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Gary Younge
Everything you know is untrue

Imagine for a moment that all you knew about Muslims was what you saw on television and you had only been watching it for a year. Not studying television or examining ethnicity, just glancing at it while you do other things. Coming across depictions of Muslims the same way you come across depictions of, say, the French, the elderly or the unions.

You would "know" them as mugshots who have or might commit acts of terror, have been accused of committing acts of terror and demonstrators waving holy books. You would be "familiar" with bearded older men standing outside mosques, young men on the rampage and women in headscarves. You would "know" that they come with the adjectives "fundamentalist", "terrorist" and"moderate".

If you are Muslim, as very few people reading this article are likely to be, you may recognise many of these characters as part of your community, but wonder why the media have become so obsessed with them that they ignore all the other parts.

If you are not Muslim, then you will now "know" Muslims as "other" - a group of people with whom you have little in common. You will know them as a "problem" - a community that appears to hate you and which you would rather avoid. In short, you will know just enough to know that you don't really know them at all.

To what extent this is TV's fault is a moot point. It certainly cannot take all the blame. Even before September 11, Muslims in Britain found themselves the target of considerable discrimination which is both coordinated and casual. Since last year's riots in northern cities, the emphasis of Britain's racial discourse has shifted from race to religion, with them bearing the brunt of the assault.

Senior politicians' remarks about arranged marriages, citizenship tests and compulsory language appraisals - all suggested in the run-up to the report on the riots - have helped shape a broadly antagonistic response towards Muslims, who remain the religious group most likely to suffer racist attack, according to Home Office figures.

September 11 helped exaggerate that trend by exacerbating tensions and compounding exclusion that already existed. Moreover, it globalised a conflict which until then had been local.

But if television should not take on all the blame, it must share much of the responsibility. For even working within those hostile parameters, depictions of Muslim life in Britain have, on the whole, been distorted and discriminatory.

To understand why, we must first of all look beyond the immediate. Muslims did not arrive in this country a year ago, but have been here in large numbers for several generations. As a community they have never been covered well by television. Muslim voices have rarely been heard and when they have been, as in the case of The Satanic Verses, it was usually in relation to an issue that had tension with the liberal, secular world at its root and religion as its primary obsession. We had no idea of how Muslims loved, lived or laughed, what they thought of healthcare, education or transport. They were not treated as part of the mainstream. Before last year, a casual TV viewer would not have known they existed at all.

If that was true on-camera, it was even truer off-camera, where few Muslims have made it to be programme makers, let alone sit in on scheduling or editing meetings. For an industry that prides itself on its discovery of diversity, this came as quite a shock. Television, like much of the rest of the business world, has been promoting diversity as though it were painting by numbers. Placing appropriate faces in exposed places, they had promoted a significant (although still insufficient) number of Asian people - the trouble was that few of them were Muslim. So by the time the riots took place last year, TV executives were in much the same place with the Muslim community as they were with Caribbeans in 1981 - talking about people who neither they nor their viewers knew or understood.

The answer to this problem is not straightforward. Television created neither Islamo-phobia nor Islamic fundamentalism - nor can it cure them. It should not refuse to cover issues of interest simply because they are contentious. But Muslims do not exist on a linear continuum that stretches from hating others to being hated by others - only public understanding of them does.

What TV executives can do is recognise their failure to represent the experiences of British Muslims in front of or behind the camera. Then they must acknowledge that if this situation is to change, it will demand an institutional, journalistic and creative shift in how they operate and whom they target that will have an impact across the board.

· Who's Afraid of Muslims? is on Saturday at Tinto.

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