A Lack of Insight
Let’s play a word association game. What images come to
mind when you hear the word ‘Islamic’? What about the term ‘Sharia’?
Does it conjure up images of brutality and send a shiver down your spine?
Hardly surprising, considering the persistent and negative
portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media.
Whilst the Anti-Muslim rhetoric has quietened down a little
following the post September 11 hysteria, western media still seems
mesmerised by Islam and Muslims. Whether it’s a tabloid TV show
trying to convince us that Muslims are on an agenda to recruit and convert every
Tom, Dick or Harry or an unimaginatively named documentary series trying to go
‘Behind/Beneath’ or to ‘Uncover the Veil’, the media attention is just
as relentless as it is disproportionate.
Given that Muslims make up only 2.2% of Australia’s total
population, the percentage of media attention is certainly not relative to our
size in the general population. Given this climate is it so unreasonable that we, as a
Muslim community, refuse to participate in some media interviews, where it is
clearly not in our community’s best interests to do so?
In April this year, the producers of the SBS current
affairs program Insight contacted various members of the Muslim community to
seek their input and participation in an upcoming program on plural
relationships and polygamy. This sparked an internal discussion in some circles,
where the merits of appearing on Insight were debated.
After a few emails were sent back and forth, and after some
debate on social media forums, a number of community leaders, advocates and
organisations agreed that they would draft a collective statement to Insight’s
producers. The statement would be a unified response, outlining our concerns
about the direction Insight was taking from an editorial point of view. This was
particularly worrying following on from the sensationalist depiction of
Muslims in the infamous ‘Ban the Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs aired in 2010 which apparently enjoyed
significantly higher than average ratings.
In our statement, we questioned the newsworthiness of
Insight’s focus on polygamy and ultimately sought clarification from the
producers on a number of points. We then invited the producers to engage with
us, as representatives of various Muslim community organisations, to discuss our
concerns and seek our feedback.
The producers responded promptly to our request and as a
result, a healthy and protracted discussion took place between Shakira Hussain
and myself (representing the signatories to the original statement) and
Insight’s producers, including Insight's Executive Producer.
We raised a number of issues, including the fact that
previous Insight programs, (particularly those which focused on the burqa, niqab
and Islamophobia) did not do these topics any real justice. Far from addressing
the issues, Muslims were effectively put on trial and forced to address
criticisms levelled at them. Such criticisms were often raised by right-wing
commentators and played on the fear of Muslims as the ‘other’.
What was also problematic with these shows was the manner
in which Insight’s producers carefully selected Muslim guests. It was clear
that the choices were made to produce ‘sexy TV’ and to manufacture on-air
confrontation, rather than having an informed discussion on the issues. Whilst
we welcomed the idea of showing the diversity of Muslim views, we thought the
approach taken by SBS would only engender more tensions towards our community.
In the end, the result was not a further understanding of Islamic principles or
the promotion of Muslim diversity, but rather, further negative perceptions and
alienation of Muslims.
In light of the manner in which Muslims had been portrayed
on previous programs, we were of the view that Insight’s recent focus on
polygamy didn’t seem to have any real underlying rationale that served the
public interest. We couldn’t help but feel that it was an attempt to
sensationalise, and ultimately manufacture, a controversy in a bid to increase
ratings rather than add anything constructive to the public discourse.
We raised our concerns, and in turn listened to SBS clarify
their position but, in the end, we remained unconvinced on the merits of
appearing on the show. We then issued a second statement to Insight reiterating
our arguments and ultimately highlighting our refusal to participate in such a
program. On both occasions, extensive community consultations took place and
approval was sought from all twenty-two signatories.
I recall receiving an email from one of our supporters,
congratulating us on our collective efforts. What took me by surprise was the
‘If we step back and appreciate what's just happened,
this is perhaps one of the first times we've been able to coordinate and act as
one so quickly, and have great impact on an issue of concern and complexity.’
Finally it dawned on me then. ‘We’ had achieved what
once seemed unachievable. We’d coordinated a unified media response; we’d
engaged far and wide, crossing racial, ethnic, community and sectarian lines. We
were unified in
theory and in practice—believe me, this was no small
feat! In hindsight it was by no means a perfect campaign; I would have liked to
involve many others, but given the circumstances, it was a stepping-stone to
bigger and better media engagement projects.
Being sought for media interviews purely based on one’s
religious background defines the Muslim participant purely on their 'faith',
devoid of any other capacity and skill set, a tendency that is symptomatic of
tabloid media tactics.
Why doesn’t the media quit with its obsession of having
Muslim-related content televised
under the guise of understanding and/or demystifying issues which are clearly
not newsworthy, but only serve to boost their ratings.
We are trying desperately as a community to influence how
we are portrayed in mainstream media. The only way we can make this a successful
campaign and have commercial TV networks take our concerns seriously is to show
that we stand together as one, that we are not a ‘push over’, and that
we’re united in our efforts to ensure that Muslims get a fairer hearing in the
PETITIONS - Edited extracts
7 May 2012
Statement on behalf of the Signatories from the Islamic
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer, SBS Insight
We understand that you have contacted various individuals
community organisations within the Muslim community about participating or assisting with your research for an
upcoming Insight program regarding polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.
A number of the individuals and community organisations
that you have contacted have come together to discuss this upcoming
Insight program, in light of previous Insight programs involving Muslims in
For all of the reasons detailed below, the signatories of
this letter wish to inform you that not only do we wish not to take
part in your upcoming program on polygamy and plural
marriages/relationships but that we are concerned about the direction that Insight is
taking from an editorial point of view and the adverse implications
this has for the Muslim community in Australia.
We are struggling to understand why Insight has shifted its
attention to the issue of polygamy. In the scheme of things, this
topic is not, by any stretch of the imagination, deemed an important
topic that requires rigorous discussion and debate worth national
public attention at present.
As far as we are concerned, polygamy or plural
relationships are hardly practiced within the Muslim community in Australia.
We note that recently Insight focused on the issue of
'Forced Marriages' interviewing amongst other members from various communities, a young Muslim woman. Arguably this show may
have been justified because at a Federal level the Australian
government was looking to introduce legislation on the issue. Insight’s
focus on polygamy however, doesn’t appear to have any real underlying
rationale which serves the public interest.
We cannot help but feel that this is an attempt by Insight
to sensationalise what seems a non-issue in a bid to increase ratings, rather than
add anything constructive to the public discourse.
Previous Insight Programs
Whilst we can appreciate that our stance may come as a
surprise and perhaps be viewed as a drastic move to Insight’s
producers, we remind you that our sentiments and feelings regarding Insight and
its depiction of Muslims have been seriously concerning for a
… Insight’s programs … have focused on Muslims in
Australia and as you may have noticed already, some Muslim community
organisations have either shown reluctance to actively participate in Insight’s programs
or have treaded with great caution when agreeing to participate.
Previous Insight programs, including those which focused on
the burqa and niqab and on Islamophobia have not done either of these
topics any real justice. Instead, Insight’s producers have carefully
selected guests from the Muslim community that they can pitch
against one another in an attempt to show a diversity of opinions.
While we welcome representations that acknowledge the diversity of
opinion among Muslims, Insight’s producers have manipulated this
diversity to create an environment that produces on-air conflict among
Muslim guests. The end result is not audience appreciation of
Muslim diversity, but rather further misunderstanding, negative
perceptions and alienation of Muslim communities in Australia.
Against that background, Insight’s invitation to members
of the Muslim community to participate in a program about polygamy is
therefore received with much reluctance. The topic which Insight has
chosen to focus on has served to strengthen our view that the
producers of Insight are not strictly adhering to the objectives that
SBS as a multicultural broadcaster prides itself on - promoting
social cohesion and harmony and seeking to broaden cultural understanding.
Impact on the Muslim Community and Social Cohesion
We feel that Insight's focus on the Muslim community is disproportionate. Irrespective of
Insight's stated good
intentions, the end result is further alienation of the Muslim
Signatories of this letter firmly believe in engaging with
media, so to take an action like this highlights the seriousness of our
In the long run we recognise that it is not feasible for
Muslim community organisations to have a blanket boycott of Insight. We wish
to develop a more constructive relationship with Insight's
producers and researchers. However, at present and with the current
editorial line adopted by Insight, we have come to the conclusion
that it is not constructive for the signatories of this letter to take
part in your
upcoming program on polygamy and plural
We are happy to meet with representatives from SBS and
discuss the issues outlined in this letter in further detail …
Statement on behalf of the below Signatories from the
7 May 2012
Mariam Veiszadeh, Australian Islamic Voice
United Muslim Women’s Association
Samier Dandan, Lebanese Muslim Association
Tasneem Chopra, Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human
Imam Haisam Farache, Minister of Religion
Mehmet Saral, Affinity Intercultural Foundation
Sherene Hassan, Islamic Council of Victoria
Mehmet Ozalp, ISRA Australia
Hameed Attai, Shias in Australia
Shakira Hussein, National Centre of Excellence for Islamic
Studies,University of Melbourne
Hany Amer, Islamic Egyptian Society of NSW
Kuranda Seyit, FAIR
Hanan Dover, Mission of Hope
Sara Saleh, Australian Youth Forum Chair 2012
Mal Mac Rae, Islamophobia Watch Group
Maria Bhatti, Lawyer & Community Advocate
Nora Amath, Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of
Lisa Worthington, Academic UWS
Silma Ihram, Australian Muslim Women's Association
Khaled Sukkarieh, Islamic Council of NSW
Malikeh Michels, Local Government Councillor
Dr Louay Abdulbaki, Hikmah Institute
Siddiq Buckley, Australian Islamic Mission
17 May 2012
Producer, SBS Insight
Attention: Meggie Palmer, Producer and Angus Llewellyn,
Following on from our Statement dated 7 May 2012 and the
subsequent meeting between our representatives… we would like to
clarify our position with respect to the upcoming Insight program regarding
polygamy and plural marriages/relationships.
We would like to begin by extending our deepest gratitude
and appreciation to Meggie and Angus for making time to listen
to our concerns and engage in an open dialogue. We were very
pleased with the outcome of the meeting and felt that it was a mutually
beneficial and constructive discussion.
We have discussed the issues raised in the meeting with the
rest of the signatories and in response we would like to clarify
and reiterate our position.
Participation in Upcoming Program on Polygamy
We wish to reiterate that polygamy is not widely practised
amongst Muslims and in our view, not deemed an important topic that
requires meticulous discussion and debate worth national public
attention at present. The technical aspects of polygamy are complicated
and are not able to be properly explained in sound bytes. A poor or inadequate
explanation of such principles leads to confusion and ultimately
misrepresentation… This in turn will lead to mistrust and increasing levels of
Islamophobia being displayed in the Australian community.
Our participation in the upcoming Insight program would
inadvertently and incorrectly imply that polygamy is high on our list of
priorities and practices when it is not ….
Against that background we would like to exercise our right
not to participate and provide an opinion on this topic as we do
not feel that it is in the interests of our community to do so.
Whilst we appreciate that Insight is designed to be an
ideas forum where debate is encouraged, we sincerely hope that the
upcoming program does not disintegrate into a visual spectacle of
conflict and turn into a debacle as was the result when the ‘Ban the
Burqa’ and ‘Fear of Islam’ programs were aired as this would lead
to further polarisation and ultimately alienation of the Muslim
Participation in Future Insight Programs
… our position with respect to the upcoming show does not
imply a blanket boycott against all future Insight programs and was not
intended to create an impression that Insight has any ill intentions or
has an anti-Islamic agenda. We understand that Insight’s
producers are exercising their best endeavours to remain true to the SBS
Charter and promote social cohesion and community harmony by providing
a platform for Australians of all backgrounds to voice their opinions.
We believe that the best way to engage the Muslim community
in the future is to extend an invitation to them to participate in
an individual capacity as Australian citizens discussing
topics that impact all Australians rather than be asked to participate
solely because they are Muslim and being asked to comment on
Islamic principles and practices as community leaders.
Whilst we wouldn’t be participating in the upcoming
program about polygamy, we would carefully consider participating in
programs which better served the interests of our
17 May 2012
Signed: [Twenty-two signatories as before]