Terrorizing Islam

by Julian Sarkar '13 | 11/29/09 11:00pm

In the wake of the tragic shootings at Fort Hood, the national community has gathered to mourn the loss of 13 Americans. As a precaution, the Department of Homeland Security warned the Muslim-American community of the potential backlash from those who would blame them. At the same time, the media immediately sensationalized Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's Islamic faith and triggered a new wave of fear of the religion.

If we look at the media coverage rationally, however, we can see through such fear-pandering, and differentiate between radical acts of terror and the ancient religion that takes its name from the Arabic word for "peace."

The coverage of the incident has strong Islamophobic undertones. For example, the day after the shooting, the Associated Press released an article entitled, "Ft. Hood suspect reportedly shouted Allahu Akbar.'"

This headline may suggest that Hasan had been involved with terrorist groups, but it ignores key information about Hasan that had been available prior to the incident. According to National Public Radio, Hasan had a record of anti-social behavior, being described by classmates in his public health masters program as "disconnected, aloof, a loner, belligerent and sometimes super polite." While media outlets did cover these details, many headlines focused primarily on Hasan's religion, rather than other potential causes for his actions.

It is true that Hasan's words and actions seem to indicate that he was motivated by a radicalized version of Islam. But the method in which major media outlets reported these actions was anything but responsible which leaves it to viewers to make the distinction between terrorists and peaceful followers of Islam. In doing so, the mainstream media has deviated from ethical journalism.

Such sensationalism and fear pandering is nothing new to the world of journalism. Some of the first news releases after the Virginia Tech shootings specifically highlighted the fact that the shooter was a young Asian male. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed falsely wrote that the shooter was Chinese. As a result, one Virginia Tech student of Chinese descent who was unrelated to the shootings received death threats until the actual shooter who was not of Chinese descent was identified, according to the People's Daily Online. After the Chinese government openly criticized Sneed's unethical act, the Sun-Times never issued any statement or apology.

On the other hand, the media has previously shown itself capable of distinguishing mentally ill criminals from their religious faiths. Earlier this year, when Scott Roeder assassinated abortion doctor George Tiller, headlines told a different story. Media outlets referred to Roeder as the "abortion doctor killer," and focused on his obsession with Tiller. Little mention was made of his Christian faith, or his affiliation with the "Army of God," a group that supports the use of violent force to prevent abortion.

Since Sept. 11, the media has made a concerted effort to connect al-Qaeda with Islam, the religious ideology for which it claims to fight. Through this lens, it is nearly impossible for viewers to see otherwise.

A broader perspective shows that the global Islamic community does not support al-Qaeda, or any extremist acts of terror. A survey conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org in collaboration with the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that up to 89 percent of people in eight Muslim-majority nations opposed the use of explosives and killing for political and religious motivations.

I asked Dawood Yasin, the Muslim Life and International Service and Education Advisor at Dartmouth, what the Muslim community could do to influence change in the media. In his answer, he cited the UMMA clinic in South Central Los Angeles, where Muslims provide free health services to patients of all faiths.

"But we haven't seen anything in the media about that," Yasin said. "So I don't think it's a matter of what the Muslim community can or cannot do, it's what people will perceive to be newsworthy, with regard to what Muslims are and are not doing."

It is inevitable that these patterns of sensationalism in major media networks will continue. But it is necessary in order to end the resulting thoughtless discrimination and scapegoating that we not allow ourselves to buy into the fear-pandering of the media, and chastise journalists where they distort the truth or suffer the consequences for it.