As quoted in Language, Power in the Modern World, “The ability to define social reality (and) impose a vision of the world…  are inscribed in language and enacted in interaction.” (Gal 1991: 197). Language is both personal and institutional, and is an arena of struggle for power. [i]

Muslims in the west and the western hegemony are engaged in such  struggle: a struggle to define what values life should be lived by, and what vision describes reality, history and legitimacy.  One of the debates that have emerged lately is the role of modesty in the comportment of Muslim women, manifested in the discussion on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover themselves from head to foot in public while living in the west, and thereby cut themselves off from the mainstream and the chance to integrate fully into western society.

The question that westerners want answered is whether or not covering is integral to being a Muslim woman, and if so, why. That question “why?” is posed not to discover the reason, but to uncover the difference in occidental versus oriental thinking: to express their inability to understand the incomprehensible. Equally, those on the Muslim side of the fence find it incomprehensible that morality lies in the ideology of independent mutual adult consent, where the screens that protect moral behaviour are constructed personally rather than institutionally. Their perception is that this personal construction drives the delimitations between what is moral and what is immoral further and further outward, to encompass more and more decadence. An example of this is the official definition of a de facto family being a mother and her child or children, irrespective of who fathered the children she bears. Another example is the legitimisation of same sex coupling, and in some cases and regions, same sex marriage. For a Muslim, neither of these scenarios is legitimate, as the family is defined by his or her religion as consisting of a man and woman married to each other, and their offspring. Moreover, a woman who has children from an unknown father, or a known father not married to her, is considered abomination except when these are a result of being forced unwillingly. Furthermore, same sex sexual relationships are considered unlawful, and cannot be legitimised, let alone be defined as marriage. Thus the complete mindsets of the two sides of the debate are mutually incomprehensible to each other. In order for one to live alongside the other, a way of tolerating or eradicating differences has to be found.

After the banning of the burqa in Belgium and France, other countries in the west have moved to follow in their footsteps. The drive to do so in Australia is just one example of the political fallout, and the debate between those who want to see it banned and those who want to preserve the status quo is just a reflection of that. The extract this study analyses is from the genre broadcast talk, specifically dialogue in a hosted debating forum. The subject of the debate is precisely the one above: the banning of the burqa in Australia.


The way people interact and compete for power and voice is extremely complex. Many models are used to analyse this interaction, among them the analysis of how people interact or speak on television or in public speaking. This is the domain of broadcast talk, and this study deals with precisely that: Talk that is broadcast for public consumption on Australian television. This necessitates a thorough look at the contrasting styles of broadcast talk found in the section of the video we shall be examining. Therefore it behoves us to analyse both the structural elements of the verbal exchanges and the individual styles of discourse  in order to unravel some of the complexity of human interaction in this sample. Furthermore, the subject matter is looked upon in culturally distinct ways by the participants in the discussion due  to gender, race and religion. The reflection will deal briefly with indications of gender difference and also provide some behavioural insights as to racial or religious motivations for certain actions.

The tools, therefore, that I intend to use are firstly, how each part of the broadcast talk is structurally sequenced. Secondly, an analysis of the participant’s speech through mediatised language. Finally, by examining commonsensical notions expressed on both sides of the cultural divide that separates western and oriental thinking, the power relations expressed through language and one useful insight from an Islamic perspective, we may go some way to explaining the barrier to communication between the Muslims and non-Muslims.

Read on: Structure of the Debate


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