Spot the Difference: A Case Study of Media Reporting on Islam 9 December 2016

So recently I’ve been mulling over some classic Edward Said, in particular, Covering Islam. I’m currently trying to write a short guide for journalists who report on Islam and Muslims, and it’s been invaluable in helping trace the historic development of how we view and see Muslims  and Islam today.

Said writes that “’Islam’ defines a relatively small proportion of what actually takes place in the Islamic world”. What he means is that the term “Islam” is selectively deployed by media and politicians  to explain only certain things (violence, terrorism, misogyny) and not other things (charity, nurturing, healthy relationships, electing non-despotic heads of states and so on). This creates an explicit connection between certain behaviours and Islam, and thus by extension, other Muslims.

There are two things a reference to Islam or Muslim does in a story. It identifies and it explains. It is rare to be able to separate these two functions. So while referencing Makkah as “the Muslim holy city” might be purely identifying, in most cases, the terms “Islam” and “Muslim” are used because they also hold some explanatory power. In looking up examples of this, I found two remarkable stories that illustrate the way in which Islam is utilised as an explanatory tool even when journalists are trying to avoid generalising about Muslims.

Here is a story from the Manchester Evening News. The headline is as follows: –

Jailed for 25 years, rapist who stalked two women in a decade of terrifying abuse


The story (from 2014) is about a white man jailed for stalking and raping two women. In the entire article, there is only a single reference to religion: –

“Gibbons horrifically abused the women then quoted passages from The Bible to justify his depraved actions.”

It was shared 44 times. By contrast, here is another Manchester Evening News story. The headline is as follows: –

Rapist who masqueraded as a devout Muslim is jailed for 16 years for sex attacks on schoolgirls


This story from 2016 was shared 2488 times. By contrast, the religion and religiosity of the Muslim individual is a central theme of the article and is mentioned through the story.

Here we have two remarkably similar cases. Two rapists. Both with the same number of victims. Both convicted within two years of each other. Both reported by the same news outlet. But the way in which faith and religion was treated in the stories varied remarkably. In the case of the Christian rapist, his use of the Bible was the single solitary reference to religion. In the case of the Muslim rapist, his religion was a key point of discussion.

The biggest problem with the story is that the author of the Muslim story probably thought he was doing a good job in fairly representing Muslims by referencing him as “masquerading as a devout Muslim”. Unfortunately, the article still used Islam as an explanatory factor. In reality, the first story of the Christian rapist is the better journalistically. The focus is on the victims and the impact the rapist had on their lives.

In the second story, the link between Islam and the rapists behaviour is made to be central the story. This is exactly what Said described when he wrote “my concern, though, is that the mere use of the label “Islam” either to explain or indiscriminately condemn “Islam”, actually ends up becoming a form of attack”.

I do hope the Manchester Evening News changes their story, but I intend to use this story for educational purposes in the futre, and so I’ve archived both here: –

Archive Link: Jailed for 25 years, rapist who stalked two women in a decade of terrifying abuse

Archive Link: Rapist who masqerade as a devout Muslim jailed for 16 years for sex attacks on schoolgirls

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.