Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation After 9/11

June 23, 2011

Shamshad Khan, in her poem Oppressed Coverage, writes "whatever the news/you restate your views with such ease/always finishing with a call to prayer/Allahu Akbar/any excuse to show us on our knees". These impassioned lines are enhanced when read alongside Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin's ground-breaking book Framing Muslims.

Inspired by Edward Said's 1981 work Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, the authors argue that Muslims are usually discussed as though they constitute a recognisable, monolithic community, but that these popular post-9/11 representations are part fiction, part ideology, and only occasionally descriptive or evaluative. Drawing on their diverse backgrounds in English and Urdu literary and cultural studies, Morey and Yaqin examine the mediations castigated by Khan in which veils, beards, men at prayer and minarets stand in for Muslims in all their heterogeneity and complexity. Such metonymy, they argue, positions Muslims as authoritarian, patriarchal and irrevocably alien, and an untrustworthy fifth column within Europe and North America.

The authors examine stereotyping through the lens of Maxwell McCombs' analysis of news media "frames", which through selective emphasis restricts audience interpretation. They also continuously, if implicitly, explore the second, coercive connotation of "framing". In what Morey and Yaqin call "the merry-go-round of cultural approval", Muslims now tend to be represented in film, television and the media as a problem community, rather than the "model minority" of earlier generations.

The authors scrutinise eclectic images of Muslims from the US and the UK, including those found in the US television series 24, print-media representations of honour killing, the children's toy nicknamed "Muslim Barbie", and from Britain the spy series Spooks, Kenny Glenaan's 2004 film Yasmin and various BBC Radio 4 programmes centring on Muslims.

Morey and Yaqin acknowledge that their research bias is towards the UK. More precisely, the predominant focus is on London, and other parts of the UK are under-represented. An example of this neglect comes when they mistakenly refer to Beeston, a part of inner-south Leeds where three of the four 7/7 bombers lived, as a "town in West Yorkshire".

The book's strongest sections are found, first, in the discussion of multiculturalism, which they demonstrate is actually split into two discrete entities: "multiculturalism-as-law and multiculturalism as quotidian experience". Second, they argue that stereotypes are found not only in mainstream popular culture, but also proliferate among the self-styled or government-groomed "Muslim leaders" who are taken to represent the whole community.

A key criticism of this illuminating work is that there is occasional confusion in the authors' own framing of the issues. To some extent, their Saidean approach leads them to sacrifice the miniaturist's attention to detail in favour of the wide-ranging ambitions of the muralist. The book's international scope can inspire admiration in its ability to show parallels between the situations in the US and UK, but on occasion it is the source of frustration instead, especially when passing references are made to the Netherlands, France and other European countries.

As they recognise, and again like Said, Morey and Yaqin focus on describing the damage stereotyping does to both mainstream and marginalised communities rather than on identifying many alternative modes of representation (including poetry, novels and independent films such as Four Lions and Halal Harry), which are "writing back" to the othering of Muslims.

Notwithstanding these caveats, Framing Muslims is a book that gives me renewed excitement about academia, especially the emerging field of representations of Muslims. Morey and Yaqin explore complex ideas about important issues in writing that is absorbing and jargon-free.

Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation After 9/11

By Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin

Harvard University Press

256pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780674048522

Published 30 June 2011

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