Despite the ubiquitous presence of cable television, satellite radio and the internet – all offering avenues for self-promotion – some US minority groups struggle to have their voices heard by the mainstream public.
In particular, the American Muslim community, placed under intense scrutiny following the 11 September 2001 attacks, struggles to pursue a more expansive role in the news media, the entertainment industry and the political arena. Not having sufficient representation in these areas has contributed to a steady increase in anti-Muslim stereotypes and social bigotry, many Muslim activists say.
Such problems were the central theme of Who Speaks for Muslims, a recent conference in Atlanta, Georgia, to examine ways to enhance the public voice of America’s five to seven million Muslims.
Some Muslims accuse the media
The event brought together Muslim television and radio producers, print journalists, screenwriters and political figures to hold workshops and lectures on subjects ranging from film production to media influence.
“Muslims speak for Muslims and it is our job to combat what we are seeing from the media,” said Qur’an Shakir, a spokeswoman for Taqwa Productions, a video production company that organised the conference.
“We need to speak up instead of allowing the media to define us.”
Segments of the American Muslim community criticise the mainstream media for what they consider one-dimensional coverage that focuses on Muslim connections to terrorism and violence.
“Muslims don’t want to be portrayed as terrorists or the feared one, because that’s not an accurate portrayal of who we are,” said Mahdi Bray, president of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, a civil rights organisation in Washington, DC.
For those Muslim Americans who agree that the media inaccurately depict their religion, the key problem is the lack of Muslim commentators in television, radio and print journalism.
“There is a drastic need for more intelligent Muslim voices on television”
“There is a drastic need for more intelligent Muslim voices on television,” said Ahmed Younis, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based civil rights group.
While representatives from major Muslim organisations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) appear frequently on cable news programmes, some argue that it pales in comparison to the media presence of anti-Muslim critics.
“In comparison to the anti-Muslim and anti-Islam propaganda in the electronic and print media, Muslims are given very little time to explain their position,” said Abdus Sattar Ghazali, editor and publisher of the American Muslim Perspective, an online magazine based in Modesto, California.
Not everyone agrees, however, that American Muslims are fighting a losing battle for media access. Far from being denied a place at the table, some Muslim activists say the community has made significant inroads into the world of newspaper and television coverage.
“I think the Muslim voice in the media is perhaps better than in other areas because the media seeks out Muslim voices,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director.
Despite the perception by some American Muslims that the mainstream media ignore their community, Hooper questioned the idea that news organisations were to blame for the lack of Muslim speakers.
“It’s because we’re not making ourselves available, not because we’re not being sought out,” he said.
Learning how to engage the media more effectively at the local level was a central topic covered at the Who Speaks for Muslims conference, Shakir said. Those who attended received instruction on how to write a news release and how to contact media outlets.
Muslims urge their community
“[Local Muslim groups] need to arrange some type of team to find out who the major media groups are and who is in charge of what and to let them know that you’re available,” she said.
The Muslim American Society holds frequent youth camps during which young people are schooled in media training, the internet and other areas.
“We need to develop and nurture that future generation that will be policy experts,” Bray said.
Expanding media participation, however, is just one aspect of a bigger picture for any minority group seeking to educate the public. Many Americans form impressions from music channels rather than news channels.
Entertainment programming, be it television sitcoms, Hollywood films or music videos, has become increasingly influential in the lives of average Americans. What viewers see on late-night television is as likely to inform their thoughts on politics and social issues as what they read in newspapers, many experts say.
Whereas the “theological and political voice” of the American Muslim community is often heard, it is necessary to “integrate the cultural voice” as well, Bray said.
Bridges TV is the first US
That could be a challenge.
“There are really not a lot of [Muslim] voices there … but we’re beginning to have some improvement,” Hooper said.
Shakir said she could not “off the top of my head” name a single mainstream American Muslim director or producer in film or television.
While there have been a few recent documentaries and small films directed by American Muslims, none has been distributed to large audiences.
Perhaps the most well-known television show this year involving Muslim characters was 24, a one-hour drama on Fox that focused on a plot by Muslim terrorists to detonate a nuclear device inside the United States.
After CAIR and other groups complained that the storyline stereotyped the American Muslim community, Fox aired a public service announcement telling viewers that the vast majority of American Muslims are loyal citizens.
Progress in Hollywood, however, will likely go hand in hand with progress on the political front, another area where American Muslims are looking for a greater voice, Bray said.
“I don’t believe you will have success in entertainment if you don’t have success in the political process,” he said. “It’s an integrated process.”
In terms of elected office, Muslim candidates have achieved victories in local polls, but not at the federal level. In fact, no Muslim American has ever been elected to Congress.
“We do need to have more representation”
Qur’an Shakir, a spokeswoman for Taqwa Productions, a video production company
“We do need to have more representation,” Shakir said.
Others are focused on engaging the Muslim community at all levels of politics, something Hooper said was critically important.
“I don’t think we’re so concerned about having a Muslim elected to Congress without a grassroots process of support,” he said.
Ultimately, anyone asking who speaks for American Muslims must also take into account the diversity, political and cultural, of that community, several activists said.
“I don’t think that anyone speaks for all Muslims in this country,” Hooper said.
With such a wide cross-section of belief systems in the American Muslim community, some more conservative than others, Ghazali said it was important to acknowledge differences while not allowing extremist viewpoints to overshadow the mainstream.
“Of course, there is always diversity of opinion which should be taken into account,” he said. “But there is an opinion of the majority and an opinion of the minority, or fringe groups. The problem arises when the opinion of a fringe group is promoted.”