The concept was simple: Seven Californian Muslims, each photographed against a grey background, talking about the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” usually translated as “God is great.” No voiceovers. No cutaways. Just seven Californians, talking about two words.
If there’s one phrase non-Muslims associate with acts of terror, it’s “Allahu Akbar.” Witnesses to the July 1 attacks on the café in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, in which 28 people were killed, reported hearing the assailants yell the phrase. The Paris murderers shouted it as they killed 130 people in November of last year, as did the Pakistani Taliban who massacred 21 university students and staff a month later in Peshawar. The U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan yelled it before opening fire at Fort Hood in 2009, killing 13 people.
Knowing that most Americans have only heard the phrase in Hollywood thrillers or terror-related news—and given that, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, only 38 percent of Americans personally know someone who is Muslim—the Los Angeles Times set out last year to make a video exploring its place in the lives of ordinary Muslims. “The idea was, How can we unpack this very charged word?” explains videographer Lisa Biagiotti, who made the piece with LA Times photographer Irfan Khan. “How do we get at some bit of the spirit of Islam in this word? How do we make it both intimate and relevant?” Their piece, “The Use and Misuse of Allahu Akbar,” succeeds in making it both.
Mindful of the fact that Arabs comprise only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims, Khan and Biagiotti chose a rich ethnic mix of interviewees, including Americans from Thai, Indian, African-American, Indonesian as well as Arab backgrounds, showing that the Muslim umma, or global community, is, much like the United States itself: an ethnic mosaic.
In the video, a motherly Indonesian-American notes that many Muslims say “Allahu Akbar” 85 times a day, as part of the five daily prayers; she herself uses it when she sees a beautiful sunset. An Indian-American describes how he says “Allahu Akbar” on seeing people pitching in to help after natural disasters, “like in Haiti or Katrina.” An African-American in a suit and tie remarks that since the words appear in a prayer Muslims use before travel, he frets that “everyone’s going to freak out” if fellow passengers hear him whisper “Allahu Akbar” before takeoff.
“Allahu Akbar” is the first phrase many Muslims whisper in the ears of their newborns. It frequently greets the joyous news of a wedding or to express awe. In 2013, after the disastrous collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka, there were cries of “Allahu Akbar” from the crowd after a woman was pulled alive from the rubble, 17 days after the building crumbled.
Though commonly translated as “God is great,” scholars tend to render “Allahu Akbar” as “God is greater,” stressing its affirmation that the power and possibilities of God exceed everything else. For most Muslims, it is not a battle cry, but an acknowledgement of humankind’s surrender to an omnipotent deity.
Misunderstandings around the meaning of “Allahu Akbar” show that, even as Islam surfaces in stories from presidential campaigns to city zoning debates, most media coverage of Muslims remains narrow, bound up with terrorism and violence. Muslims rarely appear in mainstream media as anything other than extremists or terrorists. Yet Islam is threaded through beats from foreign affairs to crime to education. How do reporters cover a faith that’s shaping global geopolitical debate and whose 1.6 billion adherents range from Pathan tribesmen to Argentinian mystics to Kansan heart surgeons?
“Allahu Akbar” is the first phrase many Muslims whisper in the ears of their newborns
With both jihadis and Islamophobes eager to equate terrorism with Islam, chipping away at stereotypes is necessary but may not be sufficient for balanced coverage. For that, boosting coverage of Muslims outside the news cycle—and indeed, in the context of something other than their faith—would help. “I just long for a day when we can write stories about the Muslim community and we don’t see a mention of ISIS or 9/11,” says Brian J. Bowe, a journalism professor at Western Washington University who writes frequently on the media’s portrayal of American Muslims.
Given recent terror attacks in Orlando and Paris and ongoing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, not to mention the tone of this year’s Republican U.S. presidential campaign, that day seems still far off. Quantitative studies of Muslims and the media are few, but a 2013 report by international media consultancy Media Tenor examined nearly 7,000 Islam-related stories aired on ABC, CBS and NBC news between 2007 and 2013 and characterized them as positive, negative, or neutral. In 2013, the study found three-quarters to be negative in tone, the highest percentage of any year in the study. Among those Muslims quoted in the stories, terrorists accounted for the majority. In addition, the number of reports about Muslims, Muslim religious leaders, and Muslim organizations dropped sharply from 2010 to 2013.
A 2008 analysis of coverage of British Muslims in nearly 1,000 articles in the U.K. press, from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, found that 80 percent of articles associated “Islam/Muslims with threats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values,” with references to radical Muslims outnumbering those to moderate Muslims seventeen to one. Two percent of articles on British Muslims, the study found, suggested that the moral values of Muslims were similar to those of other Britons. During the debate about whether Britain should leave the European Union, tabloids like the Daily Express (“Send in Army to Halt Migrant Invasion”) and The Sun (“1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ Sympathy for Jihadis”) ran inflammatory headlines that drew thousands of complaints and led to the Independent Press Standards Organization demanding retractions.
“Muslims are represented most often as news, with the emphasis on the word ‘as,’” says Nathan Lean, author of “The Islamophobia Industry,” which examines the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West since 9/11, and research director at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, a think-tank studying the effects of Islamophobia. “We would never turn on the evening news and hear the types of stories about Christians or Jews or even atheists that we hear about Muslims.”
And yet, terrorism unrelated to Muslims poses a greater risk to people living in the United States. In the New York Times last summer, sociologist and Muslim issues expert Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, noted that violent attacks by U.S.-based extremists from Muslim backgrounds had killed 50 people since 9/11. American right-wing extremists, by contrast, averaged 337 attacks annually, resulting in 254 deaths in the decade between 2001 and 2011. More recent terror attacks by right-wingers holding white supremacist views include the 2015 shooting at a Charleston church, in which nine people died, an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, killing six, and a shooting at a Kansas Jewish community center and retirement home in 2014, killing three.
Despite the stats, headlines rarely read “Christian terrorists,” even when a Christian commits an act of terror, as did Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. When the story broke that 77 people had died after a man detonated a bomb in Oslo before opening fire on a summer youth camp, major papers speculated that the killer was Muslim. When it emerged that the killer was Breivik, a native Norwegian whose 1,500-page online manifesto accused Muslims of colonizing Christian lands, the tone of coverage shifted, notes Todd H. Green, associate professor of religion at Luther College, in his book “The Fear of Islam”: “Media analysis of what was initially labeled a ‘terrorist attack’ quickly morphed into debates over right-wing ‘extremism.’ The word ‘terrorism’ no longer seemed applicable when the culprit self-identified as Christian.”
When Muslims are involved in violent acts, there’s often an assumption that their actions are religiously motivated. In June, Omar Mateen killed 49 people in a shooting at a gay Orlando nightclub. When he called 911 to confess, he pledged allegiance to ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—and ISIS was only too glad to claim the atrocity as its own. But in the days that followed, reports of Mateen’s history of domestic violence and his own sexuality suggested the mass shooting was closer to a hate crime committed by an unstable man conflicted about his own homosexual urges.
Some object that phrases like “Islamic terrorists” are incorrect, and that “mass murderers” or “criminals” might be more accurate. Those opposed to that description cite studies by the European Network of Experts on Violent Radicalization, among others, which found that religion is not the key source of most extremist activity. Indeed, many violent extremists affiliated to groups like ISIS or Al-Shabab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, have been found to be unversed in Islam, even if they claim to be acting in its name. Social or political anger, cultural isolation and the need for belonging tend to be far more powerful drivers of radicalization than faith.
After the Orlando attacks, then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called on President Obama to step down for refusing to cite what Trump called “radical Islam” as the engine behind the shootings. Obama, having long made efforts to differentiate between Islam and terror, called the phrase “a political distraction.” For Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Islamic Exceptionalism,” Trump has “appropriated” the phrase, which tells us nothing, argues Hamid, except that the mass murderer practiced Islam: “It’s a dog whistle, a stand-in for anti-Muslim bigotry.” Hamid suggests more nuanced, contextualizing labels, such as “radical Islamism,” “radical jihadism,” “Islamic extremism,” or even “radical Islamic terrorism.”
In the United States, a vanguard of writers and commentators, weary of being represented by others as others, is widening the conversation about what it means to be Muslim, both in new outlets, and increasingly, in the mainstream media. The tagline for Muslimgirl.com, a website with a pop-up picture of a young woman sporting a hijab and a black leather jacket, reads, “Muslim Women Talk Back,” and the site offers pieces on everything from former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz to how to pray during your period. Begun in 2009 by the then-17-year-old Amani Alkhat, Muslimgirl.com is a far cry from older, soberer American Muslim publications in its funky and fearless approach to subjects many Muslims still view as taboo. Where first-generation publications tended to look back at the politics of the Old World, in Palestine or Kashmir, Muslimgirl.com reflects the concerns of American-born women who happen to be Muslim. Recent popular posts include an interview with a Muslim transgender activist, a piece on a Lebanese porn star, and a meditation on racism among American Muslims.
The Muslim portal of the multi-faith site Patheos, though more staid than Muslimgirl.com, still crackles with essays and op-eds on everything from ISIS’s theology to the connections between singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and Sufism, the Islamic strain of mysticism. A sign of growing journalistic confidence in the still-young Muslim media space: editor Dilshad Ali’s decision to tackle sensitive political issues within America’s Muslim communities.
In the United States, a vanguard of writers and commentators is widening the conversation about what it means to be Muslim
Last winter, when tensions were running high over the decision by some American Muslims to participate in the Muslim Leadership Initiative, a year-long program with Muslim and Jewish co- sponsors designed to educate Muslim American leaders about Israel and Palestine, Ali ran a series of guest essays on both sides of the controversy. “It’s tough to produce and edit pieces like that,” she says. “You know most of the movers and players in the community—and you’re reporting on them. So things can get personal. You have to say, ‘This is my job, and I’m going to report both sides of the story.'”
Increasingly, mainstream media outlets—from The Huffington Post and Salon to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz—are showcasing a new generation of young American-Muslim commentators. One of the most striking voices to emerge is that of Wajahat Ali, a California- born lawyer, playwright, and former television host for Al-Jazeera America. He began his writing career producing sober op-eds on issues like Israel-Palestine and Pakistan, but began developing his distinctive mix of humor and hard-hitting commentary while writing a 2008 op-ed for The Guardian, using a CNN transcript of a meeting between Sarah Palin and Pakistan’s then-president Asif Ali Zardari to critique Pakistani-U.S. relations. For a Muslim writing on sensitive Islamic issues, humor “makes the medicine go down easier,” he says. “If you can make it go down sweet, it gives people the comfort and space they need to ask difficult questions and have difficult conversations.”
In April, after a college student was kicked off a plane for being overheard to utter the phrase “Inshallah”—Arabic for “God willing”—into his phone, Ali wrote a New York Times op-ed, “Inshallah is Good for Everyone,” a deft weave of information about how inshallah—”the Arabic version of fuggedaboudit”—works in Muslim cultures, a first-person testimony from a young American Muslim, and a clear-eyed look at rising xenophobia in the campaign season. “I had all kinds of people—non-Muslims—telling me, ‘Inshallah sounds awesome! I’m going to start using it!’” Ali says. The piece was a welcome break from what he calls “Muslim fireman” stories, “where you’re asked to respond to the latest tragedy from the Muslim world, and you’re suddenly having to act like a walking Wikipedia page.”
For correspondents reporting from Muslim societies, on-the-ground realities can have a way of undermining op-ed section certainties. Conflicts cast as religious turn out to be about entirely different issues up close. Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist Anand Gopal, whose 2014 study “No Good Men Among the Living” explored the Afghan war from the perspective of the Taliban, has found that the Sunni-Shia divide used to frame conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria is sometimes misleading. “Categories that appear to be fixed from afar, like ethnicity, reveal themselves as more fluid when you go down to a local level,” he says.
Reporting his piece for The Atlantic “The Hell After ISIS,” about a family of internal refugees in Iraq, Gopal described a Baghdad neighborhood where Sunni-Shia tensions were high, due to reports of the Islamic State’s Sunni extremism. Shia militiamen roamed the streets, and black Shia banners appeared on the fronts of Sunni stores. But Gopal’s main character, an Iraqi Sunni patriarch sheltering in Baghdad after his village fell to ISIS, wondered if the flags were the result of Shia harassment of the shopkeepers “or had been placed there for protection by the shopkeepers themselves.” In other words, while some explain the Sunni-Shia split through the lens of Iranian-Saudi rivalry or by going back to its 7th-century origins as a disputed succession argument, Gopal found a more local and urgent explanation: day-to-day survival.
In ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq, sectarian loyalties are often less signs of religious principles than gang mentality, strategic calculations about how to cope in a violent and fractured landscape. When the village refugees Gopal profiled in his Atlantic piece mentioned Islam, it was “a very personal understanding of it,” Gopal says, rather than anything to do with the wars tearing up their region. “It really helps to start with the understanding that the way people behave in conflicts is something that can usually be explained by the conflict itself. You don’t need to go back 500 years to explain it.” To simply see the actors in local conflicts through the lens of religious identities or international power plays, Gopal argues, is to ignore the local allegiances that make the conflict with ISIS so mercurial and complex.
Recognizing that religious affiliations in conflict zones are often about “finding allies in a dangerous situation,” Gopal changed his interviewing process. Mindful that reporters “tend to be urbanites themselves and report from an urban perspective,” Gopal skipped questions about global geopolitical narratives and kept his interviews with villagers as rooted in the personal and local as possible. Instead of asking outright why some Iraqi communities might initially support ISIS, he asked “about their lives, their house and friends growing up,” conversations that eventually yielded much more about alliances than any ancient history. For the villagers he interviewed, hyper-local power dynamics were frequently far more important than ISIS’s claims of creating a 21st-century Islamic caliphate.
Hassan Hassan, co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” also anchors his reportage in local context. Raised in a Syrian province currently controlled by ISIS, Hassan began using social media to contact former locals he’d heard had joined. “At first, I didn’t even want to engage them very much because everyone agreed that the things they were doing were wrong, and they must have joined because they were crazy,” he recalls.
But after an old classmate from Damascus University—whom Hassan knew to be rational, intelligent, and an ISIS sympathizer—explained the strategy behind the brutality, he recognized the importance of trying to understand the group’s rationale: “My reporting is driven by a desire to understand these people, and what their motivations are. If we simply tell ourselves, ‘These are crazies,’ we’ll repeat the patterns of old. Without understanding them, in 10 years’ time we’ll have a stronger Al Qaeda, a stronger ISIS, and on top of that something else.”
Hassan’s 2015 Guardian piece on why Europeans joined ISIS parses the feelings of isolation expressed by his dozens of interviewees, explaining how they might believe ISIS could be “empowering.” Three of Hassan’s interviewees said that ISIS was a movement conferring charisma or prestige. People with scant religious knowledge before joining ISIS become “like new converts,” Hassan says. “They are zealous and excited about their new belonging.”
The drumbeat of news from foreign wars and terror attacks often finds a counterpoint in local features. After news of a terror-related event, “local TV stations or papers often do a profile piece on a local Muslim doctor or student or a charity,” notes Ibrahim Hooper, communications director at the Washington-headquartered Council on American-Islamic Relations. Such pieces help push back against the specious narrative that Islam is more about politics than personal piety. “If your pediatrician’s a Muslim, or your checker at Walmart’s in hijab, it’s a lot less scary than when it’s framed as the Other from ‘out there.'”
After the Paris attacks, the Orlando Weekly did a cover story called “They’re With Us,” focusing on local Muslims, including an optometrist who runs her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, a lawyer, and an opera singer. Illustrated with the smiling faces of the interviewees, and laced through with details of daily life, the piece frames its subjects as ordinary Floridians, albeit ones who felt their personal safety threatened by a national trebling in anti-Islamic hate crimes in the month after the Paris attacks.
For correspondents reporting from Muslim societies, on-the-ground realities can have a way of undermining op-ed section certainties
At first, Nada Hassanein, the author of the piece, was hesitant to take on the subject of Muslims, as she is keen to write on a broad range of topics rather than being confined to covering Muslim issues. But she found her faith was “an advantage” in reporting the story: “I understand their way of life and their struggle, because I’ve lived it myself.”
Like the reporters on the LA Times “Allahu Akbar” documentary, Hassanein found the vast majority of Muslims she approached to be eager to talk. Indeed, optometrist Farhana Yunus and her Haitian-American husband, who’s in community development, greeted Islamophobic incidents by hosting meet-and-greet barbeques and “had wanted to reach out to the media in order to have their normal lives understood.”
Hassanein took care to pick some women who wore hijab and others who didn’t, to show the range of choices Muslim women make. “I wanted to show different perspectives, and the diversity of Muslims, even in Orlando,” she says. “Muslims just want their voices and stories to be heard and understood, and for people to know there is so much similarity between a local Muslim and a local non-Muslim. They want to bridge the disconnect, to unveil the so-called ‘other.'”
After the Orlando atrocity, Hassanein feels in-depth profiles of members of frequently misunderstood or misrepresented communities are even more important. Whether writing on the LGBTQ or Muslim communities, “whose societal struggles have many parallels,” she says, covering these stories allows “the world an opportunity to get in their shoes, to understand their struggles rather than misjudge them due to ignorance.”