Further explorations in ‘the Muslim world’

Doing a ten minute presentation is pretty tough – you have to be equally ruthless about what you leave out and what you include. But the benefits are potentially great – if you can present an idea well in ten minutes you are pretty sure that you will have your viewer’s attention. As anybody who has lectured knows, with longer talks, no matter how strong your delivery, attention starts to wander for some in the audience as the talk progresses! So when I had the opportunity to do a talk of 10-18 minutes for Lancaster TEDx, I immediately went for the option of 10 minutes. It was a nice challenge for me and I thought that the brevity of the talk would help me to get my message across. So I beavered away for a few weeks putting things in and taking things out, thinking about key messages and marshalling my data: if my TEDx talk looks spontaneous …. it was not. In fact I imagine few of them really are, in spite of them being presented in such a way as to make it appear that they are. A lot of work goes into them – and that is just from the speakers. The crew who organized and filmed the event at Lancaster worked amazingly hard as well.

So was it worth it? Well, I have had many kind notes since I did the talk thanking me for it. I have also had a fair number of views of my talk on-line and many, many more likes than dislikes. So for me the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’, it was worth it. Many thanks to all who have viewed and publicised my talk.

Reading the comments has been an interesting experience – many are appreciative. Yet some simply show that some of the argument was ignored or not picked up by the watcher – so a watcher asks if religious identity is important to athletic performance in response to a point I make about the failure of the UK press to report on Mo Farrah’s Muslim identity. Though I thought I made it clear that that identity is one Farrah himself says is central to his athletic achievements and hence, yes, it is relevant, it seems that perhaps my optimism that a ten minute talk would deal with attention span issues was misplaced! For some of these mistaken queries other commenters set the record straight, which is kind of them.

Of slightly more interest are some of the questions that get thrown up – I will consider three here. Firstly: what about the term the West? I was glad this was picked up by a viewer as we discuss that in the book that my talk is based upon (Baker, Gabrielatos and McEnery, 2012:131-132). As a self-referential term it does have a role to play in setting up the ‘us’ that is opposed to the ‘them’ of the Muslim world. Another viewer asks whether Muslim world is just a neutral term used to define a culturally homogeneous region. This is a dangerous argument. It takes us to the precipice of the very ‘us and them’ distinction I was discussing. It is dangerous precisely because it is simplistic in nature, as it implies an homogeneous and distinct other (there are non-Muslims who live in the so-called Muslim world, for example – the area referred to is not homogeneous in oh so many ways). It also misses the point – if this was a simply neutral referring expression perhaps the ‘us and them’ distinction would not be so powerful. The problem is it is a very powerful term for generating an ‘us and them’ distinction because it sets Muslims in opposition to non-Muslims in the language and, as noted, it homogenizes Muslims  – they are all the same and the reporting of the views of the Muslim world entrench this monolithic view also (see Baker, Gabrielatos and McEnery, 2012:130). Finally, the same viewer wonders why I did not talk about the change of meaning of words over time. The answer to that one is easy – sadly, as shown in the later part of the talk, the attitudes I was talking about have not changed over time, even though I would have been happy to say that they had if this was true. The viewer also uses the word ‘gay’ as an interesting example of change in meaning over time – well, that would have been another talk to give. A lot of nonsense is spoken about this world – it is usually presented as a word that had a simple, innocent, meaning until another, less innocent meaning came along and spoilt it, a view hilariously lampooned by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in this sketch:

However, this is not true – gay had far from innocent meanings in the past – a quick perusal of Jonathan Green’s excellent Chambers Slang Dictionary shows that. So yes, a discussion of word meaning change over time would have been interesting and debunking a few myths about the word gay would have been fun too – but that was not what my talk was about, so I shall leave the matter there. Maybe for a future TEDx? Who knows.

So – ten minute talks have their pluses and minuses. They are great for getting your message out and, by and large, I am happy with how my talk went. I found the experience of giving a TEDx talk a very positive one and many other people clearly enjoyed it also.  Best of all, it has made people think about and discuss their use of language, and that is something which always pleases me!

Watch my full TEDxLancasterU talk here:

TEDx Lancaster U: The Journey So Far

Tonight, Lancaster University is hosting a series of TEDx talks on the theme of ‘The Journey So Far’. Our own CASS Director Tony McEnery will be joining the dynamic and diverse group of speakers giving give short lectures relating this theme to their work in fields such as digital anthropology, design against crime, sustainable food production, fundraising and social enterprise,  and even magic.

Tony’s TEDx talk is entitled “Where is the ‘Muslim World’?” He will discuss the good, the bad and the ugly ways in which Muslims are talked about in the UK press. To do this he will look at over 200 years of newspaper reporting in the British press relating to Islam and Muslims. While such a study is vast in scope, he will show that only by using the latest computer technology to search through millions and millions of words we can start to understand the roots of modern British media attitudes to Muslims and Islam. As well as seeing what those attitudes are now, and where they came from, the study of the press shows, as though viewed through a distant mirror, the passage of Muslims into British Society, away from being an exotic, Oriental and sometimes dangerous group towards being part of British Society. But where are we on that journey? You’ll have to tune in to find out.

The event sold out almost immediately, but you are able to watch on live webstream by clicking visiting the event page on the TED website between 5pm and 10pm. Tony’s talk is scheduled to take place between 7:30-8:00pm.