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Islamophobia in the Press Amid COVID-19

Islamophobia in the Press Amid COVID-19

Categories: Latest News

Monday May 18 2020

In recent times, MEND has received numerous reports from concerned citizens regarding the presentation of Muslims in the press amid the COVID-19 crisis. Considering the general media negativity surrounding Muslims, communities are concerned about the potential for unintentional associations between Muslims and COVID-19 to further cement this negativity within the mainstream press.

There have been examples of reporting that are not necessarily Islamophobic, but which demonstrate a lack of understanding of the potential impacts upon Muslim communities For example, concerns have been raised that various news platforms have published what is seen as a disproportionate number of stories regarding the virus featuring images of Muslims wearing the hijab or praying at Mosques during social distancing and lockdown rules. Indeed, MEND has found roughly a dozen articles on mainstream press outlets in the UK that feature images of Muslims while reporting on COVID: 

  • Upon the enforcement of social distancing, the BBC ran a story entitled “Coronavirus: Social distancing enforced globally” and featured an image of two Muslim women in hijabs and face mask sitting in a public space, seemingly ignoring public advice.

  • On March 13, The Guardian ran a story entitled “Coronavirus: Europe shuts schools as markets tumble and sport in crisis.” The headline featured a picture of a group of Muslim men praying in congregation while wearing full body suits. 
  • On the 13th of March, the BBC ran a story/update entitled “Borders shut as Coronavirus cases rise” and showed a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and a face mask walking in public.
  • On the 19th of March, the BBC ran a story which was headlined “Polluting gasses fall rapidly as coronavirus spreads” and featured an image of a Muslim woman in hijab and a face mask crossing a road in New York. 
  • On the 20th of March, the BBC ran a story/update entitled “Coronavirus updates from the UK and around the world” and featured an image of three Muslim men praying together in a mosque.

  • On the 7th of April, the BBC ran a story headlined “Coronavirus pandemic: tracking the global outbreak” and featured an image of two Muslim women with their children on motorbikes. 

  • In April, the BBC ran a headline entitled “Coronavirus cases near 1.5 million worldwide”. The story was accompanied by a picture of a Muslim woman in a hijab. 
  • On the 13th of April, the front page of the BBC news website, with a headline about coronavirus in Spain, was accompanied with an image of a Muslim woman in hijab at what appears to be a ticket machine.
  • On the 15th of April, the BBC website featured a group of Muslim women wearing niqabs to depict a story concerning Trump defunding the World Health Organisation
  • On the 22nd of April, ITV news ran a story which was headlined “Pharmacists fear contracting Covid-19 at work with lack of PPE” and featured an image of two Muslim women in hijabs waiting to be served at the counter of a pharmacy.
  • On the 24th of April, the first day of Ramadan, the front page of the BBC website ran a story entitled “Virus latest from the UK and around the world” and featured an image of a Muslim man praying in a mosque (all mosques in the UK were obviously closed at this time).

However, during this time, there have been thousands of articles written about COVID-19. Therefore, the comparatively small number of articles featuring images of Muslims is in no way a definitive indication of a pattern of Islamophobia. 

Ultimately, while MEND will continue to monitor the situation, a definitive conclusion that can be drawn at this time is the need for journalists and editors to be equipped with religious literacy, in order to fully understand the impacts of such depictions of minority communities.

Religious literacy involves approaching the issues which affect religious minorities with nuanced understandings. This is more than acknowledging theological doctrine and practice, but rather extends to having an appreciation for the social, political, economic, historical and cultural forces that shape the experiences of religious groups. This also entails avoiding ethnocentric determinations as an ‘objective’ and ‘universal’ reality without consultation with those whom the issue directly affects (for example, applying western notions of acceptable dress to Muslim women who choose to wear hijab).

Thus, religious literacy involves an understanding of the socio-political challenges that communities face. Increased understanding of these challenges would allow editors and journalists to report on stories with greater sensitivity and understanding of how their stories may affect these communities.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, online conspiracy theories have been propagated by the far-right attempting attempt to connect COVID-19 to migrant and Muslim communities. Therefore, the concern is that unintentional linking of Muslims to the crisis within the mainstream media may be used to further fuel this far-right rhetoric. Increased religious and cultural understanding within newsrooms would thus help editors to understand the full consequences of their publications.

Read MEND’s submission to the APPG on religious literacy here.

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