Media representations of Muslims are overwhelmingly negative. Where are the reports on our talented comedians, rappers and football players?
This time of year is traditionally the silly season, when the media take a break from serious news to milk stories of EU officials crying over spilt milk, how Heinz is taking the baked out of its beans and the final frontier in sex. That's not to mention the tabloids' year-round obsession with dressing scantily clad women up as news by reporting on a Big Brother bum deal and Combat Barbie's battle preparations for the Miss England glamiator contest.
However, since the July 7 2005 attacks in London, this great British tradition has been under threat from those pesky and troublesome Islamists and sundry Muslims. This month we have seen paparazzi chasing B-list celebrity Islamists as they buy groceries, nasty Arab fathers, Muslim rage at cute puppy and how we are apparently sleepwalking into Islamisation.
Given such lop-sided coverage, it is not surprising that many ordinary Britons view Muslims as a threat and many British Muslims live in apprehension and even fear. Huma Qureishi, here on the pages of CiF, wrote of how many ordinary Muslims have decided it is best to keep their heads down.
Although I've never been one to keep my head down, I can understand where they are coming from. I recall how much tenser the general atmosphere got after the New York, Madrid and London attacks. In fact, in the wake of September 11, I would get alarmed phonecalls from my mother asking if everything was all right with me after she'd heard about some racist murder or outburst from a rightwing politician.
Despite my mother's worries, I rarely experience overt discrimination in my daily life — at least, not since I left school in London, and even then it was rare, usually the preserve of geographically challenged bullies who didn't appreciate a middle-class “Paki” know-it-all who was big enough to talk back.
Of course, I am lucky that I am not an impoverished youth living in Bradford or Paris. In addition, the fact that I am not religious and have cosmopolitan friends and colleagues also helps. I work in a Brussels media company that has a fairly vibrant mix of nationalities and cultures. In the editorial department in which I work, there is another writer with a Muslim background: a Canadian with a Sudanese father and a Caribbean mother.
Rather than get into the never-ending debate on how big the Islamist threat is — which is as futile as the “piece of string” conundrum, since everyone will spin it out to just the length they need — and the victim/villain dichotomy, I'd like to veer off the beaten track and introduce some Muslims who do not fit the boilerplate image.
In Britain and across Europe, young Muslims have taken to music and comedy to show their cool and funny face. One notable example is the award-winning and irreverent Shazia Mirza, who took up and dropped the hijab and broke the apparently universal social taboo surrounding hairy women.
She jokes about her life: “I used to be a teacher in Tower Hamlets,” she once quipped. “I had to carry a knife to parents' evenings — which were basically singles' nights.” South Asian traditions: “[Matchmaking] gets very confusing in Asian circles – if you don't keep track, you could end up sleeping with yourself.” And racism: “I'm very indignant about all the Poles and Romanians coming over here and stealing our racism… What's a black or an Asian got to do to get noticed now?”
Another comic success has been the belly-dancing Omid Djalili who takes a poke at national stereotypes by describing himself as the “only Iranian comedian in the world… that's three more than Germany”. He now has his own show on the BBC which covers everything from a high street magic carpet shop to road rage and speed dating with a difference.
Although Djalili is not actually a Muslim but a Baha'i, his comedy is based on his Iranian identity and perceptions of Muslims, besides the distinction would probably be lost on much of his audience.
Commenting on the media's fixation on Islamist extremists, he quoted an imaginary news anchor in one routine: “To get a balanced view of the Middle East, we now go over to Muslim nutter with a hook.” He likens this to “al-Jazeera TV interviewing, as your sole representative, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan”, whom he quotes as saying: “Well, we believe in death to all darkies, Jews and A-rabs everywhere. We believe in creating a white supremacist state in the middle of Egypt.”
France has, at 5 million, Europe's largest Muslim population, which usually makes headlines relating to riots and crime. But less reported is their success in all walks of life, from music and literature, to sports, politics and business.
France's most famous Muslim is probably captain of the World Cup-winning football team, Zinedine Zidane, considered by some to be the best footballer ever.
French pop music has been massively influenced by North African artists, from the success of the exiled “chebs” of Algerian Raï, the radical sound of the poor, to the languorous and dreamy tones of the enigmatic Souad Massi. France even has its own devout Muslim rapper, Médine.
In fact, young and successful Muslims in France are working to promote what Amel Boubekeur of the School of Social Studies in Paris calls their own brand of “Cool Islam”. “They are trying to promote an Islamic identity, but also an ethic of solidarity, charity, responsibility for each other,” she told the BBC.
The media is geared towards bad and alarming news. Front-page headlines are never likely to inform us: “Muslim youth helps OAP carry shopping home,” or “Christian, Muslim and Jew share a laugh after work”, or the racier “Hijabbed med student and white bloke in white cloak seen studying together”. But it is important for us all to look for the stories that don't make it into the editor's cut, if we are to keep our grip on reality.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 18 July 2008.