Collective stereotypes

Muslims and media images: An interview with Arfa Khanum Sherwani

Based in New Delhi, Arfa Khanum Sherwani is an experienced journalist and the newly elected senior vice-president of the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys’ Association. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, she talks about Indian Muslims and the media.

Q: Could you tell us something about your background?
A: I was born in 1980, in Khurja, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh. I studied there till the 12th standard, did my bachelor’s degree in science from CCS University, Meerut, and then a diploma in journalism from the Aligarh Muslim University. Thereafter, in 2000, I came to Delhi where I interned with The Pioneer, then worked briefly with The Asian Age as a trainee subeditor, as a production executive with Sahara TV and then in 2003 I joined NDTV as principal correspondent and news anchor. I worked with NDTV for several years, covering foreign and minority affairs. Presently I am an independent producer and freelance journalist writing for some leading English and Hindi papers. I am also doing a PhD from the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, working on a comparative study of Dalits and Muslims in the Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh.

Q: Muslims often allege that the media (and here they tend to generalise) is wholly biased against them. As a Muslim woman, did you face any sort of discrimination while working in what were non-Muslim-owned media houses?
A: No, I was not made to feel different or uncomfortable at all except sometimes when discussions in the office would turn to issues related to Muslims, such as terrorism, or debates about inclusive policies or an absurd fatwa, when suddenly I would be made to answer on behalf of the clerics who had issued such fatwas. But that was only very occasionally as when a maulvi had passed a fatwa insisting that all Muslim women should cover up completely and colleagues would joke that the next day I might come to the office fully veiled. On such occasions I was expected to take a clear stand, to defend or to disassociate myself from such Muslim practices. But on the whole, I must say that I was never made to feel as the ‘other’. Rather, I felt very much included and part of the team. Maybe I was just lucky not to have experienced much discrimination in gaining access to work opportunities. I cannot speak for other Muslim journalists and their experiences though, which may be different.

But I think it is safe to say that while discrimination against Muslims in the media is not something that can be called ‘organised’ or ‘institutionalised’, there are certainly some reporting beats where Muslim journalists have to be extremely cautious while reporting. They are supposed to take the same line as dictated to them and can only speak their minds at the risk of being branded or being labelled as ‘Muslim journalists’. This is particularly so with regard to such issues as terrorism, minority affairs or Pakistan.  

I must also say that the media – and here I do not mean that section of the media, especially the vernacular media, which is heavily pro-Hindutva – is quite receptive to employing qualified Muslims if they come to them seeking jobs. I have not heard of any qualified and capable Muslim being refused employment simply because he or she was a Muslim. I can confidently state that at least those sections of the media that I have worked with are quite inclusive of Muslims and are not characterised by a deep-rooted or conscious anti-Muslim bias. Muslim employees in this section of the media are treated in almost the same way as their non-Muslim counterparts. But there have also been cases where Muslim job candidates have been asked weird questions about their religion and community. And there is also the fact that in order to get the same job and the same opportunities, a Muslim has to prove himself or herself more capable than a non-Muslim would need to.

It is crucial to recognise that the media is not a homogenous body so the experiences of Muslims working in different media houses may be vastly different. It can vary from person to person. At least as far as the section of the media in which I have worked is concerned, I for one do not buy the argument that the media is inherently anti-Muslim or is engaged in a ‘conspiracy’ against Islam, as some Muslims allege. If that were true then Shah Faisal, the topper of this year’s civil service examinations, would not have been in the headlines. Nor would Shah Rukh Khan or Sania Mirza (before her marriage) have got such media coverage. It is an undeniable fact that the media has actually helped create icons out of some Muslims. It is also important to realise that like every other industry, the media is also driven by market forces and therefore shares both their negative as well as their positive features. By creating icons, it becomes easier for marketing gurus to sell products and generate revenues.  

That said, there are certain unwritten lines or ideological barriers in the media that one cannot cross. One has to completely follow these rules if one wants to retain one’s job. So, for instance, you cannot openly take a stand and question whether or not a particular person, who happens to be a Muslim, is really a terrorist as your media house alleges him to be. Or, for instance, if your channel is vociferously anti-Pakistani, you cannot afford to plead for a rational discussion on Indo-Pak relations. I don’t think this sort of implicit control, including on issues related to Muslims, was that evident two decades ago. Today things have been made much more complicated with a sizeable number of journalists now sharing the Hindutva world view and supporting Hindutva politics.

Q: You mentioned that you covered minority – which is, essentially, Muslim – issues for NDTV. You also write about Muslim-related issues. Was it the case that because you are a Muslim you were expected to write about Muslims? Is that also not a sort of stereotyping?
A: Often Muslim journalists in mainstream media houses are given the task of writing about Muslim issues because they are expected to know more about these matters. Also, sometimes bosses feel that Muslim-related matters are simply too sensitive for a non-Muslim journalist, who has little or no knowledge of Muslim affairs, to carefully and properly handle. I think we need to see this attitude as a positive thing. 

On the other hand, it can also be somewhat stifling and restrictive. Firstly, readers or viewers might doubt the veracity of what a Muslim journalist writes or speaks about Muslim-related issues, supposing her or him to be biased or emotionally involved, as a Muslim, in these issues and hence lacking in objectivity.  

Then one faces the problem of being identified as a ‘Muslim journalist’ rather than just a journalist plain and simple, whose Muslimness is simply incidental or of no importance in his or her professional life. In this way you tend to get bracketed, segmented and separated from the rest of your colleagues. Your scope is then immensely narrowed down and people begin to raise questions about your very objectivity in covering Muslim issues just because you are a Muslim.

Q: Why is it that only bad news about Muslims – whether real or concocted – is considered newsworthy? The media never reports anything positive about Muslims.
A: This in part has to do with the inherent nature of what the media considers as news. Only extremes make news. So it is largely the fault of the media that moderates don’t excite media interest. Bad news is good news for the media. Positivity has to scream from the fences to be heard while negativity gets an immediate hearing in the media which then reinforces inherited stereotypes and negative images. It’s like only if you rave and rant that the media notices you and therefore the silent moderate sensible Muslim majority gets no media coverage. So this tendency to sensationalise, to highlight the dark and dramatic, is inherent in what is considered to be newsworthy by the media. This applies to Muslims in the same way as it applies to other communities or issues as well.  

Another reason for the negative images of Muslims in the media is lack of sufficient knowledge of the community on the part of media professionals. When you know something properly, you can present and project it in the right perspective. But the less you know about a community, the more you tend towards stereotyping it. This applies to people in general, not just journalists. Because most journalists have little or no personal interaction with Muslims, there is a tendency to treat them and practices associated with them stereotypically, in some cases even as a totally different species. Often journalists who handle Muslim issues are just fresh graduates who have not the slightest understanding of the subject. Given the way the media is structured, they don’t have enough time to read or study or properly investigate these issues. And so what we get are often immature commentaries and reactions.  

That said, I would also insist that obscurantist Muslim figures who are highlighted by the media are also to blame for the media sensationalising Muslim issues. They provide the media the fodder that it wants, such as by issuing absurd fatwas which are almost always about women.

Q: It is often alleged that the media is complicit in highlighting and projecting the most obscurantist people as the ‘leaders’ of the Muslims, completely silencing saner voices. What do you have to say about this?
A: I don’t think the fault lies entirely with the media really. The media would highlight the most accessible people who claim to lead or speak for the Muslims. TV channels simply do not have the time to go out and search for saner voices if they are not accessible to the media and if they choose to remain silent when issues related to Muslims are being discussed. So, quite naturally, they speak to whoever comes to them or whoever is the most easily accessed and often these are the more conservative elements who have their organisations and who can easily be contacted by the media for catchy, sometimes very provocative, outlandish and obscurantist statements which make good copy or sound bites for the media. Some of them are really media-savvy and publicity-hungry and go out of the way to cultivate relations with the media. Because the media routinely highlights those elements that scream the loudest, it is these folks who are projected, inadvertently in some cases, deliberately in others, as Muslim ‘leaders’ and ‘spokesmen’. The moderates or just ordinary Muslims have no organisations and are not vocal. They don’t scream or come out on the streets to protest. They are busy leading their own lives and making a living. And so the media doesn’t know about them and therefore they don’t contact them when it comes to discussing Muslim-related issues.

I think this really needs to change. If you look at the people who are projected by the media as Muslim ‘leaders’ or spokespersons, it is either traditional, often very patriarchal, maulvis or some very ultra-secular people with Muslim names. In the process the moderate Muslim voice – which toes the line of neither the mullahs nor the ultra-secularists – is completely silenced. Moderate Muslims, who represent the views of the majority of Indian Muslims, must stand up and start speaking out on Muslim-related as well as other issues. We can’t let others speak for us.

Q: In addition to sensationalising Muslim issues, another problem with media representations of Muslims is the marked tendency to stereotype them. What do you have to say about this?
A: That’s true. But this is not necessarily intentional or planned. Take the example of Hindi films, where the hero’s best friend is a Muslim so he has to wear a skullcap and is shown regularly praying in the Muslim style. In this way it becomes easier for the director to establish this character’s identity and then move on to dwell on the real plot of the story without wasting much time. Honestly speaking, the same happens in the case of Christians and other non-Hindu communities who – let’s face it – are yet to be accepted as ‘normal’ characters. Hence the need to visually or graphically demonstrate the character’s religious identity and its associated symbols. The same holds true in the case of TV news as well.

So even if the intention is good – which is not always the case – this reflects, and further contributes to, stereotyping Muslims. Why can’t Muslims be shown as normal people, like everyone else, instead of virtually a different species? And if they show a Muslim who does not dress in that stereotypical way, they feel the need to establish that the person, despite his appearance, is indeed a Muslim. This stereotyping is not always intentional however though often it indeed is.

Q: What do you feel about how Muslim organisations that claim to speak for all or most Indian Muslims have sought to engage with the media? What about their media policies, if any?
A: Most of them do not seem to have any media policy at all, at least nothing that is at all effective. Some of them do not even have a spokesperson who can deal with media affairs. Earlier, they were content being by themselves, restricted to their own narrow circles. They created their own little worlds, their separate comfort zones, and did not feel the need to go out of that restricted space. Perhaps they lacked the confidence to do so or felt diffident or scared. Because of this, they didn’t take the media seriously and failed to realise its importance. But now that the media is agog with stories about Muslims, they have woken up to how important and powerful the media really is. By keeping silent all this while and failing to engage with the media creatively, they have in effect allowed the image of Muslims to be sullied unchallenged and so it may now be difficult, if not impossible, to undo that damage. Even if these organisations try to reach out to the media, they are not very successful or effective. Many such organisations may actually want to have nothing to do with the media because they may not want to answer inconvenient questions. 

Essentially, the issue of the poor media image of Muslims boils down to this: If you, as a community, have no brand value, if you are seen as wholly hostile to modern concerns, you damage the brand value and the public perception of yourself and your faith. If your politics are only about protesting and making demands on others and accusing others of being your ‘enemies’, if all you do is to ask for things but not give others anything positive, no number of your people in the media can salvage your image. I think that is the crux of the image problem that Muslims face in the media, not just in India but globally. 

To come back to the issue of the lack of any effective media policy of these Muslim organisations, one reason for this is the fact that the vast majority of them are led by maulvis or by those who think in the same way as the maulvis. And by and large, the maulvis are not media-friendly. Many of them will simply refuse to speak to a woman. I, as a Muslim woman, have personally faced that problem on some occasions. Few of them speak anything other than chaste Urdu which the media cannot understand. Hardly any of these Muslim organisations has any well-qualified, modern, educated staff who can speak good English or Hindi, with whom the media can interact.

Q: Why is that the case?
A: Maybe because those who run these organisations only want to employ people who think like them, who are not so bright or well-qualified that they would dare question or critique them or ask what they would consider inconvenient questions.

Q: What sort of media policy do you think Muslim organisations ought to have?
A: They should regularly monitor the media, send out regular press releases and invite media people to interact with them. In this way, without sounding preachy or defensive or apologetic, they can help address the media’s questions about their organisations or Muslims or Islam. The intention should not be to sermonise, as is often the case, but rather to interact.

Q: What do you feel about the fact that there are relatively few Muslims in the so-called mainstream media? How does that impact on the lack of positive images about Islam and Muslims in the media? Would increasing the Muslim presence in this media make any difference to how Muslim or Islam-related issues are covered?
A: This is not a phenomenon specific to the media alone. Muslims are hardly visible in many other fields as well. This has largely to do with the pathetic levels of higher education among Muslims.  

Increasing the Muslim presence in the mainstream media might in some cases help address the negative ways in which Muslims are sometimes portrayed. But there are, as I mentioned earlier on, so many unwritten rules in the media that one needs to abide by. So if a channel is pro-BJP, or if its policymaking team is, you won’t be able to criticise Hindutva politics beyond a point. In most channels, you won’t be able to advocate a balanced position on, say reservations in jobs for Muslims. 

Then there is the tendency of some Muslim journalists that in order to be more accepted by their colleagues and bosses, they feel they should be even more critical of Muslims or the maulvis than what is warranted and that they should make every effort to distance themselves from general Muslims and their issues. It is better to have a secular, objective non-Muslim journalist cover Muslim issues than such Muslim journalists. 

But this tendency is something that is not specific to Muslim journalists however. I know of several Muslim politicians, bureaucrats and even ordinary middle-class Muslims whose colleagues are largely Hindus who do precisely this in order to curry favour with their bosses and colleagues and earn the label of a ‘moderate’, ‘liberal’, and ‘progressive’ Muslim. In this way they feel the need to prove their ‘secular’ credentials. They feel that if their Muslimness is too visible, they will not be accepted by their peers.

Q: One often hears Muslim leaders talk about the need for Muslims to start their own English magazines or even a daily newspaper because, they argue, the mainstream media does not represent Muslim issues in a proper or positive manner. What do you feel about this proposal?
A: I think this is a bad idea. Such magazines or newspapers will inevitably be for and by Muslims alone, a mutual appreciation club where no one questions anyone and all are happy. Such efforts can in some cases further solidify the sense of Muslim ‘difference’ and alienation from the rest of Indian society thereby further widening existing communal divisions.  

If you look at previous efforts to set up such magazines and newspapers, they have by and large proved to be utter failures. Many such magazines have been compelled to close down due to inefficiency, nepotism, lack of professionalism, improper marketing and failure to keep up with the times. These traits are not something particular to the Muslim media however. Most other Muslim organisations suffer from the same malaise. I think this has to do in some way with a deep-rooted mentality which rests on past laurels and dreams of long-lost glory and a strong resistance to modernity in some very fundamental ways. 

Generally, these magazines are unable to generate adequate advertising revenue. Often these magazines, which are launched without so much as a feasibility survey, become very religious, focusing almost wholly on religious issues understood in an extremely ritualistic manner while giving scant attention to crucial social, economic, educational and political problems and concerns of Muslims.  

Such Muslim-owned magazines and newspapers are also rarely able to attract well-qualified staff. I am not sure if non-Muslims simply do not come to them for jobs or if these organisations are unwilling to associate with them but often you will come across only Muslim males working with them. It is difficult to find well-qualified and capable Muslims because there are so few of them in the first place. And well-qualified Muslims would, generally speaking, not like to work for the Muslim media – for various reasons, including poor working conditions and low pay. So it is by and large just mediocre Muslim men, who find it difficult to get employed in the mainstream media, who are absorbed by the Muslim-run media.

Q: So are you saying that Muslims should not set up their own English-language media?
A: I am not saying that. I am just pointing out why such initiatives in the past have failed and also the immense difficulties involved. I do not say that Muslims should not set up English magazines and papers but if they do so, these should not focus only on Muslim or Islamic issues which would limit their appeal and their influence to Muslims alone. Rather, they should also deal with general issues which would make them interesting to non-Muslims as well. This is particularly important if one of the basic objectives of such magazines and newspapers is to present a more positive image of Islam and Muslims to non-Muslims or to counter wrong images about them. Further, these magazines should not just seek to present a rosy image of Muslims but must also criticise Muslims if and when the need arises. They should not be propaganda organs. But that is precisely what most Muslim-owned papers are.

Q: In recent years some Muslim organisations have, at obviously great cost, set up TV channels that can be watched all over the country and abroad. However, almost all these channels are devoted simply to Islam, or rather to one or other sectarian version of Islam, while paying little or no attention to Muslim social, economic, educational and political problems and realities. How do you gauge these channels?
A: Again, their appeal is only to Muslims – not to all Muslims, of course, but to those who want to see this sort of thing and who are associated with one or other sect or school of Islamic thought that each of these channels is linked to. Because these channels, like Muslim-run papers and magazines in English, Urdu and other languages, cater only to Muslims, they play no role at all in improving the media image of Islam and Muslims among non-Muslims. I have never heard my non-Muslim friends discussing Peace TV or Zee Salaam or ETV Urdu. The principal reason for this is because they almost completely ignore social issues of contemporary concern which could have been of some significance to non-Muslims as well.  

These channels focus almost only on Islam because this is a tried and tested formula and it actually works without any risks being involved. Also, because in this way they can affirm a certain sense of Muslim identity. This is related to heightened identity consciousness among many Muslims in recent years, especially after 9/11. Furthermore, religious programmes are what also sell. But the way these channels present Islam is often very ritualistic, focusing on the externals, not on the social dimensions of the faith or the social application of Islam in real life, for which you need a good understanding of empirical realities of Muslim society. They also do not adequately address the very vital issue of the interface between Islam and modernity, which is a major dilemma that Muslims are faced with today.  

But religion is not the only important issue for Muslims, which is something these channels ignore. Barring a few programmes, these channels generally ignore the social, economic, educational and political issues, problems, challenges and realities of Muslims, their empirical realities. In this however they are not alone. Many Muslim organisations also focus particularly on religion and identity-related issues, ignoring social issues and realities. Based on my own limited understanding of Islam, I don’t think this is the right Islamic approach. Maybe simply harping on religion and identity all the time serves the interests of those people who want to project themselves as Muslim ‘leaders’, who exploit the economic and educational backwardness of Muslims in order to strengthen their own claims to lead them. 

Another reason why these channels focus only on religion – often defined, as I earlier said, in a narrow, ritualistic or sectarian manner – is that they lack trained, well-qualified staff who could cover other, empirical or social issues and realities. So often they hire just mediocre people and produce mediocre stuff and because they cater to a very narrow market, they cannot be sustained for too long and have to close down, as has indeed happened. These channels may not also have sufficient funds for covering empirical issues. It is a lot cheaper, and involves much less infrastructure, simply to have two maulvis sit in a studio and engage in endless sermonising, or a qawwali or mushaira team performing the night through in the name of highlighting ‘Muslim culture’, than to send a team into the field to cover social issues and file empirically grounded reports that can actually wake up the policymakers. And if these channels do at all cover empirical or field-based issues and stories, it tends to take the form of sermonising and preaching rather than objective analyses. Often – and this is also the case with many Muslim papers – it takes the form only of complaint – against the state or against anyone but Muslims themselves. 

I would also like to add that while the mainstream media or Bollywood can be faulted for stereotyping Muslims – as dressing in a particular way or as being ‘extra religious’ – many of these Muslim TV channels do precisely the same thing. So they also routinely project Muslims as if all of them wear topis and sport beards or don face veils and constantly think about religion day in and day out, as if religion is their only identity and as if they don’t or can’t think of anything else.

Q: How do you assess the Urdu media in terms of its ability to highlight and represent Muslim social, economic, educational and political issues and concerns and also in facilitating the emergence of a relevant Muslim leadership?
A: This media has absolutely no influence on non-Muslims and so can play no role in addressing anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic propaganda and stereotypes among them. I know a couple of widely circulated Urdu papers are read and reviewed in government circles just to have a sense of what Muslims think on a given issue but this does not really impact on policymakers and the dominant non-Muslim-controlled media. 

In terms of highlighting Muslim social issues, I don’t think the Urdu media has done a great job although with some exceptions. It has become a media of complaint and does not present to Muslims a positive agenda. Large sections of it completely lack objectivity.

Q: In the Urdu media, as well as in the Muslim-run English media, very few women are visible. Why is this?
A: I think very low levels of education among Muslim women generally and inbuilt, deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes even in the Muslim media are two major reasons for this. To be in the media field, you need to be outgoing, daring, independent, an extrovert willing to mix with all sorts of people. There would, I suppose, be very few Muslim women of this sort. 

While there are some Muslim women in non-Muslim-owned television channels, there are fewer who appear on Muslim TV channels. There would be hardly any Muslim women working in any senior capacity in any Muslim-run magazine or newspaper. So in terms of gender, there is certainly this lack of inclusiveness in the Muslim media.

Q: Negative images of Muslim women are such a prominent theme in the general media. How, as a Muslim woman who works in this media, do you look at this?
A: I don’t see this as an anti-Islamic ‘conspiracy’ which is how many Muslims view it. I don’t think the objective is to mock Islam or Muslims. Much of the generalisation that is made on the basis of some isolated instances involving Muslim women is out of lack of knowledge and may not be deliberate. The fact of the matter is that some ignorant clerics do indeed pass absurd fatwas that demean women and they wrongly seek Islamic legitimacy for their claims. Lack of knowledge about Muslims and their issues, media biases and a certain sensationalism in discussing the question of Muslim women makes the media go to town with such news reports. But where they can be directly blamed is when they report such instances in such a manner as to generalise for all Muslims and to make the issue seem even more horrific than it is. For some strange reason in media circles there is a sort of romanticisation associated with Muslim women and their perceived miseries. It is almost certain that a Muslim woman would attract more media attention than a non-Muslim woman who shares exactly the same problems and woes.  

Q: You mentioned the issue of some clerics who issue absurd fatwas and how this negatively impacts on images about Islam and Muslims in the media. What do you think needs to be done as far as this is concerned?
A: I think that this problem has to do either with limited knowledge about Islam or misinterpretation of Islamic texts. One of the greatest problems Muslims today face is that we are as a whole completely clueless about how to face the numerous and very complex challenges of modernity and how to understand our religion in this light. One might have a great deal of knowledge about Islam but what is also important is to know how to creatively deal with contemporary issues in the light of Islam. We Muslims are still groping our way to being able to comfortably balance the demands of religion, modernity, democracy, liberalism, gender justice, religious pluralism, human rights and so on. In fact, we are still very far from having reached that stage.

I realise the community does need the ulema and that the ulema deserve respect. However, I also feel that what we urgently need today is a class of progressive ulema who can creatively and effectively deal with the myriad issues and problems that modernity has forced all of us to deal with. Unfortunately, the image that some maulvis are giving through their fatwas, lectures, statements and writings is that Islam is vehemently opposed to modernity as a whole. This, to my mind, is neither Islamically legitimate nor is it good for the advancement of the community as well as for its image in the eyes of others. 

The ulema present themselves as authorities in matters of religion but few of them are able to engage properly with the media. Some among them make a comment or pass an absurd fatwa and the entire class of ulema, and the entire Muslim community as well, gets a bad image. So while it is true that to some extent the media is at fault for generalising and sensationalising about Muslims based on some absurd fatwas delivered by some maulvi or the other, we cannot deny the fact that many of our ulema are also to blame, being unable or unwilling to creatively deal with a host of issues that modernity has brought in its wake. That is why there is such an urgent need for rethinking and reform among the ulema so that they can help create a more positive image of Islam and interpret Islam in order to help Muslims relate creatively and comfortably with the times while still retaining their identity and faith as Muslims. Regrettably, I have to say, very few of them are actually doing this work while also engaging with the media creatively.

(Arfa Khanum Sherwani can be contacted at arfakhanum@gmail.com. Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.)

Archived from Communalism Combat,July-August 2010, Anniversary Issue (17th) Year 17    No.153 ,Media 1