Journalism about Muslims in Britain is not easy. One religiously defined population has been thrust into the media spotlight far out of proportion to its presence in society. And the news – like much of the news – is often bad. (As researchers from Lancaster and Edge Hill universities found, though that argument goes some distance, news about Muslims is ‘more bad’ than bad news in general.)
So what do you write about? Focus on the negatives, such as terrorism or the place of women in the home and the social group, and people accuse you of Islamophobia. Focus on the positives (“See this group raising money for the local foodbank!” “Meet this very ordinary person doing very ordinary things!”) and people accuse you of whitewashing. Or, worse, writing boring copy. Journalists often fall back on the defence that, if they’re upsetting both sides, they must be getting it about right. This is insufficient – a hollow defence, right from the supposition that there are two sides and that they occupy a middle space between them.
When we (academics) do social research on Muslims, we try to start from a naïve position. What is the phenomenon we want to study, and how do the people involved define it? What do they say about themselves? We learn about the phenomenon in the first place – it could be education, let’s say. We read what’s been written already. Then we find who’s involved and decide who we need to hear from. That could be students, parents, teachers, administrators, or policy makers. We ask them open questions that are informed by what we already know, and we then sort their answers into categories. How do their responses fit with what we already know? How do they change it or extend it? What patterns do we see, and how do we make sense of it? Here, we make the move from naïveté to knowledge.
This is the same general set of tasks that journalists do. Often, they do it over a much tighter time schedule, and they do it with, typically, far less space than we have. Most importantly, they don’t have the luxury of specialisation, meaning they can’t make solid judgements about the rightness or wrongness of what they hear or how it fits in wider patterns. They have specific methods of verification in place to ensure what they publish is, to the best of their abilities, accurate. And if it isn’t, or if they learn more things that change the story, there’s always tomorrow. New headline, new focus, advance the story. That is the game.
All of that is a preamble to my introducing a story from Wales Online, which is related to three newspapers: Western Mail, South Wales Echo, and Wales on Sunday. The journalist, Jessica Walford, had a longer time than usual to put this profile together. And though she is writing as a journalist, answerable to her editors and aiming to satisfy a general readership, she recognised that a portrait of Muslims in Wales is a complex thing. We’re pleased that Walford consulted with the Islam-UK Centre director Prof. Sophie Gilliat-Ray, which gives the piece a broader scope. I think it shows in a long-read that strives for nuance and range, that uses details and stories to illuminate bigger issues. We’re also pleased to see friends of the centre featured, such as our graduate MA Jameel Scholar Amanda Morris and our new appointee to the Management Board, Ali Abdi. Though we are the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, we can’t and shouldn’t shrug off our precise physical location, so Wales is “our patch”. We’re glad to help inform the picture of Muslims in Wales not just for our fellow academics but for the broader public as well.
We found a community that is at once thriving and under-threat, both settled and unsure of its place, growing but vulnerable, integral to Welsh life but poorly understood and isolated.
We found an older generation worried about the conflict between rival western and conservative Islamic influences on their children, which some fear is changing the way some young Muslim men treat women and their families and leading a few into the hands of extremists.
There are no answers, only more questions. But it does go some way to explaining, through the words of others, what it’s like to be a Muslim in Wales today.
Do take a look at Walford’s story.
Dr Michael Munnik is Lecturer for Social Science Theories and Methods with Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion and the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. His research concerns the production of news about Muslims in Britain and the participation of Muslims in the news media. Dr Munnik is the Communications and Publications Officer for the Sociology of Religion Study Group for the British Sociological Association.