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Media Representations of Arabs and Muslims in an “Age of Terror”

by Peter Manning

Thank you for the opportunity to put my propositions here in the grounds of this great University. I have fond memories of my visits to Melbourne as a student in the sixties. Frank Knopfelmacher, the psychology lecturer who was very much part of right-wing politics then, was a friend of mine and something of a mentor. He was an intellectual disciplinarian.

“You haven’t read Kafka yet, Peter, I can tell,” he would say with his wonderful Czech accent. We would huddle around in circles in Carlton terraces discussing Orwell, Djilas, Kafka and Solzenitsen’s poetry, drinking red wine, wearing duffle coats and looking extremely earnest. Somehow, Irish songs got in there too – which mixed better with my more left-wing revolutionary friends in Sydney. But there you go. It was a great time to be alive, intellectually, and “Franta” was a conduit to some great European minds. He was also a conduit to the University caf and Tiamo’s in Lygon Street.

Well, since then, my time has been in the media. First, as a print journalist on the Sydney Morning Herald and The Bulletin, then starting my own local paper in inner city Sydney, and then having the pleasure to work with Mungo MacCallum and Michael Leunig on “Nation Review” as editor. Then a stint as a radio journalist on Triple J and Radio National. Then finally the “big time” of reporting on television for the ABC, rising to a field producer on “Four Corners”, then being appointed the boss of Four Corners during the late eighties, then becoming a proper manager as head of all TV News and Current Affairs on the ABC between 1988 and 1993. For my many sins, I was made a fabulous offer to come to the Seven network and run “Witness” with Jana Wendt, a year to remember I must say, and finally kicked upstairs as a senior executive in current affairs at Seven. Five years ago I had had enough and sought intellectual refuge in academe where I am working on teaching and research.

I list all this not to boast but to outline a career that has taken in three different modes of journalism – print, radio and television – and several levels of expertise – reporter, producer, Executive producer, department head. I think I have a reasonable “feel” for what it means to be a journalist.

This is important to the topic I want to talk about today: media representations; specifically, representations of one racial group – Arabic people – and one religion – Muslim. In my view, every media product – a news report, a current affairs item, a feature, a column item, is a “text” that can be analysed for its several meanings. This text has a history, a context, an ambience and consequences. It can be analysed as a literary, sound or visual item and the usual canons and rigours of analysis can be applied. I recall hearing recently an excellent speech at La Trobe University from former “Guardian” foreign editor, Martin Woollacott, on the moral suasion which many journalists in his experience brought to their production of their stories. And there’s an interesting series of studies being done at Macquarie University by linguistics expert Dr Annabelle Lukin on how journalists structure their sentences to close off some policy options and enhance others, giving some actors in their dramas roles to play and others not.

With all this in mind, I set out a couple of years back to investigate how Sydney’s two daily newspapers, one supposedly tabloid, the other supposedly the “quality” broadsheet, covered Arabic and Muslim people.

Along with a researcher, I analysed 12,000 or so articles mentioning keywords associated with the words “Arabic” and “Muslim” – for instance, Lebanese or imam – and did so for the year before September 11, 2001 and the year after. Remember Sydney is the city with Australia’s biggest Arabic and biggest Muslim population. And these two years covered an amazing series of events relevant to those communities: the arrival of largely Arabic boat people, including the famous “Tampa” incident; the Palestinian second intifada; two gang rapes involving Lebanese young men; the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11 itself; the 2001 federal election; and the looming war on Iraq.

I am not going to go into the detail of every finding from the study. It has been published in full in the booklet of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS in Sydney under the title “Dog Whistle politics and journalism: reporting Arabic and Muslim people in Sydney newspapers”. The study contains not only a software analysis of the articles studied but also a study of my own of randomly-chosen articles from every week of the two years.

The evidence which emerges is a portrait of sustained fear. It is as though we are talking of another species. Here is my conclusion on page 45 of the study:

“Arabs and Muslims (and the terms appear coterminus in the articles) and Palestinians in particular, are seen as violent to the point of terrorism. Israel, the US and Australia – ‘us’ – are seen under attack from such people and they are seen as both an external and internal threat. ‘Their’ violence is portrayed as without reason, humanity or compassion for its victims. Arab young men, in particular, are seen as especially threatening, wanting ‘our’ Caucasian women and not policed sufficiently by their own communities, who lack either values (respect for women) or interest (accepting responsibility) for these men. The men, women and children seeking to come here ‘illegally’ from the Muslim Middle East are portrayed as tricky ungrateful, undeserving (possibly well-off), often disgusting and barely human.”

It is well to remind yourself after this outpouring of bile that we are talking about representations of the oldest civilization to which we can trace direct inheritance. Our language, calligraphy, music, art, mathematics, philosophy, owe a great deal to Arab culture and not thousands of years ago either: much of our music is related to instruments picked up in the Muslim presence in Spain. And in religious terms, these representations of Muslims slander not just Osama bin Laden or eight gang rapists but a billion people on the planet – not to mention the faith held dear by most citizens of our nearest neighbour, Indonesia.

Why does such a picture of one race and one religion emerge with such clarity? A superficial answer to the question would be that Arabs and Muslims brought it on themselves with September 11 and gang rapes and you would have to expect a “bad press” after such events. But that thesis doesn’t hold. First, the imagery predates September 11 and, second, it does not explain the indiscriminate depth and longevity of the stereotypes. You might have expected a bit more focus, at least over time.

I think the explanation of the “why” about this racism of coverage comes, at least in part, through the “how”. If we look at the ways in which the misrepresentation works I think we get a clue as to where it is coming from.

I believe there are several practices in media coverage which ensure racist coverage.

The first, and simplest, is sheer one-sidedness. Ariel Sharon’s press machine is slick, in good English, with good pictures, good sound bites and remains “on message”. It’s available on a platter to journalists – without risking their lives. He’s so good at it he might as well be running for continuing election. The “grumpy old warrior” image gets an excellent run. By comparison, the Palestinian spokesperson is different each time, in bad English, no pictures and the message is almost always reactive to the Israelis. It is not on a platter to journalists – it involves life-threatening trips to the West Bank and/or the Gaza Strip. As a result, the coverage of Palestinian affairs is almost always one-sided. There is no “oxygen”, as the spin-controllers would say, for Palestinians.

I need not list other combat zones: refugees versus Ruddock’s DIMIA; Sheik al-Hilaly versus Howard in the Parliament under privilege; Lebanese youths in Sydney’s west versus the NSW Premier’s press machine.

Then there’s another layer down. It involves history and context. When the Sydney “Daily Telegraph” abuses Lebanese youths and their education writer speaks disparagingly of their Muslim culture, there is no acknowledgement that these kids grew up in Australia, not Lebanon, went to local schools, are not particularly religious, and are suffering the trials of unemployment more than an excess of religion. Little is reported of the Iraqi refugees on the “Tampa” and the hell they had one through to get their families to Australia and out from under Saddam Hussein’s watchful eye. Little is reported of the miniscule contribution Australia makes to taking in “illegal” immigrants by comparison to other OECD countries like Germany, France and Spain, let alone places like Pakistan. Little is reported that when Israel calls on Iran to abandon nuclear weapons it is doing so having begun the nuclear race in the region or when it lambasts Syria for breaking UN resolution 1559 by staying in Lebanon it does so having ignored UN resolutions for occupying Palestine since 1967. There is an a-historic, de-contextualized form of coverage in Australia that serves to make every event a new one – and to re-confirm the dominant narrative.

Finally, at another layer down, there’s what you might call symbolic coverage. It’s implicit, not explicit. It’s where what I call the “dog whistle” works. It’s here that you get refugees – bobbing about in the water, half-starving, dehydrated, lost and disoriented – being called tricky, or violent. The same idea applies to Arafat – as if most good politicians in the West aren’t tricky. The same applies to Muslim religious leaders like al-Hilaly: accused of being tricky in Lebanon with a violent sermon – though the sermon was later shown on SBS to be harmless. Clearly, the media narrative has it that Arab and Muslim people are tricky and violent. That’s to be contrasted with us in the West, of course, who are honest, straightforward and peaceful: look at George Bush, for instance.

Just to quickly summarise here: I am nominating three ways in which our media misrepresent Arabs and Muslims: first, one-sidedness in space; two, lack of history or context; and three, symbolic caricature.

The single group most vilified in my research was the Palestinians. They carry the greatest load of demonisation and they alone seem to attract all three forms of misrepresentation with great consistency. The battle over words is itself a part of the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that battle is fought out on our news pages, radio broadcasts and television screens daily. Every foreign correspondent in Israel knows they will be subject to a barrage of abuse if they use certain words to describe what they see, but not others. In Australia, groups like the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) will publish their lists of “good” and “bad” correspondents and complain at length to editors about words used and their meanings.

The result is a great timidity on behalf of many journalists to call a spade a spade. In addition, fear of being labelled “anti-Semitic” adds to the pressure. More recently, anti-Semitism has been argued as criticism of Israel as though criticism of Australia’s refuge policy was anti-Australian. Anti-Semitism, in my view, has become a political weapon to silence critics of the Jewish state – from Jews and non-Jews alike.

Let me give examples of the areas of contest. Is Israel occupying Palestinian land? Of course it is. Some would argue this has been going on since Jewish forces stole Palestinian land, villages and property in 1948 and called it Israel. But, regardless of that, there is no argument that since Israel’s armed forces invaded the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, these are “occupied territories”. The United Nations regularly refers to “the occupied Palestinian territories” and condemns such actions as settlement-building on these lands “having no validity” (Resolution 465, 1980). The fact is that Israel is an occupying power – occupying the pathetically small 22 percent of the original land of Palestine still legally in Palestinians’ name. And it does so with great force: tanks, soldiers, fighter jets, helicopters, drones and listening posts – and now a high wall – imprisoning Palestinians and blocking them from access to their schools, farms and jobs.

Yet there is a squeamishness in the Australian press about using the “o” word. They are called “the territories” or, as the Israelis like, “the disputed territories”. But the same reluctance to use the word “occupied” doesn’t exist in The Economist or most European newspapers – though you rarely if ever see the “o” word in American media like The New York Times or The Washington post. In my view, the “o” word is important because it gives the conflict MEANING. If they are occupied territories, it makes sense of the resistance to occupation – indeed, it gives it protection under international law, just as if Indonesian forces occupied Darwin. If they are occupied territories, then the settlements shouldn’t just be “outposts”, as the Israeli PR has it, but “illegal settlements”, as they are.

The word game is deadly serious. In reading the texts over this two-year period it is clear that Ariel Sharon ratcheted up his identification with George Bush, comparing the US war against Osama bin laden and terrorism in general with his own battle against Arafat and “Islamic terrorists”. My software analysis shows that, after September 11, 2001, there is a tripling of the use of the word “terror” when the word “Sharon” is used in an article. The suggested equation is: you’re either for us or against us; those against us are “terrorists” and those in the middle are supporters of “terror” until they deny it. In such a narrative, there is no space for the fact that the victims here are the occupied Palestinians who suffer three times the casualties Israeli soldiers do, have a ruined economy and an army harassing them day and night, not to mention fanatic so-called settlers. In Sharon’s narrative, picked up by the media, all Palestinians are terrorists.

Let me come back to the main theme here. I have gone into some length to describe the battle over words – in fact, here I’ve talked largely of one word, “occupied” – as part of what happens when a whole people cop the kind of mass misrepresentation that incorporates all three of the levels I was mentioning before.

These are the levels of HOW the misrepresentation occurs. My argument would be that it is so comprehensively riven through the coverage that it is not just a matter of an editor’s or foreign correspondent’s or local reporter’s bias, lack of ethics or laziness, it is structurally present. I do not believe it is a case of ill-intent. Most journalists, editors and producers are professional, often idealistic (despite the trade cynicism), usually apolitical people who want to do a fair and reasonable report for their employer and their audience. How come, then, that such a sustained load of appalling crap comes from such a group (many of whom are my friends)?

My guess is orientalism. And the only man who can explain that term properly is the great Palestinian American literary scholar, Edward Said. He died just over a year ago be he has left us with a corpus of work over the last 30 years which is just stunning. Starting with “ Orientalism” itself, then “Culture and Imperialism”, then books of media interest, like “Covering Islam” about US media treatment of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and going on to volumes of letters, articles and pen pictures, Said is a major thinker of extreme relevance to us right now.

He outlines how the Islamic revolution of the seventh to the fifteenth century scared the daylights out of Christian Europe and how it has failed to recover sufficiently to distinguish one Muslim or Arab from another. He attacks essentialist thinking: the sort of low-grade ‘analysis’ that sees essential qualities in Arabs or Muslims or in any formulaic descriptions of other humans.

I think he’s right. You see the kind of thinking he talks of in Shakespeare’s Othello – the dark, lascivious Moor – in Flaubert’s novels, in Tennyson, Kipling, in Victorian novels, in the whole triumphalist imperialist rhetoric of “Rule Britannia” at the turn of the last century. And that’s exactly where we came in. Our first meetings with the Arabs and the Muslims were supporting British war aims in 1914. Our troops stopped off in Egypt on the way to fight “the Turk” at Gallipoli. Later we scooted around Palestine and Syria in support of British troops chasing the Turks out of their empire.

I suspect we picked up the orientalism virus along the way, along with a few others. It’s infected our thinking ever since. Now, thanks to our media being so dependent on a British and American view of the world, we’re back sucking at the twin imperial teats, along with its infected milk.

Only now, since September 11, it’s worse. Just like fighting The Reds and fighting “communism” was once a blood sport for a generation brought up in the 1950s, now a new “ism” has replaced the old spectre: “terrorism”. Our media haven’t resolved their old orientalism and they are expected to chase terrorists under every bed. Almost all of them seem to be Muslim, if not Arabic. The old blood sport has taken on new, crescent-shaped colours. “Of Middle Eastern appearance”, the kind of phrase Edward Said would have denounced with such venom, is used to trawl through a whole community, creating fear and loathing.

You might ask: does all this representation stuff really matter, though? Hasn’t each migrant community in Australia gone through this? Aren’t some Arabic people rising to the top in Australia, like the NSW Governor Marie Bashir and the new young head of the National Australia Bank? Won’t the great multicultural melting pot work once again? Well, I think it’s not as easy as that.

First, it’s been going on too long now to just melt away. Vilification of Arabic and Muslim people in the media has been traced back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. We’re talking a quarter of a century! And second, I think there are a set of factors that are working to link up foreign-ness of race and religion (Arab and Muslim) with some of the top foreign policy priorities of our present government. For some reason, John Howard is intent on playing Little Sir Echo to Uncle Sam in faraway Iraq and showing these backward Arabs about such concepts as “democracy” – as though Arab leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Iran hadn’t tried it before, only to see it crushed by invading British or French troops. So my view is that it too convenient for governments right now to align old racist prejudices with such concepts as “the War on Terror” and keep the old stereotypes alive.

And does it matter? Well it matters because, quite apart from the overwhelming injustice of it, we are in grave danger of just getting many things wrong – mislead by our own delusions.

There’s a wonderful study in the latest issue of the leading American journal, The Journal of International Affairs. It’s a fully-refereed article by Rosemary Shinko called “Discourses of denial: Silencing the Palestinians, Deligitimizing their claims”. It traces how the Palestinians were represented in the US media as the debate raged about what to do in 1946 with Jewish claims to their land. Let me read one section:

“Press reports ignored the demographic existence of the indigenous inhabitants and failed to ascribe any validity to the history and culture of the Palestine Arabs. In effect, they ‘emptied’ the land of Palestine, so that, in the American mind, Palestine was a land open for settlement by the Jews. The incidental Arabs that were there were portrayed as uncivilized, backward nomads who were merely an unfortunate impediment to progress.”

This orientalist thinking might remind Australians of something else: terra nullius. White Australians came here with similar notions. We still haven’t come to terms with the consequences. Except in Palestine in 1947, it was only 60 years ago, not two centuries, the victims are still living, and, incidentally, there were, and are, always more of the indigenous Arabs than the invading whites.

So my point is that representations matter in the sense that they fill the public space with notions about which public policy will have to deal for many decades to come. As the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe made clear when he visited Australia last year, the Jewish forces may have won the battles of 1948 and 1967, but the longer war will be lost in an Arab sea, not least by demography.

I think we can only move forward when journalists, media students and editors take it on themselves to stop this rot. After all, it’s their representations that are defaming whole communities. Like the alcoholic, the first stage is recognition of a problem, the second counselling, and the third action.

At the same time, the Arabic and Muslim communities, separately but co-operatively, need to go on a crusade, to coin a term, of their own. It needs to be media-friendly but media-savvy. It needs to talk the talk but accept no excuses for essentialism and defamation, for one-sided laziness and journalism without history or context. It needs, as Edward Said would have said, to “talk back to power”, in this case media power.

I will finish by making a point, via Said, that I think is important. The worst habits of mind are those that seem so natural, so normal. Orientalist thinking is one of them. Said says:

“One of the important developments in nineteenth century Orientalism was the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient – its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness – into a separate and unchallenged coherence; thus for a writer to use the word Oriental was a reference for the reader sufficient to identify a specific body of information about the Orient. This information seemed to be morally neutral and objectively valid; it seemed to have an epistemological status equal to that of historical chronology or geographical location.” (205)

We have gone beyond calling people “Orientals” but we have not gone beyond orientalist thinking. It is rooted within us as a racist virus and has to be attacked. The sooner we start the process, the clearer our view, as media workers and media consumers, of a region crucial to our future and a religion we must understand.

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