Changing the Media’s Relationship to Muslims
By Owais Bayunus, Islamic Center of Minnesota
As we all know, the media is the most important tool of modern times. It provides us not only with knowledge of what is happening in the world around us, but it also profoundly affects our analysis of world affairs. Due to our hectic way of life, most of us believe in what we see and hear in the news as holy truth. We don’t have time to check the authenticity of what has been shown or told to us.
I hadn’t realized the effect of media on even very young children until I recently overheard my four-year-old grandson telling his seven-year-old sister that he liked Obama. The six-year-old yelled back that she liked Hillary.
Unfortunately, Muslims in America have a unique relationship with the news media.
To begin with, Islam and the Muslims have never enjoyed a balanced portrayal in the West due to centuries of competition between the world’s two largest religions, and to the Middle East conflict that began in 1948. Now, it seems the events of 9/11 have given a free hand to the media to pick on Muslims, who have become the number-one minority group demonized in the public square, in books, in print and broadcast media, on movie screens, and increasingly on the Internet with the explosive proliferation of single-focus sites where hate-speech runs unchecked.
These media have played a vital role in defining and redefining how most Americans think of Islam and the Muslims. And the media’s view is very different from how Muslims perceive their religion and themselves.
The Effects of Media Bias
It’s clear that, if the news media had been more critical, then we would not have waged war on Iraq only on the suspicion that it possessed WMDs. This war has not only cost us nearly a trillion dollars and many American and Iraqi lives, but it also has polluted our image on the world screen. The media has shown us an entirely different Iraqi war than what was seen by the people in Middle East. We saw the use of high technology and accurate bombing from our aircrafts, but the Muslim world saw what happened after the bombs exploded, and the anguish that followed.
In the U.S., the effect of media bias can be seen in every section of our social structure, even among the academics. In 2003, I asked a law professor from Georgetown University if there shouldn’t be any official investigation in which American Muslims were included to help discover the root causes of the 9/11 attacks. To my astonishment, he replied that “it would give legitimacy to their [the hijackers’] actions.”
That seemed to me a very un-American answer. Unless we know the root causes of the attack, how can we safeguard our country? Moreover, Muslim involvement in such an investigation would have provided a tremendous boost in public relations to over a billion Muslims throughout the world who are keenly watching us.
The media also failed in its portrayal of events last year, when, after attending the National Conference of Senior Imams, some of the imams prayed in a lounge of the Minneapolis airport. A woman complained, and a pilot called security. The imams were handcuffed, taken from the plane, interrogated, and every piece of their luggage was checked. Then, after a thorough questioning and investigation by the FBI, they were given a clean bill at about 11 p.m. to fly.
To add to their injury, US Air refused them seats, even after the FBI interrogator guaranteed their innocence. They had to fly back with NWA the next day. When the Star Tribune interviewed me on this subject, I gave my opinion that education of people through the news media is essential. Both security officials and the general public should know and understand the sensitivities of millions of American Muslims. Education about Islam and the Muslims is no longer a luxury, as Muslims are now your neighbors.
The negative stereotyping in the media is so prevalent that to be Muslim has become synonymous with committing a crime. When a Muslim happens to commit any crime, the media makes sure that viewers know about his religion even if that may be completely irrelevant.
Mr. Obama had to satisfy the media that he is not a Muslim, and yet 13 percent of the American people still believe that he is and would not vote for him for that reason. On the other hand, I have never met a single Muslim who, if he supports Mr. Obama, supports him because he considers him a Muslim!
Very few Muslims are called to give their opinion by the well-known TV channels on any subject related to their affairs, and those few who are called are either not representative of the Muslim population or cannot express themselves properly in English. Thus, the message is lost. That is a disservice to the American people.
I am even more concerned that a new generation of Americans coming out of schools has seen only the negative images of Islam, and that they will carry these impressions for the rest of their lives. Because of this, Muslims will have a constant uphill battle for a long time to come for their legitimate rights.
The Role of Economic Justice
Justice is the root of Islam. If you open the Qur’an, justice is always emphasized, because Muslims believe God is a just God. There are several passages in the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and also there are several traditions of the Prophet himself in which equal justice for men and women, boss and subordinate, white or black, have been directly or indirectly emphasized. God says in the Qur’an:
“O! mankind, we have created out of a single pair of man and woman, and distributed you among nations and tribes that you may know (and help not despise) one another. Indeed the most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most virtuous. God is cognizant of all what you do.”
Because there is no difference between the genders in Islam as far as religious obligations are concerned, what is obligatory for men is also obligatory for women. Islam emphasizes equal rewards: men and women deserve the same wages in this world, and the same charity in the eyes of God for the same job done. Throughout Muslim history, innumerable women had their own businesses, separate from their husbands, and many were rich, like Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet who ran a business in international trade. Islam states that the same is true for inter-religious, interfaith and inter-ethnic relations. We are rewarded equally, irrespective of our faiths and ethnicities.
Justice in economic achievement is essential in Islam.
But the negative image of Muslims created by the media has directly affected both the income and livelihood of the Muslim population in general, especially those at the threshold level of poverty. One young man told me that he is not getting any job offers because of his name, Muhammad. This is the most common name in the world, but it apparently tells something different to the young man’s potential employers, who may have never met any Muslim before, but have been watching media coverage.
Many Muslims struggle at the time of Friday congregational prayers, which come during the working day because they have to choose between their job and their faith. Many take lesser-paying jobs to be able to go to offer their prayers.
The Islamic Center of Minnesota’s food shelf program, which has been running for the last 15 years, saw a gradual increase in the number of people making use of the food shelf in 1990s. But there has been a much larger jump in that number since 2001, which tells us something happened to Muslim livelihoods after that date.
Recently, a local company fired five Somali women because they wanted to wear hijab and loose dress, an Islamic obligation which is not merely cultural. An investigation is ongoing.
A local charter school was given a negative image because the school is run by Muslims. Even though the media may correct itself later, the wrong is already done.
When a mosque in North Minneapolis was burned down by arsonists one night a few years ago, there was not much coverage in the newspapers. It was the great help received from other churches and synagogues and the late Senator Paul Wellstone that was monumental in raising funds and building the mosque back.
But where was the media?
The Relationship between Faith and Extremism
Clearly, acts of extremism are not a commodity owned by Muslims. Followers of nearly every religion have found their hands red with the same guilt at some time or other. The treatment of Jews in WWII by many church-going Nazis, bombings of Northern Ireland’s Protestant schools, the genocide and rape of over 50,000 Muslim women in Bosnia, the treatment of Palestinians, Kashmiris, and Chechens all are examples of terrorism by the occupying forces.
Why, then, has the media picked mostly on Islam and the Muslims? Just as an example, how many among you would remember that over 4,000 Muslim children and women in Gujrat India were burned alive by Hindu fanatics just six years ago, in 2002? Not many would recall such a horrible incidence that lasted for weeks and even aided by the authorities, because this has not been brought forth over and over again on the screen for viewers to have the impact of the severity of the crime. But any action by Muslims would be replayed for months, if not years.
I would like to make it clear here that none of the religions mentioned above have anything to do with the acts of terror their followers have carried out. It is the extreme interpretation of a few who unfortunately make the news. Islam is no exception. For this reason, the American media must understand what the Muslims throughout the world are trying to say, and must play a fair role in removing the negative stereotypes which directly affect the economic well-being of Muslims, especially those who are not at high level of income and are rarely heard.
The Solution: Sitting Down Together
The most important tool for mutual understanding is interfaith dialogue.
Unless we are ready to sit together and talk, we cannot understand one another. We at Islamic Center of Minnesota (ICM) have been involved for the past eighteen years in dialogue with the Minnesota Council of Churches and several synagogues, meeting every month at the Islamic Center. That has proved to be a successful project. The Islamic Center also invites people of other faiths for a dinner at Thanksgiving every year, and the Minnesota Council of Churches invites the ICM for Eid dinner. The ICM is also involved with synagogues, and meets with them to celebrate Ramadan Iftar and Passover Seder.
In acts of extremism, you will generally find that the perpetrators are young people. They are the ones who can be more easily brainwashed by the religious extremists, and thus we have to concentrate on them more than the others.
We have to work on the interfaith communication of youth groups, and to involve them in dialogues (and trialogues) by involving them in even non-religious projects, such as work together in mowing lawns, cleaning buildings or lands, playing soccer together, having barbecues and picnics together, or even discussing the current politics.
Higher education of the Muslim youth is another area on which Muslim communities have to seriously concentrate. The Muslim immigrant population in the United States has enjoyed a level of education higher than the average American, an important distinction from the Muslim immigrants in Europe. This has been a pivotal reason for smooth integration of Muslims in America. Better Muslim representation in the media should then naturally follow, and their voices will also be heard.
It’s important to remember you wouldn’t see the results the next day. Constancy and perseverance is the key to success.
Allah (SWT) says in Qur’an,
“and that there might grow out of you a community [of people] who invite unto all that is good, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong: and it is they, they who shall attain to a happy state!” (3:104)
Let there be a group of people of all faiths and all nationalities, who are sincere and God conscience, who may be called the prisoners of their own consciences because they stand together in doing what is good and forbid what is oppressive and racist and wrong, and are truthful even when they are called as witness against themselves or against their relatives and friends.
A very balanced portrayal of Muslims, Islam, and every other religion is the need of the hour. Not only should the media present the powerful spiritual dimensions of Islam, but also the contributions of Muslim doctors and engineers. All Americans should know that the tallest building in the U.S. was designed by a Muslim architect. We should know that more than 11 percent of all foreign doctors are from Pakistan alone. We should know that more than 7,000 Muslims serve faithfully in our country’s armed forces.
This essay is based on the presentation by Mr. Bayunus at the National Conference on Faith, Economic Justice and Media bias on February 6, 2008 at the Minneapolis Convention Hall. The complete presentation can be obtained from Mr. Bayunus by calling the Islamic Center.
Owais Bayunus is the President of Islamic Center of Minnesota, Vice Chair of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC), an advocacy group of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and former chairman of the Interfaith Dialogue of the Minnesota Council of Churches.