Hugh Fitzgerald: Hannah Allam Advises Journalists: Islam Is Unfairly Treated (Part Two)


Editor’s note: Part I here.

Another one of Hannah Allam’s six tips to journalists covering Islam is this:

In seeking the perspectives of Muslims, look beyond the mosques:

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 4 in 10 American Muslims attend a mosque weekly. About 30 percent of American Muslims go to a mosque only a few times a year, and about 25 percent do not go at all.

Allam thus cautions journalists against talking to Muslims in a mosque as the only sources for a story about Islam in America. “When you rely only on the mosque for sources, you are getting views that are typically more conservative and orthodox, and they don’t represent the full spectrum of Islamic practice in the U.S.,” she says.

But who are these journalists whom Allam believes write stories based only on conversations with Muslims in a mosque? All kinds of sources are used by those who report on Islam and Muslims in America. Among the stories most often reported are those about Muslim wives. Some remain  at home, with their children, and thus do not work outside the house. They are viewed sympathetically, “it’s my choice,” they insist. Muslim women starting their own businesses is another favorite subject. The taunts some Muslim women claim to endure because they cover — everything from the hijab to the niqab — are reported on with appropriate indignation. Victimhood is powerful. Muslim fathers who are having trouble adjusting to a less patriarchal society, while continuing to control increasingly restive, because americanized, offspring, are given a chance to explain their views. Muslim children discuss with reporters how their opinions of Unbelievers have changed since they came to America or, if born here, since they started attending public school with non-Muslim classmates. A ten-year-old’s claim that “my best friend is Jewish” can go a long way to focusing attention away from the deep antisemitism to be found in the Qur’an. And Muslims are given a chance to vent, to complain of the great misunderstanding, or deliberate malice, of Islamophobes who fail to understand the peaceful, tolerant essence of Islam. Muslims are shown helping out at food banks, helping to clean parks (this is a favorite news item, invariably involving Ahmadis), winning spelling bees, running marathons, even taking the oath of office as the “first Muslim mayor of Town X or City Y,” or defending, as members of CAIR, “the civil rights of Muslims.” Meanwhile, in much of the coverage of terrorist attacks, there is often an initial reluctance to mention Islam or Muslims; the malefactor’s name is given, but not his likely motivation. Sometimes he is described as “mentally ill,” but he is never described as following Qur’anic commandments. Hannah Allam need not worry about how journalists cover Islam; many are doing all they can to  present Muslims and Islam in the best possible light.

Reporters by now are well aware that mosques differ in their ideological orientation. Some may be controlled by Salafists, and receive Saudi money. Others may be run by clerics connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, which may signify support for Hamas. Still others may be run by self-described moderates who deplore and denounce terrorism, and much else in Islam: the best example of such reformers, someone who is on the level, is the Australian Imam Mohammad Tawhidi. All these are sources that a good reporter will use, naturally weighing them as to their veracity. And aside from conversations with Muslims both inside and outside of mosques, reporters will also discuss the views of non-Muslims about Muslim neighbors (always very positive, always amazed at “just how like us” they are), and former enemies (who now admit that their minds have been changed by the Muslims they’ve met, who turn out to be swell folks). Articulate islamocritics, on the other hand, are rarely interviewed in these reports in the mainstream press. And Hannah Allam has identified a problem — the supposedly total reliance by reporters on Muslim informants who regularly attend a mosque — that does not exist.

As to where reporters can go, she suggests reaching out to groups such as associations of Muslim doctors and Muslim student associations. If reporters look around, they will also find professional groups such as arts groups and writers groups.

What could be less threatening than Muslims with interests in the arts? Or so Hannah Allam believes. Of course, for Muslims the “arts” they are allowed to practice are limited. They cannot include, for the devout Muslim,  paintings or statues of living creatures. Both are haram. So are musical instruments. But why doesn’t Allam suggest covering other groups that claim to speak for Muslims, such as the many campus groups of Muslim students, or even better, CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, that claims to be the foremost civil rights organization representing Muslims in America? Surely Hannah Allam should not object to reporters discussing Islam and Muslims with CAIR and its staff, so well-versed in taqiyya? Or does she worry that some of the remarks made in the past by CAIR staff members (e.g., Nihad Awad), and the ties between CAIR and Hamas, might then be mentioned by reporters?

Before choosing to use an Arabic word in a story, think about why you’re choosing it:

When reporting on Islam for English-speaking news outlets, many journalists use Arabic terms or other foreign words such as “Allah,” “hijab” or “Sharia.” “Allah” is Arabic for God, while “hijab” is not just a head covering; it is a broad term that can be used to describe modest dress. It could mean many different kinds of covering for modesty — a headscarf, or a veil that partially covers the face; a burqa, which covers the face and body; or a chador, which is a cloak that covers the body. Help the reader understand what it is and be specific about what it is that is being called a hijab, Allam says.

She emphasizes that these terms might be fairly well known but are certainly not widely understood. If you’re thinking about using foreign terms, ask if there is a more accessible word, she says.

Her suggestion that the  use of Arabic words be reduced to a bare minimum is meant to make Islam less foreign and forbidding to Unbelievers. Of course “Allah” can be replaced, in most cases, by “God,” though there is one case in which the exact Arabic phrase should always be given. This is the triumphalist exclamation “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “Our God is greater than yours,” a phrase which can be used in a variety of situations, but especially significant is its use before, during, or after a terrorist attack. Whatever else it may be, “Allahu akbar” is also a war cry. So, too, the one-word “inshallah” could be translated as “God willing” or “if God wants,” but “inshallah” is more evocative and fatalistic than its English version.

As for other Arabic words that are now used, I suspect that three words she carefully did not mention — dhimmi, jizyah, taqiyya — are words that she would prefer never be used. They bring up the most disturbing aspects of Islamic practice. Instead, for “dhimmi” she might substitute “tolerated non-Muslims’’; for “jizyah” a “tax on non-Muslims to pay for their physical protection,” and for “taqiyya,” something like “the practice of occasional minor misrepresentation in order to protect Islam from its enemies.”

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