Muslims in the Media – and What I’m Going to Do About It

 “A free press earned its spot in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because of its role in educating and enlightening citizens, and thus enabling us to practice self-government. But charges that the election is “rigged” have dominated the headlines. The press has been vilified and social media, Super PACs, and a 24/7 news cycle […] have created what seem to be alternative realities”ACLU Indiana

With less than a week before the election, the ACLU of Indiana held an event recently – titled “Election 2016 & The Media: A Free Press or a Free-for-All?” – to address the problem stated above: Essentially, what role does the media play in our democracy? I attended this talk that featured a panel of local TV reporters and print journalists with a friend. We were the only two visible Muslims in attendance. While the focus of the panel was to address the media’s role in this current election season, my friend, the Communications Director of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), posed a question to the panel during the Q&A session about the media’s role in perpetuating the stereotype of Muslims being terrorists.

I wasn’t really convinced by their answers. Each one of the panelists talked about localized instances in which positive portrayals of Muslims have been made in the media. But the truth of the matter is: many Americans still hold negative views about Muslims and Islam – and the national media certainly exploits this fact by using catchy and sensational headlines. As The Pluralism Project points out, “Islam” and “Muslim” often accompany the already laden words such as “extremist,” “terrorist,” and “militant” in news headlines.

Most people, as the panelists bemoaned, don’t make the effort to read past these headlines. So even if journalists are accurately reporting on the facts, they nonetheless employ misleading titles to garner attention. And thus, negative stereotypes of Muslims and Islam persist.

I had a conversation with my sister, who does not wear the headscarf, earlier that day. She made an observation that made me pause and wonder: that when she goes out in public, she’s never fearful of being singled out because she is not easily identified as being Muslim. While I have never been assaulted or harassed because of wearing a headscarf, I can’t shake off the feeling that those stares I do occasionally get from time to time are because of “that thing on my head.” While the headscarf is meant to guard my modesty, when I walk into a room, people notice – it’s almost as if I’m asking for the attention and potential ridicule… or even worse.

Another audience member posed a question to the panelists on whether the solution lies with the politicians, the media, or the citizenry. One panelist was quick to say that the media must rectify the current situation of misinformation we find ourselves in. While I agree that journalists need to take it upon themselves to adhere to journalistic ethics to the utmost degree in their reporting, I would say that everyday citizens also have their roles to play. More importantly, we can have more immediate, positive results.

I voted for the first time in a U.S. Presidential Election last month (yay, early voting!). Although I share the pessimistic sentiments of many citizens who believe that the political establishment has been bought by corporate interests, I finally realize why voting is so important nevertheless. If not practically, at least symbolically. It is especially important for American Muslims to make their presence and voices heard. We ARE citizens and we are not going to allow the actions of a few oversees to paint us all under one brushstroke. And we certainly aren’t going to be complicit in electing a candidate who only fans those flames.

But voting is not enough. It never was enough and never will be enough.

If we want to change the direction in which the country we live in takes, we must stop sitting on the sidelines. I’m not saying we all must become political activists. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a very openly political person. I am more than happy to let my husband wade through all the mess that is “the news” – and thank God for Stephen Colbert!

I came away from yesterday’s talk agreeing with the panelists and ruminating even more that the current trajectory of the mainstream media is to make money. And if pushing racist stereotypes is a cash cow, the trend will only continue. Muslims can’t rely solely on the media to present us in a positive light. Honestly, as an American citizen, I should not have to prove that I’m on your side. I am a song-and-peace-loving Sufi Muslim who can’t stand the sight of blood. I’m completely useless to extremists.

I acknowledge the current environment that we live in. But I am not going to justify my existence; I am just going to exist. I am going to continue to write and talk about religion, I am going to continue to work on starting a Muslim-Jewish women’s interfaith group here in Indianapolis, I am going to continue to sing, I’m going to continue to bake. Basically, I’m going to continue to do all that I love. What I do will most likely never made headlines and that’s okay. But I act with the conviction that I can make inroads with the people I meet and interact with day-to-day. And if more Muslims collectively do this within our communities, then soon enough there will be no money to make off branding us as “foreigners set out to destroy America” because we are as every bit as American as everyone else.

Well, I was born in Canada, but you know what I mean!

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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