US Muslims struggle to be heard

It is 5pm in Springfield, Virginia and the heat of the afternoon sun is bearing down on a sparse studio as a radio host begins a programme on politics and religion.

    Bray says Islam is demonised

    "In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, I’m your host Mahdi Bray."

    Radio listeners in the United States are unlikely to hear many such introductions.

    The show is called The Crescent Report, broadcast on AMIN Radio, one of the few Islamic radio stations in the country.

    From 2-6 pm, the station airs an array of programming, shows delving into politics, religion, health issues, youth talk and family counseling.

    Founded in 2001, it went off the air in early 2003 after a dispute with the station owner, and finally came back on air in February.

    By no means a large-scale operation, the station functions on a miniscule budget and funds itself through listener contributions and by selling commercial time to a few local businesses.

    'Pioneering effort'

    Using only the most basic equipment it has managed to generate a small but loyal audience, drawn to a mixture of shows in both English and Arabic.

    Its office is small and unassuming, with bare, turquoise-blue walls, a single computer and a few empty desks leading into a tiny sound booth and a dim-lit studio.

    Mahdi Bray, the executive director of the Muslim American Freedom Foundation and host of The Crescent Report, calls the station a "pioneering effort".

    "I think it is something that needs to be done," Bray says.

    He opens

    There are seven to eight million
    Muslims in the United States

    his program with a discussion about faith-based programmes in the US prison system.

    Along with a co-host who phones in from Boston, he is concerned that some politicians and members of the Christian right are using government-funded faith-based programs to promote Christianity in prisons.

    Despite the fact that there has been what he calls "a tremendous growth of Islam in the prison system", Bray says there has been a "demonisation" of Islam by some organisations pushing a message that Muslim groups in prison are a breeding ground for "terrorists".

    Free speech

    "If the religious right gains a foothold in the prison system, then there will be a subtle move to get Islam out of the prison system," his co-host says.

    With that, Bray invites listeners to call in with any thoughts they might have on the subject.

    "We do not screen our calls ... We have a first amendment line," he says. "You can call and disagree with us."

    Two individuals call in during a segment on the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.

    The first man says while those who committed "these crimes" must be held accountable, "Anything is better than the previous [Iraqi] administration."

    Caller number two asks whether the prisoner abuse pictures will taint the administration.

    'Ignorance about Islam'

    Bray, who speaks in a rapid-fire cadence, responds, saying he does not know if the pictures "will be the salient factor", in the occupation, but thinks "Iraq is a mess".

    Even listeners who call in to disagree are generally respectful and courteous, says producer Ayman Bin Kulaib.

    "I do not think that what we need are more people [on air] who actually are Muslims, what we need are more people with a more sophisticated international perspective"

    Sarah al-Tantawi
    communications director,
    Muslim Public Affairs Council

    Once, a caller got through who referred to Muslims as "rag heads", but those calls are rare, Bin Kulaib says.

    Bray says the show gives him the chance to dispel what he calls the "ignorance about Islam".

    "Here is an opportunity for people to get it straight from the source," he says.

    He knows of only a handful of Islamic radio stations in the country, a number he hopes will grow in the coming years.

    "I think Muslims need to be more visible, and in this case audio, in the media," he says.

    Muslims in media

    There are several Islamic websites that produce online radio programming, one of which is

    Avais Chghtai, a spokesman for the site, says, in his opinion, Islam is not accurately portrayed in the mainstream US media, a problem he attributes to the "lack of Muslims" on air.

    "Islam is being depicted as a religion that is nothing but terrorism; that is backwards ... which is not true at all." Chghtai says.

    "If you are going to speak about Muslims, who better to speak to than a Muslim himself."

    Some Muslim American organisations, however, caution that getting Muslims on the radio or on television is not an end-all solution.

    Sarah al-Tantawi, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, agrees the community "needs more Muslims out there who are giving the Muslim perspective," but says she is not looking for the Muslim equivalent of "Christian talk radio".

    "I do not think that what we need are more people [on air] who actually are Muslims, what we need are more people with a more sophisticated international perspective," al-Tantawi says.

    Marketplace of ideas

    Organisations such as the Islamic Broadcasting Network (IBN) are trying to do just that.

    US Islamic institutions in various
    walks of life are growing

    Based in Virginia, IBN produces a slew of online English programmes on a wide variety of subjects. IBN feeds it news programs to radio stations in the Bahamas, Houston and Washington, DC.

    People from more than 100 countries go to the IBN website to listen to programmes about "what is happening here and throughout the Muslim world", says Mamduh Rezeika, an IBN representative.

    "We need to get our next door neighbours to understand who we are on our own terms as American Muslims," Rezeika says.

    IBN is even working to create an English-language Islamic television station for US viewers.

    Bray says he hopes stations like IBN and AMIN can demonstrate the value of the Muslim perspective in America.

    "I think that as a Muslim, our ideas can stand with any other ideas in the free marketplace of ideas."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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