The Terrorist That Wasn’t: How Media Stereotypes Islam & Muslims

“Here’s why a hijab-clad girl made me ‘paranoid’ on a train in London – and what it says about harmful stereotypes.”

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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It was an unusually hot Sunday afternoon in London in June of 2017. We were on the tube, going back from the outskirts to our hotel in the centre of the city. Right opposite me sat a young woman clad in a long robe, hijab and backpack. She looked at her watch, closed her eyes and started moving her lips silently.

I wondered whether she was praying. Her eyes remained closed. Mine fixed on her.

Just the previous day, Khurram Bhatt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba had rammed their van into pedestrians and then gone on a stabbing spree in London’s iconic Borough Market. We had plans to go there for dinner that evening, but had ditched it at the last moment. From our hotel rooms next to Embankment, right across the South Bank where the attack had started, we could hear a sudden orchestra of sirens as police cars and ambulances sped down the road.

That terror attack made me extra cautious. There could be more, the police had said on TV, and asked everyone to be vigilant. So, I had every reason to focus on the girl on the train.

‘Tell-Tale Signs’ Of A Terrorist – And The Terror Scare That Wasn’t

The train stopped at a station, the girl opened her eyes, looked right in front of her, as if in a daze, and gave a maniacal smile to herself. She again looked at her watch, murmured something, and closed her eyes.

This was it. She had every ‘tell-tale sign’ of a terrorist, most likely a suicide bomber. She was the only one who was fully covered on that warm day. Most others, like us, were in shorts and t-shirts.  She had a backpack. She was wearing a hijab. She was looking at her watch. She was praying. She was smiling in an otherworldly fashion.

I calculated that she would blow herself up probably at Leicester Square for maximum impact. I indicated to my wife that we needed to get off one station early. She asked me why. I said that we could get an early tea somewhere in Piccadilly Circus. I didn’t want the ‘suicide bomber’ in front of me to suspect that I was on to her. When we got off the train, I urged my wife and kids to move quickly and get off the platform. We could still get maimed or killed, if the girl decided to blow herself up right here.

Even after we made it up to the surface, out of the tube station, I waited for signs of a blast. Perhaps a muffled boom or a localised earthquake. I waited for police cars to whizz past us, their sirens on full blast. Nothing happened. Clearly, the girl with the backpack had decided to blow up some other day.

How The Media ‘Mediates’ Between An Event And The Way We Experience It

What made me so paranoid? Part of it is a character trait of being an inveterate coward. But what made me, almost by reflex, think of that girl in the hijab and backpack as a possible suicide bomber? If she had been dressed in shorts and t-shirt and done exactly the same things – dozed off, looked at her watch, smiled in a dazed fashion at nothing in particular, mumbled something inaudibly – I would have thought of her as an exhausted student who hasn’t slept much, in a hurry to get somewhere on time.

That even a ‘militant’ secularist like me was impulsively driven by a stereotype shows the power of an entire system of representations that is today immanent in every aspect of our social existence. In our world, the media, quite literally, mediates between an event and the way we experience it.

The complexity of what unfolds in the world is represented to us in a series of images on TV.

But it appears to us as immediate and real, as if television has effaced itself and given up the event to our direct experience.

In the words of the Algerian-born Frenchman Jacques Derrida, television is “distinguished by the claim to restore the perception of the thing itself, whereas all other media present themselves as deferred productions.”

Television is ‘live’ and its time is synchronous with life itself. It makes the spectator ‘see’ things and marvel at the immediacy of a truth that is unfolding in another space separated by physical distance. In that sense it is a globalised ‘mediatisation’.

How Our Televisual Experience Becomes ‘Reality’: Impact On Perception Of Islam

And there is nothing that makes one believe more than seeing.

The ‘televisual’ presence, in our drawing rooms, or in the palms of our hands, of real events taking place hundreds of miles away, makes us believe that we are seeing the ‘truth’, such that we say “I have seen it with my own eyes.”

Yet, this truth is curated by newsrooms, which are entirely absent as themselves, and only present in the order of visuals that we see. The entire discourse of news, which is never the work of individuals, determines the prioritisation of this ‘televisual’ information, and also their interconnections.

Yet, to us as viewers, this external ordering of our televisual experience appears as the ‘real’ order of things, an objective hierarchy of what is important and what is not. It is within this televisual reality that ‘Islam’ has been produced for us, across the globe.

We experience Christianity in the process of its performance on TV – as the baptism of an infant, a white wedding, or in the live telecast of the Pope’s appearance on the balcony of the Vatican to bless euphoric crowds below.

In the US, the very act of worship is performed live on TV. Think of all the ‘miracles’ performed on air by televangelists, of masses televised ‘live’ from inside churches.

Islam, on the other hand, is presented to non-Muslims only in the form of the ‘fundamentalist Mullah’, or the ‘terrorist’, or ‘violent demonstrating crowds’. These ‘news’ images that construct the ‘Muslim’ in our subconscious, get reproduced in the world of entertainment as well, in cinema and TV shows. The more unapologetically ‘frank’ these visual narratives are in reproducing the Islam of newspeak – think of Homeland – the more willing we are to suspend our disbelief.

‘Real’ Reason Why YouTube Is Full Of Vloggers Singing Praises Of Pakistan, Iran

When we see a person, without the ‘identifiable markers’ of being Muslim – hijab, skull-cap, long beard, shalwar that falls above the ankles, or even a general middle-eastern look – we wonder at how they “do not look like Muslims at all.”

On the flip side, when we do see someone dressed like the ‘televisual Muslim’, we simultaneously ‘see’ an ‘intolerant religious fundamentalist’ who is opposed to modernity. They appear to us to be ‘terrorist sympathisers’, if not ‘potential terrorists’ themselves.

Muslims themselves are not immune to this televisual representation of them, which informs the global discourse about Islam, and all the ‘isms’ that attach to it. They, too, often feel compelled to express their identity through these markers.

Isolated by the non-Muslim world, they are subconsciously drawn towards the specific forms of Islam that produce a self-identified ‘community’ of the persecuted. This is especially true where Muslims are in a minority and are ‘ghettoised’.

That is why when people have immersive experiences in majority Muslim societies, they come out with experiences that disrupt all their pre-conceived notions.

That is why YouTube is full of food vloggers who have travelled to Pakistan or Iran singing praises of those countries, perhaps because they expected to be treated as aliens and infidels.

The All-Pervasive Iconography Of The Muslim – & ‘Mediatised’ Prejudices

But everywhere else televisual Islam dominates discourse. It stamps its presence in the operations of power, and the way in which the world itself recognises good and bad. So, the beheading of a French teacher in Paris, for allegedly insulting the Prophet, becomes an ‘act of terror’. Secularists and liberals shake their heads, embarrassed that Muslims have put them in this indefensible position. They extend support to Macron’s statement that Islam is a “religion in crisis.”

On the other hand, a knife attack on two women near the Eiffel Tower for being “dirty Arabs” takes two days to even become news.

This attack is termed ‘racist’ and seen as an aberration, while terror and intolerance is seen as intrinsic to the very nature of Islam as a religion.

This all-pervasive iconography of the Muslim, as someone who is always a fundamentalist at heart, and is perpetually on the verge of becoming a terrorist, is what made me suspect that girl on the train on that warm summer day. But I suspect, she herself might well have been worried about someone similarly clad, even though she would have known that it is a mediatised prejudice.

Can We Escape Identity-Production In A Mediatised World?

In fact, this is exactly what I experienced a few days later in London’s Covent Garden. While my family was inside an ice-cream store, I stood to one side looking into my phone. I hadn’t shaved that day and was carrying a backpack. From the corner of my eye, I could sense that someone was watching me.

I looked up to see a man in a black skullcap, sporting a flowing beard, looking at me nervously. He wore a yellow fluorescent jacket which said Covent Garden Security on it. Here was a Muslim security guard worried that I was an ‘Islamist terrorist’ because of my stubble and backpack. We looked each other in the eye. I smiled and nodded. He relaxed visibly and smiled back.

This is how identities get produced in our mediatised world. Who indeed can escape it?

(The author was Senior Managing Editor, NDTV India & NDTV Profit. He now runs the independent YouTube channelDesi Democracy’. He tweets @AunindyoC. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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