Time is Running Out (of Interesting Things to Say About Muslims)

The latest issue of TIME features a photo essay and article on American Muslims. From a magazine that featured a cover “Should Christians Convert Muslims?” (June 30, 2003) and headlines like “Does the Koran Condone Killing?” (Sept. 13, 2004), this latest coverage is markedly different. There’s nothing shocking, and it gives a hint to why TIME might make the rest of its coverage of Muslims so inflammatory. These new pieces are, frankly, dull.

A personal essay on being a Muslim woman accompanies a series of photographs of Muslims in the New York area. The essay, titled “What It Means to be American — and Muslim” — yes, the two identities can coexist; get over it — outlines the pillars of Islam, explains why the writer wears hijab, and references an incident of harassment in response to the hijab. As far as coverage of Muslim women living in Western countries goes, this is as basic as you can get. For anyone who knows anything about Islam, these pieces offer nothing new. That doesn’t mean they’re not valuable — surely and sadly, there are still people who don’t know that non-violent Muslims exist. Additionally, it was fascinating to see that the writer of the piece, Shireen Khan, is a producer for time.com. (They actually hire Muslims?) Still, TIME could have and should have done a better job.

The fact that Muslims aren’t all terrorist fanatics seems to be such news that TIME hasn’t reached the point of portraying Muslims as real people. Take a look at the collection of 15 photos, which feel more decorative than anything else.

The photo essay opens with a photo of a Palestinian-South Korean college student working on a design for fashion school. Yes, a Muslim woman can be interested in fashion. Even if she wears hijab. Old news. (Points for including a Muslim of East Asian descent though.) But at least this Muslim woman is doing something. Other women do absolutely nothing unless wearing hijab and looking at the camera counts (example #1, example #2). It’s even more exciting when the lighting is dramatic or there’s a window involved. Children are featured for being children (example #1, example #2), or being children — get this! — near a mosque. With another mosque photo, a Muslim chaplain, Islamic classes, an Islamic school, and the standard “Look at them pray” shot, you’d think that the Muslims never ever leave the mosque — unless it’s to do something else stereotypically Islamic. Wait, there is something else they do: gather. And this is something across the board: women gather, men gather, and even children gather!

And there’s the Muslim existence, summarized. Nonthreatening perhaps (but I don’t know about all that gathering…) but completely uninteresting. Photographer Ziyah Gafic was born in Bosnia and is based in Sarajevo — you’d think he’d have seen enough Muslims by now to be able to show them as real people with real and complex lives. He does, however, nod to ethnic and racial diversity. On the other hand, he shows little diversity in dress. Little girls are the only females not consistently shown in hijab.

With the focus on hijab and prayer, Khan’s written essay does nothing to challenge the photo essay’s portrayal of Muslims. Come on, where are the issues Muslims face? Where is the diversity of the Muslim community? Where are all the things Muslims do besides pray and gather? Don’t these journalists know what an angle is?

If this is TIME’s attempt to improve its coverage of Muslims, the magazine still has a ways to go.

  • Anonymous

    #1) The photo’s show mostly Muslims of the Sufi Jarrahi order, which is great, but by no means representative of the larger community in America. It also only has photo’s of Muslims from NY.#2) South Asian Muslims are the largest group of Muslims in North America (and among the first Muslims to settle in North America, USA and Canada alike) and all they show is one photo about a Bengali sister (who also, belongs to the Jerrahi order). NY has PLENTY of South Asian Muslims communities (of many sects, languages etc).I think this should be titled “Some Middle-Eastern, African-American and Eastern European Muslims in New York”, not that there’s anything wrong with the article focusing on some groups, it just doesn’t do justice to a title like “Muslims in America”. Muslims in America are too diverse to even be lumped together like this.

  • Marcia

    Bless you for making me laugh this morning. I was nearly going to let this horrid local conservative columnist give me a coronary. (Teacher breaks wall of silence at state’s Muslim public school: http://www.startribune.com/local/17406054.html)The attitude of MMW is like a daily infusion of goodness.

  • Duniya

    Bo-ring. Same old, same old.And I agree with anonymous. We are too diverse a population to be lumped together in one article. I’m really tired of us being seen as a monolithic group. Sigh.

  • Anonymous

    Wait – do you want them to show pics of a bunch of people drinking (which several muslims do); or a bunch of women walking around head-uncovered in everyday shirt-pant (which several western muslim women do); or show them dancing in some wedding (which several muslims do); or watching some bollywood movie (which several muslims do). And not showing any muslim in the mosque (since well, most muslims like any other religion are typically cultural and convenience-religious, and go only on fridays, if that).That wouldn’t be stereotypical, and certainly show a broad range of behavior. But would you be happy then?

  • Zeynab

    Anonymous, it isn’t quite about “if reporteers do this, then we will happy.” Muslims are not one big group of people who all live, act, or practice Islam the same way; presenting us like this hurts us rather than helps us. We watch Bollywood movies and dance. What’s wrong with showing us like we are? That doesn’t necessarily mean that women who wear hejab won’t wear take them off for the camera unless they want to, but I think that showing us acting like the humans we are is a preferable aim.

  • Duniya

    anonymous:You have made some offensive judgements about Muslims. Why not show Muslims drinking and/or dancing? Are they not still Muslim? Why not show women wearing shirts and pants? Are us Western Muslim women who wear shirts, pants, capris, shorts, skirts etc not Muslim?Why not show us watching Bollywood movies? Are South Asian Muslims not Muslim?This is all Muslim behaviour as Muslim engage in it. We are an extremely diverse population and to assume that we are all the same is actually quite offensive and racist. By denying our individuality it denies our individual ability to think. It assumes that our behaviour is determined by our community and not our own agency. It paints us as passive while the majority population is painted as active. Additionally, it places pressure on members of the group to tow the group line. It tells us that there is just one way of being – this is clearly inaccurate as there are so many interpretations of Islam. These are just some of the serious repercussions to assuming we are monolithic.

  • Sakura Kiss

    I see your point, zeynab. From the looks of it, especially the pictures of Muslims being near mosques, it makes it look as though Muslims don’t have lives outside mosques.

  • seema

    Re: “(since well, most muslims like any other religion are typically cultural and convenience-religious, and go only on fridays, if that).”To the culture/religion dichotomy implied above as written by anonymous #2, I must point out that religion is very much embedded in culture. If some cultures practice the same religion differently (and this includes intensity and frequency of practice, or rather, ‘perceived’ intensity and frequency of ‘practice’), you cannot say they aren’t ‘practicing believers’.And by the way, Muslims living in ‘western’ countries, have many characteristics that have given them a distinct culture of multiple fusions. The aforementioned perceived “convenience of religion” that you point out may have more to do with the fact that in the west, time cycles of “work, play, live” don’t really correspond with previous understandings of Muslim daily life. Western Muslims have had to accommodate to in order to survive. It doesn’t make them any less ‘Muslim’. Indeed, all the more to them for refusing to give up their personal Muslims identities.Re: Bollywood, It speaks the tongue(s) of a people (some of whom) adopted the Muslim faith (but not the arabic tongue). It represents different aspects of a culture that has evolved over roughly 4000 years (and yeah, that includes many beloved non-Muslim and Muslim cultures). Muslims in South Asia have been at the forefront of this incredible film industry that incidentally has preserved (albeit in many forms) so many South Asian Muslim histories. I doubt Hollywood in all its orientalist glory could do a better job.Re: Happiness has much more to do with personal fulfillment, and less to do with seeing an article in Time magazine about Muslims doing all sorts of activities. Perhaps ‘satisfied’ or even ‘accepting’ would be a better term to use. And for the record, I would be ‘satisfied’ to see stories of Muslims with multiple identities engaging in a range of lively activities.

  • Henry

    Wait a minute Fatemeh-Muslim women can be interested in fashion? Did you know that?…I need to sit down for a minute.

  • anisa

    “Come on, where are the issues Muslims face? Where is the diversity of the Muslim community? Where are all the things Muslims do besides pray and gather?”They are better discovered in blogs, not a few pages in magazine.

  • Duniya

    anisa:You’re absolutely right. Magazine or newspaper articles just don’t have the room to capture everything. That’s why blogs are so important in showing the diversity more accurately.

  • Anonymous

    i agree that the slideshow was disappointingly narrow and provincial/orientalist. but one small gripe with this post — give the poor photographer a break!!! he probably submitted dozens of photos (if not more), which the time multimedia editors whittled down to these 16 that suited their own agenda.

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