Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow: Islam and the Media

28 04 2009

 

Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow - Copenhagen, 2006

Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow - Copenhagen, 2006

At the Interchurch Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, only a few blocks away from Columbia University, and untraditionally, inside a Christian chapel, seven distinguished journalists sat across from the audience for about an hour and a half, discussing several issues about Muslims and the portrayal of Islam, particularly in the Western media.

It was only this past weekend that the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference was held here in New York. Organized by the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Initiative, the focus this time was on an absolutely crucial topic: Islam and Muslims in the media today, in a post 9/11 world.

The panelists were all journalists; distinguished with varying backgrounds, from major and minor news outlets. Here’s the list:

Rachel Zoll (Associated Press)

Deborah Amos (National Public Radio)

Mohamad Bazzy (Newsday’s Former Mideast Bureau Chief)

Noreen Ahmed-Ullah (Chicago Tribune)

Neil MacFarquhar (New York Times)

Bobby Ghosh (Time Magazine)

Maria Ebrahimji (CNN)  

 

There were some interesting things said in the panel. I noted what I liked down and I will write them as a list because they’re many and cool:

  • We always hear and see in the media the extreme guy; the angry one who marches down the streets with aggressive signs. But we never hear about those who criticize their community, those moderates who are not angry. Why? Not because they don’t exist, but because they’re mainstream, they’re the norm. And the norm is not a story. I believe this to very true. In my journalism school we are pressured to find a story, something different, something unique. Mohammed Bazzi, one of the panelists said: if my newspapers tomorrow ran a front-page story that all planes landed at JFK airport safely, would you read the newspaper? Perhaps not.
  • Bobby Gosh was a guest several times at a radio show somewhere in Southern America (I missed the name of the state and I won’t venture to guess).  After 9/11, many callers became curious about Islam and they were asking him many question, among which was: Do people in Baghdad wear shoes? It’s funny and it’s true. I recall some of my fellow students at my boarding school in New Jersey, asking me whether we still live in tents and get around by camels. I’m not kidding. This illustrates that there is still much ignorance and stereotyping. And we need to battle that.
  • Neil MacFarquhar of the NYTimes said, “We need to focus less on the violence and more on the [Muslim] activists who are trying to change their lives.” This was a point that hit home in so many ways. There is too much focus on violence by Muslims, and this focus is importance for the sake of the victims at least, but there isn’t enough emphasis in the media about Muslim activism. Most stories get brushed off. A member of the audience voiced this when reporters came to her school and refused to publish anything about the great activities they’re doing in terms of Muslim education and interfaith dialogue.
  • Neil also said, “Muslim American sensibility is so bruised by 9/11.” This is also very true. Many Muslims have become so skeptical of anything Western after 9/11 and after the blame and scrutiny they experienced. They have turned to the defensive mode.
  • A good, very good point was noting that although the media after 9/11 began to focus more on extremists, they still labeled them as “extremists” and “fanatics,” not mainstream. Despite these negative stories, for the first time in American media, there was more, much more coverage of other Muslim activities, such as the fasting month of Ramadan and Eid celebrations. You walk into WalMart today and you’ll see a book about Islam. The point was: there was good and bad stories about Muslims after 9/11.
  • One of the biggest problems of the Muslim world is that Muslims resent extremists and those who lump all of us together, but there isn’t much done to reshape that image. Resentfulness must be turned around to more emphasis on educating the rest about Islam, really mainstream Islam that doesn’t involve the Taliban or the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Mohammed Bazzi pointed out that perhaps it’s not effective to respond to non-Muslims by saying “This is not real Islam,” or that these extremists are not “real” Muslims. Instead of dismissing the perpetrators of violence, we need to delve into why they’re doing this. I couldn’t agree more to this statement. Bazzi was my former professor at journalism school and he taught me to look into the “why” more often.

So what’s the solution to the bad image of Muslims in the media? Time and repetition. It’s better for mainstream Muslims to talk about these issues than to keep quiet.

I heard mixed reviews about this panel. Some thought it was good, others thought it wasn’t. I liked it particularly because we talk about these issues everyday in my journalism classes. It is an issue that is close to my heart and close to what I read and write every day.