Muslims, the West and Media

Aziz Poonawalla has a series (1, 2, 3) of posts on the silence of the media in showing the non-extremist Muslim majority. First, some quotes from Aziz:

Let me assure him [Steven Den Beste] and you that as a Muslim, I don’t really CARE how Islam is perceived by non-Muslims. I care how Islam is perceived by Muslims.

And just because he thinks Muslims are silent doesn’t mean they are. In fact they have strong voices, and there is a level of debate raging in the Islamic world that is completely missed by insulated commentators in the US.

… In fact, the effort that Muslims would have to make in order to get media coverage to satisfy the opinion of Steven and others like him who rely exclusively on western media for information about the Islamic world, would be wasted. Positive coverage lasts only as long as the next tragedy. That energy would be better spent – and is being better spent – inwards.

… This stereotype [of Muslim silence] also penetrates deeply into traditional media, with William F Buckley’s essay “Are we owed an apology?” (Muslims do NOT owe anyone an apology for 9-11) being a prominent example.

From, is this comprehensive list of links and resources on Islamic perspectives against terrorism (hirabah), essays by prominent Islamic intellectuals and clerics condemning terrorism, statements by muslim leaders, and even a section on muslim military personnel.

In addition to these, there is also this statement condemning 9-11 by the leaders of the American Muslim Alliance, the American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Muslim American Society, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Alliance in North America, and American Muslims for Jerusalem.

Aziz’s main points, for the purposes of the discussion here, and my comments follow.

1. The Western media does not present a balanced picture of Muslims.
True, and the reason is not hostility to Muslims. It is the fact that news is business and to make a profit, the media needs shock, surprise and scandal, something that enhances ratings. We should also remember that most news on TV really is news-tainment (news+entertainment). Since the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, a number of Muslim leaders/spokespersons have been on the news. A large number have condemned the terrorist attacks, yet the media has concentrated more attention on anti-semitic statements and terrorist sympathizers. That is as it would be for any news about any group. Since we know that, Muslim leaders should have taken some initiative in using this system to their advantage. How? Well, with gimmicks, with public display of patriotism, etc. You ask: isn’t that insincere? No, I am not saying they should do something they do not feel, rather they should have publicly done things, for example sporting US flags at a public gathering of Muslims, which probably a lot of Muslims did do at the individual level.

2. Therefore, the general population in the US does not find out about the moderate Muslims.
The general population does not know much about Islam or Muslims because they do not come in contact with Muslims in their lives. Their only exposure is about the terrorist acts and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is a tough task to educate them. And you cannot convince everyone. As long as there are terrorist acts by Muslims, the image will remain negative to some extent. However, it is not just the extremists who are at fault here. A lot of Muslims in the US live a segregated life. They do work with all kinds of people, but they often don’t socialize with them. Hence, even in big cities where you would expect interaction of Muslims with the rest of the population, the average Joe is completely ignorant.

Another problematic area is Muslim leaders and organizations. In general, they are more extreme in their outlook than the average Muslim. We have to realize that these organizations claim to represent us. We can deny that terrorists like Osama Bin Laden have anything to do with Islam/Muslims. We can deny that some of the extreme Muslim organizations represent us. But the fact is that membership of a group (based on religion in this case) means that others will see us with the prism of that group. That is how people are. We always generalize and stereotype. (This does not however mean that we need to apologize for any terrorist acts.) Hence, we need to take control of the debate. We need to nudge and force the Muslim organizations towards our concerns.

In addition, Muslim organizations are very much focussed on foreign policy and especially on the Palestinian issue. I am all for a state for the Palestinians, but I think that is not very important for American Muslims. The Muslim organizations here should concentrate more on things of interest and concerns to US Muslims. If Muslims feel that they do need to lobby in the foregin policy arena, that work should be completely separated from the domestic organizations.

3. Aziz is not interested in the PR campaign required to rectify #1 and #2 and thinks it would be a waste of time and energy.
While the general point of Aziz that an inward focus will be more beneficial is correct, I think he is wrong in believing that explaining Islam to the general population is a waste of time. We live in an open, tolerant and diverse society. Interaction between different groups of people should be encouraged and would require some explaining of cultural/religious mores. The US society has moved far beyond the racism of the 19th century and the Japanese internment camps of World War II. The reaction of the general public as well as the leaders (especially President Bush) towards Muslims in the aftermath of Sept 11 was very commendable (with a few exceptions.) Most of the harrassment of Muslims, according to anecdotal evidence, was verbal. However, I think there is a chance of another major terrorist attack on US soil in the future. I hope and pray that it does not happen. But if it does, the likelihood of some severe reaction against Muslims in the US is high. How bad (or even good) that reaction would be will depend on the level of communication and understanding of Muslims and the larger community. Since Muslims are not so numerous and geographically spread out in the US that a large percentage of the US population would know one and since there are some nutcases calling themselves Muslims who blow up innocent people, Muslims do need the media to spread a positive image of themselves and their religion. If it takes gamesmanship, gimmicks, etc. along with a real message, so be it.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

2 thoughts on “Muslims, the West and Media”

  1. I think you are spot on with this post. Turning inward or turtling is exactly the wrong thing to do, imho. Great blog btw — we need more reform jew unitarian quaker universalists like yourself. 😀 Eh, you know what I mean.

  2. Thanks, Max.

    Though I agree with Aziz that there is a lot of work to be done within Muslim society, I believe that we cannot afford to look only inwards. The stakes are too high and we do have to convince the world with actions and words.

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