By Anu Gorukanti
The phrase “Allahu Akbar” echoes across a seemingly quiet town in East Jerusalem. The same sound is chanted vehemently by Al Quaeda fighters who shake their AK-47 leftover from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the mid-90s. The same sound is played as background noise to an image of the twin towers crashing into the New York skyline. The same sound echoes through West Pine Masjid as devout followers gather for the Jummah prayer. The same sound but very different connotations.
The media portrayal of Islam has implications that are farther reaching than a single story or the opinion of a single newscaster. It influences not only how non-Muslims view Muslims abroad but Muslims they interact with on a daily basis. According to a poll by the Washington Post, the proportion of Americans who believe that Islam helps stoke violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled since the 9/11attacks, from 14 percent in January 2002 to 33 percent in 2006 arguing that the perceptions have declined due to media perceptions and political statements. The American perception of Islam is intertwined with increased reportage of Islam in media outlets in the aftermath of 9/11, the onset of Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the building of the Park 51 project in New York City.
It is important to examine causes for the increase in the American association of Islam and violence and how this relates to media portrayal. Few would dispute that the media has great influence over the public’s opinion of major issues.. The media serves as a model for normal behavior and information and the way it covers an issue can lead the viewer to a certain opinion. According to an article by Liz Jackson in the Journal of American Educational Studies Association, “the major theme in the visual representation of Islam in mass media since 9/11 undoubtedly contributes to a public demonstrating high awareness of Muslims wishing [the public]harm…over other points of Islam.” This could explain why two-thirds of the American population have not heard of Muslim leaders condemning terrorism, according to study done by the Council of American-Islamic relations. The media may not purposefully aim to create an association between Islam and violence, but the lack of attention given to the “moderate Muslim” or to Muslims doing good things and speaking out against terrorism leads to an representation of a very narrow and divergent sample of the Muslim population. With only a small population represented, the voice of a minority of Islamic extremists becomes much louder than the voice of the majority moderate Muslims.
On a less addressed note, media portrayal can influence the way Muslims, especially Muslim college students, feel about their place in American society. According to a poll done by Time magazine, only 55 percent of Americans believe that U.S. Muslims are patriotic Americans. Not surprisingly, many Muslim youth feel that Islam’s misrepresentation by the media strongly affects the way Americans view Islam. When asked by researchers at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, many youth said they feel that they are not included in the American community and are instead viewed as the “other.” For some Muslim students, this may result in a tendency to dissociate themselves from their faith or qualify that they are not “practicing Muslims.” For other students, there is frustration that their faith is given such a skewed representation in the media. As stated by 25-year-old Muslim college student Dania, “Just as Muslim extremists have distorted Islam, U.S. media had done just as much damage, if not more. They never show the positive aspects of Islam and all the good and moderate Muslims that live peacefully beside Jews, Christians, Hindus and all other religions. We’re always portrayed as the angry bearded men who fire guns in the air and burn the U.S. flag. That’s all Americans know about us and that’s why so many Americans have such a wrong impression about us and our religion.”
As individuals, there are ways we can affect this situation. It is important to approach the articles and news we read with a degree of media literacy. When we view headlines and read articles, it’s important to critically examine how different subjects are represented within the article and how the author supports the statements he or she is making. When a story is reporting on a specific incident, look at the context of what is being reported; it is important to make the distinction between isolated events rather than using a single situation to generalize an entire population of people. Finally, it is important to get information from various sources to account for different biases and perspectives on a situation
While it is important to acknowledge the place the media plays in society’s perceptions, the situation should not be viewed in a disparaging light. For all the events emphasizing the American perception of Islam, there are other events also happening. Every day, Muslims and non-Muslims work together, go to school together, eat together, and spend time with each other- the importance of these relationships should not be overlooked. In these situations, labels become less relevant and individuals can be representatives of themselves, not their faith or culture. A powerful way to affect change is through education and forming relationships with those of other faiths and traditions. On a college campus, people of different faith traditions interact with each other every day but there are few chances to engage in dialogue about their faith. There are organizations on Saint Louis University’s campus that provide students with such opportunities. The SLU Muslim Students Association is an active organization that seeks to provide its members with the opportunities to grow in their faith while also providing non-Muslims with opportunities for education and dialogue. The MSA has three major events throughout the year that provide non-Muslims to a chance to engage directly with Muslims students. As described by sophomore MSA member Imman Musa “I think it’s really important to show people what Islam truly is rather than what the media portrays it to be, which is usually false. That is why in MSA we like to host events where people can hear from real Muslims about Islam, rather than believing everything they hear in the news. Each year, MSA holds the Fast-A-Thon as an act of solidarity for those students who fast during Ramadan. Local business donates a certain amount of money for each non-Muslim student who fasts for the day; the money is donated to local charities to alleviate some of the problems of the Saint Louis community. Islamic Awareness week focuses on events directed towards educating non-Muslims about misconceptions about Islam and the daily lives of Muslim-Americans. An event was held this past Islamic Awareness week called “Sharing Common Ground” which highlighted the similarities between the three monotheistic traditions. Finally, there is a week-long social justice week where non-Muslim have the chance to done the hijab for “Hijab Awareness day.” Participants have the chance to chronicle experiences and how they felt they were perceived by others because they were wearing a hijab.
However, it is important for these interactions to go one step further than education and develop into dialogue. According to researchers at University of Buffalo, SUNY, Muslim youth agreed that one of the ways to overcome these misperceptions is through dialogue. These friendships that are formed allow individuals to formulate their own thoughts of that person as an individual and can help break the stereotypes that may have been previously applied to an entire faith. When researchers at University of Buffalo, SUNY, asked students what Muslims in America can do about this situation, Amina, a 26-year-old Muslim student replied, “Muslims must keep open lines of communication with the American community at large, to keep participating in interfaith dialogues, and being active in their community.”
The responsibility to educate and to reach out to other communities does not solely lie with Muslims. The negative perception of Islam may be perpetuated through media biases but individuals can chose how to perceive the Islamic faith and individual Muslims. Through media literacy, building relationships with Muslim students and taking the personal initiative to engage in dialogue, individuals will be much more equipped to gain a more objective perspective on Islam.