There is a famous old saying about untruths, which suggests that there are three types—lies, damned lies and statistics. For the purpose of this paper, I think it would be fair to add a fourth: statistics about Muslims.
You see these statistics everywhere nowadays, and—sadly—they are invariably negative. To quote a relatively recent survey by the Islamic Education and Research Academy on British perceptions of Islam, 75% of respondents believed Islam and Muslims had provided a negative contribution to society. Of all respondents, 70% did not disagree with the statement ‘Muslims preach hatred’, 94% did not disagree with the statement ‘Islam oppresses women’ and 85% did not disagree with the statement ‘Islam is irrational’.
80% know very little
All very damning, not to stay extremely disturbing, but then you look at a statistic produced in the same survey, and it pretty much sums the whole subject up: 80% had less than very little knowledge about Islam.
In these days of instant communication, of wall-to-wall rolling international news, of iPhones and personal communication, it is certainly worrying that people appear only too happy to express ignorant views while also admitting that these ignorant views are based on . . . absolute ignorance.
No news is good news, and there seldom seems to be any question of the western media concentrating on positive aspects of Islam. Crass clichés range from bushy bearded radical preachers to unfriendly women wearing burkas, and all have stuck fast over the past few years. These simple depictions of ‘Muslim types’ fit neatly alongside reports about Islamic suicide bombers or oppressive Islamic regimes advocating Shari’a Law.
The Islam we see portrayed by the news media is currently dominated by the fast-moving crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. Day in day out, we see images of Muslims blowing themselves to pieces—as in Syria—or else being ‘tamed’ by the western military—as in counties like Afghanistan and, until a few months ago, Libya. All the while, the public face of Islam is distorted into a kind of horror mask. How many people in the West can name a single post-Arab Spring leader? Very few, I would contend, while the names of pantomime villains like Khomeini, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden can be reeled out by even the most uninterested schoolchildren.
One of the worst aspects of all this is the way that selective, unrepresentative aspects of Muslim behaviour—hands being cut off because of a theft in Saudi Arabia, or a young woman being killed for dishonouring a Muslim husband—are projected as if they were the norm.
It is not just the news media that is at fault either. Hollywood filmmakers are as notorious nowadays for making their Muslims as swarthy, distrustful and dangerous as they once made Mexicans and Red Indians. This might sound amusing, but 5irresponsible fiction really does play a deeply distressing part in stigmatising Muslims.
My fear is that these perceptions are ones that go beyond any problems inherent within Islam itself. Just as the media concentrates on the paedophile priests of the Catholic Church, or the Anglican bishops who do not really believe in God, so it is that a vibrant and hugely influential religion like Islam is associated with bigotry, insularity and hatred.
Our reaction to this should not be to make the situation worse by walling in the negative stereotypes and bad publicity—it should be to get out into society and change them. As someone who works in the media, I am always astonished by the bright, articulate Muslims I meet around the world. They work in industry, in the professions, in the law and, of course, in journalism and politics—arguably, the two most important professions as far as changing perceptions is concerned.
Beyond their specific subject areas, it is up to Muslims, young and old, to affirm a faith that is peaceful, unifying and, above all else, positive. Just as there is no such thing as a Catholic or Anglican who has no other role in society beyond their faith, so it is with Muslims. Muslims play active roles in every part of society. They can be as proud of their nationality, or their job or their local sports team as they are of their faith. Once people start to realise this, then we will be well on the road to improving relations and fostering a deeper understanding between communities that are often viewed as being irrevocably distant.
As far as negative images are concerned, an obvious way forward would be for influential Muslims to start accentuating the positive—the part Muslim politicians play in changing society for the better, the Muslim arts and entertainment scene, Muslim sport, Muslim tourists . . . It sounds simple, but it really is incredibly easy to spend all your time concentrating on the violence, human rights abuses and oppression that have come to be associated with Islam, especially since the War on Terror started following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001.
So many of the debates and forums I attend and so many of the TV and radio discussions I take part in solely want to explore the extremes. Non-Muslims need to be made aware of a Muslim culture that is characterised by goodwill and decency and achievement. Few realise, however, that Muslims were making huge strides in science, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and literature while huge parts of Europe were still submerged in the dark ages. In the same way, few westerners who have a negative view of Islam appreciate its closeness to Christianity and Judaism.
Solely focusing on the fanatical and violent side of Islam is just like solely focusing on the perception that many westerners are immoral and greedy—these ridiculous simplifications do not take us anywhere. Islam has always been at the forefront of social and political development. As we are seeing in newly liberated Arab Spring countries, Islamic politicians are just as likely to offer democratic policies concentrating on social justice and equality as they are social conservatism and traditional values. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once described the Labour Party as a Broad Church—once Muslims and non-Muslims alike start using that metaphor for Islam, we will really be getting somewhere, and can even start forgetting about statistics about Muslim