Every time a Muslim fanatic or extremist group commits a horrific act of terror, Muslim leaders are asked to defend Islam in the media. I was called on by Fox News for this job in 2013. Whenever this happens, my colleagues ask me the same exact question: “Why are Muslims defending themselves when what happened has absolutely nothing to do with them? They don’t have to defend themselves against bigots!” Should Muslims reject the invitation to speak about their peaceful religion right after a Muslim commits a terrorist attack? Or should we engage with the media and make our voices heard?
After the attacks in Paris last week, Haris Tarin of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and Hussam Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) were both featured as guests on the O’Reilly Factor. During the show, Bill O’Reilly instigated a shout-fest with the guests when talking about the lack of Muslim-majority countries banding together to fight the “Muslim extremists” in the Middle East. I watched as Tarin struggled to decide whether to shout back or try to keep his cool.
On the same day, journalist Don Lemon of CNN asked guest Arsalan Iftikhar, a Muslim human rights attorney, “Do you support ISIS?” To which Iftikhar responded, “Wait, did you just ask me if I support ISIS?” The question was ridiculous on many levels, but Lemon should at least have known (or been told) that Iftikhar had just published an article entitled “Let’s Call ISIS the ‘Un-Islamic State.’”
The funniest moment of this kind I have witnessed firsthand happened when a journalist confronted Salam Al-Marayati, president of MPAC, at a press conference about the so-called “Islamic” State of Iraq and Syria. The journalist asked, “Have you ever condemned ISIS?” Al-Marayati responded, “Yes, we have sent out multiple statements condemning the extremist group.” The journalist’s follow-up question was, “Can you please tell us right now that you condemn ISIS?”
The problem is not that Muslims do not condemn violent extremism. The problem is that bigots are constantly confronting them with such ignorant and ridiculous questions. Instead of wondering whether Muslims condemn violent extremism, American ought to be asking why closed-minded and bigoted journalists are so prominent in our media — and why the public tunes into these biased news shows in such large numbers.
Are Muslims really getting the opportunity to present ourselves as activists who work in the name of peace and justice? Is it worth our efforts to appear on these bigoted shows? Many Muslims across the nation shy away from any sort of involvement with the media and the government, believing that these entities are corrupt and that any sort of affiliation with them will corrupt us. But if we keep rejecting these parts of society that shape public opinion of Muslims and establish our policies, there is little hope that they will ever change or become more tolerant.
In spite of the bias we face in the American media, I believe it remains absolutely crucial for Muslims to speak up against these horrific attacks against innocent people around the world. Right now, the voices of violent extremists are louder than ours, and this must change. Without the efforts of more of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, the image of Islam will continue to be one of violence and hate.
The late Dr. Maher Hathout, who recently lost his battle to liver cancer, was a perfect example of how Muslims can greatly impact the greater American society. As Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council put it, “[H]e appeared on major media outlets as a guest addressing current issues related to Islam, on CNN, the BBC, Al-Jazeera, ABC, and Fox News. His op-eds have appeared in major newspapers worldwide. Each time, he delivered his message with his signature mixture of wit and wisdom that connected with audiences nationwide.”
Hathout is a prime example of what it means to rise up against the ignorant media with which so many Muslim leaders in America contend. Hathout’s television interviews were phenomenal because of his courage to tell the truth and be honest, no matter how controversial. As Lekovic notes, “When author Salman Rushdie was threatened with death in a fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini for what he saw as defamation of the Prophet, Dr. Hathout came out publicly against the fatwa and faced immense backlash from within the Muslim community.” Dr. Hathout believed that every single person had a right to freedom of speech and expression. “He argued that Rushdie’s writing was crude and insulting but should neither be banned nor condemned.”
This is the type of bravery and perspective needed in order to create change.
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