Rolling Stone Magazine and the Curious Case of the Muslim in the Neighbourhood.

Rolling Stone full

Rolling Stone’s recent August 2013 issue featured a photo of a tousled haired, trendy, sexy eyed youth. Was he the lead singer in the latest hot band? No he was Dzokhar Tsarnev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers and with that, the Rolling Stone set off another bomb. A wave of vitriolic rage spread through the U.S.A. at the audacity of the Rolling Stone magazine at placing this man’s image on their front cover. American retailers removed the magazine from their stores amid fears that the Rolling Stone editors were rewarding a terrorist with celebrity treatment. There was fear and concern that using the image of Dzokhar on the cover was in fact turning him into a type of rock star. Despite this, Rolling Stone reported an increase in sales. The issue was not with the content of the article, so what exactly was the problem?

The problem was the acceptable face of Muslim representation in the media. The article itself conformed to the damaged fundamentalist Muslim victim stereotype such as those often found in mainstream media. A young troubled and damaged youth, failed by the system becomes a fundamentalist. Well that is the acceptable stereotype propagated in mainstream media and studies on the representation of the ‘Other’ in are pretty well established (see Chomsky [1991], Said [1978], Dyer [1984] and Richardson [2004] to name but a few). Interestingly the Rolling Stone August edition’s cover was the one aspect of mainstream media coverage of this Muslim that did not portray him as a victim or the ‘Other’, in fact it imbued him with a certain kind of power usually reserved for charismatic rock stars, and reaffirmed his familiarity as a young white westerner. So it is unsurprising therefore that it was in fact this very aspect of representation that the general public objected to.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do not condone violence and recognise that Dzokhar Tsarnev did something very, very, wrong and I cannot conceive of the horror of taking someone’s life. What I do however feel we need to have is a conversation about the representation of Muslims in mainstream media. The reality of life is as ever more nuanced, there are vast populations of Muslims who just you know, go to work, eat sandwiches and are quite reasonable. There are even quite a lot of Arabs who aren’t Muslim. No really there are! But we don’t hear about these because the standard media stereotype is of a medieval fundamentalist robe wearing jihadist male or a downtrodden hijab wearing female. Islamic tribalism that is and can only ever be held in check by the harsh hand of a dictator is the all too popular representation of Muslims, a convenient rhetoric that brings in the logical next step of Western intervention.

It brings to mind the scene from The Life Of Brian when at the anti-roman faction’s meeting someone asks, what the Romans have ever done for them? And the response, “Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let’s face it. They’re the only ones who could in a place like this”. And there we have it; they need us these Arabs to show them the way to civilization. An argument I heard being used similarly for Northern Ireland twenty years ago and one that is being brought into play again with reference to Syria.

We should expect more sophisticated representations and discussions from mainstream media and the extent of the reaction to the Rolling Stone’s August 2013 cover is proof of how badly we need them

Dr. J. Naji – Centre for Media Studies, NUIM