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


Editor’s note: Part one is here. Part two is here.
Allam continues:

‘Sharia’ is a broad code of jurisprudence. Often, Sharia is reported as a hard-line interpretation of Islam. Sharia appears in news stories when such interpretations lead to harsh acts such as caning, stoning or beheading. That narrow interpretation, she says, is neither representative of mainstream Islam or of Sharia itself. Sharia encompasses many things such as marriage law (including the right to alimony) and inheritance.

The Sharia has not been reported as a “hard-line” interpretation of Islam. It is correctly described as being not an “interpretation,” but the law of mainstream Islam, though not all parts of it are always and everywhere carried out. Death for apostasy is part of Shari’a, but only ten countries, out of 50 Muslim-majority lands, mandate death for apostasy, and even those ten countries do not always inflict that punishment. The same goes for the criminal law: few Muslim countries enforce the chopping-off of thieves’ hands, as the Sharia requires. But some do, including, most notably, Saudi Arabia. And despite Allam’s worry, most reporters who cover Islam  are perfectly aware that Sharia covers much more than than the criminal law, and its severest punishments  (caning, stoning, beheading), including, especially, family law.

Finally, Hallam says:

Don’t overgeneralize:

American Muslims are a highly diverse group. There are many Muslim subcultures, traditions and practices.

Yes and no. Muslims are “diverse’ in some obvious and superficial ways: in dress and cuisine, for example. But in all the important ways, matters of belief, the main difference is that between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Within Sunni Islam, there are four schools of jurisprudence; they differ among themselves far less. Most important is that Muslims read, and are commanded to follow, the same verses, in the same Qur’an. Muslims also read the same Hadith, and always give greater weight to the most authoritative (“sahih”) collections. Islam is a text-based faith; the texts and teachings do not vary, no matter how various the outward and visible aspects of 1.5 billion Muslims may be. Many “subcultures, traditions, and practices” there may be, but there is not a great diversity in the beliefs of Sunnis, who make up 85-90% of the world’s Muslims.

Therefore, says Allam, “Try to stay away from writing about “the Muslim community.’” There’s no such thing. The 3.5 million Muslims in this country come from a variety of communities with different practices and beliefs.”

The word “community” does not necessarily imply “complete similarity.” Can one write about “the Christian community”? Of course, as long as the differences are clearly understood between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant sects. Within that diversity, there are also the beliefs that all Christians share, about the divinity of Christ as the Son of God. All those who share that belief form part of a “Christian community.” Members of the  community of Muslim Believers, the world-wide umma, share a faith, and what they share is far more important than those things about which they differ. Hannah Allam is trying to discourage, even to prevent, any statements that might be made about Muslims in general, for these are likely, she assumes correctly, to be critical of the faith. Her last phrase, about the variety of communities “with different practices and beliefs” slyly suggests that there are not only “different practices” (which one is more likely to concede, even though Allam doesn’t offer even one example), but also “different beliefs.” There are Sunni and Shi’a Muslims with some“different beliefs,” but within the community of Sunni Muslims, who make up 85-90% of the world’s Muslims, there are not any significant differences in belief, as opposed to differences in the fervor with which that belief is acted on. And all Muslims, Sunni and Shi’a, share the same Qur’an, the same Hadith, the same Sira (the biography of Muhammad).

Be careful about portraying Islam as a roadblock to personal achievements.

Allam recommends that journalists ask themselves if a potential story subject would be newsworthy if it weren’t for his or her Muslim identity. “If the person isn’t newsworthy apart from being Muslim, why are you writing about them?”

Allam assumes that reporters might portray Islam negatively “as a roadblock to personal achievements.” What does she have in mind? Most likely, she is thinking of those “inspirational” stories of Muslim women who overcame the misogyny of Islam (the “roadblock”), where men dominate, to forge their own careers and lives in the West. That’s the kind of thing — “you go, girl” — one might find celebrated on “Oprah.” But those stories, necessarily describing all the obstacles these women faced in Muslim societies, celebrate Muslims who, despite Islam’s misogyny, made their way in the world. This displays Islam in a negative light, which Hannah Allam wishes to prevent at all costs.

And apparently Allam doesn’t want any coverage of Muslims that has to do mainly with their being Muslims: “if the person isn’t newsworthy apart from being Muslim, why are you writing about them?” Does that mean Hannah Allam wants reporters to not write stories about Muslim chess grandmasters, such as Nihal Sarin, Ahmed Adly and Elshan Moradiabadi, written to show that despite the paucity of Muslim Nobel prizewinners, Muslims have done well in meeting the intellectual challenge of competitive chess? Chess grandmasters are not newsworthy — there are dozens of them — but Muslim chess grandmasters are newsworthy. Does Allam think stories should be written about them, or not? Would she regard such stories as condescending toward Muslims — “just look, Muslims can play chess well” — and therefore to be avoided? A story about the several Muslim servicemen who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, designed to emphasize the sacrifices of patriotic Muslims, would not meet with Allam’s approval. She would presumably object to such a story, which would not have been  “newsworthy” if the people involved had not been Muslims.

She explains that it made sense to report on the first Muslim women in Congress because they represented a big milestone. But some stories focusing on Muslim women’s accomplishments can feel “contrived and condescending,” she says, such as features on Muslim women playing basketball or soccer, who are portrayed as newsworthy just because they are wearing headscarves.

But Allam violates her own strictures when she approves of the reports on the first Muslim women in Congress: they were “newsworthy” only because they were Muslims. She approves because the reports were so enthusiastic. On the other hand, those same reports led others to look more deeply into Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and what they discovered were some hair-raising antisemitic remarks by both, as well as a potential scandal, which has so far managed to stay beneath the radar, involving Omar, who may have claimed, for green card purposes, to have been married to her own brother.

On the other hand, Allam encourages reporters to include Muslim voices in stories that are not explicitly about Islam. Quote them in stories about topics other than religion, hate crimes or national security, she says.

That will show readers the diversity of their professions — for example, call a Muslim doctor or a Muslim fashion designer and so on,” she says.

Of course. Once you have taken the topics of religion, hate crimes, and national security off the table — all subjects that are intimately linked to Muslims, and we all know why — what is left? We are being instructed by Allam not to discuss any of those topics that might just possibly show Muslims in a disturbing light.

In other words, show Muslims at their unthreatening very best, as doctors, lawyers, engineers. And please stop mentioning Muslim terrorists, who have struck in New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chattanooga, Fort Hood, Little Rock, San Bernardino, Orlando. And why bother to mention the dozens of converts to Islam who have “misunderstood” their new faith and planned terrorist attacks? All of that would just paint Islam in a bad light. Haven’t Muslims suffered enough?

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