SPJ Georgia: Panel questions journalists on how Muslims and Islam protrayed in media

By Pam Dorsett, SPJ Georgia member and freelance writer

The mix of misunderstood buzz words including, “sharia,” “radicalized,” and “terrorists” associated with the Muslim faith has perplexed many who know or practice Islam, as well as the idea that Muslim women require permission to work and Muslim men wear turbans. 

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AJC Editor Kevin Riley discusses the Muslim community and Islamic faith culture with “The Perception of Islam and Muslim in the Media” panel event at AJC building on April 29. From the left:  Kevin Riley, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Shuaib Hanief and Noor Abbady. Photo by Pam Dorsett

Addressing and clearing up misinterpretations about the Islamic faith and reporting on Muslims was presented at a round table event at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 29 — for the media and its readers.  

A panel of local Muslim experts shared their concerns about the accuracy of information about the Islamic faith and living as a Muslim in the community at The Perception of Islam and Muslim in the Media event sponsored by SPJ Pro Georgia, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Speakers Bureau.

Kevin Riley AJC
Kevin Riley

Moderated by Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Editor Kevin Riley, the event’s panelists included Operations Manager Islamic Speakers Bureau Noor Abbady, Civil Rights Attorney and Executive Director of Council of American-Islamic Relations Edward Ahmed Mitchell, and AtlantaMuslim.com, founder, Shuaib Hanief. The website is the largest Muslim publication in Atlanta. 

A diverse community

The Muslim community is diverse and its range extends from local communities to other countries throughout the globe. The lack of consideration for Muslim diversity frequently underlies misconceptions.

“The Muslim community is far more diverse than you think,” Ahmed Mitchell said. “All Muslims don’t have long beards and turbans.” Many people mistake Sikhs, who practice a completely different religion, and see them as Muslims due to their turbans. Although some Muslim men do wear turbans out of respect for the emulation of the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to have worn a white or black turban, not all male Muslims wear turbans. 

Shuaib Hanief
Shuaib Hanief

The local community is ethnically and racially diverse, comprised of converts, African-Americans and immigrants, he said. There is diversity in both the level of conservatism and of culture.

For example, Shuaib Hanief told a story to illustrate a misunderstood idea:

During a trip to India, he visited an uncle who asked him how his horse was. When Hanief told the him that he had no horse, his uncle asked how he traveled in America without a horse. Based on the uncle’s viewing of an American western film, he concluded that all Americans traveled by horse. The 1.2 billion Muslims in the world have been similarly misunderstood based on how they’ve been presented. 

Stereotypes of Muslim women

Meanwhile, stereotypes of Muslim women also persist, although many Muslim women play major roles in their communities.

Noor Abbady
Noor Abbady

“What disturbs me most is that perception doesn’t match reality,” said Noor Abbady.

“The assumption is that we’re not educated enough, that women need permission to work or travel.” The reality, she said, is that women are the heads of state in six major Muslim countries. Yet many Muslim women do deal with issues everyday are because of gender, not their religion.

What is Sharia or Sharia Law?

The word, “Sharia” or “Sharia Law” together with the diversity of mosques and entire countries is also a frequently misunderstood part of the Islamic tradition.

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Edward Ahmed Mitchell was one of three panelists at The Perception of Islam and Muslim in the Media event sponsored by SPJ Pro Georgia and the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Speakers Bureau. Photo by Pam Dorsett

“Sharia means ‘the way to the water’ in Arabic,” said Mitchell.  Sharia or Sharia law entails the rules and regulations Muslims follow, similar to Canon Law for Catholics.

“Sharia or any code of conduct exists in every religion,” said Abbady. But a book of Sharia does not exist. Rather, Sharia is dynamic and contextual with the five major goals: to preserve life, property, lineage, freedom of religion and intellect, she said.

“The problem is that anti-Muslim bigots and terrorists have a different definition,” Mitchell said.

“Perhaps the first time some heard of Sharia involved the Taliban forcing women to wear burqas and beating them with a stick,” he said. The Taliban’s interpretation of what Sharia requires is extreme, he said.

Objecting to the words ‘Islamic Jihad’ and ‘Radicalized’

References to terrorist actions as Jihad might give the impression that the violence is perpetrated for religious rather than political reasons.

“I object to the term ‘radical Islamic Jihad.’ If the issue is purely ideological, then it can’t be solved,” Mitchell said. The alternative is to view the situation as a political dispute, he said. 

Abbady said that terrorism must be analyzed within a non-religious context. There are factors beyond religion that determine how people act. She said Muslims are most often the victims of terrorism because they’re not Muslim enough. 

Hanief asked what are (Muslim) immigrants running from? He said, “Other Muslims.”

The language used when reporting stories about Muslims can shape impressions by an emphasis on religion.

“Radicalized is a word that irks me. It’s used to define someone who’s Muslim who’s done something horrible,” Hanief said. He called for objectivity in talking about Muslims and suggested that Muslims be viewed first as human beings.

Focusing on the positive

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More than two dozen individuals attended Dunwoody location of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the panel discussion and question and answer session on Muslims and Islam. Photo by Pam Dorsett.

The depiction of Muslims might be limited in the media.

“Muslims are portrayed as victims of hate crimes or perpetrators of terrorist attacks and nothing else. This leaves out a wide swath of American Muslims who contribute positively to the country as neither criminal nor victim,” Mitchell said.

If the contributions of Muslims to the country are not the focus of media, and the Muslim community wants these stories told as well.

“Muslims have been screaming from the rooftops. Why just focus on the negatives?” Hanief said.

Atlanta Muslim website

Take another look at Muslims without using the lens of their religion. Hanief said that journalists need to talk to different people when doing stories about Muslims to capture diverse interpretations and to report on  the accomplishments of Muslims. 

There are positive stories on AtlantaMuslim.com.

And, said Riley, “There’s no issue in Atlanta that doesn’t affect everyone, including Muslims.”

The Atlanta Press Club also helped with promoting this event.

Pam Dorsett mug
Pamela Dorsett

Pamela Dorsett is a member of SPJ and SPJ Georgia and a freelance journalist. She is interested in covering medical and mental health news and general freelance assignments. Pamela has worked as licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 25 years. Her hobbies include hiking and renovating a mountain home.


Also read an article about this event on SPJGeorgia.com by linking HERE