By Carissa D. Lamkahouan
OnIslam US Correspondent
HOUSTON – “You don’t speak Arabic? What kind of terrorist are you?”
This line was delivered during a popular, prime-time US television show about a family of cops working in New York City.
One of the main characters was interrogating a Muslim suspect following a failed bombing attempt. This line was heard by, presumably, millions of Americans.
It’s clear what the character said, but what does the message behind the words mean?
Anyone can make that determination for themselves, but it’s worthwhile to look at the research behind media messages about Muslims, particularly those since 9/11.
A joint study published by the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan analyzed more than 1,000 press releases sent out from more than 100 organizations both Muslim and non-Muslim.
The overriding finding of this research was that press releases regarding Muslims and Islam written in such a way as to incite fear of Muslims and anger toward their religion were the ones journalists and news organizations were most likely to notice and, subsequently, devote stories to.
The result was heightened influence for and strengthening of the causes supported by these groups, exacerbating anti-Muslim sentiment across media outlets and in the minds of Americans exposed to such reports.
Regardless of the fact that most of the harvested press releases came from organizations representing a fringe or outlying group that was the least likely to represent mainstream Islam and the actions of moderate Muslims.
Unfortunately, fear sells; and the noted quote from that popular TV program demonstrates it perfectly. Stereotypes are prevalent, as well.
Media Smart, Canada’s center for digital and media literacy, pointed out television characters like that of Sayid Jarrah on Lost, a wildly popular show that was broadcast a few years ago on the ABC network. Jarrah was the only Muslim portrayed on the program and, as a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, he was shown as naturally violent and someone who used torture in his former work.
Media: New Religion
Lindsey Bnadad, a native Texan residing in North Carolina, has strong words for the media, or what she calls “the new religion.”
“I absolutely think the media has a responsibility to show people in ways that don’t unnecessarily stereotype entire populations. Sadly, that’s not something that interests the media at-large because it isn’t polarizing enough, and we all know that the mundane isn’t what makes the news,” Bnadad told OnIslam.net.
“But it isn’t just our news in the US, this happens on BBC, Al-Jazeera and all the other media outlets, too.”
She continued: “In my opinion media is the new religion. Forget what you think is right; just listen to what the news wants you to believe. When they say things loudly enough and often enough, for long enough, people believe what they’re told and behave accordingly. The media is the best way to control the masses.”
Bnadad said she enjoys Tyrant, a program depicting the story of a Muslim doctor living and working in the United States who is compelled to return to his Middle-Eastern home where his father is dictator.
“I think it’s good that people see the various characters and different archetypes that are present,” she said.
“Even if they are caricatures, it shows there are different types of people who belong to [Islam] and gives [other people] an opportunity to empathize with someone from a different culture or religion and maybe even view them as a hero.”
Katy Rosenbaum of North Carolina agreed the media has a responsibility to “show the diversity that exists within Islam.”
She said such a move could have a big impact.
“Currently, the dominant narrative is that Islam perpetrates violence and intolerance,” said Rosenbaum. “There is a need for positive stories, more nuanced stories and a reminder that there are good and bad people of every race, ethnicity and religious group.”
Some television and movie producers may be coming around to Rosenbaum’s way of thinking.
Little Mosque on the Prairie was a TV comedy set in Canada which ran from 2007-2012. Critics roundly praised the show not only for its positive characterization of Muslims, but also for its influence in dispelling negative stereotypes of those who follow Islam.
Muslims also had a win against damaging media messages when a Twitter campaign led by Arab-Americans was instrumental in the cancellation of Alice in Arabia on the ABC Family network.
Subsequently, the pilot never aired. The story, based in Saudi Arabia, centered on a girl kidnapped by relatives and forced to survive a life of apparent horror. Protesters argued the show’s narrative would perpetuate negative and damaging stereotypes about American Muslims.
Ibrahim Younas, an Egyptian-American living in California, said he realizes the likelihood of American news outlets and American entertainment media suddenly becoming a place of “roses and sunshine” for Muslims and Islam is pretty low. However, he said a balanced approach and well-organized advocacy by Muslims and Islamic organizations can be helpful.
“We are here in America and many people think that because of that we’re at a disadvantage,” Younas told OnIslam.net.
“That may be true, but if we, as Muslims, are involved in the public narrative and take charge of our own images, then we [would] have a better chance of changing heart and minds. It’s difficult, but it can be done. And with all the bad stuff that’s going on about Muslims, we really need to do it now.”