First to point out Islamophobia in media

Mugheesud Din Sheikh was the dean of University of Management and Technology, Lahore

The greatest contribution of Prof Dr Mugheesud Din Sheikh, who passed away on June 24, was to the debate about Islamophobia in Western media.

The School of Media and Communication Studies dean at University of Management and Technology, Lahore, inspired many to follow in his footsteps.

Islamophobia is an extreme fear and dislike of Islam as a religion, an ideology and a political force. As a phenomenon, it involves prejudice, discrimination and hostility against Islam and Muslims.

Social scientists, researchers, politicians and general public are still not agreed on various aspects, categories, antecedents, and facets of Islamophobia. Researchers - especially those with a social sciences background - have been using the term to identify, explore, elaborate, and understand history, existence, features, dimensions, reasons and consequences of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam approaches and sentiments prevailing in the West. Political leaders, media, and general public across West have used this term to describe Islam and Muslims as a threat to their identity, culture and economy.

Debate on Islamophobia became mainstream in 1997 with the publication of a report titled Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All by the Runnymede Trust.

A huge body of literature has been produced on Islamophobia since then, legitimizing its use as a regular term for the media, politicians, and common citizenry in the West, particularly after the 9/11 tragedy.

However, the academia, social scientists, researchers, media and political leaders of the Muslim world have failed to counter Islamophobia narratives prevailing in the West in particular, and around the globe in general.

Not very long ago Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the issue of Islamophobia in the West and its negative fallout. During his foreign visits and speeches at the UN General Assembly and the 14th Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) summit in Makkah, he stressed that the response of the Muslim world to the ever increasing Islamophobia in the West had been insufficient.

The scholars and researchers from the Muslim world have, somehow, ignored the need to deconstruct Islamophobia and develop a concerted response to it.

In Pakistan, it was Mugheesud Din Sheikh who started work on the issue. Although he did not use the term ‘Islamophobia’ in his PhD research, the thrust of his work was on the phenomenon of fear of Islam and Muslims in the US and its possible causes and potential consequences in early 90s. This was long before the term gained popularity through the Runnymede Report in 1997.

His doctoral thesis was titled: Elite Press Editorial Framing of US Foreign Policy: The Case of Pakistan and The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times (1980-1992). The thesis was submitted to the University of Iowa.

In his research, Dr Sheikh highlighted how the US press was framing and mixing up Islam, the Islamic character of Pakistan as an Islamic democratic country and Afghan jihad. He examined the editorial treatment of Islam as a possible intervening variable in the US foreign policy towards Pakistan.

Dr Sheikh argued in his work that the Western media had not only been hypercritical of Islam, but had also helped promote negative stereotypes about the Muslim world and Islamic values. It is interesting to note that in its reporting of Islam the US media is largely monolithic.

Sheikh showed that the US elite press completely supported the US official stance on Islam or “Islamic fundamentalism”. He pointed out that there was an agreement between the Indian lobbyists and the US policy makers on the issue of “emerging Islamic fundamentalism”.

He connected his findings to Edward Said’s theorization of the US media’s treatment of Islam. Pointing out what is specifically called Islamophobia nowadays, he noted: “In light of the findings of this study and other literature related to media-foreign policy-Islam relationship, it is premature to suggest that Islam constitutes such a perceived direct threat to personal and national well-being as imminent nuclear war… However, the examination of the present trends of the coverage of Islam seems to suggest that the Western media through its portrayal of ‘Islamists’ as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ is trying to dehumanize ‘Islamists’, referring to Islam as a disease and then acting to eradicate it. That is, seeds have been planted to set the stage for the future agenda of the US media. The result might be a clash of worldviews, values, and civilizations.”

Dr Mughees Sheikh concluded: “…after the end of the Cold War, Islam will be an eminent ‘threat candidate’ for the US media”.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington wrote an article: The Clash of Civilizations? However, Huntington was unclear aboutthis clash yet. That is why he placed a question mark “?” at the end. It was only in 1996that he expanded the work in the form of the book: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

Prof Mughees Sheikh’s seminal work on mediated treatment of Muslims and Islam in the United States testifies to glaring inaccuracies in the media during the 2016 election campaign, which was openly anti-Muslim and anti-Islam. The campaign resulted in a 227 per cent raise in hate crime in a year, according to the FBI.

The increase in hate crime was even larger than in the year immediately after 9/11.

Mughees Sheikh was a trend-setter. His findings in 1992 did predict the inception of a socio-political and media discourse that we now call Islamophobia.

The writer is a professor of media studies at the International Islamic University, Islamabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]

First to point out Islamophobia in media