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.

8 Replies to “Islam: Questions and Answers”

  1. So now Farrakhan is a part of the Ummah?

    Ha!!! Man, you are really rich.

    That statement implies Manji‘s coments are valid.

    How so? What was wrote was, “We appreciate Manji’s comments”. I guess you’re not too in to the subtleties of speech, huh?

    Also why is this letter only now being sent when the programs aired several weeks ago.

    For two reasons:

    1. We were waiting on you to do something But in the light of that we,
    2. Chose to do something that would annoy you.

    What’s amazing here is that “our” action is too late yet you seem to always be miraculously on time to criticize. Perhaps you should write one of those self-help books on critiquing.

    I know I wont be signing this letter until those parts I highlighted are taken out.

    It’s ok. We were kinda assuming you wouldn’t be helping out too much. We know your schedule is very busy with all of your hip-hop cultural engagements, not to mention how busy your itinerary must be with keeping abreast of all that I write and all that you criticize of it. Not to worry, though. We’ll “press on” without your John Hancock.

  2. 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.

    So now Farrakhan is a part of the Ummah?

    While we appreciate the inclusion of one Muslim voice, Irshad Manji, she herself is not a scholar on Islam

    That statement implies Manji’s comments are valid. When any person with a speck knowledge knows Manji’s comments are invalid, ignorant and just plain wrong. Did you see her on the program where she states with a smirk on her face that the Qur’ans use of the word hur refers to raisins? It’s known that theory by formulated Christoph Luxenburg is refuted by all other orientalists.

    Also why is this letter only now being sent when the programs aired several weeks ago.

    I think the action is correct but the timing isn’t. A little too late for my opinion. I know I wont be signing this letter until those parts I highlighted are taken out.

  3. Salaam alaikum Hamza,
    I’ve been grouped in with the Nation of Islam just for the very fact of being Black, therefore I’m a Black Muslim. This association has occurred with non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Besides the media doesn’t distinguish between Nation of Islam, Ismailis, Ahmadiyyas, heck they barely recognize the difference between Sikh and Muslim, so we were making a point. The letter is by no means an endorsement of Farakhan or Manji, but they self identify as Muslim.

    You ask, why several weeks later. Well, I’ve been busy organizing and mobilizing 100 students and staff for Islam on Capitol Hill and fundraising. I also teach 50-something Muslim kids full time and volunteer my time in reforming our disciplinary system, organizing halaqas, and creating a rich curriculum for the high school English language program. But since we are several weeks too late, your suggestions won’t be included. Instead, we will take into account those who have constructive criticism and see the point to advising producers about FUTURE programming.

  4. @Zay,

    Wa ‘alaykum salaam. I see no reason to disclude Amina Wadud solely because of her actions of trying to lead prayer. I in no way condern her attempt to lead prayer and have publicly stated that I disagree with what she did – that I do not believe one can find a valid position in Middle of the Road Scholarship [a.k.a., the Sunnah/Qur’an] to justify it. That being said, I do not wish to cast her aside. I think the current political and social climate is simply to critical to squabble about leading prayer. I know that may upset some folks, and they may see it as not being stern enough, but when we have a more firm social condition, I’d be happy to debate those points. I won’t pray behind her or any other woman in the interim, but I’m also not willing to toss her/them away. I don’t feel it’s “that” far out.

  5. ” …Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud”

    Assalamu Alaikum Sidi Marc,

    I know I sound like an armchair critic but do you think its appropriate to recommend someone like Amina Wadud to represent the Muslim community? You must certainly be aware that she does not represent the mainstream of Ahl Sunnah Wa Jamah (or even the Ummah at large) at all.

  6. I think there should be a clear line drawn at least between Muslims and Ahmadis. If you don’t believe in Prophet (SAW) as the last prophet, you have no right to be called a Muslim. And as for Amina Wadud…in shadow of guns and in a church…rest seems too obvious. And you are right only the terrorists make it to the news. No moderate voices are heard.

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