This work was written by the student for Siena Collge and was published in the School Journal.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center, the loss of countless innocent lives, and a war that has affected countries all over the world. What many overlook is that the attacks also gave the opportunity for the reputation of Islam and Muslims in America, and all over the globe, to be tarnished and destroyed. The aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 includes a rise in what some sociologists call “Islamophobia,” which has been defined by some as “the fear or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them.” Numerous cases of Islamophobia have been seen after the attacks of September 11, 2001, including the stereotyping of Muslims at airports and the prejudicial behavior against men and women wearing religious attire. A recent example is in the controversy over the building of the mosque at ground zero. Arguably, this psychological mindset existed even before 2001, but the rise of this issue in the last ten years can be attributed to two major causes:
the portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media and the religious illiteracy of most Americans.
The General Effect of Media
It can be argued that with the lifestyle most Americans live today, the phrase “time is money” holds true for many. The advances in technology, including the creation of smart phones, wireless internet, and various other gadgets, have answered the demands for convenience and efficiency. These advancements, while being praised for allowing more accessibility to news and media, can at the same time be condemned for it due to the effects on public perception on topics such as Islam. The coverage and references of Islam and Muslims in the media post-September 11, 2001 has increased, as well as the amount of hate crimes.2 Through the use of powerful images, words, and a lack of context and background, the media has successfully tarnished the image of Islam. When most Americans watch news stories about Islam, they see images of bearded men carrying guns, bombs exploding in the streets of the Middle East, and headlines such as “radical Islam” or “Islamic militants.” Sheikh et al’s research on the Islamic image conducted even before September 11, 2001 showed that the articles on Islam “were mostly centered on crisis, conflicts and wars. Coverage of Islam was for the most part, international not domestic, and a clear majority of stories did not distinguish between the various branches of Islam.”3
Some experts believe that it is not just how and what the media presents, but who presents the information.
Divya Sharma notes that “though Islam has been part of American society for over two hundred years, its analysis is built around violent acts by terrorism experts.”
In other words, whether intentionally or not, many news channels have been picking experts who already have a negative view of Islam to provide analysis on the religion to the public, which has a profound effect on perception, whether the public knows it or not. Khalema and Wanna-Jones “found that media representations are frequently taken as facts, and since 9/11 attacks these representations have influenced public perception of Muslims in general.”5 This idea is directly supported by a survey conducted by Cornell University in 2004, which showed among other things “that people who paid more attention to television news were more likely to fear terrorist attacks and support limiting the rights of Muslim-Americans.”6 When citizens of a country are ready to limit the rights of their fellow citizens based on their religious status, one knows that a serious issue exists.
Islamic Terminology: The Misuse of Words
The media has taken Islamic terminology and has gone beyond merely using words out of context. Instead, it has completely distorted the meaning of various words, giving a translation that is not even close to the original. As it turns out, this inaccuracy of translation also contributes significantly to Islamophobia. One such word that is inaccurately translated is the word “Jihad.”
Dina Ibrahim notes “one of the ongoing problems with western coverage of Islam is that Jihad is always translated as holy war.” He goes on to say that “Jihad is not a holy war. It is a struggle to overcome the forces of evil.”
Finally, he stresses that “the concept of Jihad has been abused by Bin Laden and his followers, as well as network news.”7 The literal meaning of Jihad is indeed “struggle”; however, this term is used in many different contexts in Islam. The word Jihad can be used in a military context, but not in the way that the media portrays it-as a term being used to wage war against all other religions. In truth, it can only be used in a military context if one is oppressed and needs to resort to militant means to overcome oppression, or if one needs to resort to militant needs to defend land. The type of Jihad that is actually stressed more in Islam is the internal Jihad, or the struggle within oneself to resist temptation to commit sin. Arguably, this type of struggle is much more difficult to overcome. Finally, an example of Jihad that people are not even aware they are familiar with is the Jihad of Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for civil rights.
Another term that has been incorrectly used is the term “madrasa,” which has been defined in the media as an Islamic school where young Muslim men go to learn how to perform terrorist attacks on nations such as the U.S. In fact, in an ABC News report Bob Woodruff described madrasas in Islamabad by saying, “This is where the recruits begin their education, a collection of religious schools known as madrasas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.” He later states, “[T]hey study the Koran and they learn about jihad, or holy war.”8 This interpretation of a madrasa is false. A madrasa is an Islamic school. It is not a place where young adults learn about holy war, but instead madrasas are where children learn morality, good behavior, and acts of worship consistent with the teachings of Islam. In the US for example, madrasas can be equivocated to Sunday school for many Christians. As a result of the media, many madrasas that now exist are incorrectly interpreted as types of terrorist recruitment centers.
Media Portrayal of Women in Islam
The portrayal of Muslim women has also contributed significantly to Islamophobia. “One common perception about Islam through the media remains that women are treated as second-rate citizens.”9 This perception arises when many news channels show images of women wearing the burqa and discuss political systems, such as that of Saudi Arabia, where women are treated as second-class citizens. When Americans view this coverage, they not only condemn such a system, but they view Islam as something completely foreign to the ideals of American society. What needs to be understood is that the Arab culture in Saudi Arabia predominates social and political atmospheres. The problem is that when there is a conflict with Islamic principles, the inequalities and social injustices are made to look like they are part of the religion. Furthermore, since the two holiest sites of Islam are found in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government claims to rule under Islamic law, it is not surprising that the outside world associates everything the country
does with Islam. However, Divya Sharma stresses that it is “important to note that a majority of Muslim population in the U.S. is not the same as the Muslim population in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or elsewhere. Religion is largely interpreted within the larger socio-cultural context.”10 Culture and religion must be distinguished as well as apparent oppression verses actual oppression. In more democratic political systems, Muslim women wear their scarves and observe the “hijab” by their own choice.
The lack of knowledge about a particular topic or item combined with the lack of interest in learning about it, creates opinions formed from passive information, particularly those obtained from the news media. There is a direct relationship between the negative portrayal of and lack of knowledge about Islam in the media and Islamophobia. Religious illiteracy has been a pressing issue in America for quite a long time, and it has not necessarily been addressed. Stephen Prothero notes that in a 1945 Gallup poll, Americans were asked “to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity. Only a third were able to do so.” He goes on to say that “in a more recent study the overwhelming majority of Americans freely admit that they are not at all familiar with the basic teachings of Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.”11 Considering the amount of ethnic and religious diversity in America, this fact is as ironic as problematic. Religious diversity is allowed by the Constitution. Citizens can practice their religion of choice, and the U.S. cannot declare a national religion.
In an ABC News poll conducted in 2004, Americans were asked questions that displayed their opinions about Islam. The poll noted which Americans felt they understood the religion and which Americans felt they did not understand or were unfamiliar with it.
The results show that “[a]mong Americans who feel they do understand the religion, 59 percent call it peaceful and 46 percent think it teaches respect for the beliefs of others.” On the other hand, those who are unfamiliar with the religion are “19 points less likely to call it peaceful, and half as apt to say it respects other beliefs.” Lastly, when asked if their opinions were favorable of Islam, those “who feel they have a good understanding of Islam are 15 points more apt to view it favorably.”12
This data reiterates the fact that many Americans either do not have the time or are not interested in actively seeking out information from credible sources, yet at the same time are still forming opinions. What needs to be understood is that religion informs the decisions one makes, guides the way one lives life, and ultimately shapes how one views the world. If American citizens are not religiously literate enough to understand each other, how is the country going to be unified? In addition, it might be difficult for the nation to build solid relationships with certain nations abroad, in which a national religion is declared.
The exponential increase in attention that Islam has received in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 has caused a demand for the religion to explain every single action of those individuals who claim to be associated with it. With the media constantly displaying violent images associated with Islam, as well as with the mistranslation of words, the skepticism, prejudice, fear, or notion of Islamophobia that people have has become increasingly harder to remove. The portrayal of Muslim women has also caused Islam to appear as something alien and foreign. However, the substantial effect the media is having is largely due to most Americans forming opinions without actively seeking knowledge about Islam. The actions of a few individuals should not be able to define what a religion stands for. True Islam, and for that matter, most religions, stand for peace, justice, and humanity. Only one who is religiously literate will be able to recognize this important fact.