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by Alyssa Nickles

Yesterday Peter Laufer and Julianne Newton from the School of Journalism and Communication led an Intercultural Conversation entitled Perceptions of Islam and the Media. During the conversation, University faculty and students discussed the influence the media has on the public perception of Islam in the United States.

The conversation opened with a clip from the Colbert Report, which created satire of a poll that suggested President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Following the clip, Professor Newton posed the question: Why is the American public under the impression that it would be bad to have a Muslim president?  The answer lies in the media’s presentation of Islam.

Professor Laufer suggested America’s hostile opinion of Muslims can be attributed to right-wing media outlets, such as FOX News and The Glenn Beck Program.  Shows like these that are more invested in presenting distorted facts for entertainment value, than providing legitimate news have charged an anti-Islamic trend throughout the country. Most notable of this movement was the highly publicized “Ground Zero Mosque” debate.

In an age where media’s messages are constantly contradicting one another, how can you filter out the truth from the falsities? Professor Newton offered one solution—media literacy.  Media literacy entails deeply analyzing the messages a medium is sending. To do so, one must look deeper than face value and take into account who is writing, presenting, funding, and producing these messages, all while considering the principle market for the messages.

The Intercultural Conversation helped me realize the importance of challenging the idea that news is truth and factual. Failure to do so will have dire repercussions, as the public will digest these inaccurate messages and spread their ignorance and lies.  Members of the Muslim community have already fallen victims of this pattern. Only through media literacy will the American public be able to combat the widespread hostility towards the Islamic culture.

Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP) has recently uncovered a massive sex trafficking ring containing 20,000 to 40,000 under age girls. The girls were held in hundreds of brothels across Mali, all under complete control of Nigerian women.

According to Nigerian authorities, the girls were lured from their homes under the impression they would be working in Europe. Upon arrival in Mali, the girls were told they would be held as prostitutes until they could pay off their debt. Simon Egede, Executive Secretary of NAPTIP reported that the girls were “held in bondage for the purposes of forced sexual exploitation and servitude or slavery-like practices” in the brothels.

These brothels were mainly located around Nigeria’s capital, Bamako, and in mining towns such as Kaynes and Mopti. Many of them had abortion clinics, forcing the girls into pregnancy termination procedures against their will.

Today, sex trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. There are an estimated 600,000 to 820,000 men, women, and children trafficked across international borders annually. Of the 27 million people currently held as slaves, eighty-five percent of them will be sold as sex slaves.

While men mainly control this lucrative industry, in this case, women were in control. Although NAPTIP is currently working with Malian police to free the girls and help them return to Nigeria, the cycle will undoubtedly continue as Nigeria has become a hotspot for prostitution, with thousands of women and girls entering the industry to make money as sex workers.

As human trafficking remains a global issue, the looming question is why countries haven’t taken more aggressive actions to address the problem. Why haven’t governments or intergovernmental organizations done more to raise awareness of the issue, protect trafficking victims, and prosecute exploiters?

Check out the following sites for more information on the international sex trade:

http://www.humantrafficking.org

http://www.notforsalecampaign.org

http://www.naptip.gov.ng

A cursory look at recent news stories concerning Islam suggests that there is not so much a media discussion of Islam as there is a discussion of “radical Islam” or “Islamic fundamentalism.”  For instance, NPR’s recent story on the growing influence of radical Islam in the Balkans, and its series “Going Radical,” which investigates how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Christmas Day bombing” suspect, became a would-be terrorist, reinforce the association of terrorism with Islam, as did the much publicized “Ground Zero Mosque” debate.

What perceptions of Islam do these stories promote?  Do such stories reflect the values and experiences of the Muslims who read/listen to them?  Do they create a sense of isolation and discrimination among a significant and valuable portion of our community?

While such news stories may bring attention to issues that are of genuine societal concern, at what point do they cease to inspire thoughtful inquiry and begin to construct a superficial, monolithic and skewed image of Islam and Muslims?  Are there enough images and narratives in the media that counterbalance these negative portrayals and make the discussion of “Who is a Muslim?” and “What is Islam?” a truly multi-vocal conversation?

In the recent film Mooz-lum, filmmaker Qasim Basir provides a depiction of Islam and Muslims that is an alternative to those often represented by the media.  In an interview with Michel Martin, Basir explains what compelled him to make this film:

“…I was a little tired of seeing the consistent negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media. And being that I was raised very different than what’s represented as what Islam or Muslims are supposed to be, I had to write something about it that showed the human perspective of a people, of a culture, of faith.”

Another film that draws attention to the ways in which Islam is portrayed in Western media is the documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, directed by Sut Jhally and featuring Dr. Jack Shaheen.  While this film specifically addresses depictions of Arabs and Arab culture, it also gives consideration to prevalent negative portrayals of Islam.

While there are numerous news stories featuring radical Islam and terrorism in association with Islam, major media outlets, such as ABC news, have also attempted to provide some balance to the discourse concerning Islam.  In a special edition of 20/20, Diane Sawyer reports on Islam in America and the common questions and misconceptions that some Americans have about the religion. On another ABC news segment, a hidden camera experiment caught bystanders’ reactions to a Muslim woman being denied service, bringing light to everyday discriminatory acts against Muslims and asking, among other things, how perceptions of Islam and Muslims influence interactions between individuals.

Considering these different types of news stories and representations of Islam in the media, the question arises, does the media have a responsibility to educate the public about religion? If so, how might it best go about accomplishing this?  And if not, what is the media’s primary responsibility?

 

Additional Readings:

The Portrayal of Islam by the Western Media

A Muslim Women’s Forum on Representation in the Media

Responsible Education and Media, Non-Profit