They Make Us Look Like Dorks!
Why many Canadian Muslims believe the media have an anti-Islam bias—and what two journalistic heavyweights are doing about it
The downtown Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ottawa seems an unlikely place for a conference on religion and the media. It’s about as secular as a building can be, save perhaps for those Gideon Bibles in every room. But on this weekend in late October about eighty people, mostly journalists, have registered for a two-day event that deals with one of the great challenges currently facing Western reporters, editors and producers: how to better cover religious issues. The Calgary?based Centre for Faith and the Media has organized a dozen sessions for this conference. They include such topics as “The Canadian Religious Landscape: How Is It Changing?” and “Are the Secular Media Hostile or Indifferent to Religion and Faith Issues?” But the one I had considered a must, for both personal and professional reasons, was “Muslims in the Media.” As early as I can remember, media outlets have carried a consistent stream of negative information about Islam. Until relatively recently, the Muslims I read about were invariably represented as violent, backward, oppressive and oppressed – a portrait that has found its way into Canadians’ perceptions of their Muslim neighbours, particularly after 9/11. According to a September 2002 poll by Ipsos Reid, CTV and The Globe and Mail, for example, thirty-five per cent of Canadians were suspicious of people of Arab descent or Muslims from the Middle East. A year earlier, the figure was twenty-seven per cent.
The desire to see someone more like me – educated, born and raised in Canada yet embracing traditional Muslim values and dress – reflected in newspapers was one of the reasons I chose to study journalism. It’s also why I’ve travelled to Ottawa for this conference: to understand why coverage of Muslim issues in the media has been so poor and to discover what, if anything, two of the country’s most respected journalism outlets, The Toronto Star and CBC, are doing to change the widespread perception among Canadian Muslims that the media are indeed anti-Islam.
The “Muslims in the Media” session is a lively affair, particularly when freelance writer Raheel Raza takes the podium. She quickly zeroes in on the representation of Muslim women, especially coverage of the debate over Islamic arbitration in Ontario, which proposed to resolve family disputes by using relevant aspects of sharia, or Islamic law. Clearly angry, Raza says mainstream coverage of the issue was “pathetic” and made Muslims “look like dorks.” She says the debate was sensational and polarized, with less space given to supporters of sharia than to opponents, and with almost no space given to the confused and undecided majority. “By the time legal experts and scholars were brought in,” she argues, “sharia was damned” as unquestionably misogynistic and “synonymous with terrorism.”
In her address, Raza mocks the media’s fixation with Muslim women’s dress, quipping “a head covering doesn’t make anyone brain-damaged.” She then asks: why is it that Muslim women never make the news except when it has to do with the headscarf or sharia? And why is it, she asked me several days before the conference, that the favourite media image of the Muslim woman is the Afghan in the burka? That kind of coverage, she concludes, misses out on the enormous diversity of Muslim women.
Raza and the other two speakers at this session – Riad Saloojee, then executive director of the Canadian Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), and Karim H. Karim, associate director of the journalism and communication department at Carleton University – are not alone in their condemnation of the mainstream media. In fact, large numbers of Canadian Muslims – of whom there were almost 600,000 as of the 2001 census – share these views. An example: of the three hundred polled in a CAIR-CAN survey conducted in 2002, fifty-five per cent said the media’s reporting on Islam post-9/11 had become more biased and thirteen per cent said it had improved, while eleven per cent said it had remained the same. More recent figures are not yet available, but anecdotal evidence suggests little has changed. Among my own family and friends, media coverage of Islam is a common topic of conversation – one that is, more often than not, negative in tone.
After the session, I walk to the front of the room to introduce myself to Raza. I am one of about ten Muslims at the conference and, while I’m waiting to speak with her, a middle-aged woman named Molly approaches me. She has a stricken look on her face and, in one hand, cups a small cross that dangles from her neck. Molly, whose name tag dubs her a “freelance theologian,” piously tells me her cross doesn’t indicate anything about her opinions, and that she now realizes she can’t assume she knows what I think because I wear a headscarf. After informing me of her intent to have a serious talk with her son’s girlfriend, who never doubted sharia was misogynistic, Molly then asks me earnestly, “How can we separate between Islam and the stereotypes people have about it? What metaphors can we substitute?” Unsure of how to respond, I mumble something about how individuals must learn more about Islam.
Teaching journalists about Islam has become one of the missions of CAIR-CAN, Riad Saloojee, who I meet with about an hour before Raza’s diatribe. He’s sitting at the booth his group has set up in the Crowne Plaza and is scribbling notes for his speech. The glass bowl of Hershey’s Kisses at the centre of a table is not the only reason for the booth’s popularity; journalists are familiar with the advocacy group, and stop by frequently to chat and check for new resource material. The staples of the table are the seventeen- page “A Journalist’s Guide to Islam,” the “Know Your Rights” pocket guide for Canadian Muslims and the CAIR-CAN annual report. Saloojee says his organization’s work, which includes ninety-plus oped pieces (many published in the Globe), presents an Islamic perspective on issues and responds to misinformation.
When Saloojee is finished highlighting key passages in his speech, we make our way one floor up. Our destination: a room where Saloojee, two women and I face Mecca to the east and begin the midday prayer, the second of five that Muslims perform daily. Saloojee leads and the two women and I stand a little behind him, to his right. He begins by saying “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is greater” – as he raises his hands beside his head, then places them on his chest, right over left. We follow his movements. This daytime prayer is silent but I know Saloojee is reciting, as I am, the first chapter of the Qur’an, containing praise for God and an appeal for guidance. After I finish reciting another small chapter from the sacred text, we follow Saloojee as he bows down at a ninety-degree angle, straightens up again, and then prostrates on the ground. With my forehead and nose touching the carpet, a sense of focus and purpose fills my mind. After four repetitions of these movements, accompanied by various supplications, the prayer is complete. Saloojee remains seated for some time afterwards, head lowered, in an apparent state of calm that differs only slightly from his usual demeanour.
After the ten-minute prayer is over, our group heads to the “Muslims in the Media” session at which, when his turn at the podium comes, Saloojee states: “Coverage [of Muslim issues] is good, coverage is bad, and coverage is ugly.” Concerning the “ugly,” he identifies several recurring themes in editorial commentaries: calls for racial profiling, fears of a fifth column of Canadian-born Muslims waiting to attack society, a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and a stiffer test of patriotism for Canadian Muslims.
With respect to the “bad,” Saloojee pinpoints several problems, one of which is “religious reductionism,” whereby religious causes are attributed to a wide variety of political disputes. “So something happens in, let’s say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism in Iraq or insurgence in Iran, and oftentimes you get a very simplistic and reductive explanation that, well, ‘It’s because of religion,'” he says. But, adds Saloojee, “The reality tends to be much more complex, much more nuanced and much more multi-causal.”
Another “bad,” he explains, is “magnifying the extreme and mainstreaming the marginal.” For example, when CAIR-CAN organized a national statement against extremism signed by 120 Canadian imams, the one Muslim cleric who refused to sign received more coverage than the statement itself. This “undue glare on the marginal,” he says, means that “people who represent only themselves or a tiny sliver are represented as much more than they are.” Saloojee continues, “It sets up a false view of conflict and fracture in the community that simply does not exist.”
His speech reiterates many of the points he made to me in an interview about a month before the conference, including what he sees as the biggest stumbling block facing journalists writing about Islam: their lack of familiarity with the belief system. “Islam is the new kid on the block,” he said. “The ethoses of other faiths tend to be well-known, but the normative dimension of Islam is not known.” As a result, Saloojee said, there is a greater likelihood that journalists will rely on culturally established stereotypes, and a lower likelihood of nuanced coverage that shows depth.
Anxious to get the perspectives of veteran journalists on Muslims’ criticisms of media coverage, I start with a familiar face: Globe columnist Rick Salutin, whose course on Canadian culture and media I took two years ago at the University of Toronto. Salutin says that Islam and Muslims are still treated as foreign news. “In a strange way, Islam now stands apart in relation to what’s conceived of as mainstream religious culture and civilization, the way Judaism used to,” he explains. “It’s completely weird,” he says, adding that Islam is not included in the Judeo-Christian culture of Canada despite the history of “really interesting intellectual combat” between the three monotheistic traditions. While Salutin concedes that coverage of Muslims has increased dramatically since 9/11, he says the change has been quantitative rather than qualitative, not veering far from the focuses on terrorism, oil and the mistreatment of women. “For the amount of coverage, the level of ignorance is really stunning,” says Salutin, pointing out that many people still believe that “Muslim equals Arab.” And besides the general ignorance of Islam’s source texts, primarily the Qur’an, he adds that there’s an unquestioned acceptance of sweeping generalizations not made in regard to other religions. “The diversity of the Muslim world is so profound, and the absence of acknowledgement of that diversity is amazing.”
Karim H. Karim, author of Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence, also takes issue with the media’s persistent use of stereotypes. I speak to him a week and a half after his appearance at the “Muslims in the Media” session. On the phone, he explains to me that whenever a group manifests a stereotype that others have about it, that story is more likely to make headlines because it fits with the stereotype shared by editors and readers. This means that Muslim perpetrators of violence are more likely to get inches and airtime than non-Muslims who are violent. “Despite occasional portrayals of individual Muslims in a favourable light,” states Karim in Islamic Peril, “dominant media discourses have tended to create an overall picture of the religion as a source of planetary instability.”
As part of the ten-year study documented in his book, Karim examined coverage of hostage-takings around the world and found that those perpetrated by Muslims received more media play than comparable hostage-takings by other groups, even when the hostage-takings committed by non-Muslims involved Canadian victims. Karim points out that this is a result of the “West versus Islam” frame that has characterized media coverage of Muslims since the end of the Cold War, when Islam became the new “primary Other,” and that has its roots in the polemical writings of the Middle Ages. During this period, writes the late literary critic Edward Said in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, “Islam was believed to be a demonic religion of apostasy, blasphemy, and obscurity.” The reasons for these views were both political and doctrinal. The Islamic empire represented a formidable force in the world, and was seen as a challenge to Christianity. While Muslims revere Jesus as a great prophet, their monotheistic belief system flatly rejects the claim that he was divine. The resulting representation of Muslims as savage followers of a false prophet was later reflected, Karim writes, in both classic works including those of Dante, Shakespeare and Voltaire, and in contemporary cultural productions by global news and entertainment organizations. “Depictions of Middle Eastern terrorists by Hollywood and transnational wire services,” Karim points out, “seem to bear a striking resemblance to the Muslim characters in European polemics penned a thousand years ago.”
It’s a thought echoed by Mark Schneider, a visiting lecturer at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism, who worked as a religion reporter at CTV for three years. “We have a lot of stereotypical views about what Islam is,” he says, “and they form a barrier to true knowledge.” And these stereotypes are far from new. There is a “deep cultural propensity to distrust Islam” that goes back 1400 years, adds Schneider. While Judaism and Christianity have made peace with each other in a religious and canonical sense, “There’s been a dismissive attitude in the West about the revelations of Mohammed.” This conclusion is reached “without a thought,” he says, and unlike Buddhism, whose basic tenets are valued and accepted in the West, “the interest just is not there” when it comes to Islam. “How can that help but promote a dismissal of the people themselves?”
Adding to the problem is that most people get their news from television, which, says Schneider, is the least suitable medium for meaningful discussion. “Covering religion for television is almost impossible,” he says. “It’s the most intimate thing there is. One’s conversations with God are really difficult to shoot.”
Salutin, Karim and Schneider make good points, but all three are removed from day-to-day journalism, the main source of Muslims’ current distrust of the media. I wanted to find out how the newsrooms themselves were dealing with complaints about their performance. That trail led me to the doors of two journalistic heavyweights – the Star and CBC – both of which have angered Canadian Muslims on numerous occasions, but are trying to improve.
At CBC, The National received 120 complaints about a July 13, 2001 news item about terrorism that featured the Islamic call to prayer, and images of a minaret and Muslim worshippers in a Canadian mosque. Viewers felt the use of pictures of Muslim worshippers to illustrate a story that involved terrorism created an unfair association between the Islamic belief system and violence. The programmers admitted fault and sent out letters apologizing for the “inappropriate use of file pictures.”
Over at the Star, in a March 24, 2004 column about the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in an Israeli missile strike, columnist Rosie DiManno characterized Arab society as one “where wickedness is bred in the bone.” Toronto resident Hajara Kutty and Canadian Islamic Congress national president Mohamed Elmasry decried the column as racist and hateful. They filed a complaint with the Ontario Press Council, which ruled that the statement was a “denigration of a whole society and that some of the language crosses the line between acceptable and unacceptable comment and is unnecessarily hurtful.”
In his spacious office in the fifth-floor editorial wing, Haroon Siddiqui, the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus, welcomes me and asks how Ramadan is going. When I question him about Muslims’ negative perceptions of the media, Siddiqui says there is no shortage of groups claiming media bias because of the traditionally adversarial role journalistic organizations often play. “We are not in the public relations business,” he explains. “What we can ask for and expect, and is a duty of the media, is to be fair in how we cover things, that we’re balanced, that all viewpoints are presented.”
Siddiqui says there are two big hurdles to overcome when covering any new ethnic community: “abysmally low” knowledge about that community’s country of origin and historical prejudice. What complicates coverage of Muslims, he says, is a convergence of three distinct prejudices: toward immigrants, toward the Third World and toward Muslims. Siddiqui says after 9/11, the world was divided into two camps: those who believed 9/11 was about Islam, and those who believed it was about nineteen criminals. Suddenly, he says, “Every Tom, Dick and Harry is wading through the Qur’an” and – by quoting from it selectively -“every bigot is an expert.” The “intellectual war on Muslims and Islam” that followed in some quarters is very dangerous, says Siddiqui. It implies collective guilt and suspends civil liberties, both of which “devalue our democracy.”
“But where does the Star fit into all of this?” I ask.
Coverage of Muslim issues at his paper is far better than at most, he replies. When it isn’t, he writes about it in his twice-weekly column.
Jim Atkins, the Star’s opinion page editor, says Muslims are now a much bigger part of the dialogue and many more voices from the community are presented. “Right now, all issues Muslim or Islamic are in the news,” he says. Atkins says his job is to “open the pages to as many people as possible,” both to reflect the diversity in society and because it makes good business sense. But representation is not the only reason to seek out Muslim perspectives: “Where Islam is, or should be going, is of interest to readers,” he says. Three or four years ago, Siddiqui was the dominant Muslim voice on the opinion page, and while he’s still the only one with a regular column, Atkins’s contact list is now much longer.
I also visit Libby Stephens, the Star’s religion page editor, who attended the Centre for Faith and the Media conference in Ottawa. Her cubicle is an odd sort of shrine: a fuzzy blue Mary statue, fifteen inches tall, is perched on her desk, wrapped in a red bubble wrap cloak, a yellow baseball cap hanging backwards from its head; a greeting card propped up on Stephens’s computer monitor displays Mother Teresa in biker gear; neat rows of books line her shelves; and not-so-neat piles are stacked both above and underneath the desk. She shows me a huge, beige Bible with gold pages and a book on Baha’i places of worship, informing me that her Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam is on loan to a colleague. Stephens, whose short, blonde hair frames an expressive face that laughs easily and often holds a conspiratorial smile, has been editor of the religion page for five years. After 9/11, Stephens says, the Star felt “an enormous responsibility to play catch-up on Islam” by providing readers with basic information about what Muslims believe. Now, more than four years later, she feels the paper’s coverage has matured beyond “covering festivals and food” and approaches Muslim issues with an open mind, citing the editorial supporting Islamic arbitration tribunals in Ontario as an example. The Star, she adds, also portrays a wider spectrum of both traditional and liberal ideas than it used to and is not afraid to be critical. “Islam is turning into one of the big boys,” she says, and as such is held up to scrutiny. However, Stephens admits lapses in the Star’s coverage, even over the province’s proposed Islamic arbitration tribunals, saying that the issue was often not well explained and, as a result, some of the coverage promoted a polarized view. Her comments echo a danger pointed out by Siddiqui that same day. “If they’re going to quote only the dissidents from within the Muslim community, then we get a distorted public debate,” he says. “We then, by extension, get a distorted public policy, and that’s a humongous disservice.”
Stephens has learned a lot about Muslims over the years; the “different faces Islam wears around the world” is one of them. She says the ability to distinguish religion from culture is essential. So is “getting past self-appointed spokespeople” who don’t speak for as many as one might believe and who deliver the “party line” rather than nuanced opinion. Having a deeper knowledge and a wider set of contacts is a characteristic of the religion beat, she says, which often requires more background knowledge than other beats. Covering religion, she adds, also requires curiosity. She calls religion “endlessly fascinating” because it is at the centre of people and “where they live.” And to cover religion, she concludes, journalists “need guts because people will get mad at you.”
The Star’s policy guide states, “If there is a doctrinal split within a religious group, be careful not to give undue prominence to the views of the dissidents.” But many Torontonians who practise Islam felt – according to my own discussions with people – that the Star gave a bigger platform to so-called liberal Muslims in its sharia coverage. Atkins says such reactions are natural given the Star’s own traditions: “We are a liberal newspaper with liberal values. We tend to run more liberal views all across the board.”
Although some of the problems with the Star’s coverage of Muslims are issue-specific, others are more general. The most obvious one is insufficient diversity in the newsroom, which former Star ombudsman Don Sellar says is the result of an economic downturn in the early 1990s that led to a half-decade hiring freeze. Editor-in-chief Giles Gherson says the Star makes up for this through its internship programs, which are a source of diverse voices and stories such as Muslim intern Sikander Hashmi’s reflections on the London bombings in July 2005. Relying on interns, however, is not nearly enough, says Nicholas Keung, the Star’s immigration and diversity reporter. He believes that diverse hiring at the management level is the only way to effect lasting change in the coverage of Muslim issues.
Despite its shortcomings, there have been many recent examples of the Star’s improvement. They include such reasonable and fair editorial stances as the paper’s support of Maher Arar’s call for an inquiry and criticism of Canadian security officials, its highlighting of racism as the root cause of rioting in France, and its arguing for a fair trial for Omar Khadr, the Canadian teen held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
A terrific example of the Star’s progress was shown in a December 1, 2005 editorial about the kidnapping of Canadian peace activists in Iraq. Under the title, “God’s children in peril,” the editorial addressed the issue in a way I did not expect and that showed knowledge of Islam’s primary text:
“The Peacemakers are not enemies of Islam, Iraq or the Arab world. They are friends. They have denounced the war, worked with detainees, exposed torture, raised awareness. The Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, speaks well of such Christians. They are ‘nearest in love’ to Muslims, because they ‘have renounced the world, and are not arrogant.’… This is Iraq’s loss. It is a betrayal not only of the Qur’an and of Islam, but also of the Iraqi people.”
In late Novemeber, I meet with Tony Burman, editor-in-chief of CBC English services. Three muted televisions flash different news programs in the glass-walled office as Burman pulls up a chair in front of his large desk. Until recently, he says, “The media in North America and the media in Canada have not given pride of place to issues regarding Islam.” Burman admits CBC was part of this trend, and says, “There was a failure to include the richness of the Islamic reality in all of our coverage.” However, that changed with 9/11, which he says was a “turning point for many of us” because it “brought to dramatic focus the anxious place that many Muslims feel within this country” and elsewhere. Because of the “obvious tensions that the events of post-September 11 have created” and the many misunderstandings about the role of Islam in forces like terrorism, Burman says CBC sought to educate the public through both its international and local coverage.
Burman is in full public relations mode, handing me literature that indicates, he says, just how serious CBC is about improving coverage of concern to Muslims like myself. He also gives me an eight-page listing of Muslim coverage, from 2001 to August 2005, on CBC radio, television and online. In the report, Peter Kavanagh, a senior producer with CBC Radio Current Affairs, writes, “Since September 11 in particular, the CBC has tried to confront and understand Islam as religion and as culture…. Just as we approach all topics with a critical perspective, we have attempted to deal with negative and positive images and messages. We have tried to understand the ‘clash’ as well as the embrace.”
Increased coverage of Canadian Muslims is something that has clearly been happening at CBC Radio One in Toronto, which houses more Muslims than any other Canadian city. In mid-January, I meet with Susan Marjetti, regional director for Toronto and Southern Ontario, and Jessica Low, producer of Metro Morning. Marjetti, appointed in 2001, has pushed to make programming better reflect Toronto’s changing demographics. One of the first concrete examples of what she wanted on air was a town hall meeting sponsored by CBC within a week of 9/11. The ninety-minute live broadcast, called “Understanding Ummah [Arabic for ‘nation’]: Toronto’s Muslims After September 11,” was a “pivotal moment,” she says – a learning experience for CBC and for Muslims. It was the first chance during her tenure for producers to meet with the Muslim community, and she says the contacts made at the event continue to help the station in its reporting today.
As we sit in Marjetti’s office, Low points out that the station has moved away from security issues to focus more on lifestyle stories, such as one about cell phones programmed to announce the Muslim call to prayer, and another about sharia-compliant finances. Rather than coverage that reacts to something that happens abroad, Low says the show tries to “broaden the range of people we have on,” such as having a Muslim provide political analysis of Queen’s Park and interviewing a Muslim doctor about a health care issue. “Muslims, like everyone else in this city,” she says, “have a range of interests, and the reason to speak with them is that many are doing very interesting things.” For example, she cites a Metro Morning story about a Muslim medical student from Mississauga who travelled to Pakistan as a relief worker after the earthquake in early October. The first report looked at his experience there, while the second touched on the difficulty of performing the Ramadan fast while carrying out his duties. Another story she recalls with fondness is one that tracked the integration of an Afghani family who moved to Mississauga and whose experience – the women work to support their family – inverted stereotypical roles.
On issues that generate controversy, such as the sharia debate, Low says the show aims to “convey the complexity” of the subject and the wide range of opinion, rather than the typical polarized and simplistic view. And, she says, the range of feedback is just as diverse. Stuart Einer, an assignment editor and senior producer for CBC Toronto Radio News, believes this is a good indication the story is balanced. “When you hear complaints from both sides,” he says, “you know you’re doing the right thing.”
All the people I’ve interviewed agree that hiring more Muslim journalists is an essential remedy to the shortcomings in covering this community. Among CBC Muslim reporters is Hadeel Al-Shalchi, whom I meet the day before the faith and media conference at CBC’s downtown Ottawa newsroom.
Al-Shalchi gives me a tour of the newsroom, introducing me to people along the way. “I know everybody, but that’s just because I’m a loudmouth,” says the 25-yearold radio reporter and news editor. When we reach her cubicle, Al-Shalchi starts to watch a police press conference on her desk monitor and intermittently types into an iNews window. She rolls her eyes at the long-winded detective on the screen, makes a blabber signal with her hand, and sighs loudly. I gaze at the items pasted or pinned to her cubicle walls: photos of her niece; an old story to-do list from before the CBC lockout that includes “Arabs and cottage country” and “hijab culture”; a certificate of a bizarre engineer’s oath; and a newspaper photo of a wide-eyed Iraqi child watching an American soldier aim a gun.
Al-Shalchi’s big break at CBC, where she’s been for two years, was a commentary she did that offered a Muslim’s perspective on The Passion of the Christ. After that piece aired, executive producer Jane Anido asked Al-Shalchi to give her a call when she finished her chemical engineering degree. Al- Shalchi says her main contribution is the different perspective she brings to story meetings as a Canadian Muslim of Iraqi descent. “I bring a reminder to people that there are elements of every story that are still untold because they’re undiscovered and because that element is not available to the people who bring out the news every day.” She’s also a resource for co-workers, who ask her questions ranging from how to treat a certain story about Muslims to how to pronounce a name. However, she jokes, “Sometimes it turns out to be an Urdu name and I don’t know how to do it.”
Pitching stories about the Muslim community is one of Al-Shalchi’s passions. “Being Muslim at this time – especially in a time of redefining who we are, and how Canadian we are – it’s a very exciting time for a journalist to chronicle.” The stories Al-Shalchi has produced about Islam include a commentary on how 9/11 affected her as an Ottawa Muslim and a piece on a Ramadan dinner. “The kinds of stories I like to pitch are not the clich?d type of why do I wear hijab, because it’s so fun, or it’s so good for me and it protects me… I like to go into more of a deeper analysis of why Muslims do certain things, in a way that relates to non-Muslim audiences.” Al-Shalchi enjoys this approach because it enables her to make “uniquely Muslim” experiences more accessible and familiar. This way, she says, “You’ve totally become, not just this entity that’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a Muslim person, you fast, you’re so ethereal.’ You’ve become just a regular person who has a lot of weaknesses and is trying to struggle with your faith.”
During the day I spend with her, Al- Shalchi never sits for long. The fact that she’s fasting does not deter her from jumping up to help anyone who needs it, breaking into a run to get something done, and making sound effects with her mouth. I also witness her playfully pinching a colleague and giving props to another. It’s easy to see why colleagues call her the sunshine in the office, but also why her boss, Jane Anido, says Al-Shalchi confuses people because she has an “image of piety” but is also “wicked and cheeky and funny.”
In the afternoon, Al-Shalchi prays in an empty conference room. “But I’m planning to talk to the union to get a room; we should have one!” While she believes there aren’t nearly enough Muslim journalists, she sees reason to hope that media coverage of Muslims will continue to improve. When I spoke with her on the phone a month earlier, she pointed out that both Muslims and the media are more willing to engage one another than before 9/11. That in itself is a big step forward because many Muslims believe media outlets are largely to blame for societal prejudice toward them.
“They have this idea that journalists go into work every day with this vendetta against the Muslim community, and that they sit at their desks and think up new ways to make us look bad.” The reason for this perception, she says, is that most Muslims aren’t aware of the constraints under which media outlets function, including short deadlines, the simplification of complex issues and the primacy of conflict in what is considered newsworthy. But, adds Al-Shalchi, she can’t reproach Muslims for their views. “You open the newspapers; it’s all bad stuff about Muslims. You put on the television; they’ve found the worst documentary they could about Islam. Once in a blue moon they’ll put on a good documentary…. I don’t blame them for blaming the media.”
During a lunch party I attend in late December with some old girlfriends, the topic of media coverage of Muslims comes up – as it always does. My friend Rema tells us about a Barbara Walters documentary she watched that looked at different religious perspectives of the afterlife. In addition to interviewing a knowledgeable Muslim for the Islamic view, Walters also spoke with a failed suicide bomber in an Israeli jail, who told her she was going to hell. “Why would she choose an extremist who knows little about his religion to represent Islam?” one girl asks. “They didn’t interview extremists from any other faith group,” another points out. The conversation swerves to other examples of Muslim coverage the women find unfair, and it seems everyone has a story.
I cannot overstate how often the issue of media representations of Muslims has come up in both conversations with friends and speeches by leaders urging Muslims to become more involved in society to demonstrate to people that Islam is “not what the media shows.” The antagonistic role of the media is so prevalent in Muslim minds that it has become the stuff of jokes, like this one:
A man taking a walk in New York’s Central Park sees a little girl being attacked by a pit bull. He runs over, starts fighting with the dog, and succeeds in killing it and saving the girl’s life. A policeman who witnesses the scene walks over and says, “You are a hero. Tomorrow you will read it in all the newspapers: ‘Brave New Yorker saves life of little girl.'” The man says, “But I am not a New Yorker!” The policeman answers, “Oh, then it will say in newspapers in the morning: ‘Brave American saves life of little girl.'” The man says, “But I am not an American!” “Oh, what are you then?” asks the policeman. The man says, “I am a Saudi!” The next day the newspapers say: “Islamic extremist kills innocent American dog.”
It may be a long time before such jokes stop ringing true for Muslims, particularly after the eruption of angry protests following the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist in a Danish newspaper and reprinted elsewhere. To their credit, both the Star and CBC wrestled with the decision of whether to show the cartoons, seeking a balance between religious sensitivity and the public’s right to know. In the end, both decided that describing the images was sufficient.
“One of the things that marks our society is that we try to be tolerant and we try to understand where members of our society find offence,” said the Star’s Giles Gherson in the National Post. Publishing the images would have offended readers gratuitously, he said, a view echoed by CBC’s Tony Burman. In an editorial on the corporation’s website, Burman, who instructed editors throughout the network not to show the cartoons, said the decision was intended to demonstrate respect towards Islam and all religions: “Why should we insult and upset an important part of our audience for absolutely no public value?”
If I were in that position, I would have made the same decision, knowing full well – as both a Muslim who has dealt with the fallout of thoughtless depictions of followers of Islam, and as an aspiring journalist who strives for fairness – the impact media images have on the formation of opinions, and the responsibility that must accompany that power.