#PrayForUsToo – Explaining Selective Solidarity and the ‘Other’ in Western Media


Words || Isil Ozkartal

Political instability, armed conflict, and an increase in large-scale terror attacks have dominated Australia’s media headlines in 2016. From France to Pakistan, Germany to Syria, countries around the world have felt the direct impacts of terrorism. However, double standards in media reporting show that terror attacks on Western soil appear to hold more value than attacks elsewhere.

In July this year, France once again experienced the horrors of an attack when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove into crowds celebrating Bastile Day in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds more. It wasn’t long before French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, “[the perpetrator] is a terrorist probably linked to radical Islam one way or another.” These claims were made even though Bouhlel’s family described him as “not religious”, as well as him being unknown to intelligence services.

While the Nice attacks began trending internationally on social media, Iraq’s capital was dealing with the bloody aftermath of the worst terror attack since the US-led invasion in 2003. On 3 July in Karrada, Baghdad, an Islamic State suicide car bomber killed over 300 people who were shopping ahead of Eid al-Fitr celebrations, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Despite the sheer volume of the atrocity, Iraq’s grief was near-absent Australia’s television screens even before the Nice attack occurred a week later.

When it comes to reporting on terrorism, Western countries are defined by peaceful Christian values and democracy, while non-Western countries and their inhabitants, particularly in the Middle East, are continuously portrayed as violent, oppressed and inseparable from their religious identity.

Dr Ashley Lavelle, a politics and international relations academic at Macquarie University, told Grapeshot Magazine that there are a multitude of factors that influence the mainstream media’s coverage of Middle Eastern politics – but one basic factor is clear. “Racism is definitely involved; black and brown lives simply don’t matter as much as white ones do in the eyes of the mainstream media,” Ashley said.

As more sympathy is shown towards one type of people who align with ‘our’ values in the media, research shows that racially and culturally biased representations of terrorism often influence public opinion and government policy.

While all religions can be taken out of context and be used for any number of political aims, Islam as an entire religion is repeatedly reported as synonymous with terrorism. Macquarie University student and researcher, Kawsar Ali, reiterates this in her Macquarie University TEDx talk. She states, “from film to literature, foreign policy to polemics, dress code to dietary requirements, Islam is seen and evoked as a problem.”

From looking at France’s burkini ban in several coastal towns, we can see that the West’s war on Islamic terrorism quickly turns into a war on anyone who fits the stereotypical representation of the ‘other’. In a climate of heightened fear and anxiety following the Nice attacks, Muslim women on French beaches were forcibly stripped of their burkini – essentially a wetsuit with a hood – in an absurd move that did nothing for security and everything for the stigmatisation of Muslims.

In the coming weeks France’s highest administrative court ruled the ban “manifestly illegal”, a move the United Nations body welcomed. Yet the court ruling could not reverse the rise of Islamophobic sentiments, including those from former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, a candidate for the 2017 presidential election, labelled the burkini a “provocation” that supports radical Islam, and stated, “We don’t imprison women behind fabric”.

This is the power of the ‘us versus them’ mentality that is prevalent not only in France, but can also be seen in Australia’s political scene – notably Pauline Hanson’s push for a royal commission into Islam. In a society where a range of information and news is only an app away, consider how mainstream and social media often shows a distorted view of conflicts, cultures and nations outside of the ‘West’.