Who Speaks For American Muslims?

American Muslims Are Under Scrutiny Since The 9/11 Attacks By Benjamin Duncan in Washington In a country of nearly 300 million people, injecting one’s voice into the public discourse is sometimes easier said than done. Despite the ubiquitous presence of cable television, satellite radio and the internet – all offering avenues for self-promotion – some US minority groups struggle to have their voices heard by the mainstream public. In particular, the American Muslim community, placed under intense scrutiny following the 11 September 2001 attacks, struggles to pursue a more expansive role in the news media, the entertainment industry and the political arena. Not having sufficient representation in these areas has contributed to a steady increase in anti-Muslim stereotypes and social bigotry, many Muslim activists say. Such problems were the central theme of Who Speaks for Muslims, a recent conference in Atlanta, Georgia, to examine ways to enhance the public voice of America’s five to seven million Muslims. Some Muslims Accuse The Media Of One-Dimensional Coverage The event brought together Muslim television and radio producers, print journalists, screenwriters and political figures to hold workshops and lectures on subjects ranging from film production to media influence. “Muslims speak for Muslims and it is our job to combat what we are seeing from the media,” said Qur’an Shakir, a spokeswoman for Taqwa Productions, a video production company that organised the conference. “We need to speak up instead of allowing the media to define us.” Mainstream Media Segments of the American Muslim community criticise the mainstream media for what they consider one-dimensional coverage that focuses on Muslim connections to terrorism and violence. “Muslims don’t want to be portrayed as terrorists or the feared one, because that’s not an accurate portrayal of who we are,” said Mahdi Bray, president of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, a civil rights organisation in Washington, DC. For those Muslim Americans who agree that the media inaccurately depict their religion, the key problem is the lack of Muslim commentators in television, radio and print journalism. “There is a drastic need for more intelligent Muslim voices on television” “There is a drastic need for more intelligent Muslim voices on television,” said Ahmed Younis, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based civil rights group. While representatives from major Muslim organisations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) appear frequently on cable news programmes, some argue that it pales in comparison to the media presence of anti-Muslim critics. “In comparison to the anti-Muslim and anti-Islam propaganda in the electronic and print media, Muslims are given very little time to explain their position,” said Abdus Sattar Ghazali, editor and publisher of the American Muslim Perspective, an online magazine based in Modesto, California. Dissenting View Not everyone agrees, however, that American Muslims are fighting a losing battle for media access. Far from being denied a place at the table, some Muslim activists say the community has made significant inroads into the world of newspaper and television coverage. “I think the Muslim voice in the media is perhaps better than in other areas because the media seeks out Muslim voices,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s communications director. Despite the perception by some American Muslims that the mainstream media ignore their community, Hooper questioned the idea that news organisations were to blame for the lack of Muslim speakers. “It’s because we’re not making ourselves available, not because we’re not being sought out,” he said. Handling Media Learning how to engage the media more effectively at the local level was a central topic covered at the Who Speaks for Muslims conference, Shakir said. Those who attended received instruction on how to write a news release and how to contact media outlets. Muslims Urge Their Community To Engage The Media Effectively “[Local Muslim groups] need to arrange some type of team to find out who the major media groups are and who is in charge of what and to let them know that you’re available,” she said. The Muslim American Society holds frequent youth camps during which young people are schooled in media training, the internet and other areas. “We need to develop and nurture that future generation that will be policy experts,” Bray said. Expanding media participation, however, is just one aspect of a bigger picture for any minority group seeking to educate the public. Many Americans form impressions from music channels rather than news channels. Entertainment Entertainment programming, be it television sitcoms, Hollywood films or music videos, has become increasingly influential in the lives of average Americans. What viewers see on late-night television is as likely to inform their thoughts on politics and social issues as what they read in newspapers, many experts say. Whereas the “theological and political voice” of the American Muslim community is often heard, it is necessary to “integrate the cultural voice” as well, Bray said. “There are really not a lot of [Muslim] voices there … but we’re beginning to have some improvement,” Hooper said. Shakir said she could not “off the top of my head” name a single mainstream American Muslim director or producer in film or television. While there have been a few recent documentaries and small films directed by American Muslims, none has been distributed to large audiences. Perhaps the most well-known television show this year involving Muslim characters was 24, a one-hour drama on Fox that focused on a plot by Muslim terrorists to detonate a nuclear device inside the United States. After CAIR and other groups complained that the storyline stereotyped the American Muslim community, Fox aired a public service announcement telling viewers that the vast majority of American Muslims are loyal citizens. Political Front Progress in Hollywood, however, will likely go hand in hand with progress on the political front, another area where American Muslims are looking for a greater voice, Bray said. “I don’t believe you will have success in entertainment if you don’t have success in the political process,” he said. “It’s an integrated process.” In terms of elected office, Muslim candidates have achieved victories in local polls, but not at the federal level. In fact, no Muslim American has ever been elected to Congress. “We do need to have more representation” “We do need to have more representation,” Shakir said. Others are focused on engaging the Muslim community at all levels of politics, something Hooper said was critically important. “I don’t think we’re so concerned about having a Muslim elected to Congress without a grassroots process of support,” he said. Extremist Viewpoint Ultimately, anyone asking who speaks for American Muslims must also take into account the diversity, political and cultural, of that community, several activists said. “I don’t think that anyone speaks for all Muslims in this country,” Hooper said. With such a wide cross-section of belief systems in the American Muslim community, some more conservative than others, Ghazali said it was important to acknowledge differences while not allowing extremist viewpoints to overshadow the mainstream. “Of course, there is always diversity of opinion which should be taken into account,” he said. “But there is an opinion of the majority and an opinion of the minority, or fringe groups. The problem arises when the opinion of a fringe group is promoted.”

Post-9/11 Workplace Discrimination Continues

By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY Nearly four years after the terrorist attacks, Muslim, South Asian and Arab-American employees continue to report discrimination on the job. Compared with the first two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of employees saying they’ve been discriminated against as a form of backlash because of the attacks has declined. But charges continue to come in, indicating that Arab-American and other workers still feel discriminated against. “People are being called ‘terrorist’ at work, things of that sort,” says Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director at Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “A lot of cases continue to go on. People have been called Osama bin Laden, told they are going to mosque to learn how to build a bomb.” Nearly 280 claims of discrimination in the workplace were received by CAIR in 2004, and the workplace was the second-most-common location for an alleged incident. The first was government agencies. At the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, about 980 charges alleging post-9/11 backlash discrimination have been filed through June 11 since the 2001 attacks. Most involved firing and alleged harassment; the EEOC specifically tracks “backlash” cases, where employees claim discrimination relating to 9/11. Likewise, religious bias charges are higher today than before 9/11. From Sept. 11, 2001, through June 11, the EEOC received 2,168 charges of discrimination based on an employee’s Muslim religion. That compares with 1,104 such charges in the same time span before the attacks. The agency has obtained more than $4.2 million on behalf of employees alleging post-9/11 backlash. The EEOC has filed lawsuits against employers such as MBNA America Bank, the Plaza hotel in New York, Alamo Rent A Car and construction giant Bechtel. Some Recent Eeoc Cases: – A lawsuit alleging the New York Plaza hotel and Fairmont Hotel Management discriminated against Muslim, Arab and South Asian employees was settled last month for $525,000. A 2001 lawsuit claimed that Plaza employees were called “terrorist,” “Taliban” and “dumb Muslim.” It also alleges that managers wrote “Osama” and “Taliban” instead of employees’ names on key holders. Fairmont Hotel Management managed the hotel, which has since been sold. “As a company, we are committed to providing a work environment free of discrimination or harassment,” says Carolyn Clark, senior vice president of human resources at Fairmont, in Toronto. – In March, upscale seafood restaurant Pesce agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging bias against the store’s general manager. According to the lawsuit, a former co-owner openly speculated that the manager’s Egyptian name and appearance were the reasons Pesce had seen earnings drop in the months after 9/11. The manager was fired. Pesce, which has since been sold to new owners, declined to comment. – The EEOC filed a lawsuit last year against an MBNA subsidiary in Philadelphia claiming in part that offensive comments were made to Indian and black employees after 9/11, including an Indian employee who was called “Osama bin Laden.” The case is pending. MBNA says there is no merit to the claim.

Newspaper Cleared Over ‘Kill Muslims’ Letter

PHOENIX: The Arizona state Supreme Court ruled on Friday a Tucson newspaper could not be held liable for publishing a letter that urged people to kill Muslims to retaliate for the death of American soldiers in Iraq. In a 5-0 ruling, Arizona’s highest court found unanimously the Tucson Citizen was protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and could not be sued for printing the letter in December 2003. The opinion reversed a lower court judge. The court stated the letter to the editor does not fall within one of the well-recognised exceptions to the general rule of First Amendment protection for political speech. It ordered the case be sent back to Pima County Superior Court and dismissed without the chance to be refiled. Michael Chihak, the Citizen’s editor and publisher, said the ruling vindicated the paper’s decision and could have broader ramifications for others. It is obviously a favourable ruling for us, and not just for us, but for the First Amendment, he said. If the ruling had been unfavourable, it may have led people to curb expressions of their thoughts, opinions and feelings rather than adding to the public dialogue. Herb Beigel, a lawyer for the two Tucson men who filed the lawsuit said he was disappointed by the ruling and had not yet decided whether to appeal the case to the US Supreme Court. Beigel condemned the decision as giving the press protection that is far broader than the US Supreme Court has ruled in the past, and said a deeper investigation into the facts of the case was needed before a decision was rendered. The lawsuit, filed by Aly W Elleithee and Wali Yudeen S Abdul Rahim, stemmed from a three-paragraph letter in the Citizen that called for quick retaliation for soldiers’ deaths. Whenever there is an assassination or another atrocity, we should proceed to the closest mosque and execute five of the first Muslims we encounter, the letter said. After all, this is a _Holy War and although such a procedure is not fair or just, it might end the horror.

American Muslims Gather In Dallas To Talk About Sharing Their Faith With Others

By Greg Flakus Dallas Hundreds of Muslims have gathered in Dallas, Texas for the Islamic Society of North America’s Third Annual South Central Regional Conference. The main goal of conference organizers is to build understanding with people of other faiths. Several hundred people came together in a hotel ballroom Friday to pray as the three-day conference got under way. Although men and women sat in separate sections of the hall, the Muslim cleric spoke to all believers, calling on them to be charitable toward their non-Muslim neighbors, not as a pretext for attracting them to Islam, but because that is what God calls on them to do. The message is similar to what might be heard in a Christian or Jewish service, because, as Muslim leaders are quick to point out, the three religions share common origins and beliefs. All three religions are based on belief in one God, yet many non-Muslims still regard Islam as an exotic religion. The theme of this conference is “Sharing Islam with our Neighbors,” and organizers note that this does not necessarily refer to proselytizing. The secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, says that the eight-to-ten million people of the Islamic faith who live in the United States today are in a unique position to help Americans understand this religion and its worldwide influence. “Muslims of America are an asset to America because they are bridge between America and the rest of the Muslim world and we take that role very seriously,” he said. Mr. Syeed says those Americans who embrace Islam also have a responsibility to bring about a better understanding of this country in the areas of the world where Islam is the dominant religion. “Muslims in the world have to understand that there is a Muslim population here who are practicing Islam in their day-to-day lives. Then, it is our duty to express, interpret and explain Islam to our fellow Americans, and it is our duty to explain America to our fellow Muslims,” he said. Muslims here feel a special bond with other Muslims in the Middle East and are concerned about the turmoil in that region. One of the main speakers at this conference is a State Department official who has come to explain U.S. policy in the Middle East. This conference also includes special sessions on the growth of Islam among American Latinos, including forums conducted in Spanish where people explain why they converted to Islam.