Reporting about Islam: How not to cover Ramadan

Dude, eat something

With the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starting at sunset tomorrow night, religion reporters around the country are already scratching their heads, trying to think up a fresh angle on a holiday that, like most, happens pretty much the same way every year.

We are sure to see, especially in smaller-market news outlets, lots of “Ramadan 101″ stories. These pretty much write themselves:

Headline: Area Muslim teens keep the faith during Ramadan

Lede: Rayyan Abdel-Latif, 16, will be running at her Springfield High School track meet this Saturday, but she will have a unique hurdle to overcome. In keeping with her Muslim faith, Abdel-Latif, whose parents emigrated from Jordan before she was born, will be fasting during daylight hours on Saturday and throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “It seems like fasting is hard, but really God said it is not a hardship for us,” said Abdel-Latif.

Nut graf: With the holy month beginning at sunset tomorrow night, Springfield-area Muslims, which number an estimated 5,000 according to the Islamic Society of Springfield, will be swearing off not only food but drink, smoking and other luxuries during daylight hours. Not just a physical test, Ramadan is about food, family and faith, say local Muslims.

Photo: Abdel-Latif smiling in headscarf

These types of articles, of course, serve an important purpose, informing those who don’t have a clue what Ramadan or Islam is all about. Given that so many Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam (39% in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center), just offering a basic primer on belief and practice is worthwhile. At the same time, however, this type of coverage runs two risks:

1. It can be boring (Imagine: “Area Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth with food, family and faith,”) and
2. It can dramatically oversimplify the lives of Muslims in the U.S., with unintended negative results.

The solution to both of these problems lies in journalists finding more complex story angles and drawing from a wider variety of sources. If one read or heard or saw only “basic primer” stories on Islam/Ramadan, one would get the misleading impression that American Muslims are, by definition, enthusiastically observant of their religion.

The problem here is sources: When a journalist needs to find Muslims to interview, where do they go? To mosques, Islamic schools or local Muslim organizations. And who do they find through such channels? Observant mosque-going Muslims. While such observant über-Muslims make perfect interview subjects if you want to explain the traditional rules governing Ramadan — because those Muslim follow those all rules — they are not representative.

The May 2007, study of American Muslims by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life had this finding:

Nearly one-quarter (23%) of Muslim Americans have a high level of religious commitment, which is defined as attending mosque at least once a week, praying all five salah every day, and reporting that religion is “very important” in their lives. About as many (26%) have a relatively low level of religious commitment, rarely engaging in these practices and generally regarding religion as less important in their lives. A majority of American Muslims (51%) fall somewhere in between.

Journalists need to be aware that mosques and Islamic schools tend to have vetted, designated spokespeople (I know — I used to be one of them) who will give an orthodox interpretation of Muslim life. This is not to suggest Muslim organizations are doing something wrong — they are doing their best to receive the press coverage they want, and most other religious organizations do the same.

The point is that journalists who call up a mosque asking for sources on Ramadan are likely to be interviewing the top one-percent most religious Muslims. This gives people the false impression that Muslims are extremely religious. And it’s a short jump, of course, from “extremely religious” to “fanatical.”

So how do you find more representative sources? I offer these tips:

Fall back on the journalist’s oldest trick: interviewing your taxi driver. In many cities, as often as not, this person will be a Muslim immigrant. Ask in a casual way about what he (okay, or she) likes about Ramadan, how it’s celebrated here in the U.S. versus his home country.

Use social networking: It’s not journalistic-ly haraam, in my view, to find sources through friends and acquaintances. Do you have a neighbor with a Muslim-sounding name? Have you ever noticed how many Muslims people and Muslim interest groups are on Facebook?

Interview people, not their religion: Make your sources feel you are interesting in finding out how they personally practice Islam or celebrate Ramadan. If you give the impression you want them to represent their religion to the entire (and often hostile) American people, then you’re more likely to get defensive, apologetic, orthodox answers.

Read the Muslim press: You’ve got lots to choose from now, including altmuslim.com, The American Muslim, Naseeb Vibes, Islamica, Illume, Muslim Girl, Azizah, Sisters, or your local Muslim newspaper (if you live near a relatively large Muslim community, there probably is one. In the DC area, it’s the Muslim Link). And this is not even to mention Muslim blog aggregation sites, like Hadithuna, or popular Muslim social networking sites like Naseeb.com.

The great thing about reading the Muslim press is that journalists will get a feel for the internal debates in the Muslim community, which are often quite different from debates non-Muslim have about Muslims. For example, “Are all Muslims terrorists?” is not a big conversation-starter among Muslims. However, ask an American Muslim about whether “halal” meat is really halal, whether ethnicity should factor into choosing your spouse, and whether the Nation of Islam made any positive contributions to Islam in America, and you’ll get a conversation going pretty quick. Recently, American journalists have covered the intense intra-Muslim debate about marking the beginning and end of Ramadan, which is to be applauded.

As altmuslim.com founder and editor, Shahed Amanullah, said in a Beliefnet interview with Omar Sacirbey last year:

It’s good that America sees [Muslim internal debate] because one of the fears Americans have about American Muslims is that we’re automatons that do what people tell us to do. When Americans see our internal debates, I think that reassures them that we’re human, and we’re trying to resolve our issues.

So, to close this out, here are my story suggestions for this year’s Ramadan:

Ramadan when you aren’t fasting: Many Muslims are do not fast during Ramadan because of chronic illnesses such as diabetes. What’s it like to be around observant Muslims all month when you can’t fast yourself? Do you feel left out?

Fasting while pregnant or breastfeeding: Talk about a hot topic; Muslim women debate this one heatedly every year. Some say Islamic law allows all pregnant or nursing women to forgo fasting, others say that dispensation is only allowed in certain situations. Some women face peer pressure to fast while pregnant (“Back in Egypt, all the pregnant women fast!” “My Muslim doctor told me it was fine to fast!”) Is there any data on the safety of fasting while pregnant?

Fasting when it’s the only way you observe Islam: Many Muslims do not offer five daily prayers, dress modestly, or attend their local mosques. For some non-observant Muslims, however, Ramadan is a special time to get back to God — they may throw away the alcohol in their homes during Ramadan, try not to smoke, and observe some if not all of the fasting. Headline possibility: Ramadan for slackers.

Fasting while menstruating: A topic not for the faint of heart, and you’d do better if you were a woman reporter. But still, it’s a good story because it gets to the heart of modern views of classical Islamic tradition, which holds that women should not pray or fast while menstruating. The Prophet Muhammed reportedly said that women are “deficient” in their religious worship because of this exception for their menstrual periods.

And for photos: How about something besides a girl in a headscarf or men bending over in prayer?

Andrea Useem, a longtime freelance journalist and creator of ReligionWriter.com, writes and produces content on religion and other topics for national news outlets. She lives in Northern Virginia with husband and three sons. This piece was originally published on ReligionWriter.com.


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