Muslims in the Media: The Challenge of 9-11 and Beyond

On September 11, 2001 the American Media found itself aghast at perhaps the most tragic and spectacular event in the nation’s history.  More than any other single event, the shock of two Jet Airliners crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, catapulted the press beyond its normative appellation as the “fourth estate,” of governmental power and influence. 

Almost immediately, the media was drawn into a dual quasi role of informing the people of the dramatic events and reporting on the reaction of the leaders and citizens alike.  This was as it should be, however, due to the nature of the event, the press’ “role” as an “objective,” unbiased recorder of opinion and news could not be sustained.  Whereas, under normal circumstances, the concept an independent “free press,” held unprecedented rank among the “guaranteed “freedoms” of the Constitution, this notion was immediately eclipsed by the strategy of 9-11.  Within months, not only was the print and TV media called into “war time” service, but also the entire industries of Art and Entertainment were pressured into a war like propaganda mode. Such circumstances, given these events, are understandable and expected.  The danger, however, lay in the excesses that such state of affairs generates and the inevitable erosion of free thought and lost of constitutional freedoms that all Americans have come expect and enjoy.  The beginning signs of such erosion was dramatically reported by the Washington Post in an Article entitled, “Bush to Create formal Office to shape U.S. Image broad.”(July30, pgAO1). The author quotes administration officials as saying that a new “Office of Global Communications” would coordinate the administration’s foreign policy message and supervise America’s image abroad.”

Although this office, the brainchild of President Bush’s senior adviser, Karen P. Hughes, was abandoned weeks later due to charges that it appeared designed to censor legitimate news and information, (outgoing and incoming,) to the American public. It conjured up such phrases as the “Image War.” According to its proponents, however, it was ostensibly designed to convince Muslims at home and abroad of the US’ well meaning intentions with regards to the “war” on terrorism.  While the office was indeed abandoned, it is without question that an “Image War,” is very operative today.  This newer version however, appears designed to gain acceptance for the increasing practice of profiling and harassing innocent Muslim Americans. This includes apologia for the summarily arrests and detention of Muslims without due process and/or right to counsel.  A brief analysis of current media “talk shows,” reveals hostile and despairing images of the culture and religion of Islam.  Given these circumstances, it is imperative that the Muslim Media begin an in-depth study of the nature of this antagonistic media environment and contemplates strategic initiatives in response. 

THE MUSLIM MEDIA: Brief Background. 

Today Muslim historians and others have begun to document the history of Islam in America. Varied scholars have authored scores of publications in the last half-dozen decades. Truly effective “dawah,” however, and/or Muslim socio-political influence in the general media remain in its infancy. 

Some early examples of effective propagation of Islamic influence can be attributed to the “Nation of Islam,” under the leadership of Elijah Mohammed, which began in the 1930’s covering a period from 1930 through the 1960’s. The major media vehicle for this effort was known as “Muhammad Speaks,” when claimed a circulation of 900,000 at its peak in the mid 1960’s. While many Muslims decline to accept this effort as a legitimate Islamic movement, its methods of propagation stills serves a “textbook” for study of socio-economic propagation for minority communities. 

Today, although the Muslim American Society’s publication, “The Muslim Journal,” continues these indigenous Muslim traditions at lower circulations than the past era, the present this subsequent Islamic “mainstream” perspective is widely acknowledged as commendable in the present era. 

In the broader Islamic community, whose initial impact surfaced during the early 1960’s, the media emphasized the historical and religious aspect of Islam rather than the day-to-day socio-political involvement of Muslims in America.  Much of this effort was generated from an academic perspective and is today credited for encouraging a greater appreciation of Islam among the scholars of higher learning in the US.  Today the seeds of these efforts can be seen in the works of the International Institute of Islamic Studies (IIIT) and scores of similar academic bodies that have sprung up in recent years. 

These efforts, combined today, have resulted in greater numbers of Muslim media outlets, including varied newsletters, magazines, print journalism, academic journals, TV documentaries, movies, et al.  That, not withstanding, the events of today make it quite obvious that in order for the Muslim community to live up to its noble mandate to propagate the Truth of Islam and sustain the honorable image of the faith, much greater attention has to be given to proven literary and journalistic polemics.  Advanced promotional methodologies must also be employed.  It is quite reasonable to acknowledge that following 9-11, there is a need for the development of “crash” seminars and major media focused programs that will prepare the Muslim community for an escalating contest of socio-political and “religious,” perspectives in America. 

MUSLIM RESPONSES: Observations and Recommendations

Observations:  Negative assumptions. (Culled from general Muslim public)

1):  Muslim responses to Media attacks have been less than effective.

2):  Muslims have not used their economic resources effectively in promoting positive Islamic imagery.

3):  Muslims academicians have engaged too much in sphere to counter Media “sound bites.”

4): Muslims in the fields of Communications have neglected the basic skills of effective dialogue and argumentation. 

Recommendations:  Please note that the following recommendations include approaches to the issue of Media influence from varied connected options: 

1):  Responses to patterned negative attacks against Muslims.

A: It is recommended that Muslims list all of the arguments advanced by the Media against Muslims and categorize them. Secondly, effective replies (preferable “sound bites” should be used as counters. These replies might be gleaned from passages of the Qur’an, or otherwise. In that the attacks are “patterned,” (i.e. Why do Muslims not condemn suicide bombers, etc) they can easily be countered while maintaining the higher moral ground.  (It should be noted that most of the “patterned” queries are calculated to place Muslims on the defensive and begs a well-known “Rule of Argumentation” that one cannot “win” on the defensive.)

B: It is recommended that Muslims who are invited to interviews (print or otherwise), be keen to put forward at least three given perspectives in short pithy sayings, parables, or otherwise sound bites.) Lengthy academic responses are a “no-no” for media effectiveness. 

C: “Balanced” aggressiveness is a plus in interviews, especially in-group TV interviews. 

2):  Responses to unexpected media opportunities or “leverages.”

A: The following example might suffice:  Recently the University of North Carolina was sued by a Conservative Right Wing group because a professor had assigned a book on the Qur’an for his students. The issue made the front pages of several newspapers.  A response, put forward on a Strategicalliance , a Muslim internet Think Tank, recommended that since the issue was the Qur’an, Muslims should take advantage of this opportunity to encourage all Americans to read the Qur’an for themselves.  It was suggested that full-page Advertisements be placed in the major newspapers recommending readers to obtain Qur’ans to understand why this book, read by billions of persons daily was at the center of such controversy, etc. It was also recommended that local Muslim groups could produce one-page flyers of such an Ad within their immediate surroundings. 

3: Responses to Academic approaches:

A:  While the first line of accuracy in literary works about Islam comes at the scholarly post graduate levels, such works filter down slowly to the lay public and are often excluded in Media discussion that directly reach the local neighborhoods.  It is critical therefore those efforts be made to reach this “general” populous at the basic grade school level.  We therefore recommend that Muslims should engage the local schools regarding accurate information on Islam, especially in the wake of the daily attention give the subject in the media.  Muslim’s might offer speakers and or invite varied school classes to the Mosque’s, business, et al to round out their social studies at their grade levels. 

4:  Responses to Local/Neighborhood News:

A:  It is recommended that Muslims send articles to the local (2-5,000 cir) newspapers and newsletters about the activities of Muslims in the neighborhood.  This should be done in tandem with the circulation of local Muslim newsletter, magazines, newspapers, etc. Muslim writers should offer their services as “stringers,” or occasional writers for these local newspapers that are usually deft of news and reporters. Muslims should also be keen to frequently send letters to the editors about matters concerning the neighborhood. 

5: Responses to Muslim Media approaches;

A:  It is recommended that major “Media” conferences should be entertained on a yearly or bi-yearly schedule.  The need for this is obvious.  Currently the Muslim media often takes given perspective, oblivious to complicacy or alternative perspective being provided by others peer entities within the Ummah.

B: It is recommended that Dossiers be developed for persons in the Media who have been determined to be “objective” concerning Muslim affairs.  Every effort, given the influence of such persons, should be made to provide them with critical and verifiable information and perspectives on Islam.  Muslim Media “think tanks,” should be developed for these and other purposes of propagating the faith and positive image of Islam. 

In concluding we should note that many Muslim socio-political organizations and communities are now in the field and have obviously undertaken many of the recommended responses during the course of their daily activities.  These include organizations such as the International Institute of Islamic Studies (IIIT), the Muslim American Society (MAS-wdm), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the American Muslim Council/Foundation (AMC/AMF), Muslim Political Action Committee (MPAC) and umbrella organizations such as the America Muslim Association (AMA), among others. 

It is our passionate hope and prayer to Allah that the Muslim community of America become historically justified to live out the Qur’an vision and command of the community to “invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: For thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.”( 16:125)

This paper was presented at the Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) The 31ST Annual Conference American University, Washington, DC October 25-27, 2002.  It still holds true today.  Sadly, we are still no closer to developing a realistic and professional media presence.