By DAISY KHAN
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
Terrorism has become one of the gravest concerns of all nations. Because the media is globalized, whatever U.S.-based media broadcasts also informs and influences public opinion around the world. As violent extremist groups become stronger and their actions escalate, it is incumbent upon the media to modify its coverage of this violence so that it no longer indirectly serves the interests of extremists but the interests of the public instead.
Many non-Muslim Americans perennially complain that Muslims do not sufficiently condemn terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam. This alleged lack of Muslim response has unfortunately helped to distort American perceptions of Islam to such an extent that Muslims are somehow considered to be complicit in such violence themselves.
Ironically, Muslims make the reverse complaint against the mainstream media that it fails to give enough coverage to repeated Muslim condemnations about terrorism. In 2015, WISE conducted an online survey among American Muslims to gauge how media coverage about Islam and Muslims might affect Muslim responses to terrorism, and the perceptions that non-Muslim Americans have about Muslims as a result.
Ninety percent of respondents expressed their belief that mainstream media discourse concerning extremist violence has a negative effect on public perceptions of Islam. To offset the impact of this media coverage, WISE has included a list of condemnations against terrorism on page 33 and at www.wiseupreport.org . Had such condemnations by American Muslims been publicly reported in the mainstream media, the claim that American Muslims are somehow silently supportive of such acts would likely not have gained such currency. It is therefore crucial now more than ever for the media to inform the American public of the plain and simple fact that Muslims have spoken out against terrorism—and have done so regularly for years.
One of the key public responsibilities of the media in a democracy is to provide the knowledge necessary for a society to govern itself, a duty that has become more complex as global tensions and acts of violence escalate. WISE understands that Muslim responses to extremist violence, precisely because they tend to be straightforward, measured, and based on proven facts, are inherently less attention-grabbing than the sensationalist, theatrical, and usually shocking nature of terrorist acts.
EXTREMISTS’ MANIPULATION OF MEDIA
When it comes to deciding what news is worthy of coverage, as the saying goes: “If it bleeds, it leads.” This is something that terrorists themselves fully understand, and they have crafted their entire marketing strategy accordingly. They therefore aim to produce the most graphic images and disturbing videos of their attacks to send to the media, knowing that such eye-catching content is likely to get published. And every time the media broadcasts or prints such material, it is to an extent itself complicit in helping terrorists achieve many of their aims, namely of turning non-Muslims against Muslims, increasing public fear worldwide to emphasize their menace, and increase the effectiveness of their deceitful recruitment tactics.
LINKING OF ISLAM AND TERRORISM
What may have an even more pernicious impact, however, is the constant rhetoric in some parts of the media about and framing of terrorism and Islam as being cut from the same cloth. Even something as seemingly minor as the name by which some media outlets refer to an extremist group plays an insidious role in legitimizing the group. WISE’s 2015 survey found that nearly 80 percent of respondents would prefer the media not use the names “ISIS” or “Islamic State”–terms that explicitly refer to Islam–and instead use the Arabic acronym “Daesh” or something else that makes no reference to their faith.
Terrorists use Islam as a veneer, a strategic way to validate their actions and reinforce their recruitment practices. Terrorist groups are political groups with political goals, and they use religion to legitimize and achieve these goals. Whenever the media highlights a narrative in which terrorism and Islam are inherently linked, it indirectly strengthens groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh and hinders efforts to counter extremist ideology and curb terrorist attacks.
News media inevitably reports terrorist attacks, violence, war, and conflict as “news.” However, inspiring stories of human strength, resilience, and bravery, which are equally compelling in terms of their human interest, tend not to be considered as newsworthy. A more balanced media approach, one that tells more sides of the story, is needed. For instance, profiling inspirational and captivating stories about Muslims would help present a truer picture and be much less harmful to how non-Muslims tend currently to view Muslims. Indeed, the many peacemaking efforts and initiatives being led by many Muslims provide vivid stories that would help in painting a more complete picture of Muslims in America, rather than a narrative focused solely on terrorism and violence.
In addition, many are now familiar with the death threats that terrorist groups have issued in recent years against Muslims who dare to speak out against them. Yet, many Muslims have displayed the moral courage needed to issue strong condemnations against these groups, regardless of the threats made
to their personal safety. The “Open Letter to Baghdadi” (www.lettertobaghdadi.com), signed by hundreds of the most respected Muslim leaders and scholars in the world, openly condemned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of Daesh, and represents just one of many thousands of condemnations issued by Muslims.
In the interest of national security and national unity, as well as in the interest of undermining extremist groups in the future, the media now needs to address the following:
1. Consider how the media is being manipulated by those opposed to peace. This requires a shift in editorial decision-making to ask: “Who really benefits from what we are reporting?” The media’s discourse on terrorism can no longer sustain the kind of impulsive and uninformed reporting of some media outlets, for these gravely undermine national security to threaten Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
2. Seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Instead of just reporting the shock, horror, and theatrics of terrorist events as they happen, editors of all media outlets can encourage their journalists to probe more deeply, as the best of them do, for instance, by investigating more thoroughly the true motives of the terrorists.
3. Use wide angle as well as telephoto lenses to tell the whole story. To highlight the complex and diverse nature of American Muslim communities, media sources need to elicit responses to terrorist atrocities from a broader range of Muslims, from all walks of life. This includes religious and community leaders—men and women alike—writers, artists, young people and seniors, as well as Muslim public figures working in entertainment, sports, government, finance, law, the military, education, and other fields, to demonstrate the rich diversity of viewpoints within American Muslim communities, all united in their stand against terrorism.
4. Include credible and qualified Muslim voices. If the media’s goal is to be a channel for truthfulness and understanding, then it must be careful not to perpetuate terrorist propaganda, but instead consult qualified Muslim experts with the required knowledge and authority to analyze and discredit the claims made by terrorist groups.
5. Remember the power of language. In both its coverage of violent extremism and inclusion of Muslim voices, the media should re-evaluate the particular words it uses to talk about Islam and extremism. Specific religious terms such as Jihad and Shari’ah are incessantly conflated with terrorism and barbarism, when in fact terrorists have misappropriated these terms to legitimize their destructive agenda.
6. Speak authoritatively. It is incumbent on journalists reporting on terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam to immerse themselves in the nuances of Islam as defined by the Qur’an to highlight how distinct these concepts are from extremist ideology, This can help to strip extremist groups of the power and following they gain from misappropriating the religion. Muslims called upon by the media to condemn terrorism must also equip themselves with the knowledge and skills necessary to be able to clearly and effectively convey the true spirit of Islam for non-Muslim audiences.
7. Commit to balanced coverage. For as many stories as there are about Muslims committing violence and terrorism, there is a far greater number of stories of Muslims contributing to their communities and going above and beyond to help their fellow human beings. Truly fair and balanced reporting consists ofgiving coverage to those inspiring, uplifting stories of everyday Muslims doing extraordinary things,and those who are dedicating their lives to the deconstruction of extremists’ claims to Islam. The more these voices are brought into the spotlight immediately after an attack to condemn it, the more this helps to counter the success and validity of extremist groups.
The U.S. prides itself on its freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but these freedoms do not justify irresponsible or recklessly one-sided journalism. It is time for the media to realize the magnitude of its impact in either inadvertently perpetuating or effectively combating extremism. What this will take is a return to the fundamental journalistic principle of balanced and truthful reporting that both asks and elicits straight answers to the essential questions.
Muslim leaders and community representatives are ever-willing to speak publicly—many have already done and continue to do so—even if this means placing their own lives at risk, to condemn terrorist attacks and those who would commit violence in the name of Islam, and to provide instead the balance that is currently missing from the discourse on violent extremism. When these voices are offered a wider platform, the critical missing perspectives can come forward for the benefit of us all.