Islam and the Western Media

Stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam in the media are rooted in prejudice, and ignorance, says Bassil Akel.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the West. Nevertheless, the West has many stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam that are due to the media, prejudice, and ignorance. Islam is often looked upon as a "extremist", "terrorist", or "fundamental" religion. Many people hate Islam and do not want to acknowledge its true teachings. In many cases, the media’s reports about Islam are incorrect due to ignorance. This is one of the reasons why the West often hates Islam. In contrast to what many Westerners think of Islam, Islam is a peaceful religion, which does not promote any forms of uncalled for fighting or "terrorist" actions.

Stereotypes about Islam are not new to Western culture. Problems can be traced back 1400 years. At that time, Islam and Christianity were involved in the Crusades in the 1100’s and in the Ottoman and Moorish control in Europe. Islam spread quickly to the West, and started to threaten the position of the Christian Church and the ruling class. The Western elites, mainly the governments and the churches, then became highly involved in seeing that negative images were presented about Islam. As a result, not only were battles fought against Islam, but also a war of words was initiated to make sure that Islam would not have any converts or sympathizers in the West. These kinds of actions and feelings that the West had long ago still seem to be the case in the West today (Hassan 1).

Today, the West, with little or no understanding of Islamic history, has identified a new enemy, "a new demon that has replaced the Red menace of the Cold war, i.e., radical Islam" (Agha 6). This "radical Islam", a stereotype common to Western thought, portrays Muslims as fundamentalists or potential terrorists. Some of these ideas that the Western people have about Islam are due to the mass media of the West. Reporters who cover the Muslim world often know very little details about it. The media then develops a distorted image of Islam that Western culture adopts (Agha 2).

A major factor which contributes to Islamic stereotyping in the West is due to the media’s ignorance of selecting their words that describe Muslims. Some common names heard or seen in the news about Muslims are "extremist" or "terrorist". These words are misleading and are mainly anti-Islamic. The media rarely uses more neutral terms such as "revivalist" or "progressives" (Hassan 2).

The Western media also creates the idea that Muslims are "returning" to Islam. This is not true in most cases, because most Muslims have never left Islam in the first place. Islam has always been a big part of their lives. A more accurate and just way to describe this idea is to say that there is a revival of Islam and it is becoming more and more influential to everyone (Hassan 2).

Adding to the fact that the media creates inaccurate ideas about Islam, the Western media is also very influential to its audiences in making negative Islamic stereotypes, such as the assertion that all Muslims are fundamentalists. The term "fundamentalist" is actually a term that is interpreted by the media. A fundamentalist, in fact, only represents a normal Muslim who follows his or her religion. Fundamentalism means an attitude, an effort, or a movement that an ideology, group, or religion tries to promote in its fundamental beliefs. The "fundamental" beliefs of a Muslim is to believe in only one God (Allah) and the Prophet Mohammed is His messenger (PBUH), pray five times a day, fast the month of Ramadan, give alms to the poor, and make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This means that all Muslims are fundamentalists if they believe in their own religion’s fundamentals. Although the media is uncomfortable with religious groups, it focuses heavily on "Islamic fundamentalism". A majority of the media’s reports that talk about Islamic fundamentalism usually describes most Muslims as extremists. This shows how the media is ignorant, because Islam specifically prohibits any forms of extremism. The Prophet Mohammed said, "Those persons who go to extremes (in practicing their religion) were cursed (by God)". The media most often portrays Muslim "fundamentalists" prostrating themselves before God in prayer. For example, in the October 4 issue of Time, Muslims soldiers were shown performing prayers with guns. The caption on the bottom of the picture said, "Guns and prayer go together in the fundamentalist battle". The part that the reporters omitted or failed to state was that the Muslim soldiers were praying on a battlefield in Afghanistan. Common sense of the situation meant that the soldiers had to remain armed at all times in case of an ambush at any time. This is a clear example of the media’s biased and inaccurate reporting (Martinez 1, Ba-Yunus 1).

With regard to the soldiers, another great misconception that exists is the truth about Jihad or "holy war" in Islam. The ideas of war and violence have become related to the Islamic religion from the media. Jihad is so often apparent in the news because the media thinks it is Islam’s justification for war and violence. The Quran (Muslim Holy Book) says "Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah (God) does not love aggression". A Muslim is permitted to take up arms only as an act of self-defense. A Muslim has the right to defend his life, and his property (Martinez 1, Hassan 4).

Jihad literally means "The struggle in the path of God", or "holy war". However, the Western media often abuses the meaning of jihad by referring to it as a holy war where Muslims unreasonably kill non-believers. But the fact is, is that jihad can mean a numbers of things that a Muslim does for the sake of God. Rarely has the Western media used this kind of a definition in their reports. The way the media represents jihad is wrong. The media often takes the word "jihad" out of context to propagate negative views on Islam. A student striving for top grades, individuals pursuing for equality and justice for all people, honoring your parents, a mother giving birth to a child, eating, and even simply sleeping can all be considered jihad (Martinez 1, Hassan 4).

The association of Islam and violence is a common misconception that the general Western public has developed about Islam. An example of this kind of misconception is that the Western media and some historians often say that Islam was a religion spread by the sword, meaning that Muslims went from one end of the world to the other forcing people to either convert or die. Islam spread by people learning about it and some by holy wars, but they did not force people to convert or die. Since a majority of the American public only get their information about Islam through the media, they believe this wrong idea. The media’s reports about Arab or "Islamic" events, such as the Gulf War, are often misunderstood. The media usually fails to give background information about these Islamic events that it reports on. The media infrequently distinguishes between the religion Islam and the political affairs that occur in most Islamic countries. For instance, what Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, did in the Gulf War was not Islamic and totally wrong (to attack other people for no reason, especially Muslims). But the media still makes reports about Islam and how Islam is made of war-crazed people. For example, to help put things into perspective, Hitler was a person of the Christian faith. This does not mean that all of his actions were consistent with the Christian beliefs. Likewise, Saddam Hussein is of the Islamic faith, but all of his actions do not necessarily represent Islam. So you can see that the media’s reports about "war-crazed Muslims" are incorrect. The notion of associating of Islam and Muslims with the terms Arabs and Middle East are in fact misleading. Arabs only account for 18% of the Muslim population across the world (Hassan 1-2, Washington 1).

Aside from the fact that the media misrepresents Islam because of ignorance, the media is also a profit-seeking organization which often seeks to create a false image of reality. Islam is often news of an unpleasant sort for the general public of the United States. Islam has often been presented as a menace or a threat to the West. These negative images do not correspond to Islam, but are the belief of certain sectors of a particular society. These prominent sectors can propagate negative images of Islam, which sometimes influences people’s views on Islam (Agha 3). The Western media actually poorly represents Islam. Most of these problems of poor representations come from poor language translations, the absence of developed news agencies with international networks and native reporters, and biased reporting by many Western reporters (Agha 3).

Some biased reports come from negative images that have happened in the Muslim world in the past like the hijacking of airplanes by Palestinians, the occupation of the United States Embassy by students in Tehran, the fact that there are no democratic governments in most Islamic countries, and the Gulf War. For most of these events, the media has misinterpreted and misrepresented them. The media sometimes unintentionally blows things out of proportion, sometimes because of biased feelings toward Muslims. However, many positive developments in the Muslims world rarely go noticed (Agha 3). Some inaccurate representations of Islam are often due to the media’s incorrect representations of Islamic countries, such as jihad, or Islam women’s rights. Waseem Sajjad, former Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan explains the situation of Islam and the media:

The Islamic world is poorly represented in the West in terms of press and media coverage. Not only are there just handfuls of news agencies in Muslim countries; there is the concern over the number of inexperienced reporters. Many reporters don’t understand the local cultures nor speak the language, leaving them with access to only those English or French speaking Westernized elites. Thus their representation is often a biased account of the political and social events from the point of view of the ruling minority in Muslim countries (Hassan 2).

A negative image of Islam is becoming more inherent in the Western culture from inaccurate media coverage. The media helps to make an image of Islam to unsuspecting audiences. The Western public often is misinformed about Muslims through the images on television, motion picture screens, magazines, radios, and comic strips in newspapers, which promote strong messages among their audiences. Western reporters often say that Muslims are terrorists. This becomes a common image to the general person that all Muslims are terrorists. Edward Said’s book, Covering Islam, talks about how the media and experts determine how we see the rest of the world. He says that:

The term Islam as it is used today seems to mean one simple thing, but in fact is part fiction, part ideological label, part minimal designation of a religion called Islam . Today Islam is peculiarly traumatic news in the West. During the past few years, especially since events in Iran caught European and American attention so strongly, the media have therefore covered Islam: they have portrayed it, characterized it, analyzed it, given instant courses on it, and consequently they have made it known . But this coverage is misleadingly full, and a great deal in this energetic coverage is based on far from objective material. In many instances Islam has licensed not only patent inaccuracy, but also expressions of unrestrained ethnocentrism, cultural, and even racial hatred, deep yet paradoxically free-floating hostility (Agha 2) .

As well as creating inaccurate images about Islam, the Western media usually identifies Islam in Muslim conflicts. The media hardly points other religions out in their conflicts. For example, the news would say, "five Israelis may have been shot, but they were shot by five Muslims", instead of saying "Five Israelis were shot by five Palestinians". The media often reverses this action when a conflict is against Muslims, for example the news would usually say "Bosnians are being killed by Serbians", but instead rarely says, "Muslims are being killed by Christians"(Hassan 3). In addition to the media’s inaccurate representations about Islamic conflicts, human rights of women in Islam, such as women veiling and women authority, are big topics that Western media often confuses and misinterprets. The media often represents Islam as a male dominant religion where Muslim men have complete authority over all groups of people. The media often says that Islam discriminates against women, and that women have no power or authority. However, it is ironic of what the media represents, that the Prophet Mohammed was one the greatest reformers for women. In fact, Islam probably is the only religion that formally teaches women’s rights and finds ways to protect them. When Islam is practiced correctly, it becomes the best example of an equal gender society (Hassan 3).

As Islam came around, traditional pre-Islamic roles of women were replaced by new Islamic roles that women followed. Islam allowed women to have the right to be educated and the right to participate in political, economical, and social activities in their community. This created upward mobility in their communities. Women were also given the right to vote, something the U.S. did not allow until 1919. Women were given the right to inherit property and take charge of their possessions. While most of these rights are denied to Muslim women today as a result of cultural tradition, one should not associate this with Islam, because they do not correlate with it (Hassan 4). Islamic women wearing veils is a another commonly misunderstood concept in the West. Westerners often think that this is a harsh custom that Islam requires of women. Westerners often say these women have no freedom or dignity for wearing these veils. But in fact, these veils actuality help protect women and help them remain in chastity. In Islamic societies there are very few rape cases and AIDS victims as opposed to the Western societies, were there are thousands of rape cases and AIDS infected victims a year. But in some countries, like Saudi Arabia, women are forced to wear abbayyas (floor length veils). Such excessive forms of these kinds of dress are not mentioned in Islam. Islam requires women to wear a veil for their own safety, but if a woman chooses not to wear it, it is her choice and it is between her and her God. God will do anything He wants to her in this world and the after (Hassan 5).

Islamic women are indeed supposed to be granted these rights, but the media often fails to inform its audiences about this fact. The media also fails to report that most of the Islamic countries have a high illiteracy rate. This means that it is "virtually impossible for many Muslim women to challenge cultural male authority when the women themselves do not know the difference between village customs and actual Islamic law". The Western media would be able to better represent women’s issues in Islamic countries if they identified how and why governments have limited women’s rights that are guaranteed to them by the Quran (Muslim Holy Book). Most so-called Islamic countries such as Syria are corrupt (according to Islam) in their religion and should be addressed in the media’s reports. But instead "the media falsely portrays Muslim women as victims of a harsh and suppressive religion". While the media is so concerned about negative and discriminatory images about Islamic women, it fails to remind their audiences that there are three Islamic countries (Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey) that have had female heads of states. In contrast, most Westerns nations such as the United States, "who condemn Islamic countries for their oppression of women, have yet to see a non-white, male president, let alone a female" (Hassan 5-6).

With regard to Islamic women’s rights, Islam is also a hot topic of Western governments. Western powers do not usually easily tolerate Islamic movements or governments. One main reason is that in an Islamic government, in contrast to Western governments, there is no separation of church and state. Judith Miller states in her book Challenge of Radical Islam, "that anyone who believes in universal human rights, democratic governments, political tolerance, and peace between the Arabs and the Israelis cannot be complacent about the growing strength of Islamic militant movements in most Middle Eastern countries". Miller says that the Western governments should oppose these kind of Islamic movements. This statement shows one Western’s views about how the West opposes Islamic movements (Agha 6, Emerson 2).

Observers often say that the goal of Islamic fundamentalism is to wage a holy war against the West. These observers believe the idea that Islamic leaders only wanting the redress legitimate political grievances is totally nonsense. They think that even if Israel or any other opposing regime in the Middle East would disappear, "the appetite of the Islamic fundamentalists would only have been whetted". These ideas are false and also misleading. (Agha 7).

The Western media often portrays Islam as a "militant Islam" or a "fundamental Islam" threat to the West. Edward Said states that:

For the general public in America and Europe today, Islam is "news" of a particularly unpleasant sort. The media, the government, the geopolitical strategists, and although they are marginal to the culture at large - the academic experts on Islam are all in concert: Islam is a threat to Western civilization. Now this is by no means the same as saying that only derogatory or racist caricatures of Islam are to be found in the West...What I am saying is that negative images of Islam are very much more prevalent than any others, and that such images correspond, not to what Islam "is"...but to what prominent sectors of a particular society take it to be: Those sectors have the power and the will to propagate that particular image of Islam, and this image therefore becomes more prevalent, more present, than all others (Muzaffer 1).

John L. Esposito’s book, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, states the question, is Islam a threat to the West? He tells us that the answer lies in the West’s views. He says that if the Western powers continue to defend the unjust status of the Middle East in the name of an illusory or fleeting stability, Islam will be a threat. "But if the Western powers begin to appreciate the legitimacy of grievances in the Middle East, the West and Islamic movements will get along peacefully" (Agha 7).

With the Western media’s spotlight and some Western governmental attitudes, the West is a place where Islam is a name of negativity. The Western media has contributed a great deal to this negative image of Islam. The media often misrepresents and inaccurately explains Islam and its manifestations. Sometimes the media seems to be biased against Islam. When the media distorts the image of Islam, the general public tend to believe it, because the media is a major source of information that the public gets about Islam. This ignorance that the West accumulates from the media leads them into making stereotypes about Islam and associating all Muslims and Arabs together. The West often times views Islam as "fundamental" "extremist" or "discriminatory", but all of these terms have be manipulated, purposely because of biased feelings and accidentally because of ignorance, by the media to present a negative image about Islam. Islam is actually a peaceful and fair religion that most often does not correspond to the media’s reports. As Islam grows more and more in the West, Westerners will eventually learn the truth about Islam and find out that these negative stereotypes are incorrect. It is possible that Islam will become one of the biggest religions in the United States. As more people follow Islam, the media will start to learn about it, understand it, and report about it in positive ways. As long as the Westerners are educated about Islam, they will probably learn to accept it as well.


Agha, Dr. Olfat Hassan. ek25.html#Heading5. Islamic Fundamentalism and Its Image in the Western Media.

Ba-Yunus, Ilyas. The Myth of Islamic Fundamentalism.

Emerson, Steven. The Other Fundamentalist. New Republic. June 12, 1995.

Hassan, Anser. . Invitation to Islam: Islamic Stereotypes in Western Mass Media.

Martinez, Pricilia. Muslim Culture, Religion Misrepresented by Media.

Muzaffer, Dr. Chandra. Dominant Western Perception of Islam and The Muslims.

Washington, DC. Why The West Fears Islam: The Enemy Within.


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