What journalists need to know about Muslims to better write about them
Amid Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslim travelers to the US and claims of extremist Muslim cells across the US, telling the story of the nation’s Muslims seems more paramount now than ever.
Who are the nation’s Muslims?
They come from over 70 countries across the 1.6 billion-member Muslim world and their diversity is reflected in the fact that the overwhelming majority of mosques are made up from Muslims from across the globe, not from one ethnic community, according to a 2011 survey of US mosques.
South Asians, Arabs/Middle Easterners and African-Americans are the major groups among the nation’s Muslims, surveys show. Compared to other religious groups, Muslims are the youngest, noted a recent Gallup survey. More than four out of 10 Muslims in the U.S. are between 18 and 29 years old.
It is unclear how many Muslims live in the US, since the US Census does not track religions. But a PEW survey in 2011 estimated that there were about 2.75 million in the US. A more recent Pew survey predicted that their share of the population would grow to 2.1 percent of the population by 2050, up from just under 1 percent.
Relying on surveys and polls, CNN reporter Holly Yan, recently offered a basic primer on American Muslims.
She pointed out that two-thirds are immigrants; that they are better educated than most Americans and that Muslim women “are more likely to work in professional fields than the general US population.” So, too, she noted that they are “not just clustered in big cities,” but live in “cities big and small all across the U.S.”
That’s a good primer but it is only a beginning. We need to hear Muslims’ voices and see their faces. We need to humanize and get beyond shallow stereotypes. We need to understand the reality of a community stained by the ill deeds of some of its members.
The fact that American Muslims largely do not live in isolated communities, as many do in France, is measure of their positive assimilation in the US, Hisham Melhem, a long-time reporter in the US for Arab news media, recently wrote in Politico magazine.
Similarly, after the terror attacks in Paris, the IBTimes relied on experts to explain how Muslims have assimilated far better in the U.S. than France.
Indeed, of all the issues raised about Muslim lately, the overriding one lately has been about how they fit into American society? This has especially been so as anti-Muslim groups have raised their drumbeat of fears about Muslims, and as officials have made unspecific references to Muslim threats.
As experts point out there’s a problem with making a broad generalization about Muslims’ beliefs. The community is too diverse in terms of national origins and backgrounds to sweep everyone into one group.
Rather there are national surveys that take in the sweep of the community and the Pew Research Center has produced the most extensive ones in recent years.
They reported in 2011 that six out of 10 Muslims were concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S. and one out of five thought there was a great deal or fair amount of support for extremism among American Muslims.
The same survey showed that nearly half of US Muslims feel that their own religious leaders have not “done enough to speak out against Islamic extremists.
In contrast, the 2011 Mosque survey said that 87 percent of mosque leaders did not think that extremism was increasing among youth, but rather that their biggest problem was “attracting and keeping them close to the mosque.”
Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a comprehensive national survey that lays out the most common links and forces driving Muslim violence. But there are efforts to offer some explanations.
A recent New York Times story pointed, for example, to findings by researchers at George Washington University, which showed that although “Islamic State recruits defy any single profile… they are younger than previous terrorism suspects, are drawn heavily from converts to Islam and reflect increasingly prominent roles for women in the terrorist organization.”
Charles Kurzman, a University of North Carolina sociologist, who has steadily tracked and compiled data on Muslim violence, wrote earlier this year that: “While small numbers of Muslim-Americans continue to be indicted for terrorism-related offenses, the publicly-known cases of domestic plots does not suggest large-scale growth in violent extremism or more sophisticated planning and execution than in recent years.”
As with every spurt in violence in recent years, Muslims today increasingly talk with despair about the toll of unfriendly encounters, the growing tide of painful stereotypes and the public questioning of their loyalty.
The frequent call for them to speak out against extremism has provoked, again, a soulful discussion. Some feel exhausted continually expected to repudiate violence involving Muslims globally. And some say they have no choice.
In a recent NPR interview, for example, with young Muslims, one young woman explained: NPR “Every single time something happens to reinforce the negative ideas, every time, you know, we're spoken about like animals, like we're not a billion people…”
New York Times reporter Laurie Goldstein wrote recently about the frustration of Muslim groups, who had spoken out after the recent violence in Southern California.
“But the message is apparently not getting through. Muslims and leaders of mosques across the United States say they are experiencing a wave of death threats, assaults and vandalism unlike anything they have experienced since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.”
One compelling reason for more reporting on Muslims today is that so many Americans still know so little about them or their religion.
A 2010 Pew Research Survey showed that 55 percent of Americans knew not very much or nothing at all about the religion and only 41 percent said they knew a Muslim.
Stephen Franklin was a Middle East correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He has also trained journalists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan and Sudan. He was an editor and project manager for Islam for Journalists, a free digital book that includes the work of a number of scholars and journalists. A version of this is a free course, Covering Islam, at the Poynter Institute. He is the ethnic and community media project director for Public Narrative, a Chicago organization that links communities and the news media.
Correction: A previous version of this story described the Muslim world as containing 1.6 million adherents. It is 1.6 billion, according to the Pew Research Center.