Rummana Hussain / Criminal Courts Reporter, Metro Editor/ Chicago Sun-Times. Photo courtesy of Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times

Muslim journalists no longer as rare in US newsrooms

Rummana Hussain / Criminal Courts Reporter, Metro Editor/ Chicago Sun-Times. Photo courtesy of Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times

Rummana Hussain / Criminal Courts Reporter, Metro Editor/ Chicago Sun-Times. Photo courtesy of Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times

Lauren Markoe  

Religion News Service

Rummana Hussain was one of those children whose Muslim parents envisioned her in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck.

Instead, she became a metro editor and reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, where she covers criminal courts and remains the only Muslim member of the editorial staff. She knows “a couple” more Muslims at the Chicago Tribune, the state’s largest paper.

“Blame it on the parents,” jokes one prominent American Muslim when asked to explain the dearth of Muslims in the U.S. media. Many Muslim-Americans are immigrants who see medical school — maybe law school, but not journalism school — as the key to their children’s success, said Ibrahim Hooper, a former television news producer who is now the national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Well-represented in medicine, Muslims account for a sliver of the mainstream American media. Many Muslim reporters take heart in what they see, at least anecdotally, as a recent uptick in the number of Muslim colleagues: With Islamophobia on the rise and Islam-related stories — particularly on Islamic extremism — dominating the headlines, the need for more Muslim journalists seems all the more pressing to them.

News organizations should strive for diversity in their staffs, including religious diversity, said Richard Prince, a former Washington Post journalist who now writes a column on diversity for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, Calif. “When we want to cover communities accurately it helps to have people from those communities in our newsrooms, and in leadership positions as well,” Prince said.

He draws what he says is an imperfect analogy between Muslims in journalism today and black journalists who began pursuing reporting careers during the civil rights movement. “The news media found it could not get into the black community without them,” he said.

At the Sun-Times, Hussain has never explicitly been assigned to cover Islam. But she has enhanced its coverage of Muslim Americans by drawing on her knowledge of her faith and the Chicago religious community of which she is a part.

Her fellow reporters know she is ready to answer their questions. “Do Muslims eat beef?” one wanted to know. A Muslim man gave her a tip about a Muslim religious leader accused of sexual abuse, because he knew her personally. Muslims fearful that reporters will portray them badly in the media have agreed to speak with her. “Oh, OK, thank God it’s you covering it,” she has been told.

Then there are the commentaries the Sun-Times welcomed her to write on current events related to Islam — on the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, and the Islamophobes who mock President Barack Hussein Obama’s middle name, so similar to her own last name.

No one knows exactly how many Muslims are working in American media. The American Society of News Editors keeps tabs on the number of minorities working at daily newspapers — about 13 percent of editorial staffs — and specifically the number of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. But the census does not count Muslims or other religious groups. The federal agency charged to police discrimination in hiring considers questions about a job candidate’s religion“problematic.”

Asked whether its editors sought to hire more Muslim journalists, Paul Colford, spokesman for The Associated Press, gave a typical answer for media companies: that it strives for diversity and “faith is not a screening question at AP.”

One sign that Muslims in the media have not reached a critical mass: While Asian, black and other groups of journalists can look to decades-old, national professional associations with paid staffs, annual conferences and mentoring programs, Muslim-Americans have no comparable organization through which to network.

Still, many are noticing more Muslim bylines and names in the credits at the end of newscasts.

Maria Ebrahimji, a journalist who began working for CNN in Atlanta in the mid-1990s, says she knew hardly

Maria Ebrahimji, photographed on Dec. 3, 2010. Photo by Vino Wong,

Maria Ebrahimji, photographed on Dec. 3, 2010. Photo by Vino Wong,

any Muslims in the field then, and also didn’t identify herself as Muslim at work.

“For many years at CNN, I didn’t address my faith,” she said. But then the planes hit the towers, America declared its “war on terror” — which everyone understood to be an Islamic brand of terror — and Ebrahimji decided to bring her religion to the table. “I became an in-house expert once I declared I was a Muslim, and I encouraged people to ask me questions,” she said.

Now a media consultant, Ebrahimji started a Facebook group for Muslim women in media in Oct. 2014, which now includes more than 200 members. “What has been heartwarming and reassuring is to see the number of young Muslims becoming increasingly interested in journalism as a career, and engaging with the media even though it might not necessarily be their career,” she said.

And while Hussain knew only one other Muslim journalist when she started as a cub reporter two decades ago, she now gathers informally with about 20 Chicago-area Muslim journalists. And her parents, she said, came to understand journalism as a good career choice for their daughter.

One scholar of Muslims in America says deep-seated biases within American society and its media limit the extent to which these reporters can influence what Americans read about Islam and the people who practice it.

“There are certain ideological lines that are not commercially viable to sell,” said Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Professor Edward Curtis. For example, he questions why Americans are so quick to define violence committed by Muslims as terrorism, but loath to apply the term to U.S. military actions.

While it may be helpful to have more Muslims in newsrooms, Curtis continued, “I doubt that it will change the fundamental conditions under which news about Muslims is being made in the United States.”

Ebrahimji said she is less concerned about the number of Muslims in American journalism than about their “level of

influence.” She has often delivered a message for Muslim mothers and fathers upset with news coverage of Muslims.

“If you are going to continue to criticize, one way to really help is to encourage your sons, your daughters to be actively involved in the media, and to tell their own stories, and to ultimately encourage it as a profession.”

Editor’s note: Lauren Markoe is a national correspondent at RNS.


It’s time to stop referring to terrorists as ‘jihadists’

Photo credit: photodune

Photo credit: photodune

By Engy Abdelkader

The New York Times recently ran the following headline, Jihadists deepen collaboration in North Africa.”  Here, “jihadists” refers not to Muslim physicians engaged in humanitarian efforts or activists united in their struggle to impact climate change.  Rather, the ubiquitous term meant affiliates of Al-Qaeda.  With the rise of IS, and another U.S. presidential election cycle underway, the debate about terminology vis-à-vis violent extremism persists with minimal input by those most impacted by the words we misuse.

A frequent Republican talking point, President Obama has long been assailed for his administration’s strategic refusal to describe IS and their allies as “Islamic” or “jihadist.”  Obama has explained, “Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam. We must never accept the premise that they put forth because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists.”

Still, many stubbornly use language that solidifies the association between violence and Islam further exacerbating Islamophobia – prejudice towards or discrimination against Muslims due to their religion or perceived religious, national or ethnic identity association – in the U.S. and beyond.

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio stated, “We need to understand who ISIS is — they’re an apocalyptic jihadist group …” Ben Carson cautioned followers after the Paris attacks, “If we don’t fight the global jihadist movement over there in the Middle East, we will be fighting it here.”

And, Sen. Ted Cruz commented on social media, “But the first duty of our government, which President Obama and Hillary Clinton are ignoring, is to protect the American people. And if that means temporarily suspending the admission of high-risk refugees from countries beset by jihadist groups, then so be it.”  His post received more than 14,000 “likes” and “shared” almost 3,000 times.

Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite the best intentions, positively connected Islam and violent extremism.  During the second Democratic presidential debate, she depicted IS as, “a barbaric, ruthless, violent, jihadist, terrorist group.”  She urged unity “to root out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS.”

Significantly, Clinton later explained, “I don’t think we are at war with Islam.  I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims. I think we’re at war with jihadists.”

The roots of Muslim rage

Today, terrorism is most closely associated with Islam and Muslims despite research indicating that a greater domestic security threat rests with anti-government, racist and other non-Muslim extremists.  This misconception depicting Islam as inherently violent isn’t new.

Since the breakdown of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, prominent influential scholars, such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, described Islam as a new global threat, with the doctrine of “jihad” necessitating a continuous violent struggle with all non-Muslims.

Professor Lewis, for instance, characterizes Islam “as a militant, indeed as a military religion, and its followers as fanatical warriors, engaged in spreading their faith and their law by armed might.”

In his article, The Roots of Muslim Rage,” published in the September 1990 edition of The Atlantic, Lewis states, “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a [fundamental Muslim] movement for transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the world-wide expansion of both.”

In an influential 1993 Foreign Affairs essay, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Professor Huntington wrote, “In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines.”

Significantly, such narratives characterizing Islam and Muslims as irrational violent enemies now dominate related discussion and analysis, particularly in mainstream media.

Media portrayals of Islam and Muslims are unrepresentative

According to new findings released just last month from MediaTenor, an international media research institute, three quarters of all news reports about Muslims, Islam and organizations are related to violence – war or terrorism.

Based on its analysis of 596,981 reports about religious figures in 21 television news shows in the U.S. and Europe, MediaTenor found that most Muslim newsmakers are warlords or terrorists.  Those who emphasize the compatibility between Islam and Western democratic values rarely appeared.  In more than two thirds of all reports about Muslims and Muslim organizations, terrorism and violence featured prominently.

Additionally, in 2015, media representations of Islam were worse than any other time since 9/11 (including immediately following the attack).  Based on its study of 981,672 stories in 10 U.S., German and U.K. television news shows, the international research institute found terror as a defining characteristic of Islam, breeding fear and mistrust towards Muslims in the West.

The problem isn’t just with skewed portrayals.  It’s also with language that conveys and reinforces a connection between Islam, Muslims and violent extremism.

The ‘Jihadists’

Since 9/11, the Islamic doctrine of “jihad” has become synonymous with “terrorism” in public discourse. For most practicing Muslims, jihad refers to a nonviolent “struggle, striving, or exertion in pursuit of a goal.”  In Islamic tradition, this is generally understood as the “greater jihad.”

Indeed, one’s “greater jihad” may include giving up lying, gossiping or cheating. Increased kindness, generosity or charity may be another “greater jihad.”  Pursuant to this understanding, climate change activists or physicians engaged in humanitarian relief are “jihadists.”

The “lesser jihad,” refers to a struggle with external factors; commonly this refers to a defensive physical or armed struggle typically against pervasive oppression. This latter understanding of jihad is most misused and manipulated by violent extremists, today.  Terrorists – such as IS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al Shabab – self-identify as “jihadists.”

We have adopted their terms.

During a search of The New York Times Database last month, for instance, about 150 news stories referenced “jihadists” (to describe statements, ideologies, groups, terrorists, camps or attacks).  There were 160 such articles in November; 70 in October; 52 in September; and 69 in August.

Throughout their coverage the term “jihadist” was used to denote terrorist activity in a broad swath of countries including, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, China, Mali, Egypt, Kuwait, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Nigeria, Iraq, Mauritania, Russia, Chad, France, Pakistan, Israel and the United States.

The religious lives and perspective of ordinary, law abiding Muslims – who constitute the majority of the world’s second largest faith group – has been generally neglected.

Who are American Muslims?

According to a recent report from Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative, American Muslims are the most diverse of any religious group; as observant as Christian Americans; and are attempting to normalize their status as religious minorities.

According to 2007 data from the Pew Research Center, American Muslims are largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate.  They have a generally positive view of society at large; believe their communities are excellent or good places to live; and are American in their outlook, values and attitudes.

Additionally, a 2011 Gallup research study titled, Muslim Americans: Faith, Freedom and the Future, found that American Muslims are the most likely major faith group in the U.S. to reject violent attacks against civilians.  A 2013 Pew survey similarly found that 81% find such acts as never justified.

Still, this isn’t the portrait that emerges from mainstream media depictions of Muslims, as discussed above.  Alternative representations of Muslims are controversial and largely absent from our screens.

So, why does this matter?

Terrorist organizations and their recruiters use Islamic terms, like “jihadist,” to cloak and legitimate political agendas as religiously sanctioned activities.  Language matters.

Islamic terms in criminal hands are simply a mechanism used to manipulate Muslim public opinion.  Characterizing terrorists as “jihadists” has a psychological and religious appeal that may attract new recruits susceptible to violent extremist propaganda that confuses Islamic doctrine with criminality.

Why do we aid them in effectuating such deception?

Additionally, language that reinforces a positive link between violent extremism and Islam further exacerbates Islamophobia.  Consider several of the Bridge Initiative’s recent Super Survey findings regarding the political climate confronting Muslims in contemporary America:

  • a plurality of Americans believes that Islam is more violent than other religions;
  • significant portions of Americans have doubted the loyalty of their Muslim neighbors over the years; and
  • 1 in 5 Americans has reported unfavorable views of American Muslims since 2000.

The Super Survey also found that about 58% of Americans have reported that they don’t know a Muslim personally.  And, most have not even had a conversation with a Muslim.

So, it’s not entirely surprising that a 2007 Pew survey found that one-third of Americans reported that the “media” most influenced their views of Muslims.

Among other things, such as more representative media portrayals of Muslims and Islam, it’s time to stop referring to terrorists as “jihadists.”

Editor’s note: Engy Abdelkader serves as Assistant Director and Adjunct Professor with Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative. This article was adapted from a longer paper presented last year at Rutgers University’s symposium exploring youth and violent radicalization. The author’s views are solely her own.

Tariq Ramadan to visit Detroit MuslimFest

tariq-ramadan Tariq Ramadan will be the keynote speaker on April 11 in Detroit. He will address a Sound Vision benefit speaking on the topic of “Jihad within young hearts: Toward positive engagement”.

The event organizer, Sound Vision, says that young Muslims today face tremendous pressures. These pressures arise from a variety of sources: adjusting to a culture different from their parents’ culture, living and working in environments often hostile to Islamic values, facing outright prejudice that results from the constant negative portrayal of Muslims in the media. Muslim youth are among the least happy and the most angry among American youth groups, according to one Gallup poll; 16% Muslim youth participate in binge drinking; and 29% use some other name to hide their faith.

Speaking for Sound Vision Quaid Saifee said that the April 11 benefit offers a multimedia presentations on these topics along with what is being slated as Mini MuslimFest. It will feature live Adam mascot which is the main character in children’s Adam’s World series produced by Sound Vision. The Sunday event will take place in Burton Manor, Livonia, MI.

This is the first time Tariq Ramadan is visiting Detroit area. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently ended US visa ban on Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan entering the country.

The State department spokesman Darby Holladay said “Both the president and the secretary of state have made it clear that the US government is pursuing a new relationship with Muslim communities based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

2004, Tariq Ramadan was to join his tenured position at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana when his visa was revoked.

The event will focus on the challenges faced by Muslim youth according to the latest Gallup poll and Columbia university research and will offer some concrete suggestions about what the community must do. For more information visit

—-contact: Quaid Saifee: 586-944-7880