Naureen Aqueel

Posts Tagged ‘muslim media

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.

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