Islamophobia & the British Press

A Briefing on Islamophobia & the British Press
– Sources, Basic Facts & the Wrong Questions

1.0 Cardiff School of Journalism (CSJ), Media and Cultural Studies
2.0 Greater London Authority under Ken Livingstone
3.0 Web links to over 2500 press news stories, analysis and comment
4.0 Conclusion and the right questions

The Media, in particular, the British Press, is blamed for Islamophobia. It continually publishes bad news and critical comment on Islam and Muslims.

Muslims say this is unjustified. The Press concentrates on negative stories that reflect badly on them and Islam, often twisting or exaggerating the news to show Muslims and Islam in a bad light. Even false stories are published.

Two studies are often quoted in regard to this issue:

(i) “Images of Islam in the UK – “The Representation of British Muslims in the National Print News Media 2000-2008” published by the Cardiff School of Journalism

(ii) “The Search for Common Ground: Muslims, non-Muslims and the UK Media” published by the Greater London Authority when Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London.

There may be other studies but these two are available publically and are frequently referenced in discussions on Islamophobia and the press. Summaries of their findings are given below.

(iii) Web links to over 2500 press news stories, analysis and comment Another source dedicated to recording what the Press and Media publish concerning Islam and Muslims is the LibertyPhile website which gives brief extracts and web links to over 2500 such news stories, analysis and comment in British and International media over the last two years.

This is also discussed below.

1.0 Cardiff School of Journalism (CSJ), Media and Cultural Studies

“Images of Islam in the UK – The Representation of British Muslims in the National Print News Media 2000-2008” Kerry Moore, Paul Mason and Justin Lewis, July 2008

1.1 What CSJ did

(1) A content analysis of 974 newspaper articles about British Muslims in the British Press from 2000 to 2008

(2) An analysis of the visuals/images used in articles about British Muslims in the British Press in 2007 and 2008;

(3) A series of case studies of stories about British Muslims in the British Press.

This Briefing covers (1) and (3)

1.2 Newspaper content analysis


CSJ searched the Lexis Nexis database of British newspapers for all stories about British Muslims from 2000 to the end of May 2008. This yielded around 23,000 stories (shown by year in Table 1 below).

Finding 1 – The volume of coverage of British Muslims

The coverage of British Muslims in the British Press increased dramatically after 11th September, 2001. Another significant increase occurred in 2005, the year of the 7th July attacks, although coverage continued to increase further in 2006, reaching a level 12 times higher than in 2000. See Table 1

Table 1 – Stories about British Muslims over time

Year Number of Stories
2000 352
2001 2185
2002 1673
2003 1917
2004 2399
2005 3812
2006 4196
2007 3213
2008 3466

This chart illustrates the figures.

Vertical bar chart

CSJ say that these figures suggest that:

1. The increase in coverage of British Muslims from 2000 to 2008 is clearly related to the terrorist attacks in 2001 and 2005, however:

2. It has also developed a momentum of its own, lasting well beyond and independent of these highly newsworthy events.

As will be shown below the ‘war on terror’ has become a long-running story in its own right, though recent years have seen the growth of other related topics, notably cultural differences between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain.

Finding 2 – The context in which British Muslims appear in the news

The stories from the Lexis Nexis database were used to construct a sample of just under a thousand articles (974) which were selected from five alternate years from 2000 to 2008.

By selecting alternate years CSJ avoided the terrorist attacks in September 2001 and July 2005 while capturing the longer term aftermath of those events and focusing on routine, everyday coverage of British Muslims.

CSJ categorised all the stories in this sample by “news hook”, the main focus of the story or the element that makes it newsworthy. The three most common ‘news hooks’ for stories about British Muslims accounted for more than two thirds of stories. These were:

• Terrorism or the war on terror, accounting for 36% of all stories.

This involved stories about terrorism trials, stories about the ‘war on terror’ and about hostage taking, although most of the stories in this category were about terrorism more generally, rather than a specific terrorist event.

• Religious and cultural issues, accounting for 22%

This included discussions of Sharia Law, debates about the wearing of veils, dress codes, forced marriages, the role of Islam in Britain and the Danish cartoon story. These stories generally highlighted cultural differences between British Muslims and other British people.

• Muslim extremism, accounting for 11%

Stories about Abu Hamza, as the single most newsworthy British Muslim, were especially prominent in this category.

A summary for all news hooks is given in Table 2 below.

Table 2 – Prominence of news hooks in alternate years from 2000 to 2008

News Hook 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008
Terrorism 28 51 34 34 27
Religious cultural issues 20 8 12 27 32
Muslim extremism 3 8 14 11 10
Politics & public affairs 10 8 8 10 8
Immigration & asylum 0 3 1 1 2
Violence & attacks against Mulsims 10 5 9 3 1
Islamophobia 0 1 4 1 1
Social unrest & community relations 13 6 7 7 2
Other 18 10 12 7 16
Totals 100 100 100 100 100

Finding 3 – What is said about Muslims

CSJ looked for specific kinds of statements or ideas – ‘discourses’ – used repeatedly in the coverage of British Muslims.

In their sample of 974 stories, they found 1412 instances of particular discourses. As these figures suggest, many stories contained more than one discourse.

The most commonly used discourses about British Muslims in order of importance are shown below in Table 3

Table 3 – Most common discourses

Discourse Used in % of Stories % of all Discourses Used
Muslims linked to the threat of terrorism 34 23
Islam as dangerous, backward or irrational 26 17
Islam as part of multiculturalism 17 11
A clash of civilisations between Islam & the West 14 10
Islam as a threat to a British way of life 9 7

Four of the five most common types of discourses (accounting for 68% of all discourses instances) associate Islam and Muslims with threats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values.

Other discourses included: failure of multiculturalism (7%); defence of Muslim human rights (6%); gender inequality (4%); Islam outmoded (4%); Islam is peaceful (3%); dominant moral values supported by Muslims (2%); and, Islam as a threat to human rights (1%).

CSJ’s conclusions from contents analysis

1. Coverage of British Muslims has increased over the period from 2000 to 2008.

The initial rise is clearly tied to the increase in terrorism and terrorism related stories and they continue to account for nearly a third of all stories in later years of the study period 2006 – 2008.

However, since the initial rise, the proportion of stories on religious and cultural issues has also grown and become more important reaching nearly a third of all stories in the later years

2. The bulk of coverage of British Muslims focuses on Muslims as a threat (in relation to terrorism), a problem (in terms of differences in values) or both (Muslim extremism in general).

1.3 Case Studies

Given their statistical nature, and as far as one can tell, the professional research procedure of the CSJ team, the above results are likely to be objective whatever the views or prejudices of the CSJ people.

This cannot be said of the case studies part. It is clearly not objective. It is a very one-sided account of just five news reports and the reader is given only the CSJ interpretation.

Four of these news reports were:

In-Bred Muslims

This concerned the report of a politician saying “…levels of disability among the…Pakistani population are higher than the general population. And everybody knows it’s caused by first cousin marriage.”

CSJ complained about newspaper headlines that followed such as “‘Inbred’ Muslim warnings” and “Outrage at inbred Muslims warning; more disabled babies born” and they said “We found no medical backing for this claim”.

They didn’t look very hard. According to a later report “ …. a professor, has called for greater awareness about the impact of first cousin marriages on children of said unions: …. British Pakistanis represent 3 per cent of all births in Britain but one third of children with recessive disorders.” See here.

Nazi UK

Though Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, then head of the Muslim Council of Britain, when interviewed by the Daily Telegraph never used the word Nazi, he was accused in very strong terms of comparing Britain to Nazi Germany. Headlines included “Fury as Muslim brands Britain ‘Nazi”, “Comparisons to Nazi Germany inaccurately reflect Muslim status in Britain”.

What he actually said was: “Every society has to be really careful so the situation doesn’t lead us to a time when people’s minds can be poisoned as they were in the 1930s.”.

CSJ might have posed the question what did Dr Bari actually have in mind when referring to the 1930s? Was it high unemployment, the abdication crisis, or was it just possibly the Nazi persecution of the Jews?

Sharia Law in Britain

Dr Rowan William, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that aspects of Sharia law could be adopted in the UK. CSJ are highly critical of the storm of protest that this met: his remarks were decontextualised, exaggerated; Sharia was equated with brutal punishments; the Archbishop was delegitimised, he was ridiculed, the Star called him “a prize chump”.

CSJ might have paid some attention to the large volume of well-informed criticism of the Archbishop’s speech and what it might or might not have meant and they could have mentioned that judges in the House of Lords described Sharia rules on child custody as ‘arbitrary and discriminatory’ or considered the letter that one Muslim woman wrote to the papers:

“Sir, I shudder to think of the repercussions for Muslim women if British law recognises decisions made by Sharia councils …. For Sharia judges to question a woman’s motives for divorce and pressure her socially and financially to remain in an unfulfilling and possibly dangerous marriage is antiquated at best and deadly at worst. Decisions made by Sharia councils have no room in British law.” See here.

And they could have mentioned how Muslim women in Canada fought successfully against Sharia family tribunals.

‘No-Go’ Areas – Self Segregation and Colonisation from Within

The then Bishop of Rochester, Dr Nazir Ali, wrote a comment article that criticised the ‘novel philosophy of “multiculturalism”’ and warned of the emergence of ‘nogo’ areas for non-Muslims in certain areas of the UK.

CSJ complain the ‘”Nogo” areas’ story … invokes a proactively ‘self-segregating’ Muslim community within Britain: an alien culture colonising Britain from within and dismissive of extant British norms and practices”.

As would be journalists you might think the CSJ authors of this study would have gone to a so-called nogo area to examine the truth of Dr Ali’s comments. If they did it isn’t mentioned.

They might have interviewed non-Muslims like the vicar’s wife who calls her account of her stay in a part of Birmingham “A stranger in my own land” and how local police described the neighbourhood to her as a “no-go” area.

2.0 Greater London Authority under Ken Livingstone

“The search for common ground: Muslims, non-Muslims and the UK media” November 2007

2.1 What was done

• a survey of the news in one week (based on 352 news articles)
• consideration of stories about political correctness
• analysis of a TV documentary.

• a review of recent opinion polls
• study of recent books and articles
• interviews with Muslim journalists

This study was carried out by a team of people who were very likely to have prior or strong views on the subject of Islamophobia, and included for example, the person responsible for media relations at the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), and various authors of works concerning Islamophobia. Not what you would call an objective or neutral team.

2.2 Survey of news in one week


(Then) Mayor Livingstone gave pride of place, from amongst all the studies findings, to the finding that in a typical week 91% of the news articles in the UK press mentioning Muslims or Islam were negative.

“I commissioned this study to examine the role of the media in promoting or harming good community relations with London’s Muslim communities.

One of the most startling findings of this report is that in one typical week in 2006, over 90 per cent of the media articles that referred to Islam and Muslims were negative. The overall picture presented by the media was that Islam is profoundly different from and a threat to the west”.

This finding sounds right especially from Mr Livingstone’s point of view although it was not a typical week. It was w/b 8 May 2006 the last two days of which saw the publication of reports on the London bombings of July 2005.

This 91% result might be compared with the CSJ finding that 68% of news discourses about Muslims in Britain in the British press associate Islam and Muslims with threats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values.

Table 4 – Positive, neutral or negative associations by newspaper

Title Association of Articles
% Negative % Neutral % Positive No. of Articles
Financial Times 89 6 5 37
Independent 80 2 8 48
Star 100 11
Mirror 100 16
Express 71 21 8 14
Mail 97 3 31
Telegraph 91 7 2 43
Sun 100 19
Guardian 85 12 3 52
Times 89 7 4 46
Total 91 5 4 352

Table 5 – News content of story

News Content Number Percentage %
Bombs on the 7 July 69 20
Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan 117 33
Other terror (e.g., hijackers) 54 16
Total terror related 240 69
Naseen, women, Abu Qatada, human rights, Islamic schools, Somalia, crime, Egypt, Muslim world, Pakistan 69 31

Over two thirds of the stories are about terrorism in Britain and about Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan and it is difficult to see how the reporting could put any of that in a positive light.

There is something else quite remarkable about these figures which the study fails to mention (and you can understand why). In this “typical week” the Daily Express compared with all other newspapers has the HIGHEST percentage of stories about Islam or Muslims that are positive or neutral.

Now also, if there were good stories to report about Islam and Muslims you might reasonably expect the Independent and the Guardian to report them and this to show up in their percentage breakdown in Table 4.

The Guardian website CiF is famous for publishing the views of Muslim spokespeople and propagandists. And the study team included a current and a former journalist of the Guardian (Hugh Muir and Laura Smith) the only journalists on the team.

But no, the pattern of negative stories is much the same as for other newspapers. The Guardian mustered 15% positive or neutral and the Independent 10% against the Express’ 29%.

2.2 Consideration of stories

The study claims that a theme has developed in the British media that British society and the British way of life are under threat.

It examines a handful – four news stories in total in relation to relatively trivial incidents – that are mostly caused by politically correct British non-Muslims implementing policies or taking actions which they think will please Muslims but which only serve to anger the great majority of British non-Muslims.

The point here of course is that Muslims are not really to blame. It’s the misguided interference of the British non-Muslim politically correct, and the stories are twisted so as to blame Muslims.

The stories are

• the alleged banning of piggy banks by a building society in a Lancashire town

• the alleged banning of Christmas by a local council in London

• the use of BP (Before Present) instead of BC (Before Christ) at a museum in the West country

• the Crown Prosecution Service taking a 10-year-old boy to court for playground insults in Salford.

The study shows these stories were either false or based on embellishment and twisting of innocent facts.

There is no excuse for bad journalism or for twisting facts to suit a preconceived idea.

What the study doesn’t touch on and seems to deliberately steer clear of is the continual and vast flow of stories about what Muslims themselves say and do, the many true stories, ranging from the ridiculous to the sinister, that the British public have good cause to see as “threats to the British way of life”.

● Marks & Spencer shop assistant refuses to sell book of Bible stories.

● Imam’s daughter threatened with death because she converted to Christianity.

● British government recognises polygamy. [Department for Work and Pensions recognises polygamous marriages that are conducted overseas in regard to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit.]

● Muslim staff in supermarket refuse to serve alcohol.

● PC forced to resign because he gave Muslim colleague bottle of wine and pack of bacon for a Christmas present. [An imam asked his view said what a crime this was, insulting Islam, and another Muslim commentator wondered what the Muslim policeman was doing at a Christmas party.]

● Female Muslim students refuse to shake hands with university Chancellor at degree awards ceremony.

● Girl murdered because she refused arranged marriage.

● Muslim medical students refuse to treat illness caused by alcohol.

As if to reveal the political bias of the study the authors say ….

…. even though real fears exist. These arise not from so-called political correctness, nor from the presence of Muslims in modern Britain, but from social and economic change, globalisation, and new international relationships.

2.3 Analysis of a TV documentary

The study has a whole chapter devoted to the MCB’s complaints about a Panorama TV programme. The chapter takes up 23 pages, almost a fifth of the study. It continues the theme of how the UK media misrepresents Muslims and it makes a number of complaints. One of these, typical of their feebleness, is discussed below.

A section of the programme spoke about Sayid Mawdudi who was described as ‘the ideologue and founder of a party that ‘wants Pakistan to become an Islamic state governed by sharia holy law. The programme presenter went on to say and quote: ‘In Mawdudi’s ideal Islamic state, private and public life would be inseparable. In this respect it would bear “a kind of resemblance to the fascist and communist states”’

The MCB did not like the association with the fascism and communism. After an accusatory exchange of letters with the BBC the MCB reached the conclusion:

“The BBC’s response demonstrated that Mawdudi’s words had been quoted accurately, but only in a limited and strictly literal sense. However, the words ‘fascism’ and ‘communism’ carry negative connotations for most people in Britain. The effect of using a very brief quotation was, therefore, to highlight references to these two political systems and to exaggerate the parallels with Islam, thereby transferring to Islam the negativity that fascism and communism connote.”

So after all the fuss the MCB agree there is a parallel complaining only that it carried “negative connotations”. The original and accurate quote also contained the words “a kind of” so the presenter was fair to the original author’s comparison.

3.0 Web links to over 2500 press news stories, analysis and comment

The great advantage of the LibertyPhile website is that you can read news stories and judge their significance and credibility for yourself.

It provides weekly collections of extracts and web links to news stories, analysis and comment about Islam and Muslims in the British and English language media especially the press and the web.

Items are categorised by issue and topic.

Attitudes (of non-Muslims and Muslims, based on professional surveys and polls); Beliefs & Practices; Education & Knowledge; Freedom of Speech; Getting Along Together (or Not); Integration or Multiculturalism; Islam & Europe; Organisations & Politics; Islamic Reform & Moderation; Sharia; Women & Islam.

There are, at this time, more than 2500 extracts and links gathered over the last two years.

Unlike the above studies LibertyPhile deliberately excludes terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. These are all issues of great concern but they are covered extensively elsewhere and sometimes crowd out the important issues listed above.

Sources include: Guardian, BBC, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Reuters, AP, AFP, Reuters – FaithWorld, Standpoint, New Statesman, RNW (Dutch Radio News), Spielgel Online, regional papers such as Manchester Evening News, swissinfo, The Australian, Wall Street Journal, Sydney Morning Herald, The Boston Globe, and many more, and many leading news and political blogs.

4.0 Conclusion and the right questions

It is undoubtedly true that by far the greater part of the news and comment about Islam and Muslims in the British press and other media reflects badly on Islam and Muslims.

The two studies described above simply confirm what people know.

The studies also complain that stories are unfair and give a few examples but neither attempts to address the fact that a proportion, the great majority, possibly nearly all, of these news stories and comments, are an accurate reflection of reality.

And, there is no evidence to suggest that large numbers of neutral or favourable stories are being ignored.

The simple truth is that Muslims inspired by their faith do and say a great number of things from the trivial to the very important that annoy, puzzle or repulse non-Muslims.

The problem has little to do with the media and a lot to do with Muslims.