Islam: Questions and Answers

I am re-posting this from a letter my wife wrote about the 20/20 incident.

After lengthy discussion about ABC’s recent 20/20 program on an email listserv for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Maytha Alhassan invited members to compose a letter to the producers. We have workshopped the letter with someone in the media and incorporated suggestions from readers. If you are interested in signing, please send your name, title, and affiliation.

ABC’s 20/20

Islam: Questions and Answers

We applaud ABC’s 20/20 for producing the show “Islam: Questions and Answers” program, which attempted to address the American public’s curiosity about Islam and show the true face of Islam in America. However, as scholars, activists, educators, and community leaders, we are concerned about the ways in which this program misrepresented Muslim Americans.  We would like to address three major areas where your program inaccurately depicted Islam in America: first, by continually asserting that moderate Muslims do not speak up; second, by overlooking the contributions of African American Muslims;  and finally, allowing women who have complete antipathy towards Islam (Pamela Gellar and Ayaan Hirsi) to speak for Muslim women. The producers and researchers may have been well meaning, however the program’s insensitivity and lack of nuance  alienated many American Muslims and perpetuated many misconceptions about American Muslims. Our aim is to address these three areas and provide some recommendations for more accurate coverage of American Muslims in the future.

  1. First, the show continually asked, “Why don’t we hear or see more mainstream, peaceful Muslims speaking up?” or “Where are the moderate voices?”
    • It is problematic to divide Muslims into binary categories of “moderate” and “radical.” Would the same categorical statement be made about the socio-political orientation of followers of different religious faiths and other ethnic groups? How would the mainstream reaction to your program be had you produced a segment titled “Where are all the moderate Christians?,” “Where are all the moderate Latino Americans?” The framing of these questions and methodology of answering these questions highlights an acceptability of a bigoted stance on Muslims that is rarely acknowledged.
    • Muslim Americans are constantly blamed for not speaking up, however the media bears some responsibility. Moderate Muslims continually speak out and do positive things for American society, but this does not make it in the news. And there American Muslim scholars and leaders who hold conferences, talks, lectures devoted to the topic of “Forging an American Muslim identity.” Zaytuna Institute scholars Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, Islamic Center of New York University Imam Khalid Latif and professor Dr. Sherman Jackson are but a few of the many American born intellectuals and community leaders who do speak out.
    • Where is the media when peaceful Muslims gather, participate in the American political process, protest terrorism, violence, and hatred?
    • At one point, an expert posits a recommendation “They need to have a million man march on Washington,” while conveniently ignoring that the Million Man March was actually led by a Muslim man, Louis Farakhan.
    • On September 25, 2009, Islam on Capitol Hill gathered an estimated 8,000 to prayer Friday prayers. And on October 15, 2010 thousands of Muslims once again convened on Capitol Hill to demonstrate their belief in American democracy and promote religious freedom, however, there were few media outlets at the DC event.
    • Muslim Congressmen Keith Ellison wrote an Op-ed “Should We Fear Islam?” in the Washington Post speaking to the first point made in this section. Ellison and Muslim Congressman Andre Carson were also completely absent from the program, which brings us to an important issue of accurate portrayal of American Muslims.
  2. The program reinscribes Islam as a foreign religion by focusing on Arab and South Asian immigrant communities in the US, at the expense of African American Muslim communities.
    • Your program excluded African American Muslims in the narrative of Islam in America and conflated of Arab with Muslim. African Americans make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America, and yet your program visited Dearborn, Patterson, NJ, and even Egypt to speak with Arabs who compose the third largest group of Muslims in the US.
    • The Nation’s first capitol, Philadelphia, has a rich and long history of Muslims. There was a community of orthodox Black American and Caribbean American Muslims from the 1920s. It has high concentration of Muslims, a Muslim chief of police, Muslims who work in city government, etc.
    • With the over-exposure of Arab Muslims, your program even failed to mention that Arab American Muslims are in the minority in Arab American communities. Most Arab Americans are Christian.
    • The program did a poor job discussing, engaging with and highlighting the diverse community of Muslims.
    • Low figure for Muslims (2-3 million?), and no breakdown of the demographics.
    • No discussion of converts.
    • The program even failed to show celebrated athletes (NFL, NBA, boxing, Soccer players), politicians and historical figures who are Muslim and African American.
  3. Finally, the segment, “Does Islam oppress women?” did a great disservice to Muslim women.
    • While we appreciate the inclusion of one Muslim voice, Irshad Manji, she herself is not a scholar on Islam.
    • Instead two polemics who are vehement in their anti-Islam stance, Ayaan Hirsi and Pamela Gellar received undo attention.
    • Your program failed to include any Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson (a Canadian scholar who recently ended her term as ISNA president), or Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud to speak in this segment? Their and other scholars’ absence is an indication of an asymmetric representation of opposition views.
    • Perhaps these scholars would have shed light on Muslim women’s contributions through history such as Islam’s first convert, Khadija al-Kubra, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, who was also his employer before marrying. One of the first Sufi saints was a woman, Rabia al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Rabia al-Basri) or Nana Asma’u, a West African educator and reformer.

In order to explore our rich diversity, we have provided some recommendations to improve your coverage of American Muslims below:

  1. Explore the long history of Muslims in the US, a history of residency and settlement that predates the formation of America as a country. American born Nawawi scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has written extensively on this subject.
  2. Include broader segments of the American Muslim community to ensure that each major ethnic group, South Asian American, African American, and Arab American, is represented in your programs.
  3. Attend Muslim American events, banquets and conferences like the prayer on Capitol Hill, MPAC, CAIR’s functions, etc. Do not just focus on sensationalism, but cover American Muslims during Ramadan or Eid al-Adha (the end of Hajj).
  4. We ask your researchers and staff to be more careful in their selection of “experts.” Make distinctions between socio-politics and Islamic scholarship. None of the women you interviewed in the question on the oppression of women in Islam had training in Islamic scholarship on covering or the hijab. We can help provide a list of scholars and experts who would be happy to lend their expertise.
  5. Consider diversifying your staff, researchers and interns with knowledge, expertise, and experience in various communities may yield better results.

In summation, your program provided a rare opportunity to provide accurate coverage of Muslims and clear up misconceptions. As acknowledged at the onset of your program, the controversy surrounding the Park 51 community center elicited a renewed curiosity in Islam. We were pleased with the inclusion of Edina Lekovic’s (MPAC) comments, Reza Aslan’s explanation of the definition of “fatwa,” and Faiza Ali’s (CAIR-NY) elucidation of the hijab’s complex historical place in cultural and religious practice, “coerced headcoverings are tribal.” However we note that while your program was a step in the right direction, it still ended up being misleading. By taking into consideration the recommendations we have made, your producers can create more accurate programing on Muslim Americans thereby showing the real face of Islam in America.