Maynard Media Center: Muslim-Americans decry media portrait of followers of Islam

Irrational. Violent. Fanatics.

Members of the Muslim-American community say mainstream media in the West use these words consistently to portray followers of Islam. News coverage of uprisings in the Arab world over the American-made video that disparaged the Prophet Muhammad has perpetuated the negative stereotypes.

While the Arab outcry over the video “Innocence of Muslims” has certainly inspired a violent streak, advocates for the Muslim community say mainstream media have failed to report that only small numbers of Muslims are involved in the unrest.

In the most prominent violence, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three American colleagues were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. Initial reports attributed the attack to protests against the video, but U.S. officials subsequently described the event as a terrorist attack.

The advocates also say mainstream media have failed miserably at explaining why the film is an insult to followers of Islam.

Aymen Abdel Halim, communications coordinator for the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says issues of Newsweek and Time magazines were particularly objectionable.

Newsweek’s cover story on Sept. 24 was headlined “Muslim Rage” above a photo of an angry crowd in Islamic dress. Time’s cover that week was headlined “The Agents of Outrage: An Embassy attacked. Diplomats murdered. The new calculus of violence against America.” Behind the headline was a photo of an angry mob.

“It’s a lot of the same imagery we’ve seen in the past,” Halim says. “It’s imagery that has demonized Muslims and perpetuated stereotypes.”

Yasmin Hussein, young leaders program coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington and Los Angeles, agrees. She says the media’s tendency toward sensationalism hasn’t helped to counter the American public’s misconceptions about Islam. “A bunch of people protesting, doing crazy stuff obviously makes for really good news,” she says, adding that it fails to tell the full story.

That story in this case, Halim says, is that uprisings in the Arab world over “Innocence of Muslims” were not widespread. He says mainstream media have mistakenly compared recent Middle East unrest to the Arab Spring of 2011. But while hundreds of thousands of people revolted then, only a couple thousand people have participated in the current public outcry in Muslim nations, he says.

“It’s being depicted as something much larger than it actually is,” Halim says, adding that the media have “kind of painted Muslims and Islam with a broad brush.”

That includes ignoring various factors leading to Arab demonstrations. Halim says the demonstrations aren’t solely about the video, which depicted the Prophet Muhammad as sexually promiscuous, a drunk and a pedophile. They also stem, he says, from effects of U.S. policy on the Arab world and the fact that countries such as Libya remain devastated a year after the United States helped to rid it of despot Moammar Gadhafi.

Experts say mainstream media have failed to provide comprehensive reports on the variety of reasons that the Muslim world resents the West and have not addressed why “Innocence of Muslims” has angered Muslims.

Deana A. Rohlinger, associate professor of sociology at Florida State University, says many Americans don’t realize that free speech isn’t a right in many countries throughout the world, especially in Muslim nations.

“We have this very narrow understanding of what it means to be a Muslim, what a Muslim looks like, what a Muslim does,” she says. “In some parts of the Muslim world, they see a film like this and assume it’s backed by the U.S. government.” The idea that the United States was complicit in the film’s making is one factor that has driven the violent protests.

Junaid Afeef, a Chicago-based attorney, activist and self-described “patriotic American” who runs the website “An American Muslim Journal,” says he has found it difficult to explain to Muslim cousins abroad that the U.S. government doesn’t infringe on artistic freedom.

“They live in autocratic rule, very controlled environments,” Afeef says. “They can’t wrap their minds around the level of freedom citizens here enjoy. They ask, ‘Why can’t your government demand that YouTube take this video down?’ It’s an honest question. They don’t understand the laws here allow people to say really offensive things.”

Afeef points out that many Muslims abroad have expressed support for the United States and expressed regret for the death of Stevens. He says that some have displayed signs expressing these sentiments but that the media have largely ignored this segment of the Muslim community.

Meanwhile, Hussein says mainstream media have largely ignored releases from her organization condemning acts of violence, such as the consulate attack. But the bigger issue, she says, is that the media largely ignore Muslims overall, unless war or reckless violence is the subject.

“There needs to be more coverage of Muslim-Americans who are really making an effort to have a positive impact on the country,” Hussein says. “Muslim athletes, Muslim attorneys, Muslims who are part of everyday America. These stories need to be told to humanize Muslims.”