Maintaining a Narrative: ABC’s Monolithic Muslim Experience

Maintaining a Narrative: ABC’s Monolithic Muslim Experience October 18, 2010

Spearheading the healing of a slowly crippling nation, ABC News has decided to take it upon itself to play the role of facilitator between American Muslims and the generally more acceptable genre of Americans. ABC has broadcasted an assemblage of insightful (see: inciteful) shows aimed at answering those hard-hitting questions that no one else seems to be asking, as indicated by the aptly-entitled “Holy War: Should Americans be afraid of Islam?“, hosted by the ever identity-complex-laden Christiane Amanpour. Three additional shows/pieces were broadcasted under the guise of Good Morning America as a part of a series, equally objectively titled Faith and Fear: Islam in America.

ABC’s efforts predicate a discussion meant to shed some sort of light and foster an idealistically productive debate on the recent backlash against American Muslims, as indicated by the Park51 fiasco and the subsequent Islamophobiclicious campaign ads. However, these programs fulfill the narrative of Islam as a hateful ideology encroaching on the “American way of life” rather than illustrate how a hateful, homegrown ideology has taken over the minds of millions of Americans. ABC doesn’t examine how this ideology negatively affects and dangerously marginalizes a large group of American citizens with a deep and rich history spanning hundreds of years within the very country that is now continuously restricting their physical and social space.

Amanpour’s Town Hall panelists have included 9/11 victims’ family members, Reverend Franklin Graham, author Irshad Manji, Muslim comedian Aman Ali, a Black-American Muslim environmentalist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Daisy Khan and the eternally-dreamy Reza Aslan.

While the inclusion of some of these participants makes sense, others just continue to fan the flames of hate, failing to add anything of real substance to the discussion. While the point of a Town Hall is to have the opinions of all—even the crazies—expressed in an open setting, ABC News is no mayor or community leader. Rather, as an influential news medium, there is an expectation of a certain level of responsibility and, well, competence. The already antagonistic premising of the discussion by the title and the absurd questions asked by Amanpour completely betray these ideas.

Rather than focusing on real issues that are gripping the country, ABC News is just continuing the hateful narrative being propagated by a growing extremist Right Wing movement. ABC’s programs make it seem as though Muslims and Islam in America are as stagnant and monolithic, without any hint of nuance or difference, as a religious community and as a minority group as they have ever been.

The final installment of Good Morning America‘s three part series on Islam was an “enthralling” exposé done by ABC’s Bianna Golodryga, who decided to go beyond the traditional panel-meant-to-generalize-for-an-entire-community trajectory prevalent with ABC’s coverage and get her journalistic creativity on by going undercover with the hijab.

Hijab’d and niqab’d, Golodryga attempted to find out what “Muslim women really endure” in an everyday American setting and finds it to be “quite an eye-opening experience.”

Golodryga’s panelists discuss the sisterhood which results from the adornment of the hijab, how they feel liberated by not being judged by their appearance, negative comments they’ve received, fashion woes and wits and the craziness that ensues when the hijabs are torn off. Specific attention is given to panelists Ayesha Butt and Rugiatu Conten, two young women, whereas the two older women are barely given a moment to speak beyond their opinion on the possibility of their daughters adorning the veil one day.

While the panelists give cute and run-of-the-mill responses, the coverage of being a Muslim women in America is completely restricted to the experience of the veiled Muslim woman, denying the role and identity of the practicing American Muslim woman who has chosen not to wear the veil in any of its forms. The American Muslim woman’s experience is not secluded to the veil; it is not determined by what she wears. If anything, it is affected greatly with how she is imagined and how she is depicted: as an individual whose being is determined by the contents of her closet; with how she chooses to dress herself as opposed to how she chooses to engage with her faith and her identity as an American.

Additionally, even the veiled American Muslim woman’s experience cannot be isolated to discrimination, as per the popular discourse and as per ABC’s apparently favorite hobby. And if we are to focus on the discrimination, then we must realize that it cannot simply be reduced to wearing a sort of veil for a short period of time. There are spiritual, communal, egoistic, artistic, political, cultural, social, fashion and vain nuances, to name a few, that can and often do inhabit the adornment and “struggle” of wearing the veil, particularly in the North American context.

But perhaps what is most misleading about this sort of coverage and perhaps, ironically, the most poignant critique of this sort of coverage itself is that, as Golodryga and George Stephanopoulos note, the discrimination (defined as verbal taunts and suspicious stares) are the exception, as opposed to the general experience. If this is the case, then why is the exception being given such a pedestal in the experience of the American Muslim woman? If it is not a norm but merely a rare occasion of bigotry or discomfort experience, what makes the veiled American Muslim woman so much different than other visual minorities in the country who face discrimination in a similar fashion? Or deserving of more particular focus than those minorities who receive far more definitive forms of discrimination on a more consistent and even institutional basis?

Will ABC News cover the Mexican-American woman’s experience? Will Golodryga go undercover as a middle-class third generation Mexican-American mother living in the heart of Texas? Will any other daring ABC News correspondent, in light of recent violence against gay teens and the alarming number of suicides within the span of a month of such youth, go undercover as a queer-identifying high school senior?

Discrimination, however administered and defined, is not what defines the American Muslim woman’s experience. Nor the experience of all American Muslims. To continue to focus on the discrimination faced by Muslims in terms of taunts and stares thrown their way is to create a victimized narrative and experience of American Muslims. The issue that must be addressed amidst this entire mess is how a significant portion of the American citizenry has responded to hateful and opportunist campaigns against Muslims and Islam.

But that seems to be asking too much from a media which itself has helped cultivate a hateful and divisive atmosphere premised on false fears, poorly-characterized and misunderstood victimization, and a singularly defined experience.

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