“When compared to all other groups, attacks by Muslim perpertrators are overpresented in the media by 449%, a study has found.” Dr Aayesha J Soni looks at the origin of such bias.
Two weeks ago, in what has become an annual gathering of European far-right groups, an estimated 60,000 ultranationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazi sympathisers marched on Poland’s capital city to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence. Banners promised a “white Europe”, while all those present chanted declarations of “clean blood” and “death to the enemies of the homeland.” Populist sentiments of grossly anti-Muslim agendas were reportedly called for, and the disturbing images of fuming young white faces were splayed across social media. It was difficult to fathom that this was a genuine protest happening in 2017, but then an overview of the year was a rude awakening to the reality of how common and accepted Islamophobia has become.
A recap of some of the highlights of 2017: Brexit campaigners warned (amongst many other things) that if the UK didn’t leave the EU, its shores would be hit with a deluge of Turkish immigrants and Muslim refugees. Trump promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders almost secured unlikely electoral victories in France and The Netherlands, respectively, by claiming Islam is antithetical to democratic values. It is quickly becoming apparent that across the Western world, anti-Muslim sentiment and hate is being established rapidly. We know from modern history that from far-right populism comes far-right militancy- a spike in hate crimes against Muslims confirms this quite blatantly. It is terrifying to find ourselves in this situation, but one must question the origin of such a trend.
Are people becoming increasingly weary of Muslims because of terrorist attacks? Are Muslims becoming more of a violent threat to the lives of people in the West? Is Islam propagating the murder and destruction of all non-Muslims, warranting all of the above extreme courses of action? The simple answer to all of the above questions is: No. The very fact that I could conjure up these questions in my head as the root cause of the growing anti-Muslim hate, however, is testament to the fact that these sentiments are what we are indoctrinated to believe every day.
In a large retrospective study published by Georgia University in May this year, the very question of the origin of anti-Muslim hate was analysed from the perspective of the media. News coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015 were gathered and studied. The central question of the study was why do some terrorist attacks receive more media coverage than others? Erin Kearns and his co-authors argued that social identity is the largest predictor of news coverage of terrorist attacks, with attacks by Muslim perpetrators receiving, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. They suggested that more representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality. But what is the reality?
An FBI report published in 2013 showed that only a small percentage of terrorist attacks carried out on U.S. soil between 1980 and 2005 were perpetrated by Muslims. Princeton University’s Loon Watch compiled the FBI’s data which illustrated there were more Jewish acts of terrorism within the United States than Islamic (7% vs 6%). These were not terrorists who happened to be Jews; rather, they were extremist Jews who committed acts of terrorism based on their religious passions, carried out by groups such as Jewish Armed Resistance, the Jewish Defense League, Jewish Action Movement, United Jewish Underground and Thunder of Zion. Yet the scrutiny by law enforcement and homeland security has been on American Muslims and has exponentially grown against Islam, setting the tone for world-wide trends.
The reality is that an American is more than twice as likely to be shot dead by a toddler than killed by a terrorist. In 2014, 88 Americans were shot dead, on average, every day. In that same year 18 Americans were killed by terrorist attacks in the US while 43 were shot (accidentally or not) by a toddler less than 3 years of age. Put more starkly: more Americans were killed by firearms roughly every five hours than were killed by terrorists in an entire year. In the eight months since Trump took office, more Americans have been killed in attacks by white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners. In fact, between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by home-grown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists, according to a study by New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC.
The blanket coverage of the Sept. 11th attacks successfully seared the images of terrorism on our brains. Media saturation and constant overstating of the terrorist risk by politicians has ensured that every person exposed to modern day communication believes that Muslims are the first suspects in any terrorist attack. Islamophobia has been institutionalised as structural and we have reached a stage where Muslims in total and Islam in itself are seen as threatening and potentially criminal.
The way in which media frames an issue has a massive impact on public perception. Whether the disproportionate coverage is a conscious decision on the part of journalists or not, this stereotyping reinforces cultural narratives about what and who should be feared. When all the facts are gathered and statistics are analysed, it becomes quickly apparent that this irrational fear of Muslims and their “terrorism” that is currently consuming the world is ill-founded and destructive. People of an entire religion are being subject to increased scrutiny and disruption of their daily lives, based on open bias and propaganda.
Dr Aayesha J Soni is a medical doctor and member of the Media Review Nework. She was nominated as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans, 2017.