7 Things About Muslims You'll Never Learn From the Mainstream Media
Few groups are as persistently misrepresented by the mainstream media as Muslims. Whether it's the constant conflations with terrorism or the broad strokes with which their diversity is glossed over, the narratives that frame this varied group of people (which, as of 2010, numbered 1.6 billion worldwide) are riddled with myths and misconceptions in the United States.
To deconstruct some of these narratives, Mic spoke with Noor Tagouri, a reporter for CTV News; Haroon Moghul, a senior correspondent at Religion Dispatches; and Manar Hijaz, a social sciences professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Below is an overview of some of the myths they say must be laid to rest — and the new stories that should take their place.
1. We are people.
"Muslims are people," Moghul told Mic. "Human beings. Ordinary folk, with great leaders and terrible criminals among us. We aren't subject to forces any different than other peoples, and we don't respond any more irrationally or differently to the world than any other people."
This should surprise no one. For every bin Laden-esque bogeyman, there are millions of Muslim doctors, scientists, athletes, teachers, wealthy entrepreneurs, homeless war veterans, schoolchildren, fools and geniuses, just like there are among Christians, Jews and any other religious or ethnic group.
The difference, Moghul says, is that Muslims are held to a different standard. As the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks devolved into the so-called war on terror and its legacy, a renewed wave of Islamophobic sentiment swept the U.S., articulated through added hostility and the policing of Muslim bodies. We see it in airports. We see it in the New York Police Department's Zone Assessment Unit, which from 2003 to 2014 surveilled local Muslim communities in an attempt to uncover terrorist plots, but failed to generate a single lead. We see this in the rise of hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in the years since.
All of these developments have one thing in common: They fail to recognize that treating millions of people as a monolith, based solely on their religion, does not erase the complicated, beautiful truths of their individual humanity.
2. We are diverse.
"The media likes to paint us all with the same brush," Tagouri told Mic. "But in reality, we are one of the most diverse religions in the country."
A recent Pew Research Center report recently found that, after the Seventh-Day Adventists, a Christian denomination, Muslims as a whole had the most even distribution across people of different races in the United States. Twenty-eight percent of Muslims are black, 28% identify as Asian and 38% are white — a category that, in federal census terms, has traditionally included some people from the Middle East and North Africa. Four percent are Latino.
This complicates the notion that automatically conflates Islam with Arab ethnicity, yet again disrupting much of America's preconceived notions about Muslims.
3. We are not all terrorists.
It has to be said. Tagouri pointed out to Mic the disparate treatment of Muslim killers and killers of other races in the media — especially white ones. "The media is quick to call it an 'act of terror' when a Muslim, or someone they think is Muslim, is involved," she said. "But when the killer is white, they frame it as an isolated act, or a result of mental illness.
"The media frames a story, then goes out and finds details to support its own narrative," she said. This narrative is easily disrupted in a case like the shooting in Chattanooga — where the shooter turned out to be both Muslim and have mental illness — or the Charleston massacre, which was carried out by a white male shooter with clear racial motivations.
This is especially important as pundits and their disciples continually conflate Islam with terrorism, even asking all Muslims to apologize and take responsibility for the actions of a tiny minority of their group. "Muslims are held to a different and unreasonable standard," Moghul said.
4. We wear the hijab by choice.
"I could write an entire book on the preposterous misconceptions perpetuated about Muslims in the mainstream media," Hijaz told Mic. "It's 2015 and yet we still see the Middle East depicted as a dry desert with mud huts in most Hollywood blockbusters. However the misconception that resonates with me the most, as a hijabi, is that Islam oppresses women."
Much of the notion that Islam is inherently anti-feminist is symbolized by the hijab, a type of headscarf worn by many Muslim women to convey modesty and deference to Allah.
"People are usually shocked to learn that I choose to wear hijab," Hijaz said. "This isn't to say that I don't recognize that in some parts of the world women don't have a choice ... [but] I want people to know that Islam, under no circumstance, advocates for any type of compulsion in religion."
While modesty is a virtue for Muslim men and women alike, she said it surprises some that she also views her hijab as a pushback against sexist Western beauty standards. "A few years back an elderly gentleman walked up to me and said, 'Honey, you're in America. You don't have to wear that thing in America,'" Hijaz said. "The implication here is that not only am I not from the United States — I feel the need to mention that I was born in Kansas City, Missouri — but that the 'foreign' place I'm from forces women to cover.
"People are confused when I tell them that the hijab, to me, is liberating," she added. "Wearing it makes me feel free. It is my way of rejecting Western standards of beauty that overly emphasize physical sexuality."
5. Our culture is often separate from our faith.
Too often in Western notions of Islam, the two entities are seen as one and the same. The example Tagouri gives is one that has been widely cited: "People point to women [being prohibited from driving] in Saudi Arabia," she said. "But they forget that Saudi Arabia is a country. It is not Islam."
Hijaz agrees that this conception is misleading. "It's easy to cite a few examples of so-called Islamic states who oppress women and use those examples to depict Islam as an oppressive and radical religion," Hijaz said. "The real challenge would be to actually approach a Muslim and research what the religion really has to say about [such] things."
The distinction between culture and religion also dovetails into a plethora of other areas — for example, Tunisian Muslims in Tunis have different cultural practices, ideals and standards than Yemeni American Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, in the same way that Filipino Muslims in Manila are, in more ways than not, culturally distinct from black American Muslims in Philadelphia.
6. Obama is not one of us.
None of the interviewees actually brought this up. The reason, presumably, is that President Barack Obama is not a Muslim, period, hence his religious identity is not a pressing issue facing Muslims in general. Yet the far-right insistence that he is one, as exemplified by the Islamophobic ramblings of an unidentified questioner at a New Hampshire town hall meeting last month (and Donald Trump's subsequent decision not to correct him) often articulates an underlying paranoia of Muslim power growing in secret in the U.S.
"We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims," the man said. "We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. When can we get rid of them?"
Every time this issue is raised, Islam is framed as a force to be feared instead of a religion, like any other, that a lot of diverse people follow.
7. We are many. But we need more representation.
There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and at least 2.6 million in the U.S. alone. But the fact is, many of the misconceptions perpetuated about Muslims in the mainstream American media stem, at least in part, from a lack of Muslims involved in creating that media.
"We need more diversity in our storytelling, more diversity in journalism, more diversity in front of and behind the camera," Moghul told Mic. "At the end of the day, we can't avoid reporting on the bad stories. But we can make sure the messengers represent the diversity we are afraid some of the stories undermine. So, yes, there are Muslim terrorists. But it makes a difference if the person reporting on them is Muslim too."
"We're so misrepresented in media that you have to have that person in the newsroom to check it," Tagouri said. "Otherwise, nothing changes."
The takeaway: According to the Pew Research Center, Islam is the fastest-growing religion on Earth. Between now and 2050, it is estimated that the global Muslim population will grow by a staggering 73%, positioning it at just 100 million people shy of the largest religion on the planet, Christianity.
Given that it's a population that may soon constitute 30% of all human beings, it's important that the West start treating Muslims like the unique, diverse, alternately local and far-flung individuals that they are. By painting them with such broad and monolithic strokes, non-Muslims not only do themselves a disservice — they muddle an opportunity to learn more about a world that is significantly larger than them.