After the brutal atrocities of the "Islamic State" (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham), Don Lemon, CNN's well-known anchorman, assembled a discussion last week addressing the question “Is Islam more violent than any other faith?”
Tawfik Hamid, author of “Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam," said that unlike other religions Islam has not “reformed” yet and confirmed that “today, Islam is more violent.” It was also disappointing to see that former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes agreed with the argument, saying, “Yes, it must be, otherwise how could all these groups take the name of Islam to justify violence and do what they do?” Fuentes reiterated that IS calls itself the “Islamic State,” adding, “We didn't pin that name on them.”
However, only Arsalan Iftikhar, director of the Islamic Monthly Magazine, opposed the arguments presented by the two speakers, arguing that it is not the religion leading the people to violence but the extreme ideas and ideologies of these groups, ideas that can be found in other religious groups as well, citing cases of extreme Christian groups who bomb abortion clinics in the US.
The way the questions were addressed during the program and the way it was debated have raised questions about how the media covers Islam. After the emergence of IS's atrocities, President Barack Obama stated that the IS does not represent Islam. Obama said: “The IS speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
Today, not only Muslims but also many non-Muslims believe that American mainstream media has been making major mistakes when covering Islam. The Arab-Israeli wars, the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, 9/11 -- all can be considered key factors in this media bias and one-sided coverage of Islam. However, the long-standing political rivalry between Islamic empires and non-Muslims since the medieval ages tends to trigger orientalist perspectives that reproduce negative portrayals of Islam again and again in Western media. A Gallup survey from 2011 reported that the coverage of American-Muslim terrorists in the mainstream media creates more bias and anti-Islamic sentiment in American society.
The Observatory of Religions and Secularism's 2012 report conducted in Belgium noted that Islam continues to be discussed in specific and reductive ways in Belgium's media. Many American Muslims tend to believe that the Western media cover Islam in a systematically negative way. While there are many positive aspects of Islam that can be covered, Western media get a lot of criticism when covering it. Thousands of schools, charities, hospitals and interfaith efforts of Muslims to promote pluralism all around the world do not get fair and sufficient media attention.
When the Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, for instance, strongly condemned the campaign of violence undertaken by IS, sending his condolences to its victims, including a slain American journalist, no American mainstream news organization considered this newsworthy. Professor Muhammad Shafiq, executive director of the Brian and Jean Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue and professor of Islamic and religious studies at Nazareth College, says the Hizmet movement, which is inspired by Muslim scholar Gülen, is following the Prophetic methodology to share the light of Islam: “I think the work of the Hizmet movement is more on a continuous and permanent basis. It is not just to help at certain times, when there is a disaster for example, but rather to create real compassionate humans. And once you have created compassionate humans in different parts of the world, they will rise up to erect and build a new world, a new world built on love, compassion, beautifying it. The Qur'an always asks us to bring ‘husna,' beauty, to the Earth. And that's what Islam is meant for.”
When Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the largest Muslim umbrella organization in North America, condemned IS, his message did not reach the mainstream media. "IS's actions against religious minorities in Iraq violate the Qur'anic teaching 'Let there be no compulsion in religion' (2:256). Their actions are to be denounced and are in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches," he said.
Iyad Madani, head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), asserted that the so-called "Islamic State militant group harms Islam. None of the [Islamic State's] acts or principles follow the tolerant teachings of Islam," he said. Again, these statements barely found space in the mainstream media. It is so sad to see that, today, Western media do not avoid using words like “Muslim” or “Islamic” as adjectives to describe Middle Eastern terrorists.
If the American media is eager to learn more about Islam, they should give more media space to mainstream Muslim scholars and professionals like doctors, teachers and scientists. They should learn how to distinguish between Islam and terrorism. Terrorists, no matter whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews, are those who politicize their religion for their own ideology and advantages.
The media should draw a line of distinction between Islam and terrorism, but Muslims should also improve their strategies to reach out to people who simply are not convinced about Islam and reject that Islam is a peaceful religion that aims to bring “husna” to the Earth.
Published on Today's Zaman, 08 September 2014, Monday