Muslim Stereotypes

17 August 2003

All The News That Fits The Stereotype

By Gwynne Dyer

Sitting in Cairo in a flat borrowed from a friend. Turn on the TV and catch the news on BBC World: six stories in fifteen minutes. Iraqi guerillas blow up a couple of pipelines. European hostages released by Muslim guerillas in Mali. Nigerian peacekeeping troops in Liberia. Rioting between Muslim sects in Pakistan. Iceland resumes whaling. Islamist terrorists arrested in Indonesia. End of world news.

Four out of six: that’s how many of the stories were about Muslims who do violent things. That would make sense if two-thirds of the world’s people were Muslims, and most of them were violent. Since only one-fifth of the world’s people are Muslims, and many of them don’t even spank their children, it calls for an explanation. Especially because the international news is like this most of the time.

BBC World is not particularly bad. In fact, from Minnesota to Moscow to Manila it is the preferred source of TV news for people with an interest in the world, a knowledge of English and access to cable. It is serious about delivering ‘balanced’ news to a multi-national audience, and yet it is doing an absolutely terrible job. Why?

The BBC is not American, so it’s not following the White House’s agenda. It is not pandering to the paranoid belief, quite widespread in the United States since 11 November, 2001, that Islam is a more violent and dangerous religion than, say, Christianity. Its selection of stories is genuinely driven by what it thinks will be of interest to its audience of a hundred nationalities on five continents, a great many of whom are Muslims. And yet its selection of international stories comes out not very different from Fox News.

The bias in favour of ‘violent Muslim’ stories is less obvious on domestic news channels where the foreign items are buried under a far larger number of domestic stories, but it is the same. Wherever you are in the world (apart from the Muslim parts of the world, of course), try keeping track yourself for a few nights. You’ll find that at least half the foreign stories are about violence committed by or against Muslims.

Consider the four ‘Muslim’ stories among the BBC World six I listed at the top of this article. The Iraq story is legitimate: when the world’s greatest power is sinking into a political and military quagmire, it is going to get coverage. But why Muslim hostage-takers in Mali rather than politically motivated kidnappers in Colombia? Why sectarian clashes between Muslims in Pakistan rather than inter-caste violence among Hindus in India?

The story of suspected terrorists arrested for the Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta is of legitimate interest, but there’s a lot less follow-up when suspected Basque terrorists are arrested in Spain, or when a resurgent Sendero Luminoso blows something up in Peru. The BBC is not anti-Muslim, but it is responding to a definition of international news that makes ‘violent Muslims’ more newsworthy than violent people in other places.

It is largely a Western definition, following an agenda set mainly by the dominant US media. It is rooted in Western perspectives on the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, and has been vastly strengthened by the Islamist terrorist attack on the United States two years ago. It is also a huge, steaming heap of horse-feathers.

I’m not preaching pious nonsense about Islam being a ‘religion of peace’: the only peaceful religions are dead religions. And I’m not denying that the Muslim world has a big historical chip on its shoulder: having run one of the most powerful and respected civilisations on the planet for the first thousand years after they burst out of Arabia and conquered large chunks of Europe, Asia and Africa, Muslims have spent the past three centuries being overrun, colonised and humiliated by the West. But the image of Muslims that the rest of the world gets through international news coverage is deeply misleading.

For the past month I have been wandering around the Middle East with eight other members of my extended family. For some, it was their first time in the region; others of us have lived here or visited often enough to be able to lead everybody astray. And we gave less thought to our personal safety — and much less to petty theft — than we would have done on a comparable trip across America, or even through Europe.

I won’t go on about how kind and friendly most of the people we met were, because most people are like that everywhere. I would point out that every single person I discussed current events with was against the American invasion in Iraq, but that I nevertheless encountered no personal hostility although I am easily mistaken for an American. (Would an Arab doing a similar trip around America have the same experience?)

If Iraq gets completely out of hand, the patience and tolerance that still prevail at street level in the Muslim Middle East will be severely eroded, and even Asian Muslim countries may end up taking sides against the US and Britain. But for the moment Samuel Huntington’s nightmare vision of a coming ‘clash of civilisations’ is still a long way off, and the most striking thing is the sheer ordinariness of daily life in the Muslim world. Don’t be misled by television.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The BBC…Muslims”)