Stories about Quran Burning Reveal Shortcomings of U.S. Media’s Coverage of Islam

While some breathed a sigh of relief that news stories about Pastor Terry Jones and his planned Quran burning didn’t dominate headlines on the ninth anniversary of Sept. 11, others called for greater reflection on the media’s tendencies to sensationalize.

If it was a day of reckoning, then what did the coverage tell us about the bigger picture of how the media cover Islam and Muslim Americans? And what can we learn from it?

After reviewing mainstream and non-mainstream coverage and talking to Arsalan Iftikhar and Asra Q. Nomani, two prominent commentators and writers on Islam in America, I found that the Jones coverage reveals ongoing shortcomings in the American media.

Often, the U.S. media just skim the surface when reporting on Islam and Muslims. What we need, Iftikhar and Nomani say, are more varied views of Muslims in America, more critical thinking — and critical reporting of both anti-Muslim and Muslim groups — and more context for the issues at hand.

The Quran burning story didn’t begin and won’t end with Jones. Iftikhar, a human rights lawyer and media commentator, was recently quoted in a Time magazine cover story that asked the broader question, “Is America Islamophobic?

That question is too often measured by “public opinion” polls — “such as the recent findings that 24 percent of Americans wrongfully believe that President Obama is a Muslim or that 71 percent of Americans do not support the mosque in lower Manhattan,” Iftikhar said in an e-mail interview. “We very rarely see humanizing stories of American Muslims serving as doctors, firefighters, nurses or teachers.”

An estimated 6,000 Muslim Americans serve in the U.S. military, many of them in Afghanistan. If any media outlets, including the many with embedded reporters, asked those troops what it’s like to be facing the threat of riots and violent action against them in Afghanistan while worrying about hate discrimination and hate crimes against their loved ones at home, I didn’t see it.

In a recent Daily Beast column, Department of Defense Analyst Salmah Y. Rizvi offered a perspective  from a Muslim American who is part of the U.S. counter-terrorism effort. Rizvi wrote his commentary in the context of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

As long as Muslim Americans are portrayed purely in the framework of religious conflict, journalists will continue only telling the “alien” narrative about them, Iftikhar said. They will be “seen as ‘foreign’ entities as opposed to a part of our American social fabric.”

Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam,” said American news media failed their readers, viewers and listeners in their coverage of Jones and the controversy over the proposed Islamic center.

“I wish that the American media would cover Islam just they do any other industry from Coca Cola to the airline industry,” said Nomani, also an adjunct professor of journalism at Georgetown University. Journalists should follow the money, she says, and report on political lobbying and internal conflicts of interest groups instead of just parroting their inflammatory statements.

“Instead, for the large part, we’re just walking on eggshells, bending over backwards trying not to offend” Islam by questioning beliefs within a diverse faith, she told me.

That approach leads to a monolithic representation in the form of “Islam says …,” which often placates the conservative mainstream inside of Islam, she said. Reporters “know better than to ever say, ‘Christianity says …’ because we recognize there is diversity inside the Christian faith.”

The news media must generate as much discussion and critical thinking about issues concerning Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment as it does with politics, the White House, and other topics that receive more critical coverage, she said.

One refreshing take that did address tough questions came from essayist Anisa Mehdi on NPR. Mehdi reminds those who would support burning the Quran that it contains verses that acknowledge and praise Jesus and Mary. Likewise, she reminds Muslims overseas who might commit acts of violence as a result of the act that they, too, should review Muslim principles that favor self-discipline and Quranic verses that warn against lawlessness.

I saw few news media stories that really questioned whether Jones had read the Quran, or attempted to educate the public on what the book contains — or even the significance it has for Muslims, and particularly Afghan Muslims. A Christian Science Monitor blog post, “Why Afghanistan has reacted so sharply to threat of Quran burning,” was a notable exception.

I often look to ethnic and foreign media for context that is lacking in U.S. media, and I found the coverage on Al Jazeera’s English website to be particularly telling.

All of Al Jazeera’s photos depict reactions — hordes of American journalists swarming Jones or Muslims in other countries protesting — but do not focus on Jones himself. It’s clear in stories like “Quran row feeds media frenzy” that the real story to Al Jazeera journalists is the “hyperventilating” U.S. media, not Jones nor his supposed negotiations with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Iftikhar said he worries that the media attention given to Jones will spur “Quran copycats,” already witnessed in Tennessee and Kansas, where pastors have proposed to hold their own burnings.

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“Hopefully, this time,” he said, “no media outlet will give these people the light of day.”

If they do, one would hope the stories would provide context that puts the story, and the issues at hand, in greater perspective.

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