Growing up in the West as a Muslim, it was a rare occurrence to see someone who looked like me in the media. I faintly remember watching an episode of a kid’s TV show where there was a Muslim girl wearing a headscarf and being in awe, but then confusion, once people were calling her an ‘alien’.
It seems that this is a recurring theme even now. Representation of Muslims in mainstream media is often undermined by negative connotations.
For example, a Muslim woman wearing the face veil is seen to be oppressed by her husband/father/brother, and a Muslim supporting Palestine is portrayed as anti-Semitic. While I agree that seeing more Muslims in the media is a good thing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that these representations are always fairly balanced.
Because of this injustice, I think it’s important to write about the representation of Muslims in mainstream media.
Why is Representation of Muslims in Mainstream Media Important?
Representation of Muslims in mainstream media plays a crucial role in the reflection of reality. It is a tool we use to gather information about the world around us. The representation of knife crime in London is one example that we see on TV, informing us of its threat to society. There is no question then that any representation should be as close to reality as possible. If a conscious effort is not taken towards this end, consumers get the wrong impression, and this can lead to further hostility towards certain groups of people in society.
Consider a person that doesn’t know anything about Muslims and watches a TV show that portrays Muslims as close-minded and backwards. The viewer will think that all Muslims are the same and apply this principle to those who identify as Muslim, ignorant to any bias the media outlet may have towards Muslims, as well as the large majority of Muslims who are good and law-abiding citizens.
The following Hadith comes to mind, warning us of the deception we will see towards the end of time: 
Abu Huraira reported:
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Years of treachery will come over people in which liars are believed and the truthful are denied, the deceitful are trusted and the trustworthy are considered traitors, and the disgraceful will deliver speeches.” It was said, “Who are the disgraceful?” The Prophet said, “Petty men with authority over the common people.”
Types of Representations
A good number of cases related to representation of Muslims in mainstream media can be considered stereotypes – recurring images of the token Muslim man and woman. Muslim men are portrayed as terrorists and Muslim women as oppressed. We are seeing these images repeatedly in TV shows, movies and newspapers, especially in the West.
On the other hand, the proliferation of social media has allowed users to create their own content. On these sites, we see images of what normal Muslims are like simply because they are in control of what content is shown. The downside to this is that these seemingly original representations of Muslims are prone to factual authenticity. It’s no secret that social media users only show parts of their lives to their followers, giving a sense of a “perfect” and “happy” life. So, in both situations we see a disconnect between what we are seeing in the media versus what we are seeing in real life. If there is such a lack of authenticity in the Muslim identity, it would result in a very shallow and superficial view of Muslims within the community as well as to the outside world.
For a lot of content creators, laziness is one of the reasons why stereotypes such as these exist. It is time-consuming to come up with a genuine persona of a Muslim character, and we see this with the two-dimensional representation of Black men and women and Asians in the mass media. Islamophobia and the concept of ‘othering’ also play a part in this – the “us” versus “them” argument as well as people’s fear of the unknown. Additionally, if we look at the bigger picture, there is someone at the top who has the executive power to portray Muslims in this way.
The increase of ignorance towards anything related to Muslims, and by extension, Islam; the internal and external misogyny towards Muslim women and increased Islamophobia are just a few problems that come to mind as the negative consequences of these representations. What is perhaps more damaging is the potential desensitization of Muslims if things keep going the way they are – we may think to ourselves that such biased representation of Muslims in mainstream media is normal: “it could be normal to take the hijab off if I want to pursue x, y, or z”, and it could be seen as normal to abuse women, to the extent that we would think it is normal to view Islam as oppressive and have second thoughts about even being a Muslim.
So, how do you represent a community nearing 2 billion worldwide?
Although we share the same faith, we might not share the same ideas and opinions. An Arab Muslim might not agree with a Japanese one when it comes to diet. Consequently, one individual Muslim could face a lot of backlash from fellow Muslims purely because they can’t relate to them, and this is what we see a lot of on social media. This presents a difficulty in the representation of Muslims in mainstream media as there is no one image of a Muslim that will please every single one of us.
The negative images of Muslims we see in the media may weaken our resolve to do better. However, the practical solutions listed below can be adopted to solve, or at least improve, the problem of representation of Muslims:
- Being confident in your Muslim identity. To become confident in being a Muslim, we must seek to learn more about our religion. Having affirmed our Muslim identity, we acknowledge that there is no pride in being the same. Allah has made us into nations and tribes , and this doesn’t just include our ethnic and racial differences, it also includes our differences in religion.
- Educating the ignorant. Ignorance is a disease and we seek refuge in Allah from it as Prophet Musa (AS) did . After curing our ignorance with knowledge, we should try to correct people’s misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims as and when possible.
- Repelling evil with good. No matter how much evil we see in the world, there is always good and Allah (SWT) says that truth will always prevail over falsehood . Promote positive content and speak good with the people , especially within the realm of social media, where it’s easy to forget that there’s a human being on the other side of the screen.
- Sunan Ibn Mājah 4036. Sahih (authentic) according to Al-Albani.
- The Quran 49:13, Surah al-Hujurat.
- The Quran 02:67, Surah al-Baqarah.
- The Quran 17:81, Surah al-Isra.
- The Quran 02:83, Surah al-Baqarah.