By Joyce Davis
Deputy Foreign News Editor, Knight Ridder Newspapers

Many Muslims complain that Islam is one of the least understood and most maligned religions in the United States.

Many of them also blame the news media in the United States for propagating stereotypes and myths that reinforce the Western-Islamic divide. In fact, at a recent conference in Chicago that attracted thousands of American Muslims, many accused the American media of outright bias and hostility toward Islam.

“Why is it that the American media continue to refer to Islamic terrorists but don’t call the IRA Christian terrorists?” asked Mahdi Bray, executive director of the American Muslim Society’s Freedom Foundation, a civil rights organization. “And why don’t they refer to the settlers who attack Arabs as Jewish terrorists?”

Muslims also complain that many American journalists who are writing about them have little understanding about their religion or their culture. Some even believe there is a conspiracy to defile Islam’s reputation in the United States.

Journalists may argue that such views are unjustified. Some may consider them downright wrong.

But many Muslims in the United States hold these opinions. And they buy newspapers, listen to radio, and watch television news.

Journalists must acknowledge the gulf that exists between them and Muslim Americans. Journalists must acknowledge the gulf that exists between them and Muslim Americans. They will need to address it if they want access to a community that will be in the news for years to come. Those who cover Islam need to understand that some Muslims espouse beliefs that may be based more on culture, politics, or tradition than on the religion’s teachings.

The vast majority of Muslims abhor violence and denounce terrorism. A wide array of Muslim scholars insist that attacks such as those committed against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, are not condoned by their religion -- even if those responsible claimed to be doing so in the name of Allah.

Muslims complain that because American journalists know so little about Islam, they frequently quote ill-informed people or people misusing the religion to promote their own narrow agendas.

Islamic scholars passionately debate such topics as abortion, divorce, suicide bombings, and the rights of women in an Islamic society.Many journalists may know that Muslims believe in one God and that Muhammad was his last prophet. They may not realize that there is no one authority on Islam’s teachings, or on Sharia, Islamic law. An imam, or prayer leader, may offer his studied opinions of the meaning of verses in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. But another respected scholar may hold an opposite opinion. Islamic scholars passionately debate such topics as abortion, divorce, suicide bombings, and the rights of women in an Islamic society.

For example, many scholars believe Islam allows a man to take up to four wives. But they believe that option requires that the man be able to financially provide for four families and be able to treat each wife equally. Some scholars argue Islam actually sought to restrain polygamy, since no man is capable of meeting the strict conditions set in the Qur’an.

A number of respected Muslim organizations based in Washington, D.C., want to bridge the gap between news media and Muslims in the United States. They include the American Muslim Society, the American Muslim Council, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Leaders of these groups encourage journalists to seek out the opinions of several respected scholars, who are qualified by their education and training, to offer guidance on Islam’s teachings.

These leaders also advise journalists to develop a sound basic knowledge of the religion’s teachings. And they recommend nurturing relationships with Muslim leaders before a crisis. That way, journalists will be better able to discern the valid spokespeople from those who espouse extremist views that do not represent the beliefs of mainstream Muslims.

While many Muslims believe the news media misunderstand Islam, they also acknowledge their own ignorance about how the U.S. news media work.

“How do they decide what letters to use on the op-ed page?” one imam at the Chicago convention asked.

“How do they decide what community events to cover and what not to cover?” a Muslim social worker from Texas asked. “Why don’t they cover our events?”

A number of Muslims want their voices heard. But some find their efforts stymied.

"They still don’t return our phone calls."“We’ve done everything we can to cultivate better relations with our local newspaper,” another man complained, “even to the point of holding a seminar on Islam for reporters and editors. They still don’t return our phone calls.”

In our post-Sept. 11 world, journalists need to return such phone calls. In fact, they need to initiate those phone calls -- and not only in times of crisis and for quick quotes on deadline.

At a recent Poynter Institute conference for journalists interested in covering faith, religion, and values, one writer confessed feeling uncomfortable around Muslims. The writer said Muslims seemed suspicious and closed.

Muslims in the United States are suspicious of journalists who come around only after a terrorist attack. Many live in fear of being arrested by the FBI. They worry they will be associated with extremists because they attended the same mosque as one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. They wonder what will happen because they gave a donation to an Islamic charity that sent contributions to Hezbollah or Hamas, two groups that the United States has put on its terrorist list.

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American Muslims insist they are not naive. They know that there are extremists in their midst. They argue that their community is this country’s first line of defense against terrorism. Many are as eager to root out such people in their communities as the FBI is to put them behind bars.

“Not only are we afraid of being killed in a terrorist attack,” said one Muslim entrepreneur, who attended the Chicago conference, “but we bear the double burden of being blamed for such crimes.”

Since Sept. 11, Muslims in this country say they have been living a nightmare. But it’s one largely ignored by the news media. Muslim men dread air travel since they say they are more likely to be subject to humiliating searches, even kicked off a flight because of their looks. Muslim men and women loathe the signs of fear and hostility they often see in the eyes of people around them. Children have watched as the FBI searched their homes and questioned their fathers. Some say they have been harassed and ridiculed at school. Women who wear the Islamic head covering and dress say they often meet open hostility in shopping malls and other public places. Some say they prefer to simply stay at home to avoid trouble.

Muslim Americans have many stories to tell. These stories offer a valuable glimpse into post-Sept. 11 America.

Journalists must find a way to tell those stories. They need to document a unique part of American history. They can offer the public insights into the domestic repercussions of the U.S. war on terrorism. And they can expose the potential threats to the freedoms that are the foundation of our society.

Joyce Davis is the author of "Between Jihad and Salaam: Profiles in Islam," a collection of profiles and interviews with Islamic leaders around the world, published by St. Martin’s Press. Her newest book is due out early this year. "Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance and Despair in the Middle East" also will be published by St. Martin’s Press.