Recent events worldwide, such as Paris attacks, civil war in Syria and refugee crisis in Europe, have all contributed to an increased attention devoted to Islam. Major British news providers are increasingly outspoken about terrorism, often linking Islam-related terminology to extremist ideologies, perhaps in the hope to provide sensational material that would attract readers and advertisers. However, as this phenomenon is relatively new in the United Kingdom, few studies have explored the impact misused language might leave on the British public.
This study investigates whether misinterpretation of Islamic religious terms in print and online news media affects millennials’ and baby boomers’ attitudes towards Muslims in Britain by deviating from the typical emphasis on representations of minority groups and focusing instead on specific terms. By analysing responses from a number of focus groups and articles published by four British news providers, this study reaches conclusions about readers interpretations of terms Islamist, Hijab, Sharia Law, Jihad and Halal and whether these opinions are linked to media consumption.
The findings of this study indicate that members of the millennial and baby boomer demographics possess similar misunderstanding of the aforementioned terms. Both generations linked the terms to terrorism, threat to British values and mistreatment of women. Fascinatingly, their opinions were strongly similar to those of the news they read, supporting argument that audiences are incapable of forming their own opinion, thus adopting rhetoric of major news providers. However, the study does find some evidence that suggests that millennials are generally more positive, critical and liberal-minded of the terms, while baby boomers express their ideas through negative and rejecting rhetoric.
Keywords: Islam, terms, misrepresentation, media, millennials, baby boomers
Table of Contents
Islam has been widely discussed topic in the media since 9/11 (Powell 2011). The number of Islam-related news stories has increased rapidly in the past years due to the emerging tensions worldwide (Lewis, Mason and Moore 2008). Paris attacks, war in Syria, refugee crisis, and the growing threats of ISIS are factors encouraging attention devoted to Islam (James 2016). Additionally, the rising attractiveness of right wing propaganda in the Western world, including anti-immigration mind-set, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and French and Dutch elections, is providing reasons for media to cover stories related to minority groups.
Moreover, Bourdieu (1996) suggests that the environment within the media industries has become more competitive in the past decades due to the emergence of the new media. He further adds that in many cases journalists are required to provide content hourly, thus not allowing sufficient time for research. The pressure to ‘get a scoop’ has led content creators to producing stories that would appeal to mass audiences in order to increase revenue and satisfy commercial needs. Fishman (1980) explains that journalists cover the news through governmental agencies in their search for the scoop. Such practice creates sensational content where complex stories are transformed into clichés, representing the bureaucratic agenda. Gans (1980 p.80) argues that “journalists are employees of bureaucratic commercial organizations and members of a profession”, thus in many cases they are ought to prioritize commercial needs over the ‘Fourth Estate’ ideals.
The relationship between organizations and content creators are convenient for both, the former seeks to distribute their rhetoric while the latter requires attention-grabbing news content to attract audience and advertisers. In many cases the audience is involved in spreading the bureaucratic rhetoric through tweeting, and sharing their opinion in comment threads. Such distorted news content creates stereotypes and strengthens established misjudgements, or in other words, generates what Cohen (1972) describes as ‘moral panics’. This phenomenon marginalises minority voices, so that they become invisible and unimportant, creating false assumptions of, in this case, Islam and terms linked to it.
The research seeks to investigate the effects of misused language on audience’s perception. It will examine how misinterpreted religious terms, specifically linked to Islam, affect people’s opinion about Islam and Muslim community. The existing studies are mostly focused on how Muslims are portrayed in the media, however, this study is particularly concerned with the relationship between misinterpreted language and perception, in order to fill in the current gaps within this research field.
The research will use the methodology of focus groups and discourse analysis based on Fairclough’s (2001) model. Collected data from both focus groups will be analysed in order to distinguish the differences between baby boomers and millennials in terms of their understanding of Islam-related terms. The news articles, containing terms Islamist, Hijab, Jihad, Sharia Law and Halal, published by The Independent, The Times, The Daily Mail and The Evening Express, will be analysed in order to determine whether focus group participants’ opinions and understanding of these terms are influenced by the news they read.
The main research question of this study concerns misinterpretation of religious terms in the news media, such as The Independent, The Times, The Daily Mail, and The Evening Express, and how such misinterpretation affects readers’ understanding of these terms and attitude towards Islam and Muslim community.
The main research question will be answered by series of sub-questions:
- What do non-Muslim British baby boomers and millennials understand by a selection of key religious terms linked to Islam – and how similar or different are their understandings of these concepts?
- From which sources have they acquired this knowledge?
- How closely to the understandings of these terms demonstrated by the two groups of adult correlate with the way in which these terms are represented in the UK news media that they consume?
- To what extent can these adults’ understandings of these Islamic concepts – and attitudes towards them – be said to have been affected by their media consumption?
- To what extent do popular representations of these terms/concepts in the mainstream UK news media accurately reflect their meanings?
- To what extent can attitudes be said to vary between predominantly tabloid and broadsheet readers? In what respects are their perceptions different?’
In order to contribute to the existing literature, the aim of this study is to clarify whether misinterpretation of Islamic religious terms in the print and online news media affects audience’s attitude towards Muslims in Britain.
The above aim will be accomplished by completing three main research objectives. The first objective of this research is to determine how baby boomers and millennials define terms Islamist, Hijab, Sharia Law, Jihad and Halal. Additionally, it is essential to determine what newspapers or online news they read. The second objective is to look at media coverage of these terms, specifically The Independent, The Times, The Daily Mail and The Evening Express. The study is focused on these four news providers as they were identified by the focus group participants. The third and final objective is to discuss whether news coverage and use of the studied terms has an impact of audiences’ understanding of these terms and perception of the Muslim community.
Lewis, Mason and Moore (2008 p.9) argue that the coverage of Muslims has increased considerably since 2000, peaking in 2006 and remaining in high levels. The increase can be explained by the growth of attention devoted to terrorism related stories, where 36% of stories about British Muslims are about extremism. Additionally, the research concludes that media representation of Muslims has not only grown but also marginalised. Two thirds of the stories that cover Islam recognizes Muslims as a threat in relation to terrorism, a problem in terms of differences in values or both. Stories in news media tend to be concerned with cultural differences between Muslims and Western ideology. De-contextualisation, misinformation and fearmongering are strong concepts in the reporting of Muslims in the British media.
Even though the research carried out by Lewis, Mason and Moore provides a valuable insight into the representation of Muslims in the British media, it is outdated, considering the recent attention devoted to Muslims. Events, such as Paris attacks in 2015, civil war in Syria, and refugee crisis in Europe have all contributed to media’s interest in Islam. However, no recent studies provide clarification whether these events have contributed to the changes in representation of British Muslims.
Moreover, according to Akbarzadeh and Smith (2005 p.23), the well-known phrase ‘war on terror’ has a subliminal meaning which is understood as a ‘war on Islam.’ They argue that this war is fought in metaphysical and ideological spaces, often comparing it to the Cold War, which also endorsed a certain form of division between the West and the East. Reese (2007) supports this notion by explaining that ‘war on terror’ triggered the public’s support of the invasion of Iraq. This support, respectively, encouraged media outlets to divide the nation between the Muslim East and the Christian West.
Furthermore, Mason (2007 p.28) emphasizes that the language used describing Muslim communities in Britain is often negative. For instance, the belief that Islam is dangerous, backward or irrational can be observed in 26% of news stories concerning Muslims. Correspondingly, Lewis Mason and Moore (2008 p.3) argue that the most common terms used in relation to Islam are terrorist, Islamist, suicide bomber and militant. The most common adjectives include radical, fanatical, fundamentalist, jihadist and extremist.
Additionally, British press tend to generalize Muslim community by identifying them as simply Muslims, rather than individuals. Scholars (Poole, 2002; Mason, 2007; Lewis, Mason and Moore, 2008) agree that non-Muslims are more likely than Muslims to be identified considering their profession and are more likely to be named in news stories. Cinnirella and Jaspal (2010) support this notion by stating that articles are generally framed within the fear of Islam due to the misunderstanding of the diversity of Muslim community. For instance, claiming that Muslims are supporting the so-called ‘no-go areas’ in cities like London and Manchester.
However, many scholars disagree that disagree that Muslims are conceived as simply Muslims. For instance, Akbarzadeh and Smith (2005) argue that followers of Islam are normally portrayed as Arabs. They explain that linking Middle Eastern culture to Islam creates false understanding of Islamic culture and rights that Muslims have under the guidelines of their faith. In many cases, Arab practice of not allowing women to travel alone or work is seen as a Muslim concept. Such misrepresentation is of creating false assumptions that could possibly lead to fear and suspicion.
Akbarzadeh and Smith (2005) further argue that Muslim men are commonly portrayed as militants from the Middle East, while women are represented as oppressed by a patriarchal society and religion. Lewis, Mason and Moore (2008 p.3) explain that police mugshots are often used in the portrayal of Muslim men, “while the most common venues used for images of Muslim men are outside law courts”. Likewise, images of Muslim women are often shown with their faces covered, even though only a small proportion of Muslim females in reality choose to cover their faces.
Additionally, Akbarzadeh and Smith (2005) believe that such misrepresentation leads to distorted understanding of the actual Islamic dress code, which has been widely discussed in the Western media. Muslim dress is normally described as sexist and oppressive, emphasizing the differences between Western and Eastern cultures. According to the study, such reporting leads public to believe that Saudi Arabian traditions are those of Muslims. Moreover, dress code in the media is rarely linked to Muslim men, often ignoring the rules men are ought to follow. These stereotypes, as explained by Akbarzadeh and Smith, result in a strong generalization and dismissal of the diversity of Muslim population.
However, recent debates concerning Islamic dress code, such as the ban of burka in European countries, ban of burkini in France and the law allowing European Union employers to ban headscarves at workplace, have all contributed to media’s attention given to the so-called ‘Muslim-sexism’ in the past year. These events have not yet been analysed by academics, thus it is unclear whether these debates have contributed to changes in attitude towards Muslim minorities in Britain.
Scholars (Cottle 2006; Fekete 2002; Modood 1997) agree that the constant division between the Western and non-Western values, highlighted by the British news media, supports the argument that concerns about ‘Britishness’ have increased in recent years. These concerns are often highlighted by media through emphasizing the negative aspects of a multicultural society, particularly the changes affecting economic and social life. Scholars (Poole 2002 and Richardson 2004) have recognised these arguments and proposed that news providers in many cases place Muslims as a threat to security and to Western way of life. Such representation creates ideas, which place the values of Muslims in conflict with the values of British people. Poole (2002 p.34) explains that “the majority of stories about Islam in the British press focuses on global events”, regularly linking Muslim community with violence, such as the War in Iraq and the existing crisis throughout the Middle Eastern region.
However, Richardson (2004) explains that in many cases the coverage of Muslims is domestically oriented, similarly, emphasizing links with violence and conflict. Poole (2002) study, for instance, found that the major themes connected with Muslims were violence and politics. In his further studies Poole (2006) explains that media have focused on social differences, emphasizing the questions related the loyalty of British Muslims, and highlighting concepts such as integration.
Modood (1997) argues that concerns over Muslim groups can be understood as racism where minority groups are depicted as un-British. These concerns can be understood in relation to the media treatment of minority groups (Saeed 1999). Media marginalises their voices, thus they become ignored and invisible. Van Dijk (1991) states that normally audiences lack contact with Muslim minorities, therefore, media opinions become the primary definer of the mass perceptions. Cottle (2006) supports this notion by explaining that media hold an influential position in communicating discourses often concerned with misrepresentation of minority groups.
On the other hand, Said (1985) believes that the phenomenon of dividing society between us and them is not just applicable to minority groups living in Britain, but more specifically to the Western and Eastern cultures. He provides a background of understanding relationships between the West and the Rest, and Muslims in particular. He believes that European colonialism policy took a cultural form, which involved the building of, orientalism, whose structure has emphasized the dissimilarities between the known and the unknown. Said (1985) further argues that the orientalist mind-set of the British media has encouraged public to see Islam as backward, irrational, uncultured, uncivilised, barbaric and inferior. Cottle (2000) explains that this trend invites the news consumer to construct a sense of who we are in relation to who we are not.
However, Halliday (1993 p.158) explains that “the category of the ‘Orient’ is rather vague, since in Orientalism its usage implies that the Middle East is in some ways special, at least in the kind of imperialist or oppressive writing produced about it”. He further argues that racist attitude can be seen in numerous topics, whether they are about Muslims or not, thus explaining that Orientalist mind-set in Britain might be absent.
Nonetheless, the concept of Orientalism is partly supported by what Cohen (1972) defines as ‘moral panics’. The concept was explained in depth in Cohen’s book Folk Devils and Moral Panics which described that ‘moral panic’ emerges when a certain group of people are defined as a threat to cultural values. The creation of ‘moral panics’ is beneficial for the news organizations as sensationalism attracts audiences and advertisers. Such distorted news content creates stereotypes, in many cases, related to questions about racial identity. Audiences begin to believe that Muslims are a homogenous entity with a certain type of characteristics, which are threatening British values, especially those concerning family life, dress code and male and female relationships.
However, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) explain that the theory of ‘moral panics’ has lost its relevance in the present era as the news consumers have become a less monolithic group due to the changes in news consumption. They argue that news consumers are much more empowered than they used to be decades ago and are interested in defying popular misconceptions and prejudices. British newspaper readers have formed numerous interest groups in order to establish themselves as reliable sources of information. McRobbie and Thornton argue that these readers now shape the public opinion by playing a major role in defining what is perceived to be dangerous and irrational.
Additionally, Europe’s Muslims believe the media misrepresent and characterise them as the others, encouraging discrimination, lack of understanding and integration between communities (Ahmed 1992 and Armeli et al. 2007). Home Office data suggests that discrimination towards Muslims has increased since 9/11 (Sheridan 2006; Fekete 2002; Weller et al. 2001). Saeed (2007) argues that British Muslims are often identified as false nationals, emphasizing the existence of Orientalist mind-set. Media have constructed a rhetoric that openly associates British Muslims with illegal immigration, violence and links to terrorist organizations. Voices in the media are often claiming that more efforts should be made to integrate British Muslims into British society, thus saying that Muslims born in the UK are not fully functioning members of the society and creating a division between the two groups.
The effect misrepresentations of minority groups, particularly Muslims, has on audience’s perception is highly linked to the theory of media effects. People’s attitude, perception, thought and behaviour towards certain events or individual groups is strongly affected by the media’s power to influence minds. Potter (2012) argues that media stimulus is the force exercised by media message. He emphasizes that after media exposure, readers adopt changes in cognition, belief systems and behaviour effects.
This notion is endorsed by Lippmann’s (1922) book Public Opinion which argues that people are incompetent to understand the world and that physical environment is too big and too complex for a direct contact between individuals and the environment. In his work, Lippmann (1946) adds that audience tends to build a pseudo-environment that is frequently a subjective and biased image of the world. His book explains facts in the news are often incomplete and are organised to represent biased versions of the events and build a pseudo-environment to support elite’s agenda.
Even though Lippmann’s ideas are almost a century old, they are widely analysed and discussed by contemporary researchers and serve as a milestone in understanding media effects. For instance, agenda-setting theory explains that over time questions highlighted in the media become more important to the audience. McCombs (2004) states that media concentration on certain issues leads the society to recognise those matters as more significant than other topics. Additionally, he explains that readers face a second-hand reality controlled by journalists’ versions of the discussed events. He adds that through careful selection and presentation of the news, editors change our understanding of what issues are significant. He believes, that the ability to influence the salience of the topics and the portrayal of them is a clear example of the agenda setting role within the media.
However, Cohen (1963 p.177) believes that the press “is not successful in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” He adds: “The world will look different to different people, depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the paper they read.” Cohen indicates that audience is capable of making their own decisions based on their own experience not the one portrayed in the media.
Nevertheless, the changes in the media industries have affected how people consume content and how these alterations have modified audience’s perception and cognitive system. Cohen’s work introduces key concepts of media power and manipulation, however, it struggles to maintain relevance in the constantly changing digital world. Thus, Balmas and Sheafer (2010) argue that media do not only tell audience what to think, but also how to think. They state that agenda comprises features such as information that defines the object, and a tone element (positive, negative or neutral). They explain that the application of agenda setting can be seen in elections where the image of a political candidate plays a major role in shaping publics’ opinion.
Even though studies of Balmas and Sheafer (2010) are highly concerned with elections and politics, they offer guidelines for understanding how media hold the power to tell audience how to think about certain events, individuals or groups.
Additionally, scholars (Goffman, 1974 and Fairhurst and Sarr, 1996) argue that something, which is presented to the audience, influences the choices people make about how to process that information. Media draws public’s eye to specific topics, then present the news in a particular way by creating a frame for that information. This notion has been studied by Iyengar, Peters and Kinder (1982) who argue that words, which are spoken often, are more visible, therefore, more salient. Scheufele (1999) believes that it is a sensible choice made by journalists as the media perform as gatekeepers, shaping ideas and themes.
However, the study by Iynegar, Peters and Kinder (1982) is mostly concerned with televised events, thus it does not explain whether newspapers have the same impact on people’s perception. It is unclear whether images combined with speech are the key elements influencing attitudes.
Though, Neumann (1974) argues that even if people were capable of forming an individual opinion, which is not adjusted by media’s agenda, they would still stay silent when they felt that their opinions are in disapproval to the popular interpretation, fearing being isolated from the society. She states that when someone speaks out confidently of a mainstream belief, the minority groups begin to feel uncomfortable to express their opinion and can start adopting the views of the masses.
However, Ross (2007) notes that if a person possesses a positive self-image, that person will express his or her opinion confidently even if it is against the mainstream belief. He also adds that the spiral of silence is only applicable to the Western society as many cultures see open expression as inappropriate and rude. Similarly, according to Spilchal (2015 p.4), “the spiral of silence theory ignores the evidence of the historical development of public opinion, both in theory and practice, through the extension of suffrage, organisation of political propaganda groups, the establishment of pressure groups and political parties, the eligibility of ever wider circles of public officials and, eventually, the installation of several forms of direct democracy”.
On the other hand, Bourdieu (1996) explains that to name is to show, to create and to bring into existence, emphasizing that words can do a lot of damage. He further argues that journalists tend to use adjectives in news stories due to pressure to break the daily routine and create extraordinary content. He argues that audience will perceive word combinations such as Islamic headscarf, Islamic head cover, and a simple kerchief differently, even if it is the same object. Moreover, he emphasizes that journalists are forced to write stories without acknowledging the significance of the topic. He believes that reporters talk to audience who listen to the news without understanding what is actually said. Bourdieu (1996) explains:
“These words make things – they create phantasms, fears, and phobias and simply false representations.”
Furthermore, Bourdieu believes that journalists are willing to do anything to get a scoop, even lying and deceiving people. However, he states that content creators often copy one another without realizing and every news provider ends up writing or reporting the same topic. He argues that the search for exclusivity, normally produces clichés and encourages repetition not just in terms of content but also language. Furthermore, repetition is one of the key features that affects people’s perception of certain events. The more something is repeated, the more likely it is to stay in audiences memories, therefore encouraging false perception of reality and environment.
Due to the context of the study which is largely based on media effects and media studies, qualitative research methods were selected for the present study. Hegde (2015 p. 124) claims that “qualitative analysis is necessarily more problem specific and often personal compared to standardized statistical analysis.” Powell and Single (1996) support this argument and explain that qualitative data gathering methods are particularly beneficial for acquiring rich, in-depth feedback from the research participants. Therefore, it is clear that quantitative research methods would not be particularly useful in this case solely due to the purpose of the study. However, it is crucial to recognize that this method is more prone to bias, subjectivity and vague answers, which could lead to issues related to data interpretation and analysis.
Furthermore, Interpretivism has been recognised as the research philosophy for this study. Tushnet (1983) argues that interpretivist philosophy is highly subjective and personal and it tends to be focused on the respondents’ views, actions and opinions, thus leaving an impact upon the study and its findings. The goal of this research is to recognize what is the cause of certain behaviours and how these behaviours change over time, therefore, issues should be studied in detail. Myers (1997) explains that interpretive ideologies are concerned with the access to reality through social interactions, such as language and shared meanings. Moreover, Collins (2010) supports this argument by stating that interpretivism is focused on meaning. In order to understand the meaning multiple research methods might need to be used in order to understand the issue from an in-depth perspective.
For the purpose of the research two semi-structured focus groups were conducted. Bernard (1988) suggests that semi-structured discussions are best used when there is only one chance to interview or discuss with someone. Furthermore, the research seeks to investigate whether audiences possess sufficient knowledge of Islam-related terms, therefore, it is essential to analyse group trends, rather than personal. According to Hennink et al (2010) focus groups can generate more insights on research issues than a series of separate interviews. Additionally, Clough and Nutbrown (2012) support this notion by stating that focus groups encourage the emergence of more data due to interaction, which is useful for investigating the subject in a greater depth.
In order to understand people’s attitudes, feelings and beliefs it is essential to gain an insight in group opinions, allowing participants to agree and disagree. This could not be achieved using interviews as the necessary beliefs are depending on masses and social settings. Furthermore, group trends are more likely to be revealed via a social gathering rather than individual interviews. Focus groups “provoke a diversity of views and emotional processes within a group context, while interviews aim to obtain individual attitudes” (Morgan and Kreuger 1993 p.43).
However, focus groups may discourage people from participating, as the setting is not fully confidential and participants might find it difficult to disclose sensitive or personal information to strangers (Gibbs 1997). Moreover, Morgan (1988) believes that in many cases individuals are not always expressing their own definitive individual opinion. It should be taken into account that participants are speaking in a specific context, within a specific culture and sometimes it might be difficult to clearly identify a message. Additionally, Morgan (1988) adds that the researcher has less control over the data produced as participants must be encouraged to talk to each other, ask questions, and express doubts and opinions.
The first focus group consisted of six participants, all of whom were regular visitors at the Inchgarth Community Centre in Aberdeen, as MacIntosh (1993) explains that the recommended number of people per group is usually six to ten. The study focuses on differences in understanding of Islam-related terms between different demographics, and how such perception has developed, therefore it was essential to recruit people over the age of sixty. A leader of a community discussion group was recruited first. Then, snowball sampling occurred, as the leader of the discussion group recruited five other members whose age matched the required criteria. Participants consisted of three males and three females.
The second focus group consisted of six participants, who were all between the ages of 20 and 30 and had a permanent employment at the time of the discussion. Two of the participants were males, while four were females. All members were recruited through social networking website Facebook. Two of the participants were not born in Britain, which might affect their view of British news providers, however, the researcher decided carry on with the discussion as have integrated in the British society.
Both focus groups were asked similar questions in order to understand the differences in attitude and mind-set. Then all participants were asked to define terms Islamist, Jihadist, Sharia Law, Hijab and Jihad, solely based on their experiences. Both demographics recognised that they learned about the studied terms through reading news. However, in order to understand whether misunderstanding of these terms is linked to media consumption, it was essential to analyse how British press interpret them. All focus group participants were asked to identify their favourite news providers. Millennials identified The Independent and The Times, while baby boomers identified Evening Express and the Daily Mail.
To identify the links between audience opinions and media definitions, focus groups were followed by a discourse analysis. Such decision was made in order to reduce the risk of bias and subjectivity. Moreover, interpretivist studies encourage mixed methods, thus this approach was believed to enhance the quality of the study. Furthermore, scholars (van Dijk 1998 p.34) agree that discourse analysis is mostly concerned with analysing texts in order to reveal sources of bias and subjectivity. Van Dijk states that the texts can be both written and spoken, however, solely due to the context of this study, written texts were considered to be more beneficial for the development of the argument. Moreover, Fairclough (1935 p.135) adds that discourse analysis can often help to explore “uncertain relationships of causality and determination between discursive practices, events and texts and wider cultural structures, relations and processes”. Discourse analysis helps understanding how such practices arise and what are the factors encouraging the emergence of power and hegemony.
In order to analyse whether and how religious terms are misinterpreted in the media it is required to look at the actual wording of the articles. The research is focused on understanding the relationship between the writer and the reader and how this relationship is affected by the writer’s beliefs and ideology. Moreover, the core research question includes both political and ideological background, thus focusing on the relationship between language, ideology and institution, in particular how language relates to and is shaped by power structures. Fairclough (2013) states that discourse analysis traces ideological intentions of the text producer and cues intended reactions/ideologies in the receiver as embodied in texts. Additionally, it focuses on power structures, in this case media, and helps understanding the intentions of the elite and establishes what can and cannot be said and who has the right to say it.
The news providers analysed in this research include The Independent, The Times, The Daily Mail, and The Evening Express. In total 329 articles, containing the terms Islamist, Hijab, Sharia Law, Jihad, and Halal, were analysed during the period from 1st of November 2016 to 30th of November 2016.
These news providers were selected as they were recognised by the focus group participants. All millennials agreed that they read The Independent and The Times, while the baby boomers concluded they prefer reading The Daily Mail and Evening Express. Furthermore, two of the providers are broadsheets, while the other two are tabloids, which enables to justify whether tabloids and broadsheets define the selected terms differently and whether reader opinions vary based on the type of news they consume.
Across the present study’s focus groups, millennials explained that they are likely to research terms seen in the news. However, all respondents agreed that the topic must be interesting and the term must be repeated several times. However, a 27 years old botanist suggested that in many cases she “simply doesn’t have time for research” if the topic is not important, emphasizing that often “the meaning of the terms just comes up from the context”.
On the other hand, baby boomers agreed that they “tend to leave the terms”. A retired physiotherapist explained that she “trusts journalists’ credibility”, while a retired war veteran suggested that “it is not necessary to do extra research”. The retired physiotherapist added:
“I tend to take everything as truth. I think they [journalists] are not allowed to do that [be untrue], I usually just take everything as a fact.”
Basing on participant opinions and news provider interpretations of the researched terms, three major themes emerged. The present study suggests that both audience and press link terms Islamist, Hijab, Sharia Law, Jihad and Halal to terrorism and threat to security, threat to British and Western values and mistreatment of women, thus these phenomena will be discussed further.
Both focus groups participants and news providers linked terms Islamist and Jihad to terrorism. Cagaptay (2010 p. 3) explains that Islamist is a “politically motivated individual who seeks to legitimatise his actions through the teachings of Islam, but is not a Muslim.”
Millennials recognised the differences between the terms Muslims and Islamists, suggesting that the latter are followers of radical Islam, interested in resolving issues related to religion. However, a 26 years old small business owner believed that Islamist and Muslim are synonyms, explaining that the term is “not negative in its origin, but people probably made it that way”.
Similarly, The Independent and The Times linked Islamists to terrorism. For instance, during the researched period, The Independent mentioned Islamists 70 times with most of the articles referring to violence, aggression, terrorism and threats related to it, supporting Lewis, Mason and Moore’s (2008) argument that most articles concerning Islam are about terrorism:
“The vision, since then, has focused more on isolationism, with military action limited to combatting Islamist terrorist groups.” (The Independent, November 12, 2016)
Furthermore, the 50 articles that featured the term in The Times were also concerned with aggression and possible terrorist threats, in many cases related to Europe (Mason, 2007):
“Islamist jihadists are planning terror attacks in Europe to focus on Christmas events, American authorities have warned.” (The Times, November 22, 2016)
Even though both broadsheets distinguished Muslims from Islamists, clearly explaining that latter are different from the mainstream Muslims, they failed to recognise that the most fundamental feature of Islamists is strong involvement in politics, approving Bourdieu’s (1996) statement that in many cases journalists do not understand what they are reporting. The Independent mentioned political involvement in seven articles, while The Times in two. In all nine articles Islamists were depicted as “rebel groups” or “opposition forces”:
“Turkey was for long the sanctuary and transit point for the extreme Islamist armed opposition flooding into Syria.” (The Independent, November 28, 2016)
On the other hand, baby boomers agreed that Islamists do not represent the majority of Muslims. They stated that terms Muslim and Islamist should not be used as synonyms as the main goal of the latter is to convert people to Islam through violence and terrorism. For instance a retired war veteran believed that Islamists are “really aggressive people, not always in terms of physical aggression, but always in terms of conversion”. However, all baby boomers failed to recognise that the most crucial feature that distinguish extreme Muslims from Islamists is involvement in political issues.
Additionally, articles published by The Daily Mail expressed similar rhetoric. Most of the articles were concerned with how Islamists are a threat to Britain and Western world (Modood 1997), often not differentiating dissimilarities between Muslims and Islamists. For instance an article from The Daily Mail stressed “the need for stronger family values” and “pledged to clamp down on Islamists who threatened traditional French values” (November 27, 2016).
Only five out of 17 articles, mentioning Islamists differentiated the dissimilarities between Muslims and Islamists, explaining that the latter is heavily fundamental and concerned with terrorism. Nevertheless, none of the articles recognised that the most critical element that separates radical Muslims from Islamists is strong involvement in politics (Bourdieu 1992). Additionally, the local tabloid newspaper Evening Express did not publish any article mentioning the term, thus supporting a concern that baby boomers mostly acquire definitions from The Daily Mail.
Similarly, terms Jihad and Jihadist were linked to violence by the audience and the news providers. Al-Khawalda and Al-Saidat (2012 p. 202) explain that “the word jihad means effort or having effort. It is derived from juhd which means having an effort which is connected with suffering.” Or in other words, it can be explained as a spiritual struggle within oneself against sin.
Even though the study asked participants to explain the term Jihad, all focus group members focused on Jihadists. Four out of six millennials linked jihadists to terrorists and agreed that it is a synonym, supporting Al-Khawalda and Al-Saidat’s (2012) view that the term has been deteriorated semantically by Muslims and the press. For instance a 24 years old beauty specialist commented that “in the news they normally write terms terrorist and jihadist together, it almost sounds like a synonym”. However, a 25 year old engineer believed that Jihad is the holy war against non-believers. The participant was sceptical of how the Islamic State is portrayed as a terrorist group in the Western media, explaining that it is an insurgency group and “Jihad is their main goal”.
The Independent mentioned the terms jihad or jihadist 48 times during the 30 day period. Similarly, all articles were concerned with violence, while none of the publications recognised jihad as a struggle with oneself against sin. Jihad was often linked to terrorism, ISIS, insurgency groups and suicide bombings (Poole 2002). The terms jihadist and terrorist in numerous articles were used as synonyms. Furthermore, The Times seemed to express similar approach in the 47 articles they published within the specific time frame. None of the publications recognised jihad as a struggle with oneself. Moreover, all 47 articles were concerned with global terrorism threats and militant groups (Poole 2006):
“The interior ministry said the group was stirring up militant and aggressive attitudes among its predominantly young audience, including calls to wage jihad and reject democracy.” (The Independent, November 16, 2016)
“A high number of young people have left to pursue jihad in Iraq and Syria.” (The Times, November 25, 2016)
Moreover, baby boomers expressed alike views. The majority of respondents suggested that Jihad is strongly linked to terrorism and violence, specifically against Western countries. A former businessman claimed that the term carries a “strongly negative meaning”, while a mother-of-five added that Jihad sounds “quite frightening”. All participants expressed strong rejection towards the term through emotional rhetoric, using expressions like, frightening, children and suicide, which, in many cases corresponds with language used in tabloids.
For instance, Evening Express only published one article mentioning the term, which suggested that Western people are often kidnapped and held hostage by “extreme Muslims who want to wage jihad in the Western society” (November 13, 2016). Similarly, The Daily Mail mentioned the term in ten articles. All articles were concerned with extreme Muslims and terrorism. However, the articles were domestically oriented, placing an emphasis on “home-grown jihadists” (Modood 1997):
“A gang of British Muslim extremists used aid convoys as a cover to smuggle cash to jihadists in Syria to pay for guns, a court heard yesterday.” (The Daily Mail, November 15, 2016)
The aforementioned statements from audience members and British press supports Lewis, Mason and Moore’s (2008) argument that around 36% of stories about Muslims are about terrorism. Similarly, Mason (2007) emphasized that the language used describing Muslims reflects the negative contexts, which is clearly visible in the articles published by The Independent, The Times, The Daily Mail and The Evening Express. Moreover, a majority of articles published by broadsheets were globally oriented (Poole, 2002), while articles published by tabloids were domestically focused, linking Muslims to violence and conflict (Richardson, 2004).
Fascinatingly, both demographics held similar opinions to those of the news providers they read, supporting Balmas and Sheafer’s (2010) argument that media holds the power to tell public how to think. Even though millennials claimed they research definitions, the study suggests it is a false statement. Both audiences possess a little social contact with the minority group, therefore, when the above media definitions are applied they often play the role of a primary definer (Van Dijk 1991). For instance, the broadsheet newspapers repeated the terms Islamist and Jihad 118 times throughout the 30 day period, however, in overall participants were not able to describe the correct definitions, failing to identify that Islamists are politically motivated individuals and Jihad is a spiritual struggle with oneself against sin. The study suggests that audience members possess certain political and social concerns over Muslim groups, which have been obtained through the treatment minority groups receive from the media (Saeed 1999).
All focus group participants and news providers expressed concerns that terms hijab and halal are a threat to Western values. Baby boomers and tabloids expressed strong negativity towards the terms, often showing rejection, while millennials and broadsheet press were more positive, however, possessing certain traits of dismissal.
According to Eftekhar (2015 p. 85), the word hijab comes from the Arabic word for barrier, and it is “the principle of modesty and includes behaviour as well as dress, for both men and women”. Millennials agreed that the term does not carry a negative meaning and is related to attire. However, a 28 years old biologist said that she has come across many articles which mention the term, she believed that “it might be something, which is very specific to their [Muslim] countries, something to cover the face or the head”. Moreover, the participant rejected the idea that hijab could be incorporated in the Western world stating that it is more likely to be seen in the Middle Eastern societies.
Similarly, the broadsheets did no express strong rejection towards hijab as a clothing, however, expressed that it is visibly different from the agreed attire norms in the Western world. For instance, The Independent mentioned the term hijab 44 times during the studied time frame. 17 articles were concerned with how unusual it is for women in hijabs to participate in the Western society. The Times had similar approach. Even though the news provider mentioned the term only five times over the 30 day period, two publications placed strong emphasis on how unusual it is for veiled Muslim women to be employed:
“Halima Aden will be the first woman to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant while wearing a hijab and burkini.” (The Independent, November 4, 2016)
“Ginella Massa, a reporter on a TV news channel, has been hailed as the first Canadian broadcaster to present a major news show wearing a hijab.” (The Times, November 29, 2016)
Furthermore, baby boomers suggested that hijab is a head cover worn by Muslim women. However, they were more sceptical of the term and believed it carries a negative meaning. A 70 years old housewife expressed concerns related to backward principles of hijab, stating that “it’s shocking how they need to dress”, approving Said’s (1985) theory of Orientalist mind-set in British society.
Similarly, The Daily Mail mentioned hijab only three times during the period. Fascinatingly, Evening Express did publish any article with the term, confirming that baby boomers are more likely to learn about Hijab from The Daily Mail. All three articles published by the tabloid recognised it as a headscarf worn by women, often using negative rhetoric. For instance, one article explained that women dressed in black hijabs could potentially “hide guns under their robes”, emphasizing that such dress should not be allowed in the Western world. Moreover, one article was specifically concerned with a fact that headscarves are against British values:
“And, distressingly, every girl I saw even those of six and seven playing in the park was wrapped up in a hijab and shoulder-to-toe-gown lest a man glimpse her flesh.” (The Daily Mail, November 3, 2016)
Furthermore, Halal is another term, which was considered inferior to British values by focus group participants and news providers. According to Amin, Lada and Tanakinjal (2009 p. 66) “halal is an Arabic word meaning permissible or lawful and is an obligation that governs all aspect of the lives of over 1.6 billion Muslim worldwide.”
Millennials instantly linked Halal to all aspects of food preparation and consumption, emphasizing that it is also a way of slaughtering animals. A small business owner explained that Halal is “how they [Muslims] kill the animals, they cut the throats and the animals bleed out”. He clarified that halal slaughter is less painful for the animals, however, emphasizing that such practice should not be allowed in Britain as “we have our own way of processing meat”.
Similarly, The Times mentioned Halal three times throughout the studied period. None of the articles carried negative rhetoric, however, they were linked to food production or consumption, often expressing a view that Halal food is different from British food. Similar approach was visible in the four articles published by The Independent. The broadsheet often referred to Halal as something, which is only specific to Muslims:
“They had to observe their religion (e.g. eating halal food, and not drinking alcohol) even during the war.” (The Independent, November 11, 2016)
Baby boomers held similar views, however, expressed them through negative language and concerns. The majority of participants agreed that halal is the way of slaughtering animals, while a retired physiotherapist explained that she has only heard of halal takeaways and is not familiar with the rules as “people in Britain don’t eat their [Muslim] food”.
A former war veteran, however, believed that Halal meat has a specific odour which is different from that of a traditionally processed meat. He further explained that it is banned in Britain “because nobody eats it, probably even Muslims themselves”.
Moreover, the Daily Mail expressed alike opinion to that of baby boomer demographic. The tabloid mentioned the term once throughout the 30 day period. The publication described halal as a food type, additionally, suggesting that it a threat to British values. The Daily Mail stated that “even the lady selling ice creams from a van during the summer wears a burka, and the mobile butcher going round the streets offers only halal goat, lamb and ostrich” (November 3, 2016).
The above statements by the two demographics and the members of the British press supports Richardson’s (2004) statement that the media tend to position Islam as a threat to Western way of life and to reproduce common sense ideas which position the religious and cultural values of Muslims and those of traditional British society in relation of conflict. Moreover, Mason (2007) adds that the belief that Islam is dangerous, backward or irrational can be observed in 26% of news stories concerning Muslims.
Furthermore, it is clearly visible that such reporting has encouraged the development of Orientalist mind-set (Said 1985), where Islam is seen as backward, uncultured, uncivilised, barbaric and inferior, often depicting Muslims as a threat. Furthermore, this division has led to moral panics (Cohen, 1972), where members of the society have become afraid of Muslims, believing that they are dangerous and violent. Such discourse is often a convenient source of income generation, where commercial needs of the news provider become more prevalent that the role of the Fourth Estate, supporting Bourdieu’s (1996) view that journalists tend to use sensationalism in news stories due to the pressure to break the daily routine and create extraordinary content. Media hold a power to marginalise minority voices so that they become invisible in order to build a desired image of certain groups in order to increase revenue.
Additionally, a major theme that emerged from the present study is the mistreatment of women in Islam (Akbarzadeh and Smith 2005). Focus group participants and news providers associated Sharia Law with oppression, often depicting women as victims. According to Hussain (2017 p. 1), Sharia Law is the moral and religious code followed by all Muslims. She explains that “the overriding principle of Sharia Law is justice. It’s very broad and includes ordinary ways of life, for example how you behave towards other people, however, it is not a legal system.”
Millennials assumed that the term has a strongly negative meaning. Participants presumed that it is not an official law but rather a religious legal system followed in Muslim majority territories, placing strong emphasis on punishments prescribed by the Holy Quran. Moreover, four participants believed that Sharia Law is exclusively concerned with punishing Muslim women. An engineer believed that “if a fighter wants to have sex with a woman, she has to provide whatever he wants, Sharia is connected with the fact that women don’t want to provide their bodies”.
Additionally, a large number of the 22 articles published by The Independent, were concerned with women’s rights, portraying Sharia as “a patriarchal legislation” and suggesting that women are often rejected divorce if they are domestic violence victims, thus depicting Muslim women as an oppressed group. Similarly, The Times mentioned Sharia Law only six times throughout the period. Three articles focused on the sexist ideology of the term (Akbarzadeh and Smith 2005), explaining that women are not treated equally under Sharia Law:
“Marlina bin Abdul Rahman endured the beating in front of a crowd in Banda Aceh for the offence of adultery.” (The Times, November 1, 2016)
Furthermore, baby boomers agreed that Sharia Law is a set of punishments carried out according to the Islamic teachings. They believed that it is not an official legal system, but is followed in territories, which are densely inhabited by Muslims. A retired war veteran explained that Sharia is “based on the Quran” and that “there is a place in England, which is ruled by Sharia Law”. Moreover, all participants believed that Sharia is strongly connected with patriarchal mind-set. They said that in many cases women are punished while men are not held responsible. A 70 years old housewife believed that “women are punished under Sharia Law because they go with another man”, she added that “it’s part of their religion to stone women to death”. Furthermore, a former oil and gas engineer described Sharia as an “awful” and “absolutely horrible” law, which seeks to oppress Muslim women.
Similarly, The Daily Mail mentioned the term twice during the period, while Evening Express failed to publish any articles including the term. Both Daily Mail publications were concerned with discrimination and violence against women and punishments, failing to recognise that Sharia is not a legal system:
“But after she was persuaded to obtain an Islamic divorce in the sharia court, her true nightmare began.” (The Daily Mail, November 12, 2016)
The above statements approve Akbarzadeh and Smith’s (2005) argument that media and Western society tend to link Muslims with Arabs. Practices like not allowing women to work or travel are seen as Muslim traditions. The analysed news providers and audience members depicted Muslim women as oppressed and enslaved by a patriarchal society and religion, further supporting Akbarzadeh and Smith’s argument that Muslim women are seen as weak and unprotected, while Muslim men are generally depicted as fanatics, terrorists, extremists and militants from Middle Eastern backgrounds, creating a distorted understanding of Islam.
This study aimed to investigate whether misinterpretation of Islamic religious terms in print and online news media affects audience’s attitude towards Muslims in Britain by deviating from the typical emphasis on representations of minority groups and focusing instead on specific terms. It set out to establish whether baby boomers’ opinions differ from that of millennials and whether it is related to differences in news consumption. The findings reveal, that definitions used by the news providers are very similar to the definitions suggested by the two demographics and are far from the actual meanings explained by scholars and Islamic leaders.
Millennials instantly suggested that they research unclear terms seen in the media, while baby boomers explained that they trust journalists’ credibility of providing accurate news material. Despite the fact that millennials ensured that they research unknown terms, they were not able to provide accurate definitions, thus adopting similar views of those of boomers and the analysed news providers, thus supporting an argument that audiences are highly influenced by the news they consume. This phenomenon supports Cohen’s (1944) view that people are incompetent to understand the world, therefore, they build a pseudo-environment that is frequently a biased image of the world, supporting theories of media’s power to set certain agendas.
One finding that emerged from the research is the revelation that millennials were generally considering the terms to be more positive while baby boomers believed that all terms carry negative meanings. These opinions were strongly linked to the investigated news providers. For instance, tabloids, which were popular among baby boomers, interpreted the terms as threat to security and British values, often using emotional rhetoric, supporting Said’s (1985) theory of Orientalist mind-set in the British society. On the other hand, broadsheets were linking the terms to global events, often expressing sympathy to Muslim women through less emotional and more critical language.
Another major theme that emerged from this study is mistreatment of women. Both generation interpreted the term Sharia Law as something that oppresses women and encourages inequality between the two genders. However, baby boomers were generally more negative than millennials by expressing that Sharia law is horrific and frightening law. Similarly Sharia law was depicted as a “nightmare legal system” where women do no hold any rights. On the other hand, millennials were more sympathetic to Muslim women and explained that they often suffer from certain mistreatment. This opinion was again similar to the opinion of the broadsheets, which often depicted Muslims women as helpless victims.
The study suggests that if news providers were to interpret the terms according to the actual definitions, the media discourse would be much more positive, thus potentially changing the opinions of the audiences and encouraging the public to have more positive attitude towards Muslim minorities. The study also suggests that such practice would eliminate the existing ‘moral panics’ linked to Islam and would allow audiences to establish links between Western and Eastern cultures.
One limitation of this study is the small sample size. A total of 12 respondents across two focus groups were interviewed, which undoubtedly lacked diversity, as all focus group respondents were white and never had been in contact with Muslim minorities in Aberdeen. The study only examined baby boomers and millennials, thus failing to investigate Generation X opinions, which could potentially contribute to a better understanding of the topic. Furthermore, all focus group participants were currently living and working in Aberdeen, consequently not showing the true reflection of people’s opinions in Britain. Further research should be conducted in different geographical areas across Britain and should examine a much larger and diverse sample. Furthermore, quantitative research methods should be considered in order to eliminate potential bias as qualitative research is strongly subjective.
Moreover, critical discourse analysis is subjective and in many cases reflects author’s opinion, thus might lack credibility. Moreover, Evening Express failed to publish articles consisting the researched terms, thus future research should focus on more news providers in order to establish links between baby boomers and the news they consume.
Furthermore, even though there are clear links between media and audience opinions regarding the terms, it is not clear whether media are influencing the minds of the readers or media are just reflecting opinions of the public. The author assumed that media have the power to influence minds basing on previous literature of media effects. However, further research investigating whether media is influenced by public opinion is highly advised in order to provide a true reflection of the topic.
Another recommendation for further research would be focusing on why these Islam-related terms are misinterpreted. It would be beneficial to understand whether such misuse is based on ideologies of the news corporations or is it just a product of genuine misinformation and lack of research, or both. This could be achieved through series of interviews with journalists who have misinterpreted these terms in the past.
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