Stephen Bates was the Guardian’s award-winning religious affairs correspondent for seven years between 2000 and 2007, a period which saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq and the launch of the so-called “war on terror”. He has seen at first hand the problems journalists face in combating anti-Muslim bias.
“9/11 and the emergence of Islam as an apparent motivator presented a steep learning curve for journalists brought up in a Christian environment and largely ignorant about Muslims and their beliefs,” he says. “It was difficult to understand something so terrible being highly motivated by a supposed theological belief.”
One problem in getting to grips with the story was finding people to talk to. “In terms of talking to people who could represent Islam, that proved challenging,” he says, “Christians are used to hierarchical structures in religious organisations and so you know who to go to for an authoritative response. This was not the case with Islam, which as well as having different branches, does not have that sort of hierarchy. It was difficult to find people who could explain the religion and how it came to be used misguidedly as some sort of justification for terrorist attacks.”
One problem highlighted here is the lack of Muslim voices inside journalism itself. According to a 2016 report, although nearly five per cent of the UK population is Muslim, just 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim.
Not surprisingly, hostile media coverage and unchallenged myth-making about Islam made reporting difficult, not least because Muslims themselves at that time were feeling fearful and defensive.
The media were criticising their religion as though it was monolithic,” says Bates. “Most were reluctant to speak because of fear of being demonised and also sometimes how they would be seen by their own communities. Some didn’t see any need to explain their faith to outsiders at all.
“We got a lot of things wrong and it took a long time to understand the religion, but also to find reliable and coherent spokespeople who could and would agree to speak to us. Some of us tried harder than others.”
The situation has improved in recent years, and media are better informed, but Bates has no illusions. “We are only one terrorist outrage away from this happening again,” he says. “The likes of the terrorist attacks in Manchester or Westminster Bridge create an atmosphere that is not conducive to explaining a belief system.”
He says that a decade or so ago Muslim organisations didn’t have spokespeople, though more do now, so it was a steep learning curve for them too.
He urges newsrooms to cultivate contacts by meeting imams. Journalists are used to dealing with press officers, but in order to find people who can speak on Islam, reporters should seek out Muslim communities, beyond spokespeople who are sometimes self-appointed. They have to learn who really speaks for a community and what authority they have to do so.
“Many imams have come to this country to support particular communities, some from developing countries where English is not widely spoken,” he says. “It is important that they are able to explain their faith to us, as well as to their own communities in English.
“Equally, there is a problem for Christianity too. People of my generation who grew up in the UK have a reasonable degree of knowledge about Christianity, it is in our DNA. But that is not necessarily true for the younger generation of journalists.
“After 9/11 we had to explain that there were people who were so vehement about their faith that they were prepared to act in this way. One of the difficulties in trying to set this in context is the new atheism which regards all religion as irrational and weird and so not worthy of explanation. Faith is essential to so many people across the world that it needs to be treated seriously, as well as critically, as a human belief system, otherwise you cannot explain what is happening in the world, let alone its history and much of its culture.”
Views may be changing but cultural attachment to established religion remains strong with blasphemy laws still in operation in many countries of the world. These sometimes contribute to creating an atmosphere of intolerance regarding people of other faiths. It also can be devastating for journalists.
The threats facing journalists writing about religion were dramatically and tragically highlighted when 12 people were killed at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015.
Journalists continue to risk their lives when writing about religious matters with dozens of journalists worldwide the target of calls for their execution or facing the death penalty accused of blasphemy or apostasy. The media rights group Reporters Without Borders quotes a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom showing that 71 countries still had laws against blasphemy. Since then, only Denmark has repealed the legislation and some countries, including Ireland, have reinforced their laws.