A little bit more like us
"Do they train kids to be terrorists in that Moslem School in Cornwall?" asked one of my roommates during my first year of law school. Caught off guard, I inquired further. He explained that many in Cornwall, a small town just outside of Ottawa, thought that there was something "suspicious" about the school because of the "characters" that went in and out.
The school, operating from a run down hospital, was set up and is run by the Tablighi Jamaat. Anyone familiar with the movement would simply laugh at the thought of the Jamaat running military training camps. My friend, I learned later, had waited until he was certain that I was a "modern" and "rational" Muslim -- after all I didn't dress or act like those involved with the school -- before he asked me. He was surprised to learn that the school merely taught the memorization of the Qur'an. He was also surprised that I took offense to his query.
Such instances are not rare. In fact, far too often, minorities, who identify closely with their communities, are forced to take on the role of ambassadors. The situation with Muslims is no different. In fact, Islam and Muslims appear to be the most distrusted. Given the fact that Muslims are usually concentrated in the large urban centers, most people have very little contact with us.
Why do such beliefs persist? Well, our portrayal in the media clearly has a significant impact on people's perceptions. Indeed, it is probably the only gateway through which most people are exposed to Islam and Muslims. This does not bode well as confirmed again last week in a yearlong study of the Canadian media by the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC). Not surprisingly, the study found that media bias against Muslims and Islam persists despite concerted and proactive efforts by the community. The situation in the U.S. is no different.
Dr. John Miller, a professor of journalism at Ryerson University, told the CIC press conference that the media perpetuates stereotypes of Muslims as violent, fanatical and anti-women's rights. "Like any stereotype, it gets ingrained in news judgment," he said. Ironically, some cannot even discuss such studies without resorting to sensationalism. For instance, a radio commentator discussing CIC's findings last year asked his listeners, "If you are not a Muslim, are you unnerved by the spread of Islam all over the world and making increasing incursions into -- lets say Western society." This "us versus them" mentality must be tackled. Are Muslims not equal members of society? Must we still be looked at as invading hordes?
Any impartial examination of the media -- print or broadcast -- reveals that when it comes to minorities, there is an emphasis on the negative and a very pronounced deficiency in positive coverage. Indeed, this is confirmed in numerous studies. For instance, in a study titled "The Usual Suspects," published in the spring 1998 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Andre Mayer, found that there is a tendency to rush to judgment when it comes to Islam and Muslims. In fact, often, one need not even get past the headlines and the accompanying caricatures to see the blatant stereotyping. Headlines such as "The Roots of Muslim Rage," "The Muslims are Coming, The Muslims are Coming," "Violence, the Islamic Curse," and "Bombs in the Name of Allah," some of these accompanied by derogatory images, undeniably leave a lasting impression. Muslims -- especially women in Islamic dress -- must regularly brace themselves to deal with the inevitable onslaught of comments, snide remarks, questions and glares following such sensational and downright inaccurate coverage. It must also fuel the rising hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims.
The concern over unfair media coverage is not limited to Muslims. The African-American and Hispanic communities have been complaining about negative coverage as well. In fact, studies have shown that these two communities are frequently portrayed as criminals, gang members, drug users and welfare abusers. It is interesting to note that the racial background - or when it comes to Muslims, the religious background - is highlighted in negative coverage but not in positive stories.
The fact that minorities -- to some extent or the other -- experience biased and unfair coverage must not diminish Muslim concerns, but rather, should compel the media to be more responsible. As agenda setters, the media must facilitate better understanding of the world around us. Why are fairness, accuracy and sensitivity sacrificed so readily when it comes to minorities?
Unless immediate steps are taken to bridge the widening rift between itself and minority communities the media will be responsible for perpetuating the dangerous idea of the "other" and the resulting destructive impact on the very fabric of society. Experts point out a number of ways to address the problem. In his book, Islam, Muslims & Media, Dr. Mohammad A. Siddiqi, professor of journalism at Western Illinois University, writes that there should be minimal, if any references to religious labels. I would venture further and add that there should be minimal references to racial and ethnic labels - unless it is central to the story. In fact, a study of three major U.S. papers released a few years ago by the Muslim Public Affairs Council found that religious labels were used 50% of the time for stories involving Muslims, 10% of the time for Jews and very rarely for Christians. Editors and journalists must ask why is this necessary?
Rather than looking elsewhere, the media should rely on recognized experts within the Muslim community as sources. Why do journalists rely on anti-Islam propagandists such as Steven Emerson and Daniel Pipes as experts? The only thing achieved by this is greater distrust of the media.
On the part of the community, it must become media literate and accessible. Having worked as a freelance writer and a media contact for the community in Toronto for more than six-years, I can confidently say that most of the pejorative coverage is due to ignorance. Two-way communication must be developed and maintained. Indeed, the CIC study recommended that more media should have ombudsman's offices to address concerns by minorities.
It is also time that minorities joined the media to try and influence it from within. Journalism, as a profession, is still one of the least reflective. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), only 11.55% of the reporters nationwide are minorities while 28% of the population is. Even this figure is misleading, as they are not usually in any influential positions. According to Dr. Miller, the situation in Canada is even worse -- only 2.6% of journalists are minorities while 13% of the population is. Fortunately, there is some movement in this department. At its fall meeting, ASNE adopted guidelines to ensure a better reflection by the year 2025.
Speaking at the CIC conference two years ago, Patrick Martin, the foreign editor of The Globe and Mail, said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was partly to blame for the bad press given to Muslims. "The majority of Europeans take the side of the Jews," said the former Middle East correspondent. "They are a little bit more like us." There is no justification for this. As objective purveyors of news should be media be satisfied with this? Must they not make extra effort and exercise greater diligence in situations where there is an established record of actual and perceived bias?
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs