claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge. This amounts to a moral division of labour: officials have and give the facts; reporters merely get them.

Thus, although there usually is more than one perspective operating within a given discourse about a specific issue, the dominant frame is usually used to define the preferred reading of an issue, event, or character. This suppresses alternative readings, and limits the scope and ability for minority opinions to be heard. It also renders the perspective of the dominant institutions or social actors to speak and define the legitimate opinions, set the status quo and retain the existing order and structure.

In doing so, Herman and Chomsky point out in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) that: "The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumours and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held."

The disparities in financial power, however, render groups unable to access media equally, especially as a socio-political resource. Minorities are often unable to advance their views on political issues in media outlets because their financial resources are not able to compete with those who hold institutional power; and thus their ability to create new frames for discussion and influence public discourse may be limited. This is why public discussions of Muslims in Britain are unable to escape the overall system of discourse. The predictable narrative of moderates versus conservatives, for example, reinforces the dominant framework for discussing Islam and Muslims in Britain. The notion that more government intervention can solve the ‘problem’ is deficient because it reduces Muslims to subjects of government suspicion who need to be managed or controlled. 

Muslims and their discourse(s)

Within this paradigm Muslims are seen as a ‘problem’, rather than as fellow inhabitants of a Britain with problems. Discussions about Muslim minorities or Islam in Britain is relegated to the ‘problems’ posed for the majority of people rather than what the treatment of Muslims says about Britain as a whole and how Muslims are affected by these dynamics. This framework encourages support to government initiatives directed at dealing with ‘problems’. In this paradigm failure of an individual Muslim becomes invisible and the event becomes instead a problem with Islam or with Muslims as a group. In this way public discussion of the social injustices Muslims may be subject to is avoided. Muslims are to be ‘integrated’ into ‘our’ society and culture; they are to behave like us. This fails to recognise, however, that the presence, trials, and tribulations of Muslims are constitutive elements of British society.

Talal Asad, in his book Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003), argues that “Muslims are included within and excluded from Europe at one and the same time in a special way, and that this has less to do with the “absolutist Faith” of Muslims living in a secular environment and more with European notions of ‘culture’, ‘civilization’, ‘the secular state’, ‘majority’, and ‘minority’.” What is considered problematic is a direct result of these particular notions and definitions. These problems are also located in flaws which are rooted in historic inequalities such as imperialism, and have produced longstanding stereotypes. Media discourse sets up the parameters and terms for discussing Muslims and Islam. It shapes the perceptions and the responses to the issues presented as associated with Islam and Muslims. Within this framework, the burden falls on the ‘other’ to do all the work necessary for integration.

The Need for Alternatives

The notion of discourse allows us to explore how and why media present or ignore specific explanations for media events and what the potential solutions might be. The media is a strong discursive tool that can help social actors define and solve problems and shape public opinion. Yet it is only one part of an overarching system of discourse that serves as the foundation of understanding Muslims in the UK. In order to improve the reporting on Islam and Muslims in the British press, the overarching system of discourse that constitute Muslims and Islam in Britain needs to be improved. To secure minority access to major media outlets, and diversify powerful media corporations, there needs to be an increase in a plurality of voices and representations.

This will only be possible if there are alternatives to institutions built on neo-liberal values and the dominant media logic that underpin the choices media institutions make. One example of how this may be done is the presence of a publicly funded media institution that has an alternative mandate. Yet a diversity of representations is only one aspect of the system of discourse, and so therefore if the context surrounding Muslims and Islam in Britain is to change, the overarching system of discourse will need to change, which is a much more difficult task.