Does Islam need better PR? Faith, power and the media

Comment by Remona Aly, 7 June 2020

In 1706, the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift said: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” It might have made a great public relations slogan today.

The urgent need for improved perceptions and fluency of religious communities comes as no surprise to me, as a Muslim woman in Britain. The headlines denigrating my own misunderstood faith was an important part of my aim to become a journalist, within a disproportionate landscape where a mere 0.4 per cent of the British journalism industry is Muslim, according to a report by City University.

Authentic representation, as well as the danger of damaging stereotypes, also prompted me to work on media campaigns about Muslims, including perhaps one of the most successful faith-based PR campaigns of the past decade: the Inspired by Muhammad, campaign that launched 10 years ago today. This poster-led initiative by Exploring Islam Foundation centred on the universal principles of the Prophet Muhammad that inspire Muslims everywhere.

Images showcased a homelessness worker, a barrister and an eco-Muslim, highlighting three key areas of social justice, women’s rights and protecting the environment, each with their own tailored tagline such as: “I believe in social justice. So did Muhammad.”

These were placed around London at key underground stations and bus shelters, along with a fleet of black taxis splashed with campaign slogans.

The campaign coincided with the release of a national poll conducted by YouGov, which found that one in two Britons associated Islam with extremism and terrorism, that 69 per cent of people believed Islam encourages the oppression of women, and that only 6 per cent of people associated Islam with justice. It also found that 41 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that Muslims have a positive impact on British society.

We knew this campaign had to be slick, it had to be vibrant, and it had to resonate. Our aim was affirmation rather than condemnation, celebration instead of apologetics, a framing that was proactive rather than reactive. The campaign and the dedicated website received not only national but overwhelming global media coverage, reaching a worldwide audience of more than 30 million in 160 countries, from the US to Europe and Asia. Religion was seen to be shaping media space, in a rarely positive and constructive way.

PR and religion go way back: Jesus, Moses and Muhammad were all exceptional communicators who delivered what were, arguably, their own brands.

Branding expert Professor Jonathan Wilson, who wrote Halal Branding, has advocated the PR aspect of Muhammad, observing: “While he predates terms like personal branding and public relations, the Prophet Muhammad offers great examples on how to do them well.”

Yet, if the media and religion were in a relationship, it would be largely abusive. The Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), which monitors and analyses thousands of articles and broadcast clips daily, finds that media representation of Muslims is predominantly negative. A 2018 report by the centre found that 59 per cent of all media coverage associated Muslims with negative behaviour, and over a third of articles misrepresented or generalised them.  Rizwana Hamid, the director of CfMM, says: “We see conflict paradigms, presenting Muslims as a threat to western civilisation, incompatible with western values, and inherently violent.”

Rizwana Hamid also notes how scaremongering and xenophobia rise in times of crisis. Fears surrounding Covid-19 sparked a spike in antisemitic conspiracy theories, attacks on Chinese people and online Islamophobia. In the UK, images of mosques and women in hijab accompanied articles about the coronavirus, despite there being no mention of Muslims within them. In India, incendiary media reports directly blamed Muslims for bringing and spreading the virus.

PR is powerful and, like religion, has been hijacked for galling ends. Relate this to other challenges facing religion in the media, like poor funding, marginalisation and rare primetime slots, which means every inch of religious programming is precious — and endangered.

When no new episodes of BBC Radio 4’s Something Understood — a weekly programme that gave religious presenters a chance to be creative, authentic and nuanced on their own terms — were commissioned, it was a blow to everyone in religious broadcasting, and a step back from advances in religious literacy.

This is in large part why smart PR is so crucial and can wield influence. It demonstrates how religious and black, Asian, and minority ethnic (Bame) voices have a presence and a stake in society. As we witness movements like Black Lives Matter, I yearn to live in a world that doesn’t need to be convinced that lives matter, that we didn’t need to legitimise our very existence, to say we belong, but the bitter reality is, we do. There is no privilege of complacency. We have to keep our foot on the gas.

Any form of PR is one piece in the building block, whose foundation is the solid work by grassroots organisations, civic activists, and community cohesion endeavours that prop up and benefit all of society. Ten years on, if the lessons of the Inspired by Muhammad campaign taught me anything, it’s that every relationship, not least a public-facing one, needs both investment and good faith.

Remona Aly is a journalist and broadcaster, and director of communications for the Exploring Islam Foundation