How to Write about Muslims (for real)

How to Write about Muslims (for real) March 4, 2009

This piece was written by both Sobia and Krista

After getting all of that sarcasm out of our systems two weeks ago, we decided it might be useful to put together a list of actual guidelines for writing about Muslims.  Of course, this is mostly just wishful thinking, because if reporters actually seemed willing to adhere to guidelines like this, then there would be no need for this blog.  But here are some suggestions anyway.

A lot of this isn’t new stuff, as you’ll see from the many MMW posts that we link to, which illustrate some of our guidelines in more detail.

So, here you go: the shockingly un-sarcastic version of “How to Write About Muslims.”

Rule #1: Don’t assume that Muslim women need to be saved, or that you know how to save them.

By making this assumption, what one is essentially doing is:

  • Assuming that all Muslim women are somehow oppressed at the hands of their fellow Muslims.  The Muslim community is just as diverse as any other.  By generalizing in such a way, one maligns the entire community, including the women.  This is offensive to the many women who are treated with respect and equality by their fellow Muslims, including Muslim men.  This assumption also ignores the forms of oppression that Muslim women may be facing from outside of the Muslim community, such as racism and Islamophobia (or even war and occupation, in cases like Iraq and Afghanistan), which for some women can be much more disastrous than anything they experience from their Muslim community.
  • Assuming that Muslim women can’t take care of themselves.  This is very patronizing.  Muslim women have agency, and a great deal of it.  Throughout history and today, Muslim women have been taking various forms of leadership.  In situations where women are being oppressed, they are resisting in all sort of ways that the media doesn’t always think about.  Additionally, most Muslim countries have Muslim women’s organizations that are working hard to support themselves and other women.
  • Assuming that what you’re going to do for them is going to be helpful.  The assumption is that you know better than them what’s good for them.  It also suggests that you are actually in a position to help them, which might not be true.

These two posts by Faith go into more detail about what is wrong with making these assumptions.

Rule #2:Rather than assuming you know what Muslim women’s lives are like, try asking them.

Too often, writers write about Muslim women without ever having tried to find out what Muslim women’s lives are like from their perspective.  This is poor research, and feeds into the problematic assumptions discussed in Rule #1.  Do your homework, and try hard to connect to the specific women that you are writing about.  Even if you are writing about women in another country, try to connect to women’s organisations in that country.  At the very least, try to connect to women from that country who are living in your own community.

Rule #3: Be careful of who you talk to regarding Islam and/or Muslim women.

Don’t assume, just because someone is Muslim, that all Muslims will agree with them or that they represent all Muslims.  For example, Muslims who have made a career out of calling other Muslims Islamists, and who base their credibility on the number of other Muslims who don’t like them, are not a good source of information. Generally, people who work within an Islamic framework, as opposed to always bashing Islam, are more likely to understand the Muslim community.

If you’re looking for information on Islam and Muslims, works by the following people might be of interest: Dr. Jasmin Zine, Dr. Asifa Quraishi (discussed here on MMW), Dr. Amina Wadud, Dr. Asma Barlas, Dr. Tariq Ramadan, and Imam Shabbir Ally.  (Note that neither we nor MMW necessarily endorses everything that any of these people say.  See also the comment section of this post for some more suggestions of people who can represent Muslims.)

Rule #4: Understand that Muslims are just like anyone else in terms of their belief systems.  Not everything a Muslim does has to do with Islam.

Although Islam may play an important role in the lives of many Muslims, this does not mean that every action a Muslim takes, good or bad, is related to his/her religion. Believing everything a Muslim does must be related to Islam is the same as believing that everything a Christian, Jew, Hindu, or Sikh does is related to their religions. As irrational and nonsensical as this seems for these religious groups, it should seem equally as nonsensical to apply this belief to Muslims. Muslims, just like all other people, are impacted and influenced by many aspects of their contexts – culture, economy, employment, relationships, health, etc. The ways in which Muslims behave, just like the ways in which all people behave, are influenced by the many experiences in our lives, just one of which is religion. To assume that a Muslim’s behaviour is based on his/her religion alone is assuming that Muslims live in a vacuum which is devoid of culture, economy, patriarchy, social problems, health issues, etc. Here is an example of taking Muslims out of their context and blaming Islam for their behaviour.

Rule #5: Understand that there is no such thing as a “Muslim culture.”  Muslims come from a variety of cultures, and culture is dynamic – it’s constantly changing.

Muslim culture does not exist. There is no one region of the world from which Muslims hail. Don’t take our word for it. Ask any researcher in cross-cultural studies (psychology, sociology, etc) and they will tell you that a Muslim culture does not exist.

Muslims hail from a variety of different cultures. Researchers also say that culture is a dynamic phenomenon. Every culture is dynamic and is constantly changing. Hence, the cultures from which Muslims hail are also changing. What may have happened in a culture 50 years ago, may not necessarily happen today. And just like North American culture, cultures around the world, are diverse. People of various cultures are not blindly following their cultures. Just as North Americans are not drones acting in ways dictated to them by their culture, similarly Muslims do not mindlessly follow their respective cultures.

Rule #6: Don’t create a dichotomy between “Muslim” and “Canadian” (or “American,” “British,” etc.), or between “Muslim” and “Western.”

See here for one example of why this is problematic.  There are a lot of Muslims who also identify as Western, Canadian, American, and so on.  Talking about Canadians and Muslims as if the categories are mutually exclusive reinforces the idea of an irreconcilable divide between Islam and the West, and erases the identities of the many Muslims who feel connected to both categories.

Rule #7: Tone it down! Be mindful of the language you use.

Language is a powerful tool that can shape people’s perceptions, and can have far-reaching implications for the way that people are seen.  For example, last week we had a discussion about the ways that terms like “honour killing” and “terrorist” are being used in relation to the recent murder of Aasiya Hassan (and see here and here for other discussions on the term “honour killing.”)  Terms like these can easily be used to portray all Muslims (and the cultures that Muslims are assumed to come from) as violent, scary, oppressed, dangerous, and so on.  It’s useful for fearmongering, but often antithetical to responsible journalism.

And please, please stop trying to make up clever titles involving some play on the word “veil.”  It’s been done.  Ad nauseum.  (See Rule #9.)

Rule #8: Take responsibility for the consequences of your writing.

If you do decide to write in ways that seem to generalize, patronize, insult, or demonize a whole group of people then take responsibility for your words and realize that people will be offended and upset. Do not be surprised when people feel insulted, demonized, or patronized by your words. And do not be surprised when they critique it on blogs, or write seething letters to the editor.

Rule #9: Leave the headscarf alone.

The headscarf is really not a big issue for a lot of Muslim women. And most Muslim women would really appreciate it if the media would figure this out soon. Muslim women wear or don’t wear the headscarf for a variety of reasons. Many Muslim women who wear the headscarf believe it is their religous obligation, while others wear it to increase their spirituality, while  others wear it as an expression of their modesty, while others wear it for political reasons, and others still for all of the above. Many Muslim also do not wear the hijab because they feel it is not a religious obligation.  Whatever their beliefs may be, for Muslim women the headscarf is a personal and private choice. A choice they have the right and ability to make. By assuming that the headscarf is somehow problematic, one undermines the agency of the women who have chosen to either wear or not wear the headscarf.

Even for women who are in situations where headscarves are imposed, they are probably having lots of other things imposed on them too.  The obsessive and often exclusive focus on the scarf is still reductive and misses the point.

Really, it’s getting old.  Give it a rest.

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