On Faith - Islam a Single body?
The American media is falling down on the job when it comes to reporting on Muslim communities both here in North America or world wide.
Three glaring issues stand out:
(1) an enormous double standard on reporting crimes by Muslims; (2) a gross oversimplification of a vastly complex community into angry men with beards and demure women with scarves or face veils; and (3) the incredible levels of vitriol, misinformation, and neo-McCarthyism of talk show hosts.
Naturally, bad news is more marketable than good, the more sensational the better, so it is hardly surprising that most of what we hear out of the Muslim world is bad news. Most of what we hear on the news is bad news, period. After all, fifty moderate Muslim American men and women, dressed much like another group of American men and women, sitting in a conference room signing a fatwa against terrorism isn't exactly as exciting as a dozen turbaned men waving machine guns shouting angrily and unintelligibly, while shooting at passing American jeeps.
This we expect. But the Muslim community is handled with a huge and glaring double standard. For instance, Timothy McVeigh was not labeled a Christian terrorist, despite his affiliation with a right wing Christian Militia. You can be sure if he'd been Muslim, he would have been called an Islamic terrorist, and there would have been dozens of exposes on the militant terrorist cell he had joined.
Further, bloodthirsty texts from the Bible were not paraded out to show why he believed the way he did, but if he were Muslim, passages would be cut from the Qur'an, taken out of context, both within the text and historically, to explain his motives, whether or not those passages had anything to do with his/her actual motives.
By and large, crimes committed by Muslims are attributed to Islam, even though said crimes are illegal according to the Qur'an and hadith. The fact of the perpetrator's religious affiliation is deemed significant if she/he is Muslim, though it would not be deemed significant if she/he were Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Pagan, or Christian.
So, too, we have a double standard in that editors consider the very fact that a crime was committed by Muslims to make it far more newsworthy than the same crime committed by non-Muslims. When Basque separatist group ETA blew up the Madrid airport parking garage in December of this year, destroying half the building, injuring 26, and killing at least 2 (they are still excavating the rubble) it didn't make the news here, except as an NPR piece focusing on how their reporter had to go through a ton of red tape to retrieve his car which was parked in the garage at the time of the explosion.
Similarly, the attack on the American embassy in Greece this January by leftist militants wielding rocket-grenade launchers went hugely underreported compared to how the story would have grabbed headlines if it had been carried out by a Greek Al Quada cell.
This double standard is not just of philosophical concern, but has contributed to the wave of hatred, intolerance and anti-Islamic bigotry that is sweeping certain sectors of American society.
We all have to live on this one small, rather fragile planet. We cannot afford to inculcate hatred of another group simply for their belief system. We may disagree with their theology, we may insist upon human rights standards that are in discord with certain tenets of their religion, but we cannot afford to hate, to fight, to destroy. In doing so, we create hell on earth, over and over again. As our weaponry gets more and more powerful, we endanger the very survival of the planet and of our entire species.
A Conversation between the Conservative and the Hyper-Conservative:
Currently the Muslim voice in the media is dominated by the conservatives of Sunni Islam. There are several reasons for this. They tend to dominate the mosques, they have a head start in establishing institutions in this country, and they are visually easy. That is, a photo of a Muslim woman in a headscarf or with the nijab is readily recognizable as a Muslim woman. A man wearing a turban and a long beard is either a Muslim (or perhaps a Sikh). A clean-shaven man, wearing a business suit or jeans and a sweater has to be explained. So too a Muslim woman wearing typical western clothing.
In taking the easy route, the media perpetuates the notion that the only "good" Muslim is one who conforms to that conservative standard. That "real" Muslim women have to wear a scarf, and "real" Muslim men all have beards. Nonsense! Huge portions of the Muslim community do not believe that head scarves are mandatory in Islam, or choose not to wear one for personal reasons. Wearing a head scarf says nothing about your piety except that you have chosen a more conservative interpretation, just as whether a Jewish woman wears a babushka or not says little about her faith except for which branch of Judaism she may follow.
Even more so with beards, which are at best a sunnah (a practice of the Prophet that was not explicitly mandated as a religious requirement, but which many like to follow as a signal of their devotion to him).
The biggest problem with the current media practice is that so often we read these conservative voices saying, "Islam says..." and then they state their own viewpoint. This is both dishonest and misleading. Very few things are so black and white in Islam as there is no clergy, no pope to determine canonical interpretations. It would be far more accurate to say, "There are many viewpoints on this issue, and mine is..." Savvy reporters should question Muslim spokespeople when they claim to have the sole explanation of a particular issue.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Muslims generally are resistant to sectarianism. Progressive Muslims, Conservative Muslims, Wahhabi, or Salafi Muslims are unlikely to identify themselves as belonging to a particular denomination. Sunni, Shii, Ahmedi, Ismaili is about as far as most will go, and even then there is resistance to this classification. Obviously, this complicates the job for media specialists -- Muslims aren't neatly divided into groups that are easily identifiable as liberal or conservative, reform or traditionalist, unless you go to political or activist groups, and even there many are loath to attach a label to their activism, preferring vague names like Islamic Society of this or that, Islamic Council of here and there.
Our journalists need to do a better job of seeking out multiplicity within the Muslim community, even though it may be a daunting task. To present the Muslim world as a single body, unified in belief and theology, is simply inaccurate, and again, feeds into fear of Muslims who often appears like a vast community of automaton clones.
I do want to say, that a lot of this burden also falls upon moderate, liberal, and progressive Muslims. We need to be seeking out the media as well, and offering ourselves as resource people. I have found that most media professionals are delighted to find a different voice, to discover there are Muslim individuals and organizations that don't fit the stereotypes, but reflect the true richness and diversity of Muslim society.
As a final note on this topic, I want to address two stereotypical images of Muslim women we get over and over in the media -- the serene, glowing convert or spunky second-generation Muslim woman who "went native," and the native woman who survived horrific misogyny and escaped to the West, some of whom still adhere to Islam, but many of whom have left the fold. Obviously each of these narratives has its place within the greater fabric, but they should not be the only faces of Muslim women. We need to see the full diversity of Muslim women, not just two types.
Again, I'm sure much of this has to do with reporter access and awareness of the community. Muslim women who do not wear a scarf often are not easily identifiable as Muslim. And angry voices of dissent are more exciting and newsworthy than those who are working for change from within. Even so, we need more -- and more diverse -- images of Muslim women in our media.
The last issue which our society needs to deal with is the verbal garbage heap that talk radio and talk TV has become. High rhetoric, outrageous opinions, intolerant rantings and ravings have become de rigueur for talk hosts, not just about Muslims, but about every topic. It may be entertaining, or engaging, but it is socially irresponsible. The attack dog mode of opinion on radio and television is contributing to the divisiveness of our society, to the point that it is considered good to sneer upon people who have different opinions or different beliefs. No where is this more true than in relation with the Muslim community.
When hosts make over the top suggestions like "intern them all" or "nuke Mecca" it brings our society one step closer to being able to actually do those things. When talk show hosts categorize all Muslims as dangerous militants, out to destroy the US, they validate gross intolerance and hatred. The history of Jew baiting in the early days of Nazi Germany is something we cannot afford to forget. The parallels to the treatment Muslims receive at the hands of talk hosts are frightening.
As a society we need to ask ourselves some tough questions about how we want to conduct our affairs. I believe that the current climate of sneering disregard and open hostility is not conducive to a stable and healthy nation. Nor does it contribute in the least towards establishing a world order where every human being can live a life of dignity and respect, with equal opportunity and equal human rights for all.
I don't advocate censorship -- freedom of speech and of the press are essential rights -- but with every right comes a responsibility. I think those engaged in whipping the electorate into a frenzy over every issue need to look into their hearts and ask if they are making the world a better place in the long run or a worse one.
Posted by Pamela K. Taylor on March 27, 2007 12:07 PM