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Review: (Mis)Representing Islam

<x-tad-bigger>Book review not unrelated altogether to the current discussion.

Source: http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-1973.html

AUTHOR: Richardson, John E.
TITLE: (Mis)Representing Islam
SUBTITLE: The racism and rhetoric of British broadsheet newspapers
SERIES: Discourse approaches to politics, society and culture
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004
Announced at </x-tad-bigger><x-tad-bigger>http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-549.html</x-tad-bigger><x-tad-bigger>

Linnea Micciulla, Boston University

The author's stated purpose is to study ''the discursive
representation of Islam and Muslims in British broadsheet newspapers,
analysing the ways in which they reproduce anti-Muslim racism''
(p. xvi). The introduction presents racism as a discursive phenomenon,
in which a ''normalized'' racist paradigm is produced and
reproduced. Normalization of racism against a particular group results
when racist stereotypes are accepted as normal by the general public,
and are therefore generally not recognized to be racist. The book
performs an in-depth analysis not only of the representation of
Muslims in British elite newspapers, but also of the social
repercussions of this racist discourse. The corpus consists of
reports from October 1997 to January 1998 from the following British
newspapers: the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the
Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday

Chapter 1 provides background to the study of Orientalism, drawing on
the work of Edward Said among others. Richardson illustrates the use
of topoi such as ''sex, violence, the cunning of Muslims and the
irrationality of Islam'' (p. 14) as stereotypical themes used to
depict Muslims, and shows how they have been applied conflictingly
over time, as ''Western'' values change. Muslims are represented at
certain times as being ''morally lax'' and at other times as ''too
repressive'' but they are always represented in opposition to current
Western thinking. Despite contradictory stereotypes, they are often
represented as a monolithic group, which has not changed over the
centuries, with the implication that they are incapable of change.

This type of representation is labeled ''closed'' by the Runnymede
Trust (1997), whose report on 'Islamophobia' provides a categorical
framework that Richardson employs throughout the book. Other examples
of closed views identified by the Runnymede Trust include those in
which Islam is seen as: separate from the West, inferior to the West,
violent, and manipulative. In these closed views, criticisms of the
West from Islamic sources are automatically rejected, and
discrimination and hostility towards Muslims is accepted as
natural. In contrast, open views of Islam present Islam as diverse,
interacting with other faiths, worthy of respect and partnership, and
sincere. In open views, criticism of the West from Islamic sources is
considered, and discrimination and hostility toward Muslims is not
accepted as natural and inevitable. Richardson makes a connection
between the overwhelmingly closed reporting of Muslims and the
socio-economic prejudice experienced by British Muslims.

Chapter 2 covers two major areas that contribute to anti- Muslim
representations: on the macro level, the functioning of the media as a
commodity, and on the micro level, the linguistic choices used by news
writers. Richardson examines the institutional background of race and
British press, beginning with an analysis of the news as a product
which must be sold to elite consumers in order to satisfy the
advertisers and make a profit. This cycle tends to exclude non-whites
from participation in the media discourse world. Even those few
non-white journalists who are employed by elite British newspapers are
expected to report on ''racial issues'' of interest to the white power
structure, in a style that is marketable to the elite consumer. Since
only issues of interest to the majority are selected as being
newsworthy, the elite majority's representation of minorities is
reproduced and reinforced.

The second half of the chapter provides a study of the impact of
linguistic choice in reporting, focusing on selected lexical and
syntactic choices. Lexically, minorities are represented in
predictable ways, through consistent repetition of prejudicial
stereotypes. These stereotypes come to form an intertextual frame,
through which a bias is created toward racist interpretations. Given
a choice between a positive and negative expression (such as debate
vs. clash, p. 55,) the negative term is almost always preferred for
reporting on Muslims and other minorities. Likewise, syntactic
phenomena, such as expression of agency, almost always reflect a
negative bias towards minorities.

Chapters 3 and 4 explore the negative representation of Muslims and
the positive representation of Westerners, respectively, placing them
on the opposite sides of van Dijk's (1998) ideological square. The
ideological space is created through the representation of Muslims as
separate from ''us,'' combined with the use of negative referential
strategies which draw on stereotypes of Muslims as backwards and
barbaric. Richardson analyzes a number of news articles, including
some which purport to present a ''positive'' image of ''some''
Muslims, by presenting them as ''more Western'' than their more
backwards counterparts, ironically reinforcing the negative
stereotypes as the presupposed norm. The four topoi cited by the
author as being the most prevalent represent Muslims: as a military
threat, as terrorists/extremists, as a threat to democracy, and as a
sexist/social threat. Analysis of various instances of these topoi
show that they are linked to Islam in the articles analysed through
fallacious arguments and unsupported presuppositions.

The negative representation of Muslims is emphasized by a marked
contrast with the positive representation of the West as a civilizing
influence. Islam and the West are presented as incompatible forces,
suggesting that Islam cannot be conceived of as potentially modern or
democratic. Analysing a number of broadsheet news reports on
Palestine and Israel, Richardson notes that the reports almost always
position Israel as ''we'' and Palestinians and Arabs as ''they,''
consistently referring to occupied Arab lands in terms that showed
acceptance of Israeli actions. He contrasts the British press with
examples from the Israeli press, such as Haaretz and Yediot Aharanot,
where controversial Israeli Army tactics are openly discussed.
Although this information is easily accessible to British broadsheet
news, these tactics are not reported in British papers. Richardson
asserts that, ''the ability of the Israeli Army, and later the Israeli
government and Judiciary, to deny the [Jenin] massacre ~E was in no
small part attributable to the absence of commentary and
contextualisation from 'inside' sources'' (p. 104).

Richardson's study of the reporting of British Muslims in Chapter 5
begins by illustrating how the ''us vs. them'' lines are drawn to
exclude British Muslims from ''the British'' as a whole. He analyses a
number of strategies, such as the use of foreign sources to make truth
claims about Britain's superiority. An examination of stories covering
Muslim concerns reveals that attested instances of anti-Muslim
discrimination are not considered newsworthy, and any coverage of
genuine Muslim concerns is presented in a frame of fanaticism,
violence and fear-mongering. Reporting of the Runnymede Trust
findings, for example, focused on the increase in British Muslim
population and the increase in the number of mosques in Britain,
changing the focus towards the ''threat'' posed by these statistics
rather than the discrimination exposed in the report, and even running
an article entitled, ''In defense of Islamophobia'' (Independent,
10/23/1997). Although this article provoked a series of responses
containing ''open'' representations, Richardson suggests that the
constant need to argue against the perception of their faith or their
people as a threat can be demoralizing to British Muslims. An extreme
example of overlexicalization in anti-Muslim reporting came after the
1997 murder of 60 tourists at Luxor. Richardson shows how subsequent
reporting, which tied international terrorism to the suspicion of
Muslim terrorists harbored by Britain, created a lexical equivalence
so that '''Islamic terrorists' are 'Islamic militants' are 'Islamic
radical exiles' are 'Islamic asylum seekers'''(p. 133). Richardson
ends the chapter by reviewing some ''positive'' stories that appear
during this time period, which depart from the normalized
representation of Islam vs. the West.

The reporting of Iraq covered in Chapter 6 illustrates the systematic
limitation of options presented during wartime news
coverage. Journalists limit the space of the discussion by not
entertaining any non-war options; ''a discourse dominated by
propaganda will consequently only allow for two positions: for and
against'' (p. 156). Richardson lays out the ''discursive strategy''
created through a set pattern of assertions and presumptions. He
indicates elements which were not reported, as well as those that were
only selectively reported, such as UN decisions that agreed with
Britain's perspective. Richardson focuses on the lexical and
syntactic structures employed by press writers to reinforce the
ideological square identified in previous chapters. The ''other'' is
represented simply as ''Iraq'' or ''Saddam'' or the ''Iraqi dictator''
while ''we'' are represented by a large number of collective
representations (''America'', ''Washington and its allies'') and by a
litany of individuals with their full titles almost always
given. Aggression against Iraq is mitigated through syntactic removal
of agency, often through passivization or nominalization of the
action. Metaphorical expressions are used to present Iraq as
subordinate, thus legitimizing its punishment at the hands of the
parent or authority figure, the West. Western military action is often
backgrounded, while Iraqi action is foregrounded. Lexically, the West
''warns'' and Iraq ''threatens.'' Richardson brings the various
presuppositions necessary to comprehend the British reporting on Iraq
to light for critical examination.

Chapter 7, ''Conviction, truth, blame and a shifting agenda: the
reporting of Algeria'', examines not just the effect of anti-Muslim
news stories on society, but also the role of external factors in
shaping how events are represented in the press. Richardson points out
that the reporting of Algeria during the time period studied was
dominated by stories of violence, with the blame for the violence
shifting between the Algerian government and groups labeled as
''Muslim terrorists.'' The blame shifted according to the sources used
during the period reported. Prior to investigative reporting conducted
in Algeria, the blame is placed on Muslims. But during periods of time
when the British press had journalists in Algeria, the journalists saw
direct evidence of the Algerian junta's agency in the massacre of
Algerian civilians, and identified them in their reports as the
aggressors. One journalist, after spending time in Algeria predicted,
''And with documentary evidence that thousands - some say as many as
12,000 men and women - have been 'disappeared' by a government that
claims to be fighting 'international terrorism', Algeria's
military-backed government will find it hard ever again to win
sympathy in the West'' (p. 206). However, in subsequent months most of
the British press returned to its reliance on government-controlled
Algerian press as their source, and therefore shifted the blame back
away from the government. The Financial Times did not follow the
shifting pattern, instead reporting items such as the call for an
investigation of the role of the government in the massacres, and the
importance of Algeria to international oil interests. Richardson
concludes, ''Faced with massacres in a Muslim country; given the
'choice' between apportioning blame for such crimes to 'Muslims' or a
military backed government... broadsheet newspapers found the racist
stereotypes and misinformation provided by the Algerian junta were
much more convenient to print than the messy and uncomfortable
reality: they did not know what the truth was.'' (p. 225)

This book should be of great interest to those who are well-versed in
Critical Discourse Analysis, as well as to those who are looking for
an introduction to its theory and practice. It draws on a number of
critical theories, and explains them with enough detail to be readily
understood to those who are new to the field.

It is also an excellent model for Critical Discourse
Analysis. Examining both linguistic and social factors, Richardson
combines qualitative and quantitative analyses to bring to the
foreground the underlying ideological biases that run throughout the
corpus studied. This work is remarkable for its depth of analysis, and
the extensive research conducted provides the basis for scrutiny not
only of what is reported and how it is reported, but also what is
consistently left out. The topic is one that has received scant
attention up until now in the linguistic community, as the area of
anti-Muslim discrimination and its role in newspaper reporting has
been largely neglected. By reporting on both broad trends and case
studies, and by providing evidence for both the effects of the elite
press on a minority community and the effects of social situations on
the printed news, Richardson makes a strong case for the interaction
between language and social power. The context in which stereotypical
frames are produced and reproduced intertextually is made clear, as
the prejudicial presuppositions required to understand the news are
made explicit.

The argumentation is clearly and logically thought out; however, the
presentation of the data in the various charts and graphs is often
confusing. The abbreviations used in data displays are sometimes ill
defined. In particular, columns showing percentages do not always
describe clearly what the numbers represent.

''(Mis)Representing Islam'' is a timely and much-needed publication in
today's world, and has the potential to provide great insight not only
to linguists but also to those who produce and those who consume
broadsheet news.

Dijk, Teun van. 1998. Ideology, A Multidisciplinary Approach. London
et al.: Sage.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the
Orient. London: Penguin Books.

Said, Edward W. 1997. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts
Determine How We Should see the Rest of the World. London: Vintage.

Linnea Micciulla is currently a doctoral candidate in Applied
Linguistics at Boston University. Her current research interests
include pragmatics and discourse analysis.</x-tad-bigger>