CNN and the Muslim Women Next Door

Coming on the heels of a seemingly endless surge of anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S., CNN picked the most opportune moment to air its special on Muslims, titled “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” with reporter Soledad O’Brien.

After having been glued to the news in the last couple of weeks, following Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Muslim extremism in the United States and the recent display of anti-Muslim bigotry to hit the community of Southern California, I cringed at the title of this documentary.

The commercials, accompanied by what can be described as the soundtrack to a thriller, seemed to employ fear-mongering tactics to get viewers to tune in. Ready for the onslaught of virulent stereotypes that usually accompanies stories about Muslims, I was armed with an arsenal of curses to churn out at the television screen.

However, I was fairly surprised by the way the documentary portrayed American Muslims and specifically, American Muslim women. Muslim women are portrayed as active members of American society and as a multi-dimensional group.

The hour long special documents the heated debate surrounding the building of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Local community members are polarized, prompting a series of hearings against the proposed Islamic center in order to justify withholding constitutional rights of freedom of religion. It is here that viewers witness a series of heartbreaking Islamophobic sentiments fueled by ignorance and bigotry.

In attempt to show how different community members of Murfreesboro, Tennessee have been affected by this controversy, O’Brien interviews a varied group of individuals. Among them were a handful of Muslim women, who are as diverse in their appearances as in their experiences as American Muslim women.

Two of these young women, who are both students at Tennessee State University, are among those interviewed by O’Brien. They say they always felt welcome in their city, even after 9/11.

For years, some 250 Muslim families, who consider the town of Murfreesboro home, have been practicing their faith and worshipping at the local Islamic center, which has now become too small to house the growing congregation. The proposed mosque would include a place for both men and women to pray, a swimming pool and a cemetery.  When the Muslim students heard about the new Islamic center one of them says, “It was a dream come true.”

As construction on the land (purchased by donations from mosque-goers) began, the community was shaken by acts of vandalism: the mosque sign was spray painted and building equipment was set on fire. One of the girls says that it was hard to see the words “not welcome” spray painted on the sign.

Another Muslim woman, Ivy, the wife of the mosque Imam, was also interviewed. She is a white woman who was raised Methodist and converted to Islam after 9/11. When asked by O’Brien why she converted, she said that anyone who knew a Muslim would hear the things said about Muslims after 9/11 and say it wasn’t true. So she picked up a Qur’an and started reading it to find out for herself.

In response to the mosque vandalism, Ivy says that the hardest thing for her is hearing her young daughter voice concern about her mother’s safety while wearing hijab outdoors. The tactics of intimidation, she says, have affected the children more than anything. When asked by Soledad if she thinks people hate her she replied, “No, I don’t. I just think they don’t know or understand who we are.”

Perhaps the most moving testimony comes from a 19-year-old woman, Lema Sbenaty, who is a member of the Muslim community of Murfreesboro. As hearings prompted by anti-mosque community members take place, Lema speaks out, saying she was raised as an American Muslim and she is like any other 19-year-old girl in the community.

Upon leaving the courthouse, she is met by a congresswoman who, in attempt to discredit the mosque, says that Shariah law oppresses Muslim women. Lema challenges the woman, but is ultimately ignored. The imam’s wife later reiterates Lema’s statements, saying, “I am not oppressed.” She says that even though she is the imam’s wife, she and her husband make decisions in the home as a family.

Soledad later asks Lema, “Why not just not build it [the mosque]?” Lema responds by saying that it is their right. She says she understands people’s fears but, an entire community of people cannot be condemned for the actions of a few.

Among the local anti-mosque community members who are interviewed, Sally Wall, a prominent Murfreesboro community member does not shy away from telling viewers how she really feels.

In a move so indicative of the pervasiveness of media images of Muslim women on American society, Sally produces the cover of a recent TIME magazine featuring a disfigured Afghan woman. She says that she is worried that this is what will happen to women here if this Islamic center is built.

If the alleged fear over the mistreatment of American Muslim women is the real concern here, I think it would suffice to say that the likes of Sally Wall and other members of the Murfreesboro community pose the real threat to American Muslim women. Their attempt to marginalize Muslim women and cast-type them as a fringe group of Americans, undeserving of their first amendment rights, is symptomatic of a larger problem: racism and Islamophobia is yet to be passé in America.

Editor’s Note: I have changed the title from “CNN Fails (Again) at the Muslim Women Next Door” to better reflect the piece.

  • Muslimah82

    Okay, I don’t get how it’s CNN’s fail. You mentioned the picture of the mutilated woman, but that was Sally Wall’s picture and her opinion, albeit very wrong and ignorant opinion.

    Grant it I have yet to view the documentary yet but did CNN interview another Muslim woman after Ms. Wall’s interview counteracting her statements?

  • Safia

    Agree with Muslimah82. Where’s the analysis? How does the title even match up with the positive summary that follows?

  • Fatemeh

    @Muslimah82 & Safia: CNN’s failure here is in its inherent fear-mongering. The trailer above is all kinds of ominous–how is anyone supposed to keep an open mind with all the “dun dun DUN” happening?

    But perhaps you’re right about the title. I put that on, not Diana. Any suggestions of how I could change it to reflect the piece better?

  • Eba

    Exactly ^^. How is this a fail? The review makes it seem as if the production was actually countered the unjustified stereotypes against Islam and against American Muslim women.

  • Diana

    Yea, I kind thought that too when I saw the title but, I knew what you were getting at.

    CNN did do a good job showing multidimensional American Muslim women. Although some have said that some Muslim women were not represented, the scope was limited by the specificity of the story followed not necessarily by a blatant choice or ill intent on the part of CNN.

    Where we did feel CNN fell short here was with the commercials and the trailer. It was not an accurate portrayal of the story it covered, which I believe, was a way to just get people to tune in by playing up the fear factor.

    But, like the analysis says, it was a fairly (surprisingly) decent portrayal of Muslim women, despite the way it was advertised.

  • Eba

    Just saw your response Fatemeh. How about “Despite over-reaching promos, CNN’s Muslims in America special features good, balanced reporting” or something like that?

  • Emma Apple

    I think the commercial you posted was OK, it could have been a bit better as far as the dun dun DUN’ness of it, but it’s not TOO bad, a lot of the dun dun DUN is about the anti-Muslim rhetoric on display.

    Suggestions for the title? Not sure, but I do agree that the title doesn’t reflect the article, which I loved!

  • SakuraPassion

    Yes I get the trailer, it does invoke an ominous feeling. Which is unfortunate because I think the special did a nice job at showing Muslims in a multi-dimensional light. What I would have liked is if the special was longer.

  • luckyfatima

    I thought it was a good report, Soledad O’brien did a great job in the face of some ugly rhetoric that came up in interviews. Lema Snebaty was amazing, too. I guess I tuned in because of the fear-mongering trailers, but I liked what I saw overall.

    I will say that I don’t think the idea of Muslims as abusers of women was challenged enough. I also don’t think the explanation of Shari’ah was thorough enough. Those are two real issues of misunderstanding that we regularly deal with then we encounter prejudice or just plain curiosity from non-Muslims, and the show was a good platform to shed a tad more light on those two topics. But I don’t think enough time was spent on either one. That IS what the non-Muslims want to know about us.

    I hated that the old Murfreesboro mosque has a separate prayer space for women and that this is what is shown to non-Muslim viewers. Yuck. It is reality, and I know how that *looks* to them, especially in the context of other issues brought up by mosque opponents. I hope the new mosque is big enough to welcome all worshippers into the main musallah, male and female, even if there is a separate space for women who choose to use it, but they are not forced into a separate space.

    I was glad to see multi-racial, interfaith pro-mosque demonstrations in Murfreesboro. That was touching.

    I hope CNN does a follow up on the outcome of the situation in Murfreesboro.

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  • Iman

    I must admit, of all of Soledad’s “Black in…. or Latino in America,special’s” this was done the best.

    The only issue I had was most of the muslims were Arab, with acception of the Imam’s wife. I really think its important for us as a community, to also involve muslims that have been in N.America for generations. ie African Americans, Native Americans, and in the case of this mosque white muslims. Because clearly you see a major disconnect, when so many non-muslims equate muslims as only Arabs. Throughout the piece, we constantly heard the rhetoric “go home”…I mean try telling that to a Native American muslim…or an African American sister….it just doesn’t jive.

    Secondly, a lot of the “arguements” the people against the mosque use are almost similar to the ones used during the Jim Crow era…viewing Blacks as the “other”, now its the muslims turn.

    I think we need to be steadfast, and confident because as the Imam said “we have something they don’t have the constitution!!!”.

    But I think the ending was poignant, when Soledad asked the older woman if she met any of the muslims from Murfreesboro?, and she said something to the effect of honestly they haven’t made any effort to meet me, and I haven’t made the effort either.

    And I really think thats one of the main problems, I think the muslim community should have had an open house, a question and answer period, had a tour of the mosque (even the small one they’re using now)…..what ever you can do. Who knows 30 people may show up….or just 1. It doesn’t matter how many, as long as the mosque door is always open.

  • http://nil rassaq

    I am a seaman I have traveled all over Europe and some ports in USA and latine and south America and african ports all the asian countries and most of the far east countries. In all these places where the muslims are oppressed and ill treated in the western countries, muslims are isolated in the europian countries and in amarica very much, people were complaining about the life style of muslims and says they are the bad people of the country, but when I interrogate those who says have no evidence of their bad behavior but the people that belongs to other religion have day to day crimes in the cities where I visited during my 20 years of sea life.