Addressing Hysteria Through Representation

October 9, 2014

Having one-sided conversations about Islam and Muslims without the presence or representation of Muslims is extremely counterproductive to debunking the myths surrounding the faith and its followers. There are certain standards that media personalities should adhere to when reporting on a topic. It would be outrageous for someone to report on the unrest in Ferguson, MO without being present in the city or talking to residents from the city. This same logic applies to a topic as broad as Islam.

Islam and Muslims are prominent topics of discussion in the media and the coverage is often unfair. From CNN anchors asking if Islam promotes violence to Bill Maher flat out accusing 1.6 billion Muslims around the world believing in terrorism, media outlets are naturally turning to Muslims for their perspectives and responses -- or are they?

The barrage of media attention on Islam, Muslims and current global events requires journalists and pundits to be more sophisticated and balanced in getting the perspective of actual Muslims; however, this is not happening. Take, for example, Maher’s recent segment about Muslims on his show “Real Time.” Maher decided, as usual, to attack Muslims and accuse them all of sharing in the ISIS ideology. Rather than getting the perspective or response from a Muslim, he featured an all non-Muslim panel. To be fair, two of his guests, actor Ben Affleck and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof were more nuanced and sophisticated in their understanding that painting an entire faith’s followers as monolithic is unfair and intellectually dishonest.

For someone who values science and logic above all else it is quite puzzling that Maher would rather stick his head in the sand and not talk to a Muslim when talking about Muslims. Elementary logic necessitates getting all the facts straight from the source before coming to a conclusion.

The idea that all Muslims are to be feared unfairly feeds into already low public perceptions of Islam and Muslims and further alienates Muslims from going on air to address the hysteria through authentic representations. The problem with the lack of nuance on the part of those who have the power of the bully pulpit is that they are riling up the public under false notions and creating an atmosphere of hysteria. This is all of course, under the assumption that we are trying to have an honest and open conversation on an issue; unless, the person engaging in the discussion is willfully ignoring facts as part of their own agenda or complacently ignorant.

While CNN did feature Muslim scholar Reza Aslan to comment on Maher’s remarks, the next night, anchor Chris Cuomo dismissed Aslan  as having “an angry and primitive tone” when speaking on the CNN segment. Cuomo should be ashamed for marginalizing a guest who was merely expressing his views in an already unfavorable medium. Again, the point here is that Cuomo and CNN fell into the trap of talking about Muslims as opposed to talking with Muslims.

Whether or not one agrees with the delivery and comments made by Aslan, he was not talking to Muslims, his remarks were for the American public at large. In a post-9/11 era our job as American Muslims is take on leadership roles in educating our fellow Americans about our faith. At the same time, the media should take on the role of providing the space for representation. The reality is, that right now media is playing into the hands of extremists on all sides in unfairly misrepresenting Muslims as a monolith.

The reality is, there is very little Muslim representation in media discourse about Muslims and Islam. And when there is representation, credibility is questioned, or they are dismissed as extremely biased, primitive, angry or unwilling to engage in an honest conversation. Rather, the media, is unwilling to move away from a sensationalist-based approach to covering Islam and it is time to change that.

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