In a span of just over a month two incidents rocked my city of Jacksonville garnering wall-to-wall coverage in local media. The first was my nomination to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission. The mayor’s nomination, which is otherwise routinely approved by the City Council, drew an unusual and unprecedented scrutiny in my case. The second incendiary (no pun intended) situation was related to a pipe bomb that exploded at my city’s largest mosque and Islamic center. Both situations had one thing in common; it impacted Muslims who were the target of hate, anger and violence. And one other thing, both situations did not draw any national media attention, which led to at two American Muslim groups questioning the national media silence and double standards. But is such silence, as disturbing as it maybe, a sign of bias?
Decrying the national media’s silence as bias solidifies the misperception that the Muslim community is perpetually playing the victim card. In reality the Muslim community in Jacksonville feels anything but victims. The community faced formidable challenges but respond with positivity with timely help from public officials, faith leaders and law enforcement professionals. Far from being the victims, the Muslim community has been helped by the controversy as the local media has enabled an extended public dialogue on difficult issues like diversity, inclusiveness and faith. Such positive lessons deserve far more attention than any complains about bias.
Much of the controversy surrounding my nomination to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission was contrived. The first sparks flew when City Councilman Clay Yarborough emailed me a series of irrelevant questions regarding my views about the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the issue of legalizing gay marriage. Although I was under no obligation to answer his boorish questions, being very sensitive to the extreme misunderstanding about Islam and Muslims that permeates American society, I felt not answering the questions could cause greater harm.
Our local newspaper, the Florida Times Union, found out about this exchange (thorough Florida’s Sunshine Laws), and wrote a story. The media report had an unintended consequence. A hate group called ACT For America, which has a history of all being virulently anti- Muslim, predictably organized opposition to my nomination. ACT bombarded the city council and the mayor’s office with a series of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations mostly stemming from my past associations with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
As the situation unfolded, the local media generally acted with restraint. The local newspaper, Florida Times Union ran several stories refuting the spurious allegations of my links to terrorism. To the contrary, I have a long record of not only condemning terrorism in all its forms but also persistently advocating dialogue between faiths and nations. The newspaper also exposed Councilman Yarborough’s prejudices who when pressed by local columnist Mark Woods could not answer if Muslims deserve a chance to serve in public offices. The newspaper later used a full-page editorial to offer its unequivocal endorsement of my nomination. The local NPR radio station interviewed me on their morning show First Coast Connect allowing me to get my side of the story out in my own words. Later when Councilman Redman made the awkward request that I “pray” to “my God” it was the local media that took umbrage and over next several days painstakingly explained to the public the potential economic and social damage that are likely to result from this hullaballoo. As result of the media spotlight Councilman Redman later apologized.
Rather than decry what the national media did not do, American Muslims should celebrate what the local media and public officials did despite heavy pressure from a minority but vocal group. They exemplified that even in an age of extreme sensationalism responsible journalism and diligent public stewardship is alive and well. Partly as a result of this, the City Council was able to vote 13-6 in favor of my nomination.
When my mosque got bombed, literally hours before I was to attend my first meeting of the Human Rights Commission, many in the local media speculated that the bombing could be related to the anger exhibited by a few people who were most vocal in agitating against my nomination. The local media speculated that the circumstances were too coincidental, but did not sensationalize the issue. They exhibited great professionalism by staying with the story even when the blogosphere was complaining about too much attention being given to the bombing of a Muslim mosque. The local media rightfully felt that this matter required extended attention so long as the perpetrator of this heinous crime remains at large.
American Muslims, instead of decrying what did not happen, should celebrate what did. This is a teachable moment. The importance of relationship building with media and public officials, a task that is not undertaken with the seriousness it deserves, is amply demonstrated. The silence in the national media is less related to bias and more the result of a lack of meaningful relationships between the community and national media outlets.
Legitimacy of issues is not the only criterion that the media uses to focus its attention on a story. With many competing interests each fighting for media attention, it becomes the responsibility of American Muslims, individually or collectively, to undertake proactive steps to develop sustained relationships. The Jacksonville saga shows that getting the appropriate media attention and support from religious/civic organizations is much easier when the community has taken the time to build such relationships well in advance of a crisis. This more than anything else is the path to empowerment that American Muslims rightfully seek.
Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. With Seth Anderson he co-authored, “Mutual Funds: Fifty Years of Research Findings.” He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the American Muslim experience.