As tonight's Dispatches shows, the media's coverage of Islam alienates and demonises a vulnerable British minority.
Imagine if you picked up a newspaper to discover the following headline, "Gay sickos' Maddie kidnap shock". What would your response be?
Or perhaps if you read, "Christmas is banned: it offends Jews". Or even, "Black people tell us how to run our schools".
You would probably be offended and outraged in equal measure – and rightly so. In modern Britain, it is no longer acceptable for the media to engage in such egregiously inaccurate or recklessly bigoted coverage of minority groups.
There is, however, one glaring exception to this rule – Muslims. As writer and broadcaster Peter Oborne points out in tonight's Dispatches
on Channel 4, these rather shocking headlines have already appeared in our national press, but only in relation to Britain's Muslim minority. In the wake of 7/7, the press has been given free rein to effectively demonise the Islamic faith and its two million adherents in this country.
Dispatches commissioned Cardiff University's school of journalism to carry out a unique study of the content and, above all, context of almost a thousand articles written about Islam and Muslims since 2000. The Cardiff researchers discovered that over two-thirds of stories identified Muslims either as a source of problems or as a threat – not just in the context of terrorism but on cultural issues too. In fact, this year for the first time, the volume of stories focusing on cultural differences overtook those related to terrorism. Over the entire period, more than one in four stories contained the rather pernicious idea that Islam is dangerous, backward or irrational.
As a practicing Muslim and as a television journalist, I find myself awkwardly straddling the divide between British Islam and the British media. With my journalist's hat on, I recognise and support the very legitimate desire of the media to cover, and comment on, the growing terrorist threat to this country from "homegrown" extremists. (Dispatches has a long and proud record
in this area.)
With my Muslim hat on, however, I grow tired of having to also endure a barrage of lazy stereotypes, inflammatory headlines, disparaging generalisations and often inaccurate and baseless stories. Did a local council, for example, "ban Christmas" to avoid offending Muslims? No. Did Natwest remove its piggy banks to avoid offending Muslims? Not at all. Did a "Muslim hate mob" vandalise a house full of British squaddies? Nope.
To pretend that this relentlessly negative coverage of a marginalised minority has no effect on community relations or on integration is naive, if not disingenuous. Portraying Muslims as different and dangerous can have serious repercussions, and tonight's Dispatches draws attention to a growing number of Muslims who now live in daily fear; some because their homes are repeatedly vandalized, others because they have suffered devastatingly violent attacks. In an exclusive ICM poll (pdf)
for the programme, a third of Britain's Muslims say they or their family members have suffered abuse or hostility since 7/7, and over two-thirds of the wider British public think that prejudice against Muslims has increased. Yet, at the same time, a majority of the public also continues to believe that the religion of Islam is to blame for the bombings.
Three years on, it is time to stop conflating the actions of a tiny minority of extremists with the entire Muslim community or the whole religion of Islam. It is time for newspaper editors, reporters, columnists and commentators to stop the negative stereotyping and fear-mongering that reinforces the public perception of Muslims and Islam as strange, foreign and threatening, and further alienates and stigmatises an already vulnerable community of British citizens. As Peter Oborne points out, "There is an urgent need for a change in our public culture."
Dispatches: It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim will be broadcast tonight at 8pm on Channel 4.