The image of American Muslims is in serious disrepair. A January 2010 Gallup poll found that almost half of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam. About the same number of Americans harbor personal prejudice toward Muslims, according to the poll.
These numbers become especially troubling when we consider that two-thirds of the Americans polled admit to knowing little to nothing about Islam.
Why are many Americans distrustful of a religion and people they know very little about?
People tend to fear what they do not understand. Americans, for the most part, have been brought up in a Christian society. They might not agree with it, but they are familiar with it and thus tend not to feel threatened by it.
Because Islam is still a minority religion in America and has had little positive public exposure, Americans have built up a strong distrust of it.
Islam deserves a media makeover. At a time when the United States is mired in two wars in locations where the majority of the people practice Islam, the future of American-Islamic relations is at stake.
The behavior of some radical self-proclaimed “Muslims” does not help public perception. Each time a terrorist commits a suicide bombing in a hospital, or a religious cleric issues a fatwa against Mickey Mouse, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust and 9/11, another American grows weary of Islam and Muslims.
Those familiar with Islam understand that these acts are not representative of the religion and shouldn’t be associated with mainstream Islam. The rest of the US does not.
Reporting the acts of a handful of radical Muslims as if they are accurate portrayals of Islam would be akin to intimating that every priest involved in a scandal accurately represented Roman Catholicism.
The behavior of ideologues who capitalize on ratings or attention from fueling the fire against Islam does not help US public perception, either.
Each time Pat Robertson refers to Muslims as “fascists,” or Ann Coulter calls Islam “a car-burning cult,” it may get ratings but, more than anything, it damages America’s perspective on Islam and Muslims.
Then there is the behavior of media pundits beholden to the 24-hour news cycle. Each time CNN runs a story on the self-proclaimed “Jihad Jane” or Fox News sounds off about Saudi women who can’t drive, without including an expert interview from someone who can clearly explain cultural context, another American grows weary of Islam and Muslims.
Again and again it plays out: An extremist commits an atrocity in Islam’s name; a non-Muslim ideologue typecasts the act as representative of Islam; and a media pundit cements the stereotype.
This vicious cycle must end if attitudes toward Islam and Muslims are to improve. Of course, it begins within Muslim communities and countering extremists with education, but education in the US is also required.
Americans deserve to hear a more accurate portrayal of a religion and people that account for a fifth of the world’s population.
The West (even the Vatican) praise the ethical principles behind Islamic banking services. There is a thriving literary and artistic tradition within Islam. For example, American Muslims have made remarkable contributions to such diverse fields as jazz (Yusuf Lateef), photojournalism (Adrees Latif) and miniature art (Saira Wasim).
Islam is host to moderate and vibrant minority communities. For example, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community – a dynamic, fast-growing international revivalist movement within Islam – is America’s first Muslim organization (founded in 1920) and has vociferously denounced violent “jihad” as a grave sin.
American Muslims collaborate with individuals of all faiths and traditions to improve their local communities on a regular basis. Here in Los Angeles, the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California has been at the forefront of promoting mutual understanding.
Yet all of this gets lost in a wave of negative headlines.
Extreme personalities have painted Islam with broad strokes, and much – though not all – of the media have allowed them to. This must change.
Whose burden is that? The news media bear the primary responsibility. Isn’t one of the main purposes of the media to empower citizens to make informed decisions concerning their democracy? Sensationalizing or even mischaracterizing incidents can greatly influence how citizens treat one another; it can also influence US policy.
By leaving out the full picture, the news media can ultimately inflame public outrage to such an extent as to facilitate ill-conceived legislation or engender popular vigilantism against American Muslims.
To be sure, it is a difficult time in the US for journalism. In the 24/7 news and Internet age, newspapers and TV news stations fight for their survival by becoming as attractive to viewers as possible. But that doesn’t have to mean accuracy should suffer.
The solution is rather simple: The news media should make a concerted effort to get comments from American Muslims to help give context when reporting on Islam and the multitude of voices and movements within the religion. That way Americans will understand that most American Muslims are as aghast as they are every time there is a “jihad” against America.
There are plenty of American Muslim journalists and commentators willing to help put the news in perspective. In order to repair the image of American Muslims and fix the misperception problem, the media must work harder to help make the unfamiliar feel familiar.
Amjad Mahmood Khan, a former editor in chief of the Harvard Human Rights Journal, is an American Muslim attorney in Los Angeles.