Reporting on Islam: Journalists get a lesson

The American Observer, USA
April 17, 2002

By Toni Johnson

WASHINGTON -- The Islamic community faces a crisis of leadership, said a panel of experts last week at the American Society of Newspaper Editors annual convention in Washington.

A lack of cohesion within the Muslim world may be one reason for the lack of leadership, panelists said. They noted Muslims are as culturally diverse as Christians, but the U.S. media sometimes consider Muslims as a single culture.

In his remarks, panelist Akbar Ahmed, American University's Chair of Islamic Studies, asked, "Who speaks for Islam?"

Ingrid Mattson, a panelist, specializes in Islamic law and is a professor of Islamic Studies at the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations in Hartford, Conn. "To say that the ultimate law comes from God means different things to different Muslims," she said. "What we see in the modern period is a yearning of leadership ↧ for a leader that embodies these laws."

The panel spoke on April 12 about U.S. media coverage of Islam, discussing the war on terrorism, stereotyping Muslims and the assumptions made about the Islamic population.

The war on terrorism is more a war on ideology, said panelist Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. He noted that World War II was about ending fascism, the Cold War was about ending Marxist communism, and this war is about Islamic militancy.

"What we see is not a clash of civilizations, but of the future and soul of Islam," Pipes said.

Muslims are the first and primary victims of militant Islam, he said. There is not enough separation between religion and militancy in media coverage.

The problem is that commentators are attacking the Islamic faith itself, said panelist Ibrahim Hooper, director of Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"Everyone talks about incitement of hatred in the Islamic community, but there is tremendous incitement here," Hooper said, citing a editor who called for Muslim deaths in retaliation for the killing of Jews.

Journalists also need to be more nuanced in their use of Islamic terms. Ahmed noted that the word "Taliban" is the plural form of "Talib," meaning student of Islam. Newspapers and broadcasts are incorrect to refer to a single person as Taliban -- John Walker Lindh has been called the "American Taliban."

Another problem is that Muslims are not easily and adequately categorized. Journalists use words like "moderate" and "fundamentalism" without defining what that means, Mattson said.

For example, classifying Muslims as moderates doesn't differentiate whether they drink alcohol, prohibited by Islamic law, or whether they're moderate because of their politics.

Another way Americans lump Muslims together, Mattson said, is the belief that most Muslims here have ties to terrorists.

"I didn't know that everyone thinks you can link everyone back to fundamentalists," said Mattson calling this a "fallacy of links."

Hooper estimated that 67 million Muslims live in America. However, U.S. government statistics estimated somewhere between 5 million and 8 million Muslims live here. African-Americans are the largest Islamic community here, the U.S. State Department reported. However, the actual number of American Muslims cannot accurately be determined because the United States does not keep track of religious orientation.

Three major pluralities characterize Muslims in the United States -- Indo-Pakistani, Middle Eastern and African-American, Hooper said.

"The community is so diverse it is hard to get a handle on it," Hooper said. "There is no membership within a mosque. When it is time for prayer, you go to the nearest one."

Despite the Islamic pluralities within the United States, ethnic divisions still exist within mosques, Ahmed said, disagreeing with Hooper. "Go to any mosque and you will see that one group dominates," Ahmed said.

Both Mattson and Hooper converted to Islam as adults. Hooper noted that he was particularly attracted to messages of universal brotherhood and anti-racism within the religion.

"One advantage of being American is we can get rid of cultural baggage that other Muslims have to deal with like the treatment of women," Hooper said.

Mattson said some of the religious laws imposed by Islamic countries are misinterpretations of the Quran. The laws of the United States are actually harmonious with the roots of Islamic law, she said.

"The United States is actually seen as being very religious," Mattson said, noting that American secular society gives Muslims greater freedom to practice their religion than traditional Islamic societies.

A publication of the School of Communication at American University

Toni Johnson can be reached at

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