Why are Muslim voices always forced to be on the defensive in the mainstream media?

By Nazish Hussain for Twocircles.net

A democratic polity guarantees freedom of expression to its citizens through various means. In the realm of our social life, it gives rise to a public sphere, where all citizens are guaranteed to have access to participate in forming, expressing and publishing their opinion about matters of general interest. A portion of public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which citizens can freely participate. The speech, expression, assertion and representation are contested in our public spheres which include the media. In liberal secular spaces, there is a framework of presentation and representation of Muslim voices/assertion. It is mediated through popular medium of mass communication which produces certain knowledge about Muslim subjects and their sensitivities among larger public. While analysing the recent current, Television platforms and other mainstream online/print media that proliferate larger masses become highly contested public spheres. Setting and framing of discourses through news text and debates dictate the public perception of social and political issues and the knowledge about it.

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This article tries to analyse some of the instances in our present scenario to make an understanding of the extent of Muslim sensitivity in relation with the mainstream framing and acceptability. In a public dialogue on the event of Milad-e-Nabi, AIMIM chief Asadduddin Owaisi was speaking on the issue of ‘Ghar Wapasi’ in which he reacted to the comments and threats issued by RSS over the conversion of Muslims and Christians in India. His speech spanned across the inflammatory speeches by Hindutva forces to fan communal sentiments, the assertion on being Muslim and his perspective on every person is born as a Muslim. His presentation skills are highly rational with the references of data organised in a constitutional framework.

But the mediated version of the event in television platforms gives a different notion. The text and the style of presentation replicate the particular frame of mainstream. (Rajat Sharma and Assaduddin Owaisi, India TV). It revolves around the visibility of Owaisi as a Muslim leader with his body language and dress code, and whatever the logic he raises labelled as ‘Communal’. The speech itself was critiqued as being ‘communal’ in nature. It got termed as sowing divisive sentiments and is equated with the far right fascist forces. The texts in the news were flashed as “being Muslim first”, “inflammatory speech”. The articulation of events through a particular news frame creates a meaning which delimits what is to be said and known and creates a particular knowledge about the subject (i.e Muslim) in public sphere.

The assertiveness of Indian Muslims and propagation of their faith within constitutional framework gets equated with far right forces. Minorities always remain on the fringes of the public sphere. They are witnessing marginalisation, suppression and oppression from the hands of Media elites. In the Indian media, the Muslim face has still not managed to gain much credibility. The matters in which they are allowed to speak are by and large as ‘communal’ ‘terrorism’ ‘fatwa’ issues thus, creating a particular frame for them. The unfair representation of Muslim voices in the mainstream media reinforces and permeates political and cultural stereotypes.

Recently Indian public sphere has been laden with debate on Triple Talaq, which reemerged with the recent controversy involving Shazia Ilmi, a BJP leader who accused Jamia Millia Islamia varsity of not letting her speak on the matter of triple talaq. The event was organised by RSS affiliated group FANS titled ‘Muslim Women Empowerment’, in which the organisers actually wanted to discuss the matters of ‘Triple Talaq’ as an oppressive measure. The same event has witnessed a critique on the mainstream collective conscience on Muslim women. The engagement of media with Muslim women has been seen from the frame of ‘oppressed women’. The assertive voices of Muslim women discrediting the popular notion don’t fit the mainstream frame. The critique of Jamia Millia Islamia student Mariam Hasan- who discredited the ‘oppressive Muslim male’ narrative- doesn’t make it qualified to be discussed in the mainstream discourse.

What we witnessed that the debate on NDTV took place in the context of ‘violence against free speech at Ramjas’, in which the above-mentioned accusation came forward. The debate panel was represented from the left and the right-wing political ideologies, where the representations from the JMI were excluded. The anchor goes on to make clear that the debate is between the left and the right. The strong claims made by Shazia Ilmi against the varsity went unchallenged and thus legitimated. The claims of Shazia were nothing to do with the university, where the RSS group had the sole responsibility of inviting guests and speakers. Television debate as a practice for discourse and its democratic potential is severely challenged. The mainstream media governs the inclusion and exclusion of voices and viewpoints through its panel and debates. The unbalanced representation thus creates binaries and hegemonic discourses and also legitimises it. The Left and right have become faces to represent all voices of the public sphere including Muslims. While particulars are allowed to be formulated from these specific social/political positions thus establishing it as normative. Democratic deliberation is not relieved in the mainstream mass media which constitutes television debates and mainstream media platforms.

In another controversy, what started as a protest on the issue of ‘exclusion’ of students in the All India student leader Meet in Aligarh Muslim University got dragged further after the Facebook post of one of the invitee Shehla Rashid (AISA activist, JNU) surfaced in which she attempted to distinguish what constitutes hate speech and what does not.  A section of AMU students took offence on that followed with a campaign ‘No entry for those who insult our Prophet in AMU’. The matter was discussed with the student union in which it was decided to postpone the event. Immediately after this Shehla too cancelled her visit and stood by her argument that she has not insulted prophet by using those words. Meanwhile, a cabinet member of AMUSU Ghazala Ahmed filed a FIR with the police against Shela for a detestable language used by her.

Members of various student organisations and students from JNU took to social media to show their solidarity with Shehla Rashid while disapproving of the act of AMU students and condemning AMUSU for same. The public opinion gets lopsided with one worldview which has been established as the face of ‘equality’ ‘rights’ and ‘justice’ in the mainstream public sphere. Following this tussle, the idea of Muslim sensitivity came under attack on social media. Suggestions and comments poured in from different sides on the ‘hyper-religious sensitivity’. Narratives and ideas around sensitivity emanate from specific socio-religious positions and shaped by distinct viewpoints. The competing discourses always struggle for authorising their opinion. While analysing the perspectives of the Muslim students, who raised their concerns over the use of questionable remarks on religious figures which was equated in the liberal platform as far right fundamentalism. The sensitivity of a community must be understood through their own epistemological narrations, in which Prophet Muhammad is revered in high esteem and it is equally forbidden to use derogatory terms for personalities/gods of other religion. The pre-occupied liberal spaces of Media and mainstream could not provide a platform for Muslim expressions, where they resorted to the judicial and investigative system of the country. While the constitutional mechanism is a part of discourse development with equal accessibility to everyone (including Muslims), it provides a platform to express their genuine concerns.

Many venues are required for diverse publics to engage in discursive exchange and engagements. The marginalised voices have emerged to contest and assert themselves in shifting public spheres. Muslims are creating alternative spaces for the articulation of their general interest and the common good. A recent Muslim women colloquium in Kerala organised by Girls Islamic Organization (GIO) created such a platform to interrogate the public discourse happening around Muslim women. Demolishing the mainstream narrative around Muslims, they are carving out new spaces on traditional and on-line platforms to register their voice and set an alternative discourse, which may lead to making our public sphere more open and inclusive.

The author is a Post-Graduate in Mass Communication and Journalism.