19 March 2014 10:13

I work in a research centre called CASS, funded by the ESRC, a UK Research Council. Our goal is to look at the use and manipulation of language in British society. 

Part of my work for the Centre has involved collecting and then analysing 143 million words of British newspaper articles about Islam and Muslims published between 1998 and 2009. When we collected the data we didn’t expect the phrase “Muslim world” to be as frequent as it is, occurring more than 11,000 times in our dataset.

Other frequent phrases in our newspaper data involving Muslims tended to group them together as a collective unit (e.g. Muslim countries, Muslim community), implying they were separate from everyone else. We found "Muslim world" to be particularly interesting though because of the image it creates of a separate planet, populated by Muslims. Journalists often wrote about the "Muslim world" in relationship to “the West”, with many articles describing or implying conflict between the two entities. The newspaper articles aren’t doing anything especially different to the rest of us though - looking at a very large collection of many different written British texts, people do tend to refer to the "Muslim world" quite often, but interestingly, they rarely talk about Jewish, Catholic or Christian worlds. Nor do we tend to distinguish between different branches of Islam – we make few references to a Sunni or Shia world. British English speakers do sometimes talk about the "English-speaking world", or the "Western world" but Muslims are the only religious group who are conceptualised as belonging to a world. Why would that be the case?

Perhaps "Muslim world" refers to a place or set of countries? About a quarter of the world’s people are Muslim, and they are spread over most of the countries of the world. Some of the countries that have the most Muslims are “Muslim-majority” counties like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt, but others like India and Nigeria do not have more than 50% of the population who practice Islam. There are also large numbers of Muslims who are found in the so-called “West”. For example, 4.8% of the UK’s population are Muslim (2.7 million people). The idea of “The Muslim world” therefore gets confusing when we start to think about who and where it actually refers to, and some people have argued that it’s not a good idea to group all Muslims together in such a way in any case, particularly as that’s been the strategy of some people with extreme religious views opposed to Islam. Instead, it would be good to recognise and celebrate diversity within Islam, and also to acknowledge that Muslims and non-Muslims live alongside one another and also often have a great deal in common with each other, rather than being two distinct groups.

Tellingly, when we start to look at the countries with significant Muslim populations that newspaper articles mention the most when they are referring to Islam, there is a mismatch between the numbers of Muslim people living in a country and the number of times the country gets referred to. The top three countries which are mentioned the most in news articles about Islam are Iraq (which has 2% of the world's Muslim population), Afghanistan (1.9%) and Iran (4.7%). But Indonesia, the country with the highest percentage of the world’s Muslims (12.9%) is only the 12th most often referred to country in our newspaper articles. Perhaps that’s not surprising as the press like to focus on countries which are involved in conflict or are viewed as dangerous in some way. But we found that even compared to a large random sample of news articles, our dataset about Muslims and Islam contained significantly more references to conflict than would be expected.

The potential effects of both grouping Muslims together as being like each other yet separate from everyone else, and then associating them with conflict are worrying. We also found many stories in our dataset which focussed on small numbers of “problematic Muslims” who were either described as “scrounging benefits”, militant, extreme, or hating Britain. For people who don’t come into contact with ordinary Muslims on a daily basis, if they read certain newspapers they will be receiving deeply skewed messages about what it means to be a Muslim. In that context it is perhaps unsurprising that groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party have been viewed as attractive to some people in the UK.

While printed newspaper purchases are in a slow decline thanks to the internet, newspaper readership numbers remain healthy and the press are still a highly influential political force in the UK. At the moment, it is difficult to be critical effectively of some of the worst articles on Muslims in the press as it is a self-regulating body and allows journalists to make Islamophobic statements as long as they are labelled as ‘opinion’. We hope that in the coming years, following the Leveson Inquiry, that the press will be more sensitive to the way that they report on groups they view as “different”, or at least that it will be easier to challenge cases where “freedom of speech” equates with “freedom to hate”.

What do you think? Share your comments with us below.

Professor Paul Baker teaches on our MA Language and Linguistics programme.


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