Muslims and the Media: Challenging the stereotypes
The title of the large Muslim event Thanksgiving weekend itself would be enough to make Islamophobic commentators and pseudo-scholars like Stephen Emerson salivate: The Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) 22nd Annual Conference. Repeat that slowly: Muslim ... Arab ... Youth ... Association. Those of our fellow Americans who have been barraged with media stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims might cringe with fear after each word is repeated. The title itself might conjure up images of machine-gun toting, bearded Middle Easterners rhythmically chanting "Death to America" while plotting some unspeakable deed.
However, if there were any undercover agents in the audience hoping to unearth evidence of "Muslim terrorists" conspiring in smoke-filled convention halls or mixing up batches of fertilizer in clandestine corners, they would have been immensely disappointed. What their stealth video cameras would have caught on film -- a family event attended by over 2,000 Muslims from around the state of California and the country -- would hardly have been the stuff of sensationalist and Islamophobic headlines. Indeed, the theme of the event would have rendered the usual venom-laced tongues silent: "Muslim Families: Reality and Challenges."
The many noted speakers -- including eminent Muslim scholar Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi, Dr. Jamal Badawi, Sheikh Muhammad Hassan and others -- focused on the recurrent themes of retaining a Muslim identity in America, raising children according to Islamic ideals, and the relationship between wife and husband, parent and child. Serious challenges to the foundation of the Muslim family -- both internal and external -- were highlighted and means of overcoming them addressed.
Although the MAYA conference can be considered a success in terms of attendance and relevance to today's American Muslim family, one is unlikely to read about the event (or similar Muslim conferences held throughout the year) in any local newspaper. There are several reasons for this. First, in the eyes of those in control of mainstream American media, an event comprising Muslims congregating for peaceful purposes is rarely newsworthy. No gunshots were fired. No blood was shed. No car bombs exploded. Nothing was being protested. In short, the event was too peaceful and non-controversial for the mainstream media.
Secondly, in all likelihood, the organizers of the event probably did not notify the local media about the conference. Often, Muslim organizations are wary of inviting the media to cover internal community events, fearful of negative and inaccurate coverage. This fear is not without basis. In the past, stories covering Muslim community events have ignored the major theme of the event or blatantly misrepresented the views of speakers and organizers.
MAYA itself has not been immune from negative coverage. As one of the Muslim organizations targeted in the rabidly anti-Muslim "Jihad in America" -- a purported expose by the now discredited terrorism expert Stephen Emerson -- MAYA was accused of hosting speakers from the Islamist Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Undoubtedly the result of intimidation by this type of derogatory media coverage, attendance at some major American Muslim events (especially those emphasizing the Palestine problem) has dropped in recent years. Many in the Muslim community are fearful of being labeled as terrorist sympathizers or arrested and deported under the heinous "Secret Evidence" provision of the anti-terrorism law.
Fed by a seemingly endless parade of Hollywood movies that malign Islam and Muslims and irresponsible media speculation after every major plane crash, Muslims have become the target of widespread fear and suspicion. This has forced many Muslim organizations and Islamic centers to maintain a low profile so as to avoid becoming the targets of defamatory media coverage or hate crimes spurred by such coverage. What can be done to counter this barrage of negative stereotypes?
Firstly, American Muslims must become more pro-active in the area of public relations. Recent years have shown a positive trend away from purely reactive, defensive interactions with the media. More American Muslims and their organizations are actively engaging the media. Through meetings with editors and reporters and by staging media workshops on Islam, American Muslims are seeking to eliminate stereotypes and misrepresentations before they find their ways onto television newscasts or the pages of local newspapers. Through the efforts of such grassroots advocacy groups as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and others, positive portrayals of Muslims and Islam are beginning to dot a mainstream media landscape otherwise replete with derogatory and inaccurate representations.
Although these recent successes should be applauded, American Muslims must not fall into the trap of thinking that the battle has been won. For every positive story on fasting during Ramadan, there are still many more reports on so-called "Muslim militants" and "Islamic terrorism." For each occasional balanced story on hijab (Muslim female attire), there are dozens of stories and commentaries decrying the supposed oppression of women by Islam.
Much work remains to be done vis--vis enhancing the image of Islam in the media. We must urge our nation's media outlets to recruit and hire American Muslim reporters, columnists, researchers and editors. Just as importantly, young people in our community must be encouraged -- perhaps through scholarships and workshops -- to enter the field of journalism. For the most part, the views of American Muslims on issues of concern to our community have been largely non-existent in the mainstream media. We have been obliged to hear about such topics as Islam and the West, Palestine, and women in Islam from non-Muslim (frequently Islamophobic) writers and self-styled experts. Now, as our community grows, so must its voice. We must assert our right to be seen and heard as Muslims and as Americans.
While engaging the mainstream American media is one way to achieve this objective, American Muslims must not put all their eggs in one basket, as the saying goes. We must create and nurture our own authentic American Muslim media network. This activity should not be intended as an alternative to engagement of mainstream media, but rather as a complementary action. The goals of such efforts must be lofty: to create Muslim media that will be regarded as "the source" of the most accurate and timely information on issues pertaining to Islam around the country, and indeed around the world.
While there are many magazines and newspapers created by American Muslims, none have remotely achieved this level of recognition. Collaborative efforts must be undertaken to establish credible, independent, Muslim, media outlets that have national and international reach.
As the new millennium nears, American Muslims must have no illusions about the various forces at work to prevent them from realizing their goal of fair and balanced media coverage. Unfortunately, there are some elements of our American society who feel that there is much to be gained by propagating and perpetuating fear and suspicion about Islam. These individuals and organizations are strongly opposed to our efforts to re-mold the distorted lens through which Islam is viewed. Whether American Muslims can rise to this challenge and succeed in projecting the true image of our noble faith remains to be seen.