The editors of altmuslim.com are approached by the news media on a weekly – and sometimes even daily – basis for our insight into affairs in the Muslim world. As a result, we’ve come to know the reporters on the “Islam beat” at many major US and UK newspapers, as well as several radio and TV journalists, and have become familiar with their individual mastery of issues regarding Islam and the Muslim world. And over the years, we’ve come to some well-founded conclusions regarding Islam and the media.
First, while there are some very knowledgeable journalists that have done their homework and do a fair and responsible job, there are many other reporters assigned to write about our religion and community that have no business doing so. (Case in point: Any reporter that asks me, as one did a few weeks ago, the definition of “Assalamu alaikum” after four years of all-Islam-all-the-time media coverage is better off writing about something else.) Second, there are far too many columnists who have made it their mission to degrade Islam and dehumanize Muslims, often asking rhetorical questions challenging Muslim ideas and views, betting that the silence that follows will validate their points. Third, the agenda that defines how Islam is treated in the media is not based on our interests, nor is it based in the interests of reducing tensions between Muslims and others. It is driven by sensationalism and eyeballs, blood and guts, and creating a bogeyman on which frustrations ranging from the Iraq war to economic malaise can be pinned. Fourth, and most significantly, the collective Muslim response to the media’s coverage of Islam has been anemic at best, relegated to organization spokespeople that limit their insight to defensive bumper-sticker “talking points” and lay Muslims who are no match for aggressive reporters that have an agenda and who have done their homework.
Though Muslims have a stake in how our community is framed and discussed by the media, we have ceded that responsibility to others who have agendas that are not in our interest. We have allowed ourselves to be defined by others in the worst possible way – and too many well-meaning media consumers are buying it. What is needed in the face of this onslaught is a professional, independent Muslim press that can engage the media at large in a professional manner, helping to burst the alternate-reality bubble that has been allowed to grow so large. Dynamic, independent, and professional Muslim voices, free of restrictions based on organizational affiliation yet intimately connected to the mainstream Muslim community, can make a difference even if their numbers are small. We know this firsthand – our mere presence in major media outlets constantly changes the direction of the discourse away from “us vs. them” towards a more nuanced look at the issues facing our community. In other words, Muslims in the West need their own “fourth estate“.
But the value of an independent Muslim media is greater than simply being a more effective PR machine. These voices are needed to ask tough questions and spur critical thinking within Muslim communities, and take us beyond the defensiveness, dismissiveness, whitewashing, and self-promotion that we have become so used to in our internal dialogue. Muslims in the West are savvy and voracious consumers of the Western media. So why then should the Muslim media be afraid to rise to that same level of professionalism and open inquiry? It is inexcusable that a Western Muslim population of over 30 million has only a handful of folks analytical and objective enough to challenge both the sensationalism against Muslims in the Western media and the echo chambers of dialogue between Muslims that is addicted only to the obvious (i.e., support for the Palestinians, opposition to the Iraq occupation) to the detriment of honest internal critique and a meaningful engagement with a critical non-Muslim audience.
The current state of the Muslim press in the West has a number of unique characteristics which contribute to this mess. Many press outlets are linked (explicitly or otherwise) to an organization or other agent with a vested interest that conflicts with a truly free press. Full-time, university-trained journalists are both scarce and tend to take mainstream media jobs, leading to a lack of professionalism in the Muslim media. An English-language Muslim press that reaches out to English-speaking Muslims and non-Muslims needs to be proficient and effective in its use of the language. And those that wish to make a career in the Muslim media will find only a handful of full-time positions available (in our estimates, there are probably less than 25 full-time journalist positions in the US Muslim media). As businesses, the Western Muslim press is advertiser-dependent, and fear of controversial opinions that would drive away readership leads to self-censorship. What is left is only feel-good coverage that infers that our collective communities are passive, undynamic, and devoid of confidence.
Additionally, we have a press that engages in a sort of intellectual tribalism, refusing to question or criticise actions by Muslims simply because they’re Muslim. This is an understandable response to external pressure, of course, as these journalists see themselves on the front lines of defending our community against unfair attacks. The problem, however, is that the defense of the Muslim community in such an arena is best served by open and honest debate and inquiry, not in knee-jerk defensiveness. It is seen by many professional journalists, Muslim and otherwise, as proof that the Muslim media does not understand the power of a free press or how to best use it to serve the interests of the Muslim community. The Muslim community is best served by the truth, and a free press works best when used in the pursuit of truth rather than a building public relations facade. Here’s a tip for Muslims who have put themselves forward as spokespersons for the media: Many reporters that I have come to know can tell when they are being fed talking points rather than genuine insight, and they resent it – even the ones who are naturally inclined to support us.
In our opinion, however, the greatest need for an independent Muslim media is to engage inward, not outward. For too long, we have not cultivated a sophisticated dialogue within the Muslim community that we believe is needed in order to confront the challenges facing us. (There are some hopeful signs of such a dialogue in the Muslim blogosphere, but this is irrelevant and/or inaccessible for the vast majority of Muslims in the West.) An aggressively independent and professional Muslim media can explore the religious, cultural, and political plurality within the Muslim community, hold Muslim advocacy groups, businesses, and institutions accountable for their actions, present a forum for the civilized discussion of underrepresented or even controversial opinions, and increase the ability of ordinary Muslims to defend their faith beyond bumper-sticker platitudes. Without such a media at their disposal, ordinary Muslims are both blind to the sophistication of anti-Muslim forces that use the media and virtually unarmed against their attacks on our community.
How do we get to this promised land of a free and vigorous Muslim press? Muslim media organizations, even those that are not independent, should insist on universally-accepted journalistic standards. Take chances with subject matter – we think you’ll be surprised at how accepting most Muslims are of controversy that serves a higher purpose. Promote journalism as a professional career among young Muslims in the West. Spin off organizational media to be stand-alone, self-sufficient publications. Build and/or grow press associations for Muslim journals/journalists to promote professionalism. For Muslim journalists, professional or otherwise: create networks with mainstream journalists and use them to help hone your craft. Tap into the emerging talent and independent voices in the Muslim blogosphere to ensure journalistic transparency. And most importantly, subscribe to or otherwise support the independent Muslim media – outlets like Islamica Magazine, Azizah, Q-News, Illume, Radio Islam, Bridges TV, and others are on the vanguard of building healthy Muslim media sector, and they should be more widely supported.
We started altmuslim.com because we could no longer tolerate the damage being done to our community in the absence of an independent Muslim media. We would be happy if the emergence of one made us redundant.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.