You may have heard by now about the event over the weekend where more than 1,000 Muslims joined hands and formed a “peace ring” around a synagogue in Oslo, Norway in sub-zero temperatures. Why? Because the Muslims in that city wanted to make it clear they oppose anti-Semitism. As one of the Muslim organizers, Zeeshan Abdullah, explained: “There’s still hope for humanity, for peace and love, across religious differences and backgrounds.”
So with the Muslims standing side by side with Jews, Norway’s chief Rabbi Michael Melchior sang the traditional song marking the end of the Sabbath. The head of Norway’s Jewish community organization, Ervin Kohn, added, “It is unique that Muslims stand to this degree against anti-Semitism and that fills us with hope… particularly as it’s a grassroots movement of young Muslims.”
This was truly an inspirational event. One that helps define Islam accurately, as opposed to the way ISIS and al Qaeda are striving to define the faith.
This story, happily, did end up going viral. But another story about Muslims this weekend made bigger headlines and top-lined media websites across the country. That was the threat made by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab that it was targeting shopping malls in North America, including the Mall of America in Minneapolis. The Norway event got loads of play in social media, and to some extent the traditional media. But the mall threat was top-of-the-hour news everywhere.
And that is a perfect example to explain who defines Islam in America: The media. The adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” can be updated to “If threatens to cause bleeding, it leads.” So a story about Muslims doing what Islam calls for doesn’t hold a candle to one where Muslims act in violation of the faith is glorified.
We constantly see wall-to-wall coverage of the tiny percent of bad Muslims. Keep in mind that if ISIS is truly 30,000 fighters that means it represents .02 percent of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. We are talking less than a third of 1 percent of Muslims.
Yet our media barely covers the stories about the other 99.98 percent of Muslims. How often have you seen segments in the news about the interfaith work in the United States, such as the efforts of Rabbi Marc Schneier and Imam Shamsi Ali? Or Muslim groups denouncing terrorism, or even stories about the millions of other Muslims simply living their lives?
Here’s another example of the media defining Islam more than the faith does. Last week, The Atlantic ran a front-page story telling readers: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The article’s conclusion was based on interviews with a handful of extremist Muslims, including Anjem Choudary, a person with no following of note and who has been continually denounced by mainstream Muslim leaders.
This would be the equivalent of relying on the Christian pastor in Arizona who in December called for the mass killing of all gays, which he claimed is mandated by the Bible, as revealing what Christianity is truly about.
Still the Atlantic story was extensively covered in media in the framework of being accurate. However, when over 120 Islamic scholars and clerics released a letter in September detailing in specificity how the actions of ISIS—such as beheading aid workers and forcing conversion to Islam—violated the principles of Islam, that received far less media attention.
Same goes for when Muslims are killed by terrorists. In the Charlie Hebdo attack, the police officer we saw shot and killed while lying wounded on the sidewalk was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim who gave his life defending freedom of expression. While some media outlets covered that angle, it was a minor part of the story. The result is that the two terrorists defined Islam far more than Merabet.
And while our media rightly covered the recent despicable murder of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS, why don’t we see similar coverage of the literally daily slaughtering of Muslims by ISIS? The media’s failure to cover the Muslim men, women, and children killed by ISIS furthers the narrative that this is a war by Islam against the West, as opposed to what it truly is: ISIS versus everyone, Muslims included (and indeed on the front lines), who won’t submit to them.
While we hear other minority groups in the United States also bemoan the media’s obsession with covering their worst examples, the Muslim American community is unique. We are far more dependent upon the media in defining who we are since we are tiny, clocking in at about 1 to 2 percent of our nation’s population. And only 38 percent of Americans, per a Pew poll released last summer, actually know a Muslim.
So what can be done to change the media’s coverage? Well, complaining might have a slight impact, but I doubt it will change much.
But I did learn a valuable lesson this weekend. I tweeted out the article about the Muslims in Oslo, which ultimately made its way to Rush Limbaugh’s younger brother, David. (He’s also conservative.) He then tweeted out the link to the story with the words: “Bravo. Credit where credit is due” and included the link to the story. In turn, others shared the story.
The lesson is that to change media coverage, we, Muslims, need to strategically plan how to attract media coverage in a way that enables us to tell people what we are truly about. To date, we have focused on denouncing terrorism perpetrated by Muslims. But that isn’t working. First, not many people hear it because the media barely covers press events of Muslims condemning terrorism.
But more importantly, simply focusing on telling people what we are not does little to define who we are. Consequently, many of our fellow Americans don’t know what Islam is truly about and have no way of knowing that the terrorists are the exception, not the norm. We must change that.
True, it’s unlikely we can eclipse the coverage of the terrorists given the business model of the media. But perhaps we can at least create a counter narrative that chips away little by little at the inaccurate image created by the terrorists. I know that is a tall order, but it’s better than simply complaining and hoping things will change for the better.