Pointing The Finger – by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson

LeftCentral Book Review 

Image©Nevit Dilmen


…It takes the form of an attack on multiculturalism for which Muslims are held responsible and which is a coded word for them. It cuts across political and ideological divides, and is shared alike, albeit in different degrees by conservatives, fascists, liberals, socialists and communists` (Bhikhu Parekh quoted in Pointing The Finger…)

In April 1964 Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) left Detroit for Mecca, in the midst of an acrimonious split with the `Nation Of Islam`. Malcolm at this time was the USA`s foremost bogey-man, the unacceptable face of the civil rights movement. His position caricatured in the 1950s as `the hate that hate produced` – a view fitting the `orientalism` framework described by Edward Said. Whatever the merits of this documentary about the NOI, it does appear clear that Malcolm`s visit to Mecca changed him, his pilgrimage making him aware of the ethnic diversity of Islam. Recording in his diary, `it seems every nation and form of culture on earth is represented here…`. This revelation, as Manning Marble outlines encouraged Malcolm to alter his view on race. Malcolm reflecting at the time that, ‘I began to perceive that `white man`, as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily, primarily it describes attributes and actions`. Thus a metamorphosis resulted from advances in Malcolm`s `religious literacy` combined with his genius `critical literacy` (concepts outlined and explained in Pointing The Finger).

There is a lesson here, especially for those running UK newspapers and media outlets, a professional cohort, whose outlook would be positively altered, if they acquired some critical and religious literacy. For an insight on attitudes read the set of brilliant interviews with British journalists from Muslim backgrounds – (chapter nine) written by the Guardian`s Hugh Muir and Laura Smith. Of course as Pointing The Finger  highlights the heterogeneous make-up of the British Muslim population also includes Secular Muslims, who are active in `Muslims for Secular Democracy`. The search for religious and critical literacy doesn’t require media outlets to dent  their expenses budget by visiting Mecca to discover the diverse nature of Islam; they simply need to purchase a copy of this book, a useful first step on a hoped for metaphorical road to Damascus.

Pointing The Finger is a beautifully balanced analysis; an analytical seam weaves through the text like a golden thread. The book avoids a knee jerk adversarial approach; instead adopting an inquisitorial perspective on a complex and emotive range of issues. Robin Richardson and Julian Petley (as joint editors and contributors), present a book crammed full of evidence, themes and research. Facts and research dominate rather than commentary and opinion. Information is attractively and clearly presented – the various graphs with supplementary overviews leave the reader completely informed. Given the wealth of detail held within the text, it is remarkably easy to read and digest.

Information is presented in a manner which allows the reader to make up their own mind, based on the evidence. While one will learn much from this text, the contributors avoid an overly didactic approach. This book encourages you to think, to weigh arguments up and for readers to come to their own conclusions. This text should be a template for journalists, not just in what is said but how the contributors say it. Take for example the judicious handling of the issues highlighted in chapter five written by Julian Petley, which amongst other things deals with the Panorama broadcast, `A Question of Leadership` and does so in a balanced and even handed manner. Alternatively, one could cite chapter eight written by Claire George which examines the media reaction and subsequent hysterical commentary, to a speech made in February 2008 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. These complex issues are forensically and eloquently examined by the two contributors. The book is journalistic in style but it is journalism of the old school, not the thesis driven journalism that dominates the media today. Pointing The Finger is reminiscent of the prose of Robert Kee at his best.

Newspaper editors and proprietors it seems are a professional body for whom Muslims provide a useful `folk devil`, a panacea offered up to anxious readers (both in the tabloids and broadsheets). As a seemingly beleaguered readership gaze at the UK in a state of flux, a by-product of globalisation and Britain`s declining world position. The ease with which Islam provides a convenient scapegoat is highlighted with reference to Edward Said who has explained that Western society harbours `a deeply embedded set of negative stereotypes that invariably position Islam as antagonistic.` A situation that has only become worse after the terrible events of 9/11 and the London July 7 bombings. Interestingly, the religious affiliations of Timothy McVeigh the Oklahoma bomber resulted in no media commentary or guilt through association for Christians. Islamophbia is clearly deeply rooted in the West, with Said drawing comparisons with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in an article written in the mid 1980s.

In chapter three Justin Lewis, Paul Mason and Kerry Moore look at the presentation of Islam through images, data outlined via a set of easily understood graphs that make for depressing reading. The graph which deals with news hooks (figure 3) compares and contrasts broadsheets and tabloid newspapers. Themes linked to Islam scoring highly on `terrorism`, `religious/cultural issues`, `Muslim extremism`. Islamophobia generates miniscule interest with the broadsheets and barely registers with the tabloids.

In chapter four, Hugh Muir, Julian Petley and Laura Smith examine a raft of case studies, involving news stories that suggest a culture of political correctness is destroying the notion of Britishness. Highlighting stories such as, `Council Chiefs ban Christmas` and the `Banning of piggy banks because they upset Muslims` – just two of the stories analysed. Each scenario is forensically outlined via the prism of `how the story developed` and `what actually happened`. The concept of political correctness is also analysed, with a concluding paragraph on the political consequences these ridiculous tales have, i.e. they provide support to the far right.

In chapter eight Gholam Khiabany and Milly Williamson deal with the issue of the veil which as Reina Lewis points out is `a garment that is pre-Islamic in origin and one that that has been adopted by diverse religions`. There is much to learn from this chapter which includes a thorough analysis of comments from Laura Bush, Cherie Blair, Polly Toynbee and Robert Kilroy-Silk. An article written by Jack Straw is also given prominence. The writers place the overall issue within a colonial framework as `Western colonial powers have long used the idea of the liberation of Muslim women from Muslim men as a justification for imperialist adventures in the Middle East.` However the West displayed little interest when the Soviets left Afghanistan leading to the rise of the Taliban in 1996. Khiabany/Williamson quote Annabelle Sreberny stating that, `Western countries did little while an entire generation of girls and young women were removed from the education system and rendered illiterate and unskilled.`

It is worth concluding with a quote highlighted from Edward Said, `Rather than the manufactured clash of civilisations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow. But for that kind of wider perception we need time and patient and sceptical inquiry, supported by communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.` And as the editors to this text point out `this volume as a whole, it is hoped and intended, is a contribution to the kind of community of interpretations to which Said was referring.` Perhaps we can all say `Amen` or `insha Allah` to that, while the secularist keep their fingers crossed.

Pointing The Finger – Islam and Muslims in the Britsih Media (Oneworld Publications) (2011) edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson.

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