Every time a crisis unfolds relating to Muslims globally, it sends ripples through the Sydney Muslim community. With this, we enter a state I like to refer to as the ‘Scurry phase.’ This phase consists of our brightest, most articulate community advocates (in more recent history being females) going through a period of no sleep, endless media interviews, contribution articles to national newspapers, TV appearances, radio interviews and the odd talk back radio segment or two. Yes, I’m referring to the never-ending cycle of responding to community crisis through the media without the assistance and privilege that some of our counterparts in the U.S and U.K have an already existing, well-established media organisation.
With Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, which has since killed more than 1,417 Palestinians and 60 Israelis, the Sydney Muslim community has yet again descended into a frenzy of trying to respond to media requests. Given the well-documented concerns around media representations of Muslims, it should come as no surprise that Muslims and in particular Muslim women in Australia have been active media advocates, working for change and improvement in media coverage of Muslims especially when it comes to global issues, including the plight of Palestinians. In a climate of moral panic and public backlash on the issue of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the demand for Muslim media spokespeople only grows.
Traditionally, this work has been undertaken by a handful of Muslim community members on a volunteer basis. However, the tireless years of media advocacy has is taking a serious toll and manifested itself into precarious challenges that Muslims, and in particular, Muslim women media advocates have faced and continue to face. Notwithstanding theses challenges, Muslim women media advocates have also reached various milestones, producing notable achievements at the least expected times, but the struggle continues.
The demanding schedule and exhausting hours of being a media advocate produced stress, anxiety and exhaustion. Coupled with community politics and abuse, the perfect formula for serious psychological impacts is fermented. Some Muslim women media advocates interviewed spoke about the ‘urgency’; an urgency to discuss one theme in particular. Advocates spoke passionately about the impact their work has had on their psyche, the abuse received and the forced re-evaluation of their media advocacy.
With no assigned or established organisation that deals specifically with public relations or the media, media advocates have been forced to adopt the role and responsibility of being spokespeople on behalf of the community. The Muslim community is fractured and diverse on multiple levels including: ethnicity, Islamic sects, geographic divides and ideological beliefs. Such fragmentation makes it difficult to support individuals that the community can collectively agree on to specifically deal with media issues or become the media spokespeople. Despite their hard work, their efforts are often met with severe opposition and when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the opposition is lethal. They have been slandered, abused and humiliated in the public sphere, from being called, ‘anti-Semites’, ‘stupid’ and ‘Muslim trash’.
Emotional exhaustion and distress experienced coupled with lack of time available is part and parcel of the limited infrastructure and resources available to the Muslim community in dealing with the media, including the fact that most media advocacy work undertaken is unpaid. Aida, a long-term media advocate said, “…this is a full-time job and we are all doing it and what happens is that we all get burnt out.”
The media has left media advocates desperately trying to balance their professional jobs, the media and family. Karima, who has been advocating for the Muslim community for almost 20 years, revealed, “Being able to balance everything is so hard. On the one hand this is a huge responsibility to carry and we’ve taken it on, we have voluntarily taken it on. But also keeping the balance with family and keeping all of these balls juggling in the air without dropping one of them is really demanding on so many levels.” Consequently the line between their private and professional life is blurred, leaving media advocates vulnerable to exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed with the demands imposed upon them from the media’s endless hours of interviewing to the expectations from within the community.
From the challenges observed and discussed it is evident that there has been no platform for Muslim women media advocates to come together and discuss their challenges and achievements, preventing them from reflecting and evaluating their roles. Media advocates are agents of change in the media and in Australia society, it is therefore of paramount importance that this space for reflection is developed and sustained before the next crisis comes.Sandra, who was one of the key players in responding to the 2012 Sydney protests addressed the need for such a space, “We need to have a space internally, constructively to sit and criticize ourselves. We haven’t had the leisure to be able to do that and to do that we need to star engaging with each other and restoring what we left behind and having to do things in such an ad hoc way.”
However, one of the most important, if not perhaps the most important aspect of media response for the Muslim community is the establishment of a legitimate full time media organisation. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report on increased Arab and Muslim hostility post September 11, the ISMA Report stated that, “participants felt that bias and inaccurate reporting of issues relating to Arabs and Muslims is commonplace among some sections of the media and is extremely damaging” (ISMA, 2004, p 8). Karima echoed the report’s findings, arguing that the development of a media organisation was pivotal. “We desperately, desperately need an organization that is fully funded that employs people who do this on a full-time basis or even a part-time basis. We’ve been talking about if for years.”
Based on the research undertaken and observations made, the media organisation would consist of three sections that have been identified as focus areas by Muslim media advocates: Training, Media Monitoring and a Response Unit. The Media organisation would include a coordinated reactive and proactive infrastructure. The Media organisation’s aim is not to persuade or force the Muslim community to agree on issues that often produce differences of opinion, rather its purpose is to streamline the work that already exists and form an alliance when combating a significant issues still confronting the Muslim community like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The organisation will encourage unity when responding to the media on issues that truly unite us like we see today with the plight of Palestinians, however the media organisation would bring no expectation to have the community be uniform on other issues.
Media monitoring exists within the community, however due to limited resources and underfunding, it occurs intermittently and small organisations run by volunteers are unable to keep up with the workload. The media advocates underlined the need to move beyond reactive responses and establish a long-term sustainable unit. Here in Sydney, we could learn a lot from our counterparts in the U.S. Eight years ago CAIR was established in the U.S as an organisation that “challenges the stereotypes of Islam and Muslims” (CAIR, online). CAIR has since become a Muslim advocacy group committed to offering an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public including global issues that affect local communities. Relying on donations, CAIR deals with issues which include: anti-terrorism campaigns, press conferences, publication of news articles, reports and surveys, information packs on Islam and the community and civil rights of American Muslim citizens. More importantly, and what was specifically referenced by the interviewees, is the CAIR ‘Press Centre’ which proactively engages and responds to media.
Despite various challenges, media advocates have undoubtedly reached milestones when giving a voice to the Palestinian cause, which have at the very least counteracted the mainstream media representation of the conflict. The stories told, the difficulties faced and the successes enjoyed are not exclusive to Muslim media advocates, but rather are common themes for minorities struggling to gain appropriate media representation and support for a worthy cause. Media advocacy has the potential to counter inaccurate mainstream media representation through alternative narratives, direct media participation, indirect media projects. These media strategies and initiatives can consequently penetrate some of the media’s pro-Zionist representation of the conflict and begin honest public discourse that takes the voices of those suffering seriously.
Slowly but surely, our media advocates are shifting the public’s discourse. With time, sophisticated media experience, collaboration and fortitude, our media advocates will inevitably gain higher status in mainstream Australian media and not in spite of their support for Palestine, but because of their unwavering stance for humanity. However, without the establishment of a media organisation, full-time employment and complete community support for media advocates as professionals, those voices, which time and time again are raised when defending Palestinians and their right to exist and flourish, will one day be strained and eventually silenced. If this time comes, then the Palestinian cause will truly be lost.
Note: All names in this article are pseudonyms at the request of those interviewed.