When the News Media Focus on Islam's Internal Struggles
Journalists highlight the secular Muslim vision ‘because it reflects a Western outlook that Islam needs to transform and modernize.’
The blame for September 11th, at one time based on President George Bush's theory that everything happening in the Islamic world is a response to Muslim envy of Westernization and a longing for the glorious days of the Ottoman Empire, has now evolved into a new explanation: The root of the problem lies not in a clash between Islam and the West, but rather an internal struggle within Islam itself.
This notion, advanced by American journalists here and abroad, is quite convenient not only for the U.S. government but for public morale. If the problem lies in Islam's conflicted identity as a 1,400-year-old religion trying to reconcile its doctrine with the modern world, then United States' foreign policy over the last half-century in the Middle East and in some predominantly Muslim countries is not at fault. It is also convenient for another reason: The internal Muslim debate allows the media, and by extension public opinion, to take sides in the struggle with the intention of influencing the outcome. There is no doubt that an intensive struggle exists within Islam that ranges from theological issues to the role of clerics in governing a state. But this should remain a Muslim issue, not one the West should decide.
In the early days of the Iraq War, for example, the Iraqi Sunnis were "good" Muslims who should prevail in governing the state over the Shi'ites. Similarly, in Western societies with increasing Muslim populations, it is the "secular" (good) Muslims who should be welcomed as full-fledged citizens while religious "bad" Muslims, who wear headscarves on the streets of London and New York, should be shunned for their backwardness and unwillingness to adopt the fundamental principles of Western liberalism.
This "good" Muslim "bad" Muslim characterization is particularly evident with stories about Muslims living either in the United States or in Europe. In reporting the internal divides among Muslims, the "good" Muslim is often described as "moderate." These are Muslims who take pride in their national identity as American, British or French, who at the very least are willing to compromise Islamic ideals in order to fully integrate into a Western society and, at the most, publicly criticize other Muslims and Islamic doctrine.
One glaring example was coverage on CNN's neoconservative Glenn Beck show in March. Beck devoted an hour of live coverage to what was called "The Secular Islam Summit," held in St. Petersburg, Florida. Some of the organizers and speakers at the convention have received massive media attention in recent years. Irshad Manji, author of "The Trouble With Islam Today," and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch parliamentarian and author of the best-seller "Infidel," were but a few there claiming to have suffered personally at the hands of "radical" Islam. One participant, Wafa Sultan, declared on Glenn Beck's show that she does not "see any difference between radical Islam and regular Islam."
This secular Muslim vision is highlighted because it reflects a Western outlook that Islam needs to transform and modernize. But for the vast majority of Muslims, such coverage is offensive not only because a small fringe is given massive exposure, but also because it is the media, not Muslims, who have the power to decide who speaks for Islam. Giving attention to the minority of "secularists" overshadows the views of the majority.
The tendency to champion "secular" or "moderate" Muslims is also apparent in journalists' coverage of the struggle within Islam over gender equality. Time and time again, Muslim women opposed to wearing headscarves are profiled as brazen activists who dare to challenge the great numbers of those wearing hijab, who say they do so out of devotion to the faith. According to typical portrayals, particularly reporting about Muslims living in the West, the headscarf is the litmus test; those who wear it are less interested in full integration than those who do not.
In the United States, a divisive issue within the Muslim community concerns where women should pray in a mosque. Across the country, the consensus is that women should pray in a different space, whether it is behind men, in an adjoining prayer hall, or even in a basement. In conservative mosques, the often male-dominated mosque governing boards require women to pray in a space isolated from the imam delivering the sermon and the male worshipers. As part of this internal struggle, an African-American Muslim activist, Amina Wadud, in the spring of 2005 decided to bring the issue out into the open by leading a mixed congregation of Muslim men and women in prayer in New York City. The incident sparked a fierce debate that included religious scholars from the Middle East who denounced her actions and declared her an apostate.
For the most part, the extensive news coverage of this incident sided with the female activist and dismissed criticism from Muslims who said her actions violated the principles of the faith. Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a scholar in Doha with a wide following, issued a fatwa in response to the prayer service, saying that all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence were clear: Women may lead prayers only before other women. Many Muslims expressed similar views on Islamic Web sites. "We need not judge Amina Wadud only by what she is doing this Friday," wrote one writer on the site of Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language cable network. "We need to judge her by the pending issues on the agenda of her sponsors and supporters. To us, they have crossed all limits. To them, they have just taken the first step towards transforming Islam into a 'progressive' and 'moderate' form according to the wishes of the enemies of Islam."
Muslims in the United States are trying to respond to this distorted media vision by gaining greater access to broadcast and print. More Muslims are appearing on television and writing opinion pieces in newspapers. But it has not been easy for several reasons. Until September 11th, the fractured Muslim leadership in the United States was unaccustomed to participating in either foreign policy debates or public discussions about their faith. Over the past six years, they have been compelled not only to become public figures but also to break through the walls of exclusion that showcase other voices. Muslims often tell me that there are certain top-tier newspapers in the United States that rarely accept op-eds reflecting mainstream Muslim opinion. This opinion ranges from Muslim views that the United States's foreign policy agenda is based upon Israel's interest in the Middle East to sentiment that Muslims should be allowed to be Muslims, irrespective of Western conventions.
While Muslims have been successful in publishing more frequently in smaller and more localized publications, they have also arrived at another alternative, however limited. Muslims are creating their own media. An imam in Chicago created "Radio Islam" in the fall of 2004. Despite its mostly Muslim listeners and the frequency—an ethnic radio network broadcast only in the Chicago area—the daily show opens with the idea that everyone is talking about Muslims and Islam. "Now it is time for you to talk," says the radio announcer. A leader from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group with its headquarters in Washington, D.C., is host to an NPR program in Florida. And a Lebanese radio host broadcasts weekly from Pacifica radio in Los Angeles. These are only a few examples.
Is there a solution to enlightening those in the media and the public? Not in the near future. The generation of journalists now covering Muslims in the East and the West are generally uneducated about contemporary Islam, and universities in the United States have been slow to establish new faculties since September 11th. And there is another, more profound, obstacle. Even if American reporters immersed themselves in courses on Islamic studies, the baggage they—and their editors—carry of viewing this religion and ideology through a Western prism, rather than on its terms, is likely to remain. What is required is a new intellectual enlightenment about an ideology and faith that is vastly different from anything Americans have encountered.
Geneive Abdo is a 2002 Nieman Fellow. For nearly a decade, she reported from the Middle East and in Iran. She is the author of three books on contemporary Islam, including "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11," published in 2006 by Oxford University Press.