Naureen Aqueel

Posts Tagged ‘islam

hajj

Source: Creative Commons

Published on AltMuslim on September 11, 2016

I was 27 years old and I was writing my will. I was apologizing to friends and family if I had ever done anything to hurt them. I was thinking over my life.

It was an eerie feeling as I imagined the possibility of dying and never returning to my apartment. To my bed. To my books. To the fridge that still had some food in it that I hadn’t found the time to give away or discard.

I wondered how it would be if I died and someone came to my apartment and saw the rotting food – which would have rotted by then – in my fridge. I was angry at my husband for leaving tiny specks of hair from his freshly trimmed beard and head scattered across the bathroom sink and tub.

What if we didn’t come back and someone else came and saw this mess? I thought as I wiped it away frantically.

We were leaving in a couple of hours and my mind was in a state of frenzy. I was excited, I was scared. I felt spiritual, I felt emotional. I couldn’t figure it out. And I didn’t have the time to.

My husband and I were embarking on the once in a lifetime journey of the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca. We were both students and we were making this journey in the middle of the fall semester in 2013. That meant we had a lot of stuff to deal with and wind up prior to leaving, some things we just hadn’t been able to get to – like the food in the fridge or the clothes we had contemplated taking, but decided not to, strewn over the couch.

Hajj is religious obligation that Muslims who are financially and physically capable must fulfill at least once in a lifetime. Because of the dangers and difficulties involved in the journey, the Hajj has always been a powerful reminder of death. In the past, people would set out not knowing if they would ever return home. Over the years, although the difficulties of travel and scarcity of resources to cater to the pilgrims have eased, there have still been a number of deaths in accidents and disease outbreaks each year.

It is for this reason that pilgrims are taught to make preparations for death prior to their departure. This involves repaying all debts or making arrangements for them to be paid, writing a will and apologizing to friends and family for any wrongs you have done.

And so, I did all of that. I was excited to be making this journey. To be visiting the birthplace of my faith. To be getting the chance to pray at a place where Allah has promised He answers every prayer. And to be one of the close to two million people who had been blessed with the opportunity to make this journey that year. I was elated. But that eerie feeling still gnawed at my heart at various points in the journey. I was scared when I was squeezed in a crowd of massive proportions when making the circumambulation of the Ka’aba, the black cubicle structure Muslims around the world turn towards in prayer five times a day. I was frightened when people started yelling and pushing when we were in a queue to enter the Grand Mosque on the Friday right before the major Hajj rituals began. The horror stories of people being trampled and crushed in stampedes that we had heard and read came crashing back to me.

At these moments of chaos and confusion, I also felt my concentration in prayer affected. I wished it could be easier to get inside the Grand Mosque and closer to the Ka’aba without having to deal with the unruliness of the crowds. I wished for a peaceful moment of reflective prayer right in front of the Ka’aba.

But as the days progressed and I became a little more used to the crowds and the confusion, I gained a perspective that I felt was missing when I had left home and when I arrived in Mecca.

Patience – that is the most important thing you must practice in the Hajj, our guide had said. In each preparatory lecture and each talk he gave us there, patience was always mentioned.

The Hajj is unique in that it is a journey where Muslims set out for soul-searching, seeking forgiveness and to be connected to God, not to a secluded area, but to a place where close to two million people converge. I wouldn’t say I ever got completely used to the crowds, the fear and the chaos, but as I sat in the Grand Mosque one morning in front of the Ka’aba seeing the hundreds and hundreds of people, of different colours and different nationalities all moving in circular motion around the Ka’aba, all part of a system – as if in an orbit, I felt a peace in my heart. Perhaps that is what it was all about. To find that inner peace, that concentration and that connection despite all the chaos, confusion and uncertainty. To find that spiritual zenith in the midst of our busy, bustling lives. To understand that everything is part of a greater plan, a system set by God. To come out stronger at the end of it all. And I raised my hands in prayer.

“Labbayk Allaahumma labbayk, labbayka laa shareeka laka labbayk. Inna al-hamd wa’l-ni’mata laka wa’l-mulk, laa shareeka lak

(Here I am, O Allah, here I am. Here I am, You have no partner, here I am. Verily all praise and blessings are Yours, and all sovereignty, You have no partner)

I would miss being there when I went back home.

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An edited version of this was published in The Message International Magazine.

Mosques and other Islamic organizations and institutions have never been more active and widespread than they are today. Yet the imperative for greater engagement in society, and increased activities to serve the needs of the growing community, have also never been more pronounced.

Numerous Muslim institutions and mosques have been built across the continent over the years. Muslims have launched initiatives like One America and Canadian Muslim Vote to encourage involvement in federal elections. Mosques like the Islamic Society of Central Jersey have opened their doors to those of other faiths in events like “Common Ground Connection”, others like the Ummah Mosque in Halifax and Worcester Islamic Center have held open houses and “Meet a Muslim” days to help clear misconceptions about Islam in the wider community. Individual Muslims in their own capacities have launched initiatives like “Meet a Muslim Family”  or “Talk to a Muslim” to dispel misconceptions about Muslims and Islam in the wake of Islamophobic statements and incidents. Mosques, Islamic centres and organizations have participated in soup kitchens or halal meal programs for the homeless and needy as well as running food banks and free medical clinics for those in need (like those run by the Muslim Welfare Center in Scarborough, Toronto and at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano, Texas and many others). Many mosques and Islamic centers have educational programs including weekly and daily classes on various topics as well as classes catering especially towards the youth in addition to organizing and coordinating programs for Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Conferences like those held by ICNA, ISNA, Reviving the Islamic Spirit and ILEAD promote education and awareness. Various Muslim media initiatives like The Muslim Link, Muslim Link, Message International, Islamic Horizons, Illume, AltMuslim etc provide a voice to communities, aim to correctly represent Muslim communities and provide an alternative to mainstream media.

Yet at the same time, Muslims are facing challenges that need to be addressed more than ever before. While many institutions are active in promoting engagement and serving community needs, others are not doing much.

“Some masjids are doing a lot of activities, some are doing nothing,” says Doud Nassimi, a professor of Islam at NOVA College who also conducts classes at the ADAMS Center in Virginia.

“I think the Muslim community is finally waking up,” says Azra Baig, an elected member of the South Catholic Board of Education in South Brunswick, New Jersey. “9/11 was definitely a wake-up call, but I think people have just gotten more comfortable after that. But I think with what has happened recently at San Bernardino – the terrorist attacks and the Islamophobia and anti-Muslim remarks by candidates for elections, I think people are finally waking up to the need to get more engaged and more involved. I’ve heard it so many times in the polls – when someone knows a Muslim, they are more comfortable regarding Islam and different aspects, but if their only source of information is the media, then I don’t blame them for being scared, how else are they learning about Islam and Muslims?”

So, while many Muslim institutions and Islamic centers are working to serve community needs in various ways by providing educational and counselling services or mobilizing the community for civic engagement, the need for more such activities in the community outweighs the efforts that are being put in. As many community members agree, while some laudable efforts are being made by mosques and organizations, a lot more needs to be done keeping in mind the needs of the growing Muslim community and the present socio-political milieu we find ourselves a part of today.

Below follows a collection of suggestions and ideas that I have compiled after reading various articles and speaking to activists and community members about what our institutions can do to be more involved and civically engaged:

  1. Create awareness among the leadership

For any effective changes to take place in our institutions, it is vital that our leadership be well-informed and aware of the needs and problems of the community they serve. Many mosque boards are made up of first generation immigrants or leadership that has not grown up in Western societies and therefore does not understand the problems faced by the youth in these societies and those who often work in mainstream society.

Many of them also “do not understand the importance of interfaith activities because they may not be as important in their Muslim majority countries,” says Asif Hirani, Program Director at WhyIslam. “We need to create awareness in the leadership of the masjids and the board and shura members. In terms of keeping our masjids open, we also need to change the culture of our masjids.”

For effective civic engagement and educational and counseling activities designed to properly meet the needs of the community, it is essential that board members and leaders are trained or those with an awareness and experience of present day Western societies are appointed to the boards.

 

  1. Conduct a survey about community needs

Many a times, the biggest obstacle in the way of any institution’s ability to properly serve the needs of its community is a lack of knowledge and understanding of what those needs really are. Without proper knowledge, any available funds are just funneled into activities which may not be relevant or that do not adequately serve the needs of the community. Each region and each community has different needs based on the demographics of the population that makes it up.  Upscale neighborhoods may have different needs from those that are populated by more low income families. Those with more third generation immigrants would have different needs than those with more newly arriving immigrants. It is important to know who makes up the community, what issues are important to them, and what issues and topics they would like to get more education on.

Knowing all of this can help an institution or mosque cater to the specific needs of the community in terms of designing classes or lectures, mobilizing support for and advocating needs at city or town committees or education boards, providing counseling services, and organizing events that cater to their needs and interests. Areas addressed in any such survey would include finding out about the demographics, income, household composition etc but also about what social and political issues the community considers important, what they would expect their institutions to advocate for them, and what they would like to be educated and counseled on. Surveys could be conducted via the traditional method of assigning teams to speak to and communicate with community members but also by holding events and meetings where issues are openly discussed, debated and brainstormed.

  1. Designate teams or individuals for specific tasks

Once a community’s needs are identified, tasks must be prioritized and funds and resources channeled accordingly. Depending on the size of the community it caters to and thus the amount of work needed and the resources available, the institution must designate either an individual or a team to specific tasks. For example, an individual or team should be made responsible for social justice issues and thus for representing the mosque or the community at city council meetings or in meetings with regional representatives. Another team could be assigned to deal with media outreach and so forth.

“I go to meetings and sometimes I’m the only Muslim over there,” says Rameez Abid, Communications Director at ICNA Council for Social Justice, talking about the lack of Muslim representation in social justice related issues like homelessness, climate change, anti-drone campaigns etc. Discussing how mosques need social justice representatives, he says, “I think one person dedicated to this cause can do it as a volunteer. If they can’t find someone to do it, I suggest hiring someone part time to do it. It is very important.”

It is important that an institution assigns specific teams or individuals for a particular task so that no one person or team is overwhelmed with too many responsibilities and so that interests, skills and expertise are utilized in the relevant jobs.

“Religious leaders have their own roles to play and they are already overworked,” says Amira Elghawaby, Communications Director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). “The roles within mosques and institutions have to be broadened to bring in more people who are keen in different areas of work and so associations and mosques can foster greater involvement because they often do have some funding available to support this kind of work.”

Elghawaby says this could include the mosque hiring and training their own people to help represent the mosque in city events or city initiatives or designating a team of media specialists to ensure representation and relationships with the media. Training could be provided by the institution itself or in cases where the institution does not have the relevant expertise, training can also be delegated to organizations or individuals who have more experience in the area.

These jobs can be open to interns and volunteers to assist the person(s) assigned to the job. Not only will our institutions be able to benefit from the skills and expertise available in the community this way but it will also be a good way to get students to fulfill their volunteer hours and internship requirements by benefiting the community.

  1. Build better relationships with leaders, representatives and the media

Muslims need to build good relationships with their leaders and representatives at the national and regional level in order to be able to communicate their perspectives and concerns to them. Maintaining a relationship like this would include inviting local leaders to the mosque or other Islamic events, having meetings with them and attending any events organized by them.

Talking about having these relationships with our leaders, Azra Baig says “it’s important because they want to hear from us and they do represent us. If they are going to support us, we need to support them on the various issues. We need to be there when they have their press conferences, their petitions, we have to vote and a vote helps – especially this coming election the Muslim vote is going to matter.”

Baig says building a good relationship with the media is also vital because “the media is also our voice”. This includes sending out press releases and invitations about events or statements from the organization when needed. Having an effective media strategy can also include following mainstream media reporting about Muslims and responding to and sending feedback when necessary. According to researcher and journalist Nazim Baksh an effective strategy for engagement of Muslims with the media would include making spokespersons, analysts, scholars and researchers available to the media who can provide views and analysis when certain events take place and when the media is looking for those who can provide commentary.

 

  1. Represent the community in the mainstream

Our institutions and mosques must step out of the traditional roles they are used to and be ready to rise to the next level which includes not just serving as a place of worship and spiritual guidance for the Muslim community, but also as a platform for activism, mobilization and advocacy. Being part of a society where Muslims are a minority, it is easy for our institutions to get comfortable in their small cocoon of all-Muslim activities having nothing to do with the outside world, but in the present age it becomes increasingly important for our institutions to step out of their own circle and be a part of the mainstream. This would include advocating causes that would benefit everyone beyond boundaries of race, ethnicity or religion as well as representing the community in the sphere of mainstream society whether that includes city government meetings, education board meetings, media, national politics etc.

According to Abid, causes that our institutions take up must aim to benefit the wider community in addition to just Muslims. “We cannot be isolationist,” he says. “In order to secure our rights, we have to secure others rights as well and that is part of our deen.”

 

  1. Work on a stronger social media presence

In this age of the social media and digital world, it is important to utilize the tools of the time to spread our message and benefit our communities more widely. A big amount of any mosque event’s audience or beneficiaries are lost just because of the lack of a good social media or promotional strategy. The same goes for the need to promote any civic engagement campaigns the mosque runs.

“Many a time, many members of the community are not aware of the activities at the masjid,” says Muhammad Ibrahim Ali, an Arabic instructor at Taqwa seminary and Bayyinah. “So for example the event is over and they get to know late – so it’s very important for them to improve their social media presence and not only to improve, they have to compete with the other organizations – even utilizing modern methods of media marketing.”

Our Prophet (saw) also used to utilize the technique of his time to get his message across to a wider audience, for instance when he went to Mount Safa to call out to people to deliver the message of Islam when he wished to invite the Quraish openly to Islam, knowing that the custom of the time was to go to Mount Safa when one had an important message.

 

  1. Come together and unite with other communities

Although each institution works independently on its own, it is vital that links be maintained with other institutions and that the institutions stand united on a variety of causes. This would also include sharing resources, expertise, information, ideas and personnel as well as funds and also helping raise funds for each other.

“Unity is something that strengthens all communities,” says Elghawaby. “I think that we need to come together at the local level for sure to find out what’s going on in our communities and who is doing what… how can we either replicate or compliment or contribute to these efforts on a professional national scale and in a way that the work that is done is not lost in someone’s mind, it becomes part of our institutional memories.”

It is important for organizations to support each other and to share best practices, see what is already being done and help expand on that in addition to working on areas that are neglected.

 

  1. Work with professionalism and put in concerted effort

It is important that the efforts made by our institutions are made in an organized and professional manner so that things do not fizzle out and die down gradually.

“I think the really most important thing is to approach these issues with a very high degree of professionalism,” says Elghawaby. She says one of the challenges is that there will always be well-meaning individuals who will try to do some of this type of work and that’s fantastic. But the drawback to that is “when an individual undertakes this work, not with an institution, then there is going to be the loss of the memory of what they have done, so there is no institutional memory to the type of work or relationships they fostered. Once they lose interest or once they don’t have time to continue their work, it sort of disappears so that is one reason why it is so critical to engage institutions.”

“I think it’s really important that this work is done with professionalism and with real goal setting in mind. It cannot be done in a way that’s sort of ad hoc. It really has to be a concerted effort.”

Elghawaby’s organization has recently launched an initiative called “Stronger Together” which aims to galvanize Canadian Muslims in every major city to be more civically engaged and to advocate both on national and local issues. The organization has put up a pledge on its website inviting people to commit to being more engaged. Once a pledge is received, the organization will map out all those interested in being more engaged and cluster them together in teams according to the areas and provide support and training on how to engage on various issues. Their first campaign will be about an anti-terror legislation Bill C-51 in Canada and will be encouraging participants to approach their local parliament members and talk to them about the legislation. This is a good example of how institutions can work to promote more civic engagement in an organized manner.

It is important for our institutions to learn from each other and pool resources, ideas and expertise to better serve the community. Our organizations must rise to the next level, promote civic engagement and meet the various needs of the community.

 


Reshaping the media narrative about Islam and Muslims

An edited version of this was published in The Message International magazine. 

It seems that every time an act of terrorism is performed in the name of Islam, reporting and discussions in the mainstream media and social media tend to follow a predictable pattern – almost as if there were a template that journalists and analysts pull out when discussing the incident. The media often gets its groupthink going on “Islamic terrorism”, “Islamism” and “jihadism”. A familiar discourse of linking Islam to violence unfolds and talk shows on television and radio channels and comment sections in newspapers and websites are inundated with debates discussing what drives Muslims to violence; questioning Quranic injunctions often specific to war time; and examining the existence of blasphemy laws in various Muslim countries among other topics.

There have been a number of studies done in academia which have found Muslims are often negatively portrayed in popular media discourse. Such negative portrayals, though in existence for a long time, increased after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. A recent study done by a group of social science researchers in 2014 titled “The rise of anti-Muslim prejudice: Media and Islamophobia in Europe and the United States” found that media coverage surrounding the issue of the building of the Islamic Community Center in New York in 2010 was predominantly negative and those exposed to this coverage had negative attitudes about Islam and Muslims.

In 2012, Christopher Bail, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan conducted a study which found that negative portrayals of Muslims received more media attention than positive ones. Bail’s study also found that press releases from many Muslim organizations condemning acts of terrorism got lesser attention in the mainstream media than emotional messages from these organizations in response to acts of discrimination against Muslims.

It is unfortunate that positive everyday stories happening in the Muslim community rarely, if ever, make the headlines in the mainstream media. However, when negative incidents do happen and crimes are perpetrated by those who describe themselves as Muslims, the mainstream media are quick to pick on the Muslim or Islam association and promote a narrative about “Islamist violence” and “Islamic radicalism”. A study by Charles Kurzman in 2011 found that the kind of terrorism incidents by self-described Muslims that are reported in the media account for less than .0002 percent of murders in the United States since the September 11th attacks and .0003 percent of deaths each day worldwide. Yet, sadly, these are the stories that would pop up if one were to search for “Islam” or “Muslim” on the website of any popular mainstream media outlet.

Discussing the media narrative about Islam, Nabil Echchaibi, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a chapter on American Muslims and the media in “The Cambridge Companion to American Islam” writes: “Most probably, the suspicion of Islam and Muslims is also bred and animated by a media framework that reduces Muslims primarily to the role of the reactive, reinforcing thereby a perception of either complacency and indifference or powerlessness in the face of an overwhelmingly brutal religious force that is Islamic radicalism.”

Anyone familiar with the workings of the newsroom would know that the practices, news values and deadlines in newsrooms facilitate this stereotypical discourse. Stereotypes become the common understandings journalists turn to when making sense of events as they happen. Misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge fuel negative portrayals. Under tight deadlines and the frenzy that accompanies breaking news events, it becomes increasingly easy to draw on these stereotypes. Add to that a lack of voices to correctly represent the Muslim community and you have the perfect recipe for misrepresentation.

Muslims like any other community in the world have a number of positive things happening within the diverse worldwide community every day. Why, then, do a few negative incidents come to define the overarching narrative about the community? Why do discussions about Islam in the media always tend to focus on issues of violence, terrorism, oppression and radicalism? Why does no one talk about the incredible spirit of volunteerism present in the Muslim community? Why aren’t there reports of achievements by Muslims in mainstream society? Why aren’t there discussions about campaigns and new projects in the community?

Part of this can definitely be attributed to mainstream media news values and a newsroom culture that has been shaped by years of similar practices driven by stereotypes and misunderstandings. But part of the blame also lies within our own community. The fact is, very few of us step up to try to change this narrative either by engaging with the mainstream media or by producing our own. Some of the ways we can try to change this narrative include having discussions with and sending letters to those in the mainstream media; by providing the mainstream media access to authentic Muslim voices to represent us; by working with the mainstream media either as journalists, producers, anchors, writers, commentators and analysts; and by producing and supporting our own media.

Communicating with the mainstream media

This is one of the most common strategies Muslims have used to counter and respond to negative stereotyping of the community in the mainstream media. Individuals in the community and representative organizations have often written letters to the editor to be published or letters to media management to complain about the misrepresentation of Muslims in the media and suggest areas of improvement.

National advocacy organizations like the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) have often issued statements, sent letters and press releases to mainstream media organizations to complain about or respond to any misrepresentations of Muslims and Islam. These statements have often followed events in the national and global news for example, the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo office in France and the Ottawa shooting at Parliament Hill, as well as responding to specific statements in the media or specific coverage in the media that was found to be biased. Among some of the aims these organizations mention is the goal of monitoring local and national media to challenge stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

In addition to national and local Muslim advocacy organizations, individuals have also often written to the mainstream media to complain about or clarify misperceptions about Muslims. As readers and viewers of mainstream media and as active members of society, we should be more active in our engagement with the mainstream media when it comes to identifying and correcting misreporting and misrepresentations about Muslims. When negative events bring Muslims or Islam in the spotlight, one role we can play as individuals and as organizations is to condemn these acts and issue statements about them. We can also respond to specific mainstream media coverage that negatively represents Islam or Muslims in general by drawing attention to problems in such reporting or commentary and clarifying or correcting these misunderstandings. This would involve writing letters/emails to various mainstream media organizations, participating in online and offline campaigns to promote awareness and respond to mainstream media coverage and interacting with these media to draw attention to problematic coverage.

Providing access to authentic Muslim voices

Some journalists and scholars, however, argue that this traditional mode of Muslim engagement with the mainstream media is ineffective. Canadian Muslim journalist, Nazim Baksh, a broadcast producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) wrote an essay suggesting a strategy of moving beyond what he calls this traditional method of “confrontation and accusations”. His essay titled “Beyond Flak Attack: A New Engagement with the Newsroom” discusses how this strategy whereby Muslims “launch letter-writing campaigns, file complaints to the media-licensing bodies or the Ombudsman, and initiate boycotts and protests” serves to “deepen the chasm between Muslims, whether they live in majority or minority societies, and the Western mass media.”

Baksh writes: “To get past this impasse Muslims must abandon a media strategy that targets journalists with allegations of bias, lies, bigotry, racism and prejudice. Such accusations are usually interpreted as deeply personal in nature and perhaps will, more often than not, force journalists to defend their reports, even when they contain a mountain of factual mistakes, innuendos, generalizations, and stereotypes.”

Baksh does not advocate a complete end to what he calls media flak, but he proposes the strategy of establishing a Muslim equivalent of the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA) to effectively get alternative messages into the mainstream media. The IPA, which was set up in the late 1990s with the aim of ensuring that certain issues of public policy were addressed in the mainstream media, utilized the media’s dependence on a body of experts to provide analysis and commentary. The organization maintained a detailed and constantly updated database of producers, commentators and journalists at media organizations across North America and whenever there would be a breaking news event it would send out a list of experts that it wanted to promote to provide comment on a number of issues in the news. Baksh says that a Muslim equivalent of such an organization would be able to shape stories in the mainstream media by providing its own body of experts to the mainstream media.

A somewhat similar suggestion was recently put forward by renowned Islamic scholar Yasir Qadhi on his Facebook page where he encouraged members to e-mail mainstream media organizations with the names of Muslim voices they think represent them. Qadhi pointed to the fact that the media often do not know who to choose to interview as experts and commentators from the Muslim community and most of the time pick people who have been in the spotlight often for negative reasons. “If you want more mainstream voices to be heard on national media, such as CNN, NPR, and others, then YOU the people must tell these agencies who you want. Rather than having some crazy fanatics, or people with strange views, or people who don’t even believe in our faith, represent us, we need to pressure these news agencies to put on mainstream Muslims who can vocalize what we believe,” Qadhi wrote on his page.

By drawing the mainstream media’s attention towards experts that we think represent us, we can try to prevent the misrepresentation and misunderstandings that often result from the lack of authentic Muslim voices in the mass media.

Working with the mainstream media

While there are very few authentic Muslim voices contacted as commentators and experts by the mainstream, there are fewer Muslims who work in the mainstream media as journalists, reporters, producers, editors and writers. In order to have Muslim perspectives in the mainstream media, we need to have Muslims working within those media.

When Muslims work as journalists, editors, writers, reporters and producers we have more chance of having the correct representation of Muslims and their issues. If we always have someone else telling our stories, as outsiders looking in, we cannot expect the correct representation of our issues. This applies as much to the entertainment media as it does to the news media. For many ordinary North Americans who do not know Muslims in real life, their only source of having any perception about this community is shaped by what they see in the media. If they always see Muslims as terrorists, ignorant oppressors and criminals, this is how they will be viewing us. Changing these perceptions involves working on representing the average Muslim to the average reader or viewer. We need the media to cover more stories about everyday happenings in the Muslim community. We need them to cover Muslim charities doing commendable work in their communities. We need them to cover Muslim members of congress and councillors and the work they are doing for their communities. We need them to cover Muslim sportsmen and sportswomen and their struggles and achievements. We need them to represent Muslims as ordinary Americans and ordinary Canadians and as beneficial members of society. We need ordinary Muslims featured in films, movies and sitcoms. We need to see more Muslims as neighbours, friends, store owners and chefs etc. in the movies and shows that are broadcast in the average North American household. And this would only be possible when we have Muslims working in the media who can bring out these stories and depictions from within their community with the correct perspective.

More Muslims need to train as journalists and work in the mainstream media. We also need members of our community who may be experts in their field like Islamic scholars, human rights activists, lawyers, academics, sociologists, psychologists, diplomats etc. to work with the mainstream media as commentators and analysts. This would include giving interviews as experts and writing features and op-ed pieces when comments are needed in their area of expertise.

Producing and supporting our own media

In addition to working with the mainstream media, we must also have our own media. It is true that ownership and established practices have a major effect on the goals of different media and consequently the kind of content they run. And that is why, even if we try very hard to engage with the mainstream media and even work with them, we will be unable to have a complete representation of all our issues in their proper context.

The mainstream media with their wide audience are not interested in covering the day to day stories of different communities. One cannot even realistically expect them to cover all the issues and stories of each different community in the world or a given region of the world. Stories that are important to our community, like for example, the opening of a new mosque or Islamic center in an area or a national Islamic convention in the country may not necessarily be of interest to the mainstream media’s wide and diverse audience. Therefore, in order for our stories to be told and in order to have a place where we can discuss and debate issues of importance specifically to our community, we must have our own media. Having our own media lets us have a platform to write our own narrative, tell our own stories, and to tell them the way we want to tell them, discuss and debate issues of importance to our community and foster a sense of identity and unity among its members. In addition to this, our own media can help counter stereotypes and misrepresentation promoted in the mainstream media and address specific cases of misrepresentation in the mainstream media. Our own media can in this way serve as effective alternatives to the mainstream media.

Although there are a number of such Muslim media in existence today, and a number of them have populated the Muslim media landscape in the past but have been discontinued due to sustainability issues, the need for more such media is always there. Muslim media like newspapers, magazines, websites, blogging websites, radio shows, television shows, podcasts and video streaming sites have performed important functions in the communities they served. They have given a voice to the marginalized, countered stereotypes, educated, informed and raised awareness about important issues, triggered valuable debates in the community, negotiated identity, fostered political and social engagement and simply provided a platform for a number of stories that would otherwise have not been read or heard.

However, many of these Muslim media that have existed in the past were unable to survive the financial and workforce challenges that are a part of the journalism industry and the history of the Muslim media in North America has been spotty and inconsistent with very few long lasting initiatives. That is where our second role comes in with regards to these media: that of supporting our own media. Why are Muslim media so inconsistent and financially unstable? Why do they find it so difficult to survive? Why do most of them close down due to “financial problems”? Without support from the community, these media are bound to run into such problems. Our community has a number of successful businesses and members who are working with major multinational corporations and those that have been blessed with many resources and skills. Why do we not support our own media by allotting a portion of our advertising budgets to them? Why don’t we support them with donations? Why don’t we volunteer our time and services to helping our own media?

Until we as a community take responsibility for our media and for representations of our community in the mainstream media, we will not be able to change the narrative about Islam and Muslims. It is easy to sit and complain and have armchair discussions about how the media is misrepresenting us, but it is difficult to actually do something about it. As individuals, organizations and communities we need to step up and play our part.

An edited version of this article was published in Islamic Horizons magazine, published by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) 

Scouts - 65th IMO - 01

Murjan Hammad, 17, Senior Patrol Leader for boy scouts, walks up to the front of the room to begin the scouts meeting for Troop 1576 at the Sterling ADAMS centre in Virginia on April 17, 2012. The laughter and chatter among young boys in scout uniforms aged between 10 to 17 dies down as expectant eyes follow their leader. Hammad outlines the agenda for the meeting. They are going to play a game today. Each scout has to complete a list of 10 native plants and 10 native animals that they can find and submit it in the next meeting. It’s almost Maghrib time and beginning to get dark. The scouts proceed to the outdoors to begin their activity. They have to come back in to perform their prayers. They also play a game of ‘anti-over’ before they return to resume their troop meeting.

This is a typical day of the boy scouts meeting at the ADAMS Centre, Sterling. Similar Muslim Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts belonging to the national Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and Girl Scouts of the USA organizations, but sponsored by mosques and Islamic centers and thus having exclusive Muslim membership, can be found throughout different cities in the USA and Canada. According to the Boy Scouts of America, Scouting membership in the American Islamic community in 2010 was over 2000 divided into Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers in the approximately 91 Muslim units associated with the BSA. There are no clear statistics on Muslim membership in the Girls Scouts, but reports have mentioned a number of exclusively Muslim Girls Scouts troops existing in states across North America. Muslim boy and girl scouts can also be found in troops that are not exclusively Muslim. Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Brooklyn, Sterling, Houston and Dallas are some of the cities that have active Muslim Scouts groups.

Scouting in the Muslim community has a long history that extends beyond the borders of the USA and Canada. “Scouting is not an American thing,” Assistant Scoutmaster at ADAMS, Yusuf Rambo explains. “There has been scouting in Muslim countries for as long as scouting has been around in the world. It has been there in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for a long time.”

The Scout Association of the UK estimates that more than a third of all scouts worldwide are Muslim. According to Dawud Zwink, former Vice President of ISNA, who served as Chairman of the National Islamic Committee on Scouting from 1990 to 1993 and is currently working as Facilitator at the Canadian Muslim Fellowship of Scouting, persons with Scouting experience in Pakistan and Lebanon played a major role in the development of Islamic Scouting in the USA in association with the Boy Scouts of America.

“Brothers from the Muslim American Society (MAS) developed their own groups that are now affiliated with BSA,” explains Zwink. “Brothers and Sisters from the African American community have developed their own Scouting organizations, some originating in the black liberation movement organizations of the 60’s and 70’s with many independent of BSA. The community headed by Warth Deen Muhammad has developed Scout groups that are affiliated with BSA.”

Scouting is a unique youth program in that it engages young people in fun-filled activities that lead on to build a sound character and strong personality. The fact that it includes activities viewed as fun by the youth, beyond those limited only to the religious domain, helps provide for the youth a platform where they can enjoy and be themselves while at the same time being involved in constructive activities that help them learn essential life skills. It is also an effective means of involving Muslim children in the mosques and Islamic centers where they can build healthy friendships with other Muslims.

“The whole premise behind boy scouting is teaching our boys leadership skills through outdoor activities that test them — a leader only gets to be a leader after going through some trials,” remarks Rambo. The rank structure that is an essential component of scouting helps reinforce the aspect of challenge based learning and competition. “As you slowly acquire a new skill, they transfer you to another rank. Boys and girls have a value for accomplishment. Our whole aim is to trick the kids into teaching them leadership skills by masking them into fun and play.”

Rank advancement culminates in the Eagle scout rank. A scout must accomplish many things before reaching the Eagle rank but once the rank is achieved, it is an achievement that helps the scout immensely in the future. When an Eagle scout goes to college or in the job market, the employer knows that everything else in that person’s life is also exemplary. For Girls Scouts, the highest rank is known as Gold.

Scouts can earn merit badges in a number of activities of interest that they engage in. The BSA lists more than 100 merit badges that Scouts can earn. The subjects range from archaeology, astronomy, art, family life and chemistry to skating, swimming, painting, camping, theater and veterinary medicine. The merit badges are ways to introduce the youth to all the opportunities out there for them that could be potential career options. In addition to the regular merit badges, Muslim Scouts can earn special emblems by studying certain subjects of theology as well as by engaging in faith related community service.

Each scouting group has an activity based program suited to the needs and interests of the children that participate. Most groups meet every week or every alternative week. Perhaps one of the defining features of Scouting that distinguishes it from other youth programs is the opportunity it provides to young people to get outdoors and do things that cannot be done at home or in the neighborhood. Activities like camping, rafting, canoeing and biking are among some of the appeals of Scouting that helps attract a large number of youth.

Each Scouting group also decides its own method of action and program content. So while some centers may not focus too much on Islamic knowledge and lessons in their activities other mosques and centers might choose to keep their program religion-centric by incorporating examples from the Quran and Sunnah. For example, Faiza Rahman, Girl Scouts coordinator for the MAS Youth Center of Dallas explains how her group always uses examples from the Sunnah. “When we teach the girls about the aspect of honesty in the Scout Law we also tell them stories of the Prophet (saw) and how he used to be honest.”

Scouting is also instrumental in providing Muslim youth with mentorship in the form of positive relationships with adults that serve as good role models. Some groups also have chaplains who provide spiritual guidance to the youth on issues of concern to them.

“For me as a mom, this is the best thing you can offer to your children for friendship, leadership and fun,” says Badria Kafala, mother of 12-year-old Yosaf Omeish who is a boy scout. Kafala put her son into Muslim scouting so that he could have Muslim friends from the community. “It helps the kids especially when they are teens – they can have a group where they can spend their time. It also helps build personality and self-esteem, and they learn from their leaders who are older boys. In scouting they practice leadership at the age of 11. It also gets them involved in various activities like hiking, canoeing, community services…so many things they can’t do in their own home and family.”

Hadia Rizwan*, another mother whose 8-year-old son was part of a cub scouts den in San Antonio, Texas last year feels that the entire experience was a positive one. “They teach the kids a sense of responsibility and there is focus on physical fitness and doing your best,” she says. Her son, however, had to stop going to the scout group because he started Quran classes during the same time.

The ADAMS Scouting troops participate every year in the Camporee with 100 other scouts from different troops which include non-Muslims. “We don’t segregate ourselves. How else are we going to be ambassadors of Rasulullah (saw) unless we don’t participate?” asks Rambo. “In camps we make sure we do not miss out on our Wajibaat like Salah. We let the kids understand that they serve as an example to the community at large. If it is during Ramadan, we fast. We eat halal food. We make sure we have a presence within scouting at the national level.”

“Scouting instills in young people, values that last a lifetime and cultivates ethical character as expressed in the Scout Oath and Law,” explains Zwink. “Scouting trains young people in citizenship, service, and leadership. We also offer our members a wealth of useful knowledge and skills. Scouts have the opportunity to learn fascinating and useful information and to build skills and the confidence that goes with them, which will serve them throughout their lives. For older youth, extreme adventure provides new meaningful experiences, generally in the out-of-doors, to promote team-building, practical leadership applications, and lifelong memories.”

Girls scouts usually do not have the same high adventure activities and ranks are often different but the goals and values of the program are the same. “In the meetings, we participate in activities that are mentioned in the scouting book and we get badges for those,” says Ushna Ahmed who goes to the Girls Scouts group at ADAMS. “We volunteer in charity organizations and arrange events. In terms of religion, being part of scouting helps us meet Muslim friends and in my life, I know it just gives me an opportunity to do things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done.”

Scouting, however, is not without its share of critics. Some Muslim critics point out that it is primarily a Christian movement and Muslim participation is not acceptable. When posed with a similar question once, Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, Founder President of the Islamic Council on Scouting of North America said, “Do not see who is saying it, but look to what is being said.”

“The Scouting Law given by Lord Powell contains the same principles mentioned in the Quran,” says Naqvi. “When we are living in a country like the USA, we need to get our youth involved and this is the way. My organization has achieved a number of Dawah opportunities through the scouting activities we have participated in. We have been able to teach others about Islam and distribute pamphlets.”

The Boy Scouts of America has been working with the Islamic Council on Scouting since 1982 and has gradually made policy changes to cater to Muslim Scouts in the United States. Among the initiatives taken to cater to Muslim Scouts are the provision of halal food and a place for prayer at outdoor camping events.

The Scout Oath binds a scout to do their duty to God and to their country and to abide by the Scout Law which enunciates 12 virtues that a scout must possess including being trustworthy, friendly, loyal, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. “There is not a single aspect in the law that is contrary to Islam,” says Rambo. “If anything, the most exemplary of scouts should be Muslim scouts. Scouting and Islam go hand in hand.”

Scouting helps youth develop a positive Muslim American identity and provides a positive platform for the youth to utilize their energies. The fact that it provides a complimentary education system that can run parallel to a child’s mainstream education keeps it accessible to all Muslim children whether those attending Islamic schools, public schools or being homeschooled.

The biggest challenge facing the Muslim Scouting community in North America, according Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, is the lack of funding and human resource. Although Muslim Scouts have a number of dedicated individuals who are doing commendable service to the community, apart from the little funding that comes from the Islamic centers, Naqvi says he fears most of the scout leaders end up paying from their own pockets for participation in national events, meetings and other activities that serve to benefit the whole community.

Zakaria BenYaqoub, MAS Dallas Boys Scouts Coordinator points out another difficulty faced by the Muslim Scouting community: lack of involvement by parents. BenYaqoub states that parental participation in organization and mentorship is essential for a better quality Scouting program.

The Muslim community in North America needs to recognize and support Scouting as an effective program providing guidance, character development and constructive activity to the youth. In a world where parents are constantly worried about providing their children with good company, mentorship and constructive activities, Muslim scouting serves as a ray of hope.

*Some names have been changed upon request

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, January 4, 2011.

A look through the timeline of bomb blasts and terrorist attacksindicate that a majority of attacks in Pakistan are carried out by young men – some wearing vests, others using cars laden with explosives. I believe this spells out a legitimate case to ban young men, vests and cars from public places. After all, in a country like ours which is always on high alert for terrorist attacks, we can’t allow such security risks to roam about freely, can we?

If you find my logic ludicrous, you might want to take a look at the recent debate on banning the burqa or niqab due to security concerns. In an article in The Express Tribune titled “A mark of separation,” Mr George Fulton makes an interesting case for banning the burqa or niqab in Pakistan based on one case of a female burqa-clad suicide bomber killing 47 people and injuring over 100 in an attack on the World Food Programme distribution point in Bajaur.

As unjust as focusing on one incident against the dozens of other attacks carried out by young men may be, what is more astonishing is the sweeping generalisations Mr Fulton makes to depict the veil as a symbol of suppression because in his view “there is little proof that women actively decide to adopt the veil” and he finds it difficult to find any woman of substance who wears the burqa or niqab.

I am amazed at these views. Why is it so difficult for our so-called progressive class which claims to espouse the values of freedom, liberty, tolerance and personal choice to understand that there are perfectly normal, educated and ‘enlightened’ people out there whochoose to follow their religion? That there are women who have the freedom to fling off their covers and be fashionably under-dressed, yet they choose not to? That there are men and women who have the liberty to disassociate themselves from religion, yet they choose not to?

It has become fashionable nowadays for our ‘intellectual elite’ to pen an article or two reminiscing about the more secular days when religion was a private affair – when there were no beards, no hijabs, no burqas and no preachers on television. Excuse me for my flawed memory, but is it really true that there was no religiosity a decade ago or is it just that having let our religion be hijacked by militants today, we are now more bothered by its physical manifestations in the public sphere?

And for that matter, why has our so-called open-minded progressive class forgotten the values of tolerance that they themselves preached? Do I smell intolerant fanaticism here?

If there is one attitude that marks this age it is extremism – and that extremism is present not only in the religious class, but in the so-called ‘liberals’ as well. Until we all step into each other’s shoes and understand the other person’s perspective, there is no hope for ending the violence we see plaguing our society.

Making a case to ban what many consider a religious practice (and even if we assume it is a cultural practice, there are still no grounds to ban it) only breeds intolerance. Restricting women from wearing the veil is as much a violation of their rights as forcing them to wear one. We must understand that in the case of the burqa bombing in Bajaur and many others, the issue was not the item of clothing, but the lax in security. Where there are legitimate needs for identification, appropriate measures can be taken to satisfy the requirement by asking the woman to take off the veil in private.

The burqa or niqab has as much potential of being misused as say cars, cellphones and the Internet. What is needed is a proper strategy to prevent this misuse rather than banning these things altogether.

A cross-national analysis of 108 non-news articles from nine newspapers across the world

Abstract

Extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism and other related terms are at the heart of global media discourse since the past few years. The press has been fundamental in shaping our attitudes and perceptions regarding these issues by effectively defining and redefining these concepts for us. This research attempts to explore how the global press is defining and framing extremism and its variants by using a quantitative and qualitative analysis of texts of 108 non-news articles picked up from nine newspapers across the world. Findings revealed that a variety of loaded terminologies were being used to define extremism and its opposing concepts and that media definitions were often influenced by dominant political discourse. Extremism was found to be talked about majority of the time in relation to Islam and Muslims. A growing trend of associating extremism to religious adherence, symbols and education was also found. Western newspapers from the U.S. and U.K were often found to associate extremism to being anti-West and moderation to being pro-West and had among the highest instances of association of extremism to Islam.

Introduction

The media play a fundamental role in educating audiences about various social realities. The question of how the media mediate between the external objective reality and our perception of social reality has been one of the major themes of Mass Communication research. There has been particular interest in the ‘reality definition’ function of the press. The press has been instrumental in educating readers, creating awareness about issues, defining our perceptions of reality and changing attitudes.

The role of language in reporting and discussing particular topics is also one of importance in media studies. How the use of terminologies and language in the media is in accordance with dominant political discourse in society and how this subsequently shapes media portrayals and definitions is another important aspect of this debate.

Of late, there has been a lot of focus on topics like extremism, moderation and terrorism in the media. The press has been at the centre of shaping our perceptions and attitudes regarding these issues. The media not only report incidents of terrorism and militancy, they have also come to define these concepts for us.

The purpose of this research is to examine how the global press is defining extremism and its various linguistic variations. The sample comprised a collection of 108 non-news articles (including columns and editorials) picked from 9 publications across different countries from different regions of the world. 12 write-ups were selected from each newspaper on the basis of a convenience sample with the criteria of selecting articles using one or more of a variety of terminologies relating to extremism.

The newspapers were selected on the basis of circulation figures as well as off-record hegemony. A further limitation that emerged in determining selection was the condition that the newspaper that was to be used had to have a website and subsequently, an online archive providing free access to the ‘Comment’ or ‘Opinion’ section of that publication for the period of time covered in the study. The comparative cross-national analysis allows for a study of differing perceptions and concept frames in different countries and different contexts. The study uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of the media texts selected in the sample.

Extremism, fundamentalism, radicalism, fanaticism, terrorism etc are elusive terms and it is difficult to attach one single meaning to them. We know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and we have also seen that yesterday’s terrorists can be today’s statesmen.

While a search fails to bring up much about the origins of the term ‘extremism’, there seems to be some amount of material available on the origins of the term ‘fundamentalism’. The term ‘fundamentalism’ has been used in so many contexts that its origins have been obscured. Like other scholarly terms that have entered general usage (‘Charisma’ for example), popularity has resulted in a degradation of the meaning of the term as well as questionable applications (Weinberg and Pendahzur, 2004). The origins of the term ‘fundamentalism’ lie firmly in American Protestantism. After a lengthy debate about evolutionary biology and creation, the Protestant denominations gradually separated into ‘modernists’ who argued that believers needed to adapt to the findings of science and scholarship, and ‘traditionalists’ or anti-modernists who insisted upon maintaining the older views of revelation and biblical inerrancy. As the struggles between the two groups progressed, the views of anti-modernists were articulated in a set of pamphlets published between 1910 to 1915, under the title of ‘The Fundamentals’. Gradually, those who supported this position began to term themselves ‘fundamentalists’ (Weinberg and Pendahzur, 2004).

The absence of one agreed meaning for the aforementioned terms in current usage is readily apparent. But in the presence of such a case, these terms lend themselves to more manipulation and engineering by the dominant political and media elite of a society. In the post September 11 scenario, these terms have acquired more political connotations and are actively being defined and redefined by the media. These definitions are not always correct as the media have a tendency to be shaped by dominant political discourse. In the present day scenario, these terms have in fact become political terms to create hysteria against certain groups.

Well-known journalist, Robert Fisk, the London-based Independent’s Middle East correspondent describes this quite well when he writes:

““terrorism” no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. “Terrorists” are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States or their allies. The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge—for they too use the word—are those opposed to the Palestinians.” (Fisk, 1990)

The content of newspapers is not really facts about the world, but in a very general sense ‘ideas’ and in this, language is not neutral but a highly constructive mediator (Fowler, 1991). The language the media use can help shape opinions and perceptions and consequently influence action against certain groups in society. By repeatedly associating certain phenomena through use of language and terminology, the media are able to shape definitions of phenomena. And with the immense power and ubiquity that the media have acquired today, it becomes increasingly important to monitor how the media are defining certain terms and what stereotypes and notions they are creating.

A principle that has been long understood by propagandists is that a lie which is repeated often enough becomes widely accepted as truth (Rampton and Stauber, 2003) and that by repeated associations of two or more phenomena the desired concepts tend to acquire commonsense status in a society.

Walter Lippmann’s concept of ‘manufacturing consent’ (a term popularised by the works of Noam Chomsky) is an interesting angle that can be applied to this debate. The concept contends that in democratic societies, the less the state is able to employ violence in the interests of the elite groups that effectively dominate it, the more it becomes necessary to devise techniques of “manufacture of consent” (Chomsky, 1986).

Chomsky (1986) puts forward that one way of “manufacturing consent” is to devise an appropriate form of “Newspeak” in which crucial terms have a technical sense divorced from their ordinary meanings. The term “newspeak” was coined by George Orwell to describe words “deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.”

Orwell was an ardent observer of the relationship between politics and language. In one of his collections, he wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of atom bombs in Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” (Orwell, 1970).

Chomsky (1986) uses the example of the phrase “peace process” to explain the idea of “newspeak”. According to how the term is used in the mass media and the U.S. scholarship, “peace process” means peace proposals advanced by the U.S. government in the context of the Middle East crisis. If the Palestinians, for example, refuse to accept the U.S. terms of the peace process, they are in effect described as rejecting peace in accordance with the “newspeak.” The desired conclusion follows, whatever the facts (Chomsky, 2007).

Similarly, Chomsky (2007) uses the example of another pair of “newspeak” concepts very relevant to the current study: “extremist” and “moderate”. U.S. policy is by definition “moderate” so that those who oppose it are “extremist” and “uncompromising.” The Israeli Labour coalition position then (in 1986) according to Chomsky’s description of “newspeak” was also “moderate” as it conformed to the position of the U.S.

“The terms “terrorism” and “retaliation” also have a special sense in U.S. “newspeak.” “Terrorism” refers to terrorist acts by Arabs, not Israel or the U.S.” (Chomsky, 1986). Terms like “preventing” or “reducing” violence also have another special sense in the context of Arab-Israeli conflicts. In one case for example, the Israeli and U.S media defined the attempt by villagers to run their own affairs as “violence” and a brutal attack to teach them who rules as “reducing violence.”

In his book ‘Imperial Ambitions: Conversations in the Post 9/11 World’, Noam Chomsky (2005) gives another example of an American journalist (a Middle East correspondent with tremendous experience) who writes in his article that the U.S. must be the only country in the world where someone can be called a terrorist for defending his own country from attack.

Media portrayals of concepts in many cases are influenced by the dominant cultural meanings attached to them, what in other words Orwell described as political language. People’s opinions and conceptions are often shaped by the mass media and the mass media themselves often follow dominant political discourses that support the actions of hegemonic powers. At the same time, media discourse often plays an important role is establishing and maintaining power relations in societies.

The media often have set conventional patterns of reporting and even opinion and analysis that they follow in covering events. Van Dijk (1988) calls these set patterns cognitive scripts and models of behaviour shaped by the experience and narration of previous events. These cognitive structures are shaped by dominant cultural, political and religious worldviews and the media often follow them even when covering some of the most atypical of occurrences.

The media play an important role in lending salience to various issues. We have all heard of terms like “media frenzy”, “media hype” and “moral panic”. While popular mass communication theories like Agenda-setting theory contend that while the media may not be successful most of the time in telling us what to think, they are stunningly successful in telling readers or audiences what to think about (Cohen, 1963), there are other theorists who are now arguing that media are stunningly successful in telling us not only what to think about, but how to think about it (McCombs, 2003).

We see that certain events and issues tend to become fodder for newspapers and the electronic media with reporting, commentary and analysis about them being done at unprecedented levels. In this way, the media become active participants in the course of events, shaping and creating events as they report. At many times, media involvement in the sense of reporting can have a significant effect on the event itself and even the outcome. The media therefore, are said to be actively involved in what Thompson (1995) called “constituting the social world.”

The media thus often generate news waves by lending an issue increased attention, amplifying it and creating ‘hype’ about it, subsequently influencing action regarding it. Pakistani society has often seen this sort of media generated news wave at incidences of violence in the city and those relating to threats to law and order etc.

The Pakistani media just like the global media have been giving a lot of attention to extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism. If one takes a look at any edition of any newspaper in this day and age, one will undoubtedly come across some mention or the other of extremism and terrorism. In this age of the ‘looming threat of terror’ and increased focus on the fanaticism and extremism that causes it, it is almost impossible for a day to go by with no mention of these phenomena in the media.

A Google search of Dawn’s (Pakistan’s topmost English daily newspaper) website turns up some 5400 results for ‘extremism’. A similar search for ‘fundamentalism’ turns up some 782 results on the Dawn website. Similarly, a Google search of the website of The News (Pakistan’s second most prestigious English daily) turns up 1490 results for ‘extremism’ and 203 for ‘fundamentalism’. A Google search of the American most prestigious daily, New York Times, turns up 61800 results for ‘extremism’ and 4950 for ‘fundamentalism’. A similar search done on Britain’s prestigious daily, Telegraph, turns up 3450 results for ‘extremism’ and 1790 for ‘fundamentalism.’ The amount of press coverage and mention given to these issues then is readily apparent.

What propelled the researcher to take up this topic for research was the relatively new debate in Pakistan about progressive liberalism versus religious adherence and conservatism and the tendency among the media and intellectual elites to label all signs of religion as ‘extremism’, ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘radicalism’ etc. The elite press and media of the country have relatively recently engaged themselves in this debate which tends to label all signs of religion as extremism and radicalism. This is done either directly, or indirectly, by associating religion and religious practice and conservatism with the aforementioned terms.

As an example, consider two articles that appeared in the year 2009 in one of the top monthly newsmagazines of Pakistan, Newsline: ‘The Power of the Pulpit’ and ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’. Both these articles are representative of the popular intellectual discourse about extremism and fundamentalism that is prominent in the elite media of the country.

‘The Power of the Pulpit’, the cover story for that month, by popular journalist and novelist, Muhammad Hanif, stands critical of the growing trend of religious adherence in the society and associates it to ‘Talibanisation’, a neologism that is said to have been coined by the media to describe the increasing influence of the Taliban in the society. He calls the growing trend of religious preaching on Television as a precedent to the rise of militancy in the country. He writes:

“In Karachi, there are frequent warnings that the Taliban are headed this way. There are posters warning us about Talibanisation. Altaf Hussain thunders about them at every single opportunity. But nobody seems to warn us about the preachers who are already here: the ones wagging their fingers on TV always tend to precede the ones waving their guns, smashing those TVs and bombing poor barbers.” (Hanif, 2009, ‘The Power of the Pulpit’, Newsline)

The article, ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’, by Pervez Hoodboy goes along the same lines, arguing that radicalism is not only a problem in FATA and that Madrassas[1] are not the only “institutions serving as jihad factories”, rather “extremism is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities”. Hoodboy associates this to the ‘Saudisation’ of the country, its educational curriculum, the building of hundreds of mosques, and the rise in the trend of women wearing the abaya[2] or burqa[3]. By linking religious practice and symbols repeatedly to the debate about rising extremism and militancy, Hoodboy like many other writers in this dominant intellectual discourse in the elite media of the country, includes these elements into the definition of the term extremism and its variations. He writes:

“While social conservatism does not necessarily lead to violent extremism, it does shorten the distance. The socially conservative are more easily convinced that Muslims are being demonised by the rest of the world. The real problem, they say, is the plight of the Palestinians, the decadent and discriminatory West, the Jews, the Christians, the Hindus, the Kashmir issue, the Bush doctrine – the list runs on. They vehemently deny that those committing terrorist acts are Muslims, and if presented with incontrovertible evidence, say it is a mere reaction to oppression.” (Hoodboy, 2009, ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’, Newsline)

As another example, we can consider an article by popular columnist, Nadeem F. Paracha, in the most prominent daily of the country, Dawn. In his article titled ‘Nauseous mumblings’, Paracha is again critical of the trend of religious preachers on television and the growing trend of young men and women adorning beards and hijabs[4] respectively, and practising religious rituals. He calls these trends an exhibition of ‘extreme beliefs’. He writes:

“There have been recorded cases against many petty-bourgeois shop-owners and traders of financing jihadi[5] organisations; whereas many sections among the more ‘modern’ bourgeois class have largely exhibited their own version of extreme beliefs by passionately patronising (as supporters and clients), a number of Islamic televangelists and drawing-room preachers whose number has grown two-fold from 1990 onwards.

Consequently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young men and women from the middle-class now preferring to adorn beards and hijabs, and taking religious rituals a lot more seriously (compared to the situation till the late 1970s). But this class still constitutes a large number of westernised youth as well.” (Paracha, 2009, ‘Nauseous Mumblings’, Dawn, Images on Sunday)

This trend in the dominant intellectual discourse however is not a feature limited only to Pakistan, although it does come somewhat as a surprise that it is dominant in a majority Muslim country like Pakistan. Karim (2002) in his paper ‘Making sense of the Islamic Peril’ notes how the Northern mass media have the tendency to declare manifestations of Muslim belief such as wearing the hijab and performing the communal Muslim prayer as certain signs of “Islamic fundamentalism,” whereas the wearing of Christian religious apparel or attending church in their own countries are not usually considered signs of fanaticism. “The generalisation and polarisation of all Muslims as “fundamentalists” and “moderates,” “traditionalists” and “modernists,” “fanatics” and “secularists” serve to distort communication. They tend to make the Muslims who are interested in constructive dialogue with non-Muslims apologetic about their beliefs or, contrarily, disdainful about any interaction.”

Karim (2002) also discusses how such situations have been a recurring feature of crisis situations in the relationship between Northern and Muslim societies. He quotes Ahmed (1992) on the example of the “Rushdie Affair” when Muslims who dared criticise any aspect of Salman Rushdie’s controversial book, The Satanic Verses, risked being branded an “Islamic fundamentalist.” After the September 11 terror attack many Muslims living in Western societies were fearful of wearing traditional clothing in public, let alone engaging in discussion with others for fear of being labelled extremists or fundamentalists.

Although some Northern journalists, academics, and politicians do go against this dominant discourse and state repeatedly that Islam is not synonymous with violence or terrorism, their alternative discourses are usually overshadowed by many other opinion leaders who continue to frame information within dominant discourses (Karim, 2000). With such repeated media associations of terrorism, fundamentalism and extremism with symbols of Islamic practice like the hijab and beard, it came as no surprise then that journalists who had made much of turbans and hijabs being symbolic of “Islamic fundamentalism” were baffled that a number of people whom the Taliban had oppressed chose to continue wearing these traditional garments even after the regime was deposed (Karim, 2002).

The purpose of this research, however, is not to come up with a definition for the term extremism or other related terms. It is merely to explore how the global press is defining the term and what meanings are being associated to this concept. Although it may appear that this research is focusing only on the definitions of extremism, fundamentalism and radicalism in the context of Muslims, the research was not designed only with this aspect in mind. The plan was to examine how extremism and other related terms are being defined by the global media in the context of all religions and nationalities. However, a point worth noting—and one having other implications as well—is that most articles found discussing extremism focused on Muslims and most research literature found on the subject was also in the context of Islam and Muslims.


[1] Maddrassa, literally meaning place of study, refers to a traditional Islamic school of higher study  where the Quran and other related sciences are taught.

[2] Abaya refers to a cloak covering the body and clothes worn by Muslim women in public

[3] Burqa refers to a cloak and head-covering worn by Muslim women which often covers the face too

[4] Hijab, literally meaning veil, refers to the adherence of certain standards of modest dress by Muslim women, often referring to the head-covering

[5] Jihadi, literally meaning struggle, in popular discourse has come to refer to those who take up war for Islamic causes

Full thesis

An edited version of this article was published in The News, Iqra page, March 21, 2008.

Love is a potent emotion and it is one of the most vulnerable avenues by which the Shaitan attacks and misleads people. When limits are crossed in love, we often fall into the most despised sin in the sight of Allah, and that is the sin of Shirk (associating partners with Allah). We have the example of the people of Nuh (a.s) who, because of  their great reverence and love for their pious elders, ended up making idols of them which later generations began to worship.

Whenever the expression of love deviates from the method taught to us by the Allah (subhanahu wata’ala) and His Messenger (sallallahu alayhe wa sallam) it opens doors to shirk and innovation and we fall into sin while thinking we are involved in worship.

Love for the Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, is an essential part of our Iman. A Muslim’s Iman (faith) cannot be complete unless he/she loves the Prophet more than all other creation. The Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said: “None of you believes until I am dearer to him than his father, his child, and all of mankind.”  (Bukhari and Muslim)

And the Muslim must hold the Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, dearer than his/her own self. This is made clear by the following hadith. Narrated ‘Abd Allah bin Hisham: ‘We were with the Prophet (s.a.w) and he was holding the hand of ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab (r.a).  ‘Umar said to him, “O Allah’s Messenger (s.a.w)! You are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” Allah’s Messenger (s.a.w) said: “No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, (you will not have complete Faith) until I am dearer to you than your own self.”  Then ‘Umar (r.a) said: “However, now, by Allah, you are dearer to me than my own self.”  He (s.a.w) then said: “Now, O ‘Umar, (now you are a believer).” (Bukhari)

We see nowadays, that it has become fashionable to claim to love the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, and to sing elaborate praises to him and make exaggerated claims of all that we could do for him. Sadly, these claims stand void when it comes to practicing what we say. Allah (s.w.t) says in the Quran:

“O you who believe! Why do you say that which you do not do? Most hateful it is with Allah that you say that which you do not do.” (Surah As-Saff 61:2-3)

The best way to express our love for the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) is to follow his teachings and his Sunnah. The companions who greatly loved the Prophet (s.a.w.) expressed this love by following him in every deed to the extent that even if he had his upper button open they would follow him. Urwah Ibn Masood speaking about this to the Quraish, once said:

“O people, I swear by Allah that I have visited kings. I went to Caesar, Chasroes and the Negus, but I swear by Allah that I never saw a king whose companions venerated him as much as the companions of Muhammad venerated Muhammad. By Allah, whenever he spat it never fell to the ground, it fell into the hand of one his companions, then they would wipe their faces and skins with it. If he instructed them to do something, they would hasten to do as he commanded. When he did wudoo´, they would almost fight over his water. When he spoke they would lower their voices in his presence; and they did not stare at him out of respect for him.” (Bukhari)

The Prophet (s.a.w) said: “All of my ummah will enter Paradise except those who refuse.” They said: “O Messenger of Allah, who would refuse?” He said: “Whoever obeys me will enter Paradise and whoever disobeys me has refused.” (Bukhari)

Thus, we see that the true way of expressing our love for the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) is to obey him and follow his Sunnah. This sincere advice of the Prophet (s.a.w) is particularly pertinent here: “I urge you to follow my Sunnah and the way of the rightly-guided khaleefahs after me; adhere to it and cling to it firmly. Beware of newly-invented things, for every newly-invented thing is an innovation (Bid‘ah) and every innovation is a going-astray.” (Ahmad & Tirmidhi)

A paradox of ours is that we can spend thousands of rupees on a gathering the Prophet (s.a.w) never held, but we cannot feed seventy needy people or build one school for the poor. We can take out time to listen to people singing elaborate praises to the Prophet (s.a.w), but we cannot take out time to learn the Sunnah way of Salah. We can illuminate our homes and streets with lights commemorating the birth of the Prophet (s.a.w), but we cannot illuminate our lives with the two things he brought—the Quran and the Sunnah.

We sing excessive praises to the Prophet (s.a.w), but we forget that he taught us: “Do not extol me as the Christians extolled the son of Maryam. For I am just His slave, so call me the slave of Allaah and His Messenger” (Bukhari). We claim to sacrifice our lives for him, but we cannot sacrifice one un-islamic festival that has become a part of out weddings and which goes against the teachings he brought. What kind of love is this?

If the Prophet (s.a.w) were to come today to spend time with us, would we feel happy or restricted? Would we keep living our day-to-day life the way we do, or would we have to change or ways significantly? Would he be proud to see how our homes are decorated and how we spend our time or would we have to do a quick but temporary makeover only to please him?

I believe this provides enough food for thought.

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