A Muslim advocacy group is taking steps to curtail stereotypes about the faith among St. Louis area media.
But the group also urged media to do their part and research Islam well before running up against a news deadline.
Faizan Syed discuses Muslim stereotypes in media Wednesday in St. Louis.
The St. Louis-based Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced it soon will release a media guide containing contact information for Muslims with knowledge of the issues and cultures around St. Louis and who have experience or training to deal with the media.
CAIR-St. Louis’s outreach began in earnest Wednesday during a special breakfast with invited media at Grbic Restaurant and Banquet Center in south St. Louis. CAIR also promises more media meetings like this one.
“The only time the media really try to cover the Muslim community … is when there’s an incident,” then the media leap to conclusions, explained Faizan Syed, the CAIR chapter’s executive director and leader of the breakfast discussion.
“Something happens like the protests in Egypt, then they want to contact the Egyptian Muslim community because (they think) they obviously they have connections with what’s going on in Egypt,” he said. “Or, if something happens in Pakistan, they want to cover the Pakistani community because obviously all of us have a say in how the Pakistani government works. But that’s not the case, and we want to make the experience better.”
Another problem lies in the broad belief that each Muslim can speak for every other Muslim. Syed said the city has large Albanian, Bosnian, Somali and Turkish populations that hew closely to their own cultures, while there are also large Arab, Bangladeshi, Nigerian and Pakistani populations stretching into the suburbs.
Adil Imdad, a Muslim chaplain and funeral director, underscored the importance in understanding these cultures as well as the faith.
“Because the culture of a Pakistani is very different from the culture of a Bosnian versus the culture of an African,” he said. “These are very different people joined by a single faith.”
Syed said estimates of the number of Muslims living around St. Louis range from 80,000 to 100,000, though the precise number is not known. CAIR wants to raise money for a census to answer that question.
Syed said he recalled a news conference where he asked who among the journalists knew the tenets of Islam and was answered with silence.
“This is the fundamental problem, is that you’re covering a religious community without really knowing what the religion stands for,” he said.
Indeed, the Muslim community can do more itself to meet the media’s needs, said Dr. Noor Ahmed, who’s affiliated with the St. Louis chapter of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America.
“I think it’s up to us Muslims to reach out to these people and help them understand us,” he said. “We have failed in that objective.”
But it helps for media to take initiative and recognize stereotypes before advancing them, especially regarding terrorist or extremist acts by Muslims.
Dr. Anjum Hassan, a professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University, explained that “people practice their faith different. People have different understandings of their faith. And that’s why people’s actions are different. … People should judge the action by the action itself and not in the context of Islam.”
Syed underscored this with the media’s persistent use of the word “Islamist” as a blanket descriptor for all Muslims no matter their behavior. He said that using the term without nuance attaches suspicion to people who are not deserving of it.
“Our first recommendation is to get rid of this word altogether,” Syed said. “Rather, if you are covering a story of terrorism or a story of extremism, you should refer to that specific person or group responsible, like ‘al-Qaeda ideology,’ or whatever the group, instead of saying ‘Islamist.’”
Doing this goes a long way toward putting a crisis in context, he continued.
“What happens after an incident is that there is no discussion among the media about what is the political reasoning or underlying factors creating these terrorists and extremists,” Syed said. “If you don’t mention the political reason, the logical assumption Americans make is that it’s the religion” that’s responsible.