Opinion

Anti-Muslim narrative "systemic" in Australian media


Australian media organisations across the spectrum have contributed to anti-Muslim sentiment that led to the Christchurch terror attacks, writes Australian journalism lecturer Dr Nasya Bahfen, who is a practising Muslim of Indonesian heritage.

Despite not personally knowing anyone who was gunned down at Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, I did not sleep that Friday night.

I know I am not the only one who spent those hours restless, sad, and furious, praying for the victims and their families, and wondering “what if".

What if my husband, father, or brother went to Jumu'ah (the Friday prayers that are compulsory for Muslim men and optional for Muslim women) and didn’t come home?

It was a night of anger and grief and prayers.

There was, however, no surprise.

The terrorist attack on several New Zealand mosques was entirely predictable. It goes without saying I do not feel any pleasure from saying this - just more rage.

It is hard to delineate my responses to Christchurch into personal and professional reactions but I’ll try.

Professionally, I have stopped counting how many times researchers – myself included – have publicly spoken or written about the exaggerated focus on Islamic extremists, and the under-estimated danger stemming from far-right and white supremacist groups.

The main suspected terrorist is from Australia - where the media and politicians enabled, facilitated, and normalised anti-Muslim hate for years, but now express shock that something like the Christchurch attack took place.

Global outrage rightly greeted Fraser Anning’s despicable statements following the attack – just as national outrage greeted Sky News Australia’s extending of invitations to go on air to known Nazi supporter Blair Cottrell. (Sky News New Zealand, on the other hand, removed Sky News Australia from air until it stopped broadcasting the livestream of the Christchurch attack).

But Fraser Anning and Sky News Australia are merely the most obvious symptoms of a burgeoning narrative of anti-Muslim hatred among politicians and the media.

That narrative is systemic in the media and was contributed to by journalists across the spectrum.

Even if a journalist didn’t work for News Ltd, she or he could amplify the voices of division – as the team at Four Corners, a programme on public broadcaster the ABC, did when they interviewed Steve Bannon.

Even if a journalist did not explicitly attack Muslims or Islam, she or he was a willing actor in a latent process of normalising hate under, for example, the guise of free speech, or the “need” to criticise and question Islam, or to silence practising Muslims (usually Muslim women) and speak on their behalf.

That narrative of hate and division was built on year after year, leading up to the Christchurch attacks and giving a green light to the gunmen who took the lives of at least 49 innocent New Zealanders in an act of terror that simply did not exist in a vacuum.

The importance of accurate media reporting and issues of representation can’t be over-emphasised, and as a journalism educator as well as a practising Muslim it is absolutely my right to condemn the hypocritical hand-wringing, and crocodile tears we are seeing from sections of the media and government.

So we move on to the personal.

Last year, as a guest of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, I visited the Asia Media Centre and delivered a keynote speech at the Journalism Educators Association of New Zealand’s annual conference.

My JEANZ speech was about diversity, and a lack of representation of Australia’s diversity in the media - an issue I have researched for years, along with other academics from media and other disciplines.

Nasya Bahfen

Dr Nasya Bahfen speaking in New Zealand, 2018

This issue is important to me personally as well as professionally, because the way in which Muslims and Islam are represented is not merely an abstract concept.

Representation issues combined with systemic narratives of hate have consequences – as the Christchurch attack tragically and horrifically underscores.

Overwhelmingly, the focus on one type of extremist is to our detriment, by pretending the threat posed by another is non-existent.

The firebombing of a mosque in Perth, Australia, in 2016 and the mosques attacked annually in the United States emphasise how the far-right and white supremacist threat is routinely dismissed or ignored by authorities.

Muslim groups have to put together tool-kits on coping with community trauma, teaching members of their communities how to explain the hatred directed towards them to their children.

That these tool-kits exist illustrate how far seemingly successful multicultural societies like Australia have to go.

 - Asia Media Centre