Since last week’s terror attacks in Paris, Haris Tarin has been on the phone or on the air for at least 30 media interviews, condemning the killings committed by men with ties to Islamic extremism and anti-Semitism.
“When asked how it feels to be Muslim right now -- it’s exhausting,” Tarin, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told International Business Times. “One, we’re being attacked by the terrorists and two, we’re asked to answer for those attacks.”
Indeed, a common thread seen in media reports is the linking of Islam and violence, an argument that is typically seen after Islamic extremist attacks like the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram in May, the journalist beheadings at the hands of the Islamic State in August and the fatal shooting of a Canadian soldier on Ottawa's Parliament Hill in October.
“There’s a lot of focus saying if only moderate Muslims would speak out this wouldn’t happen as much. There’s a fallacy to that,” Tarin said. “Moderate Muslims are speaking out loudly and doing it constantly.”
At least 45 major Muslim organizations and thought leaders like Tarin, Reza Aslan and Arsalan Iftikhar have been in front of cameras and written editorials, blog posts and tweets condemning the attacks, but making a point to separate themselves from the attackers. These statements are included in news articles but are rarely the main focus.
Daniel Haqiqatjou, a contributor to the news site Muslim Matters, made light of this trend in a post where he described a fictitious app he created called iCondemn.
“I just don't feel like Muslims have done enough to denounce all the bad stuff we're loosely, indirectly responsible for, probably,” he wrote. “With the iCondemn®, Muslims can say ‘not in my name’ at the speed of life!™ And non-Muslims no longer need to wonder whether 1.6 billion Muslims around the world feel the guilt and sincerely apologize for that latest reprehensible crime some idiot carried out while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ ”
Tarin said the media’s coverage gap lies in what is considered newsworthy.
“It’s not sexy to cover condemnation,” Tarin said. He points to Anjem Choudary’s editorial in USA Today published the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Rather than choosing a more moderate voice, the publication went with a radical Muslim cleric and lecturer in Sharia law from London. Entitled “Why did France allow the tabloid to provoke Muslims?” Choudary’s editorial made headlines with statements like, “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression.”
“Sensationalism wins over real-life stories,” Tarin said, referring to the editorial.
Apparent Media Bias
Fox News, a network widely criticized for its conservative bias, was criticized Monday after a commentator described as a terrorism expert, Steven Emerson, called Birmingham, England, “totally Muslim.” His comments sparked outrage among Muslims, non-Muslims and politicians alike, forcing him to apologize. The hashtag #FoxNewsFacts began trending on Twitter mocking the news outlet.
CNN also was accused of bias in its coverage of the attacks in France, particularly a Jan. 7 interview with lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar. “Right off the bat, I stated categorically that I was ‘shocked and horrified’ at the [Charlie Hebdo] attack and that it was ‘against any normative teaching of Islam,' ” Iftikhar said in a blog post about his interview with the network's Don Lemon. Then Lemon asked, “Do you support ISIS?” To which Iftikhar responded, “Wait, did you just ask me if I support ISIS?”
In his blog post after the segment went viral, Iftikhar explained, “Now to be completely honest with you, I totally thought that I had misheard him because surely there was no respectable journalist in the world who would ask a Muslim human rights lawyer whether he supports an organization which violates human rights each and every day.”
A Double Standard
American Muslim advocates see a double standard in the media where the acts committed by Muslims receive more national attention than similar acts committed by any other ethnic or religious group.
According to Tarin, this is partly due to an informational vacuum that existed after 9/11 where individuals framed as experts on Islam created misconceptions about the faith and its followers. National security laws such as the Patriot Act, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, FBI wire-tapping and a growing no-fly list further alienated Muslim Americans.
According to a 2011 report conducted by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, “An efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression – perhaps unintentionally – that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.”
A separate study published in the Journal of Communication in December, came to a similar conclusion. The findings used media coverage on racial groups between 2008 and 2012. It found that Muslim perpetrators were 81 percent more likely to be portrayed as terrorists by the media than to be actual terrorists in U.S. society.
“News programmers constantly pursue higher ratings to increase their profits. Therefore, accurate representations of the real world are not the first goals of many news decision-makers,” the authors of the study wrote.
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, describes this apparent bias as a mental list media outlets refer to the next time a violent act is committed by someone related to radical Islam.
“Every time a Muslim does something wrong it gets added to the list and it gets referenced next time another Muslim does something wrong,” Hooper said. This does not happen among other violent extremist groups like white supremacists, he said. Their acts are considered “individual anomalies” rather than evidence of a trend.
Take Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein. The 15-year-old was killed in a hit-and-run outside his Kansas City mosque in December. The man responsible, who is Christian, reportedly had anti-Muslim graffiti on his car when he deliberately struck the boy.
“Why is his death less significant?” Hooper said. “If the victim had not been Muslim it would have been regarded as terrorism.”
On an international scale, disparity was seen in coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Boko Haram siege that took place on the same day in the Nigerian town of Baga. The Baga attack, which killed upwards of 2,000 people, was called the militant group’s “deadliest massacre” by Amnesty International. On Saturday, a Senegalese girl, apparently at the direction of Boko Haram, detonated a suicide bomb hidden under her veil. It killed about 20 people. Both stories made the New York Times, but not the front page. Days later, news coverage surrounding both incidents are focused on how mainstream media “ignored” the Boko Haram attacks.
“I don’t think someone sat down and said I’ll downplay this story,” Hooper said, regarding the disparity. “It’s a reflection of priorities and cultural norms of what is considered newsworthy.”