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Review of  (Mis)Representing Islam

Reviewer: Linnea Micciulla
Book Title: (Mis)Representing Islam
Book Author: John E. Richardson
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Book Announcement: 15.1973

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Date: Wed, 30 Jun 2004 23:46:14 -0400
From: Linnea Micciulla <>
Subject: (Mis)Representing Islam

AUTHOR: Richardson, John E.
TITLE: (Mis)Representing Islam
SUBTITLE: The racism and rhetoric of British broadsheet newspapers
SERIES: Discourse approaches to politics, society and culture
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

Linnea Micciulla, Boston University

The author's stated purpose is to study ''the discursive representation of Islam and Muslims in British broadsheet newspapers, analysing the ways in which they reproduce anti-Muslim racism'' (p. xvi). The introduction presents racism as a discursive phenomenon, in which a ''normalized''
racist paradigm is produced and reproduced. Normalization of racism against a particular group results when racist stereotypes are accepted as normal by the general public, and are therefore generally not recognized to be racist. The book performs an in-depth analysis not only of the
representation of Muslims in British elite newspapers, but also of the social repercussions of this racist discourse. The corpus consists of reports from October 1997 to January 1998 from the following British newspapers: the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph,
the Times, the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Times.

Chapter 1 provides background to the study of Orientalism, drawing on the work of Edward Said among others. Richardson illustrates the use of topoi such as ''sex, violence, the cunning of Muslims and the irrationality of
Islam'' (p. 14) as stereotypical themes used to depict Muslims, and shows how they have been applied conflictingly over time, as ''Western'' values change. Muslims are represented at certain times as being ''morally lax'' and at other times as ''too repressive'' but they are always represented in opposition to current Western thinking. Despite contradictory stereotypes, they are often represented as a monolithic group, which has not changed
over the centuries, with the implication that they are incapable of change.

This type of representation is labeled ''closed'' by the Runnymede Trust (1997), whose report on 'Islamophobia' provides a categorical framework that Richardson employs throughout the book. Other examples of closed views identified by the Runnymede Trust include those in which
Islam is seen as: separate from the West, inferior to the West, violent, and manipulative. In these closed views, criticisms of the West from Islamic sources are automatically rejected, and discrimination and hostility towards Muslims is accepted as natural. In contrast, open views of Islam present Islam as diverse, interacting with other faiths, worthy of respect and partnership, and sincere. In open views, criticism of the West from Islamic
sources is considered, and discrimination and hostility toward Muslims is not accepted as natural and inevitable. Richardson makes a connection between the overwhelmingly closed reporting of Muslims and the socio-economic prejudice experienced by British Muslims.

Chapter 2 covers two major areas that contribute to anti- Muslim representations: on the macro level, the functioning of the media as a commodity, and on the micro level, the linguistic choices used by news writers. Richardson examines the institutional background of race and British press, beginning with an analysis of the news as a product
which must be sold to elite consumers in order to satisfy the advertisers and make a profit. This cycle tends to exclude non-whites from participation in the media discourse world. Even those few non-white journalists who are employed by elite British newspapers are expected to
report on ''racial issues'' of interest to the white power structure, in a style that is marketable to the elite consumer. Since only issues of interest to the majority are selected as being newsworthy, the elite majority's representation of minorities is reproduced and reinforced.

The second half of the chapter provides a study of the impact of linguistic choice in reporting, focusing on selected lexical and syntactic choices. Lexically, minorities are represented in predictable ways, through
consistent repetition of prejudicial stereotypes. These stereotypes come to form an intertextual frame, through which a bias is created toward racist interpretations. Given a choice between a positive and negative expression
(such as debate vs. clash, p. 55,) the negative term is almost always preferred for reporting on Muslims and other minorities. Likewise, syntactic phenomena, such as expression of agency, almost always reflect a negative bias towards minorities.

Chapters 3 and 4 explore the negative representation of Muslims and the positive representation of Westerners, respectively, placing them on the opposite sides of van Dijk's (1998) ideological square. The ideological space is created through the representation of Muslims as separate
from ''us,'' combined with the use of negative referential strategies which draw on stereotypes of Muslims as backwards and barbaric. Richardson analyzes a number of news articles, including some which purport to present a ''positive'' image of ''some'' Muslims, by presenting them as
''more Western'' than their more backwards counterparts, ironically reinforcing the negative stereotypes as the presupposed norm. The four topoi cited by the author as being the most prevalent represent Muslims: as a military threat, as terrorists/extremists, as a threat to democracy,
and as a sexist/social threat. Analysis of various instances of these topoi show that they are linked to Islam in the articles analysed through fallacious arguments and unsupported presuppositions.

The negative representation of Muslims is emphasized by a marked contrast with the positive representation of the West as a civilizing influence. Islam and the West are presented as incompatible forces, suggesting that Islam cannot be conceived of as potentially modern or democratic.Analysing a number of broadsheet news reports on Palestine
and Israel, Richardson notes that the reports almost always position Israel as ''we'' and Palestinians and Arabs as ''they,'' consistently referring to occupied Arab lands in terms that showed acceptance of Israeli actions. He
contrasts the British press with examples from the Israeli press, such as Haaretz and Yediot Aharanot, where controversial Israeli Army tactics are openly discussed. Although this information is easily accessible to British
broadsheet news, these tactics are not reported in British papers. Richardson asserts that, ''the ability of the Israeli Army, and later the Israeli government and Judiciary, to deny the [Jenin] massacre ~E was in no small
part attributable to the absence of commentary and contextualisation from 'inside' sources'' (p. 104).

Richardson's study of the reporting of British Muslims in Chapter 5 begins by illustrating how the ''us vs. them'' lines are drawn to exclude British Muslims from ''the British'' as a whole. He analyses a number of strategies,
such as the use of foreign sources to make truth claims about Britain's superiority. An examination of stories covering Muslim concerns reveals that attested instances of anti-Muslim discrimination are not considered newsworthy, and any coverage of genuine Muslim concerns is presented in
a frame of fanaticism, violence and fear-mongering. Reporting of the Runnymede Trust findings, for example, focused on the increase in British Muslim population and the increase in the number of mosques in Britain, changing the focus towards the ''threat'' posed by these statistics
rather than the discrimination exposed in the report, and even running an article entitled, ''In defense of Islamophobia'' (Independent, 10/23/1997). Although this article provoked a series of responses containing ''open''
representations, Richardson suggests that the constant need to argue against the perception of their faith or their people as a threat can be demoralizing to British Muslims. An extreme example of overlexicalization in anti-Muslim reporting came after the 1997 murder of 60 tourists at
Luxor. Richardson shows how subsequent reporting, which tied international terrorism to the suspicion of Muslim terrorists harbored by Britain, created a lexical equivalence so that '''Islamic terrorists' are 'Islamic
militants' are 'Islamic radical exiles' are 'Islamic asylum seekers'''(p. 133). Richardson ends the chapter by reviewing some ''positive'' stories that appear during this time period, which depart from the normalized
representation of Islam vs. the West.

The reporting of Iraq covered in Chapter 6 illustrates the systematic limitation of options presented during wartime news coverage. Journalists limit the space of the discussion by not entertaining any non-war options; ''a
discourse dominated by propaganda will consequently only allow for two positions: for and against'' (p. 156). Richardson lays out the ''discursive strategy'' created through a set pattern of assertions and presumptions. He
indicates elements which were not reported, as well as those that were only selectively reported, such as UN decisions that agreed with Britain's perspective. Richardson focuses on the lexical and syntactic structures
employed by press writers to reinforce the ideological square identified in previous chapters. The ''other'' is represented simply as ''Iraq'' or ''Saddam'' or the ''Iraqi dictator'' while ''we'' are represented by a large number of
collective representations (''America'', ''Washington and its allies'') and by a litany of individuals with their full titles almost always given. Aggression against Iraq is mitigated through syntactic removal of agency, often
through passivization or nominalization of the action. Metaphorical expressions are used to present Iraq as subordinate, thus legitimizing its punishment at the hands of the parent or authority figure, the West. Western military action is often backgrounded, while Iraqi action
is foregrounded. Lexically, the West ''warns'' and Iraq ''threatens.'' Richardson brings the various presuppositions necessary to comprehend the British reporting on Iraq to light for critical examination.

Chapter 7, ''Conviction, truth, blame and a shifting agenda: the reporting of Algeria'', examines not just the effect of anti-Muslim news stories on society, but also the role of external factors in shaping how events are represented in the press. Richardson points out that the reporting of
Algeria during the time period studied was dominated by stories of violence, with the blame for the violence shifting between the Algerian government and groups labeled as ''Muslim terrorists.'' The blame shifted according to the sources used during the period reported. Prior to
investigative reporting conducted in Algeria, the blame is placed on Muslims. But during periods of time when the British press had journalists in Algeria, the journalists saw direct evidence of the Algerian junta's agency in the massacre of Algerian civilians, and identified them in
their reports as the aggressors. One journalist, after spending time in Algeria predicted, ''And with documentary evidence that thousands - some say as many as 12,000 men and women - have been 'disappeared' by a government that claims to be fighting 'international terrorism', Algeria's
military-backed government will find it hard ever again to win sympathy in the West'' (p. 206). However, in subsequent months most of the British press returned to its reliance on government-controlled Algerian press as their source, and therefore shifted the blame back away from the
government. The Financial Times did not follow the shifting pattern, instead reporting items such as the call for an investigation of the role of the government in the massacres, and the importance of Algeria to international
oil interests. Richardson concludes, ''Faced with massacres in a Muslim country; given the 'choice' between apportioning blame for such crimes to 'Muslims' or a military backed government... broadsheet newspapers found the racist stereotypes and misinformation provided by the Algerian junta were much more convenient to print than the messy and uncomfortable reality: they did not know what the truth was.'' (p. 225)

This book should be of great interest to those who are well-versed in Critical Discourse Analysis, as well as to those who are looking for an introduction to its theory and practice. It draws on a number of critical theories, and explains them with enough detail to be readily understood
to those who are new to the field.

It is also an excellent model for Critical Discourse Analysis. Examining both linguistic and social factors, Richardson combines qualitative and quantitative analyses to bring to the foreground the underlying ideological
biases that run throughout the corpus studied. This work is remarkable for its depth of analysis, and the extensive research conducted provides the basis for scrutiny not only of what is reported and how it is reported, but also what is consistently left out. The topic is one that has received scant attention up until now in the linguistic community, as the area of anti-Muslim discrimination and its role in newspaper reporting has been largely neglected. By reporting on both broad trends and case studies, and by
providing evidence for both the effects of the elite press on a minority community and the effects of social situations on the printed news, Richardson makes a strong case for the interaction between language and social power. The context in which stereotypical frames are produced and
reproduced intertextually is made clear, as the prejudicial presuppositions required to understand the news are made explicit.

The argumentation is clearly and logically thought out; however, the presentation of the data in the various charts and graphs is often confusing. The abbreviations used in data displays are sometimes ill defined. In particular, columns showing percentages do not always describe clearly what the numbers represent.

''(Mis)Representing Islam'' is a timely and much-needed publication in today's world, and has the potential to provide great insight not only to linguists but also to those who produce and those who consume broadsheet news.

Dijk, Teun van. 1998. Ideology, A Multidisciplinary Approach. London et al.: Sage.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Books.

Said, Edward W. 1997. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We Should see the Rest of the World. London: Vintage.
Linnea Micciulla is currently a doctoral candidate in
Applied Linguistics at Boston University. Her current
research interests include pragmatics and discourse