More from RELS 348: Empire, Colonialism, and Religion

A response to Mohamad Elmasry’s article, “Chapel Hill shooting and western media bigotry” Al Jazeera, 11 Feb 2015.

This article criticizes the western media’s coverage of the recent Chapel Hill shooting where three Muslim students were killed over an apparent parking dispute, but what many have called a hate crime. Dr Mohamad Elmasry points out the inconsistencies in the ways in which the media portrays Muslim and non-Muslim criminals, and how anti-Muslim criminals are often portrayed as “crazed, misguided bigots who acted alone”, dismissing the idea that “the killer acted on the basis of an ideology or as part of any larger pattern or system”. He suggests that Islamophobia has become commonplace in western ideology and that the media’s representations of Islam and Muslims are potential causal factors.

Being a consumer of western media, I can’t help but see the truth in Dr Elmasry’s criticisms, which seem quite similar to the views of Edward Said, who he references in his article. Depictions of Islam and the Middle East seem to be rarely portrayed in a positive light. Instead, war and political unrest seem to be the major theme. As Dr Elmasry points out, violent crimes committed by Muslims are reported quite differently then incidents involving non-Muslims. When a Muslim commits a crime, the media focuses their attention on the faith of the individual, emphasizing that religion, or more specifically, Islam, was the cause of their behavior. When a non-Muslim commits a crime, mental illness or other factors are usually seen as the cause. Even studies on Hollywood film representations of Arabs and Muslims have found that they are usually portrayed as “brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural ‘others’ bent on terrorizing civilized westerners.”

So why are Muslims treated so differently by the media? Edward Said’s belief that this is driven by justification for western imperialism in the Middle East seems to have some accuracy. If we look at who benefits most from the misrepresentation of Muslims and the Middle East as violent and uncivilized, the reasons become clearer. Western nations have been under rising scrutiny for their involvement in the Middle East and must gain public approval from their own people to continue their actions. Dehumanizing Arabs and Muslims makes it easier to convince your voters to interfere in their affairs. For example, the western media’s representation of the Middle East consistently show themes of violence and turmoil which instills the idea that the Middle East needs western interference, that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. George W. Bush exploited this view and convinced Americans that they were bringing democracy to the Middle East. Without the irresponsible representations by the media, western imperialism in the Middle East would have much less support and perhaps the violence and turmoil would decline.

Story on Chapel Hill shooting: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-31438062

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