How the US Media Fuels Mistrust of Muslims

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Amani Alkhat looks at the imbalance in American news coverage and its tendency to pin blame directly on Islam rather than examining other factors.

A photograph of suspect Dzhkokhar Tsarnaev is shown on CNN in a shopping centre near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 23, 2013. Mario Tama / Getty Images / AFP
A photograph of suspect Dzhkokhar Tsarnaev is shown on CNN in a shopping centre near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 23, 2013. Mario Tama / Getty Images / AFP

I hesitated to go on my usual New York commute last week because I was afraid of being attacked for wearing a headscarf.

This is a normal fear for me. In fact, I developed a mild phobia of taking the subway after a woman shoved a Hindu man onto the tracks of an oncoming train because she thought he was a Muslim. It would seem that she hates all Muslims, because apparently in her mind all Muslims are responsible for 9/11.

However, my fear was heightened in the midst of the media frenzy that followed the recent revelation of the Boston bombings suspects’ Chechen ethnicity and their ties with Islam. Now, some Americans who hadn’t even heard of Chechnya feel fully educated on the idea that ‘ties between Islamic extremism and Chechnya are well-documented.’

Even before we knew the suspects were Chechen, the media rushed to assume they were Muslims. A mob of marathon attendees tackled a Saudi man because, well, he looked Arab. A plane departing Boston returned to its gate because two passengers – who weren’t even sitting next to each other – were heard speaking Arabic (clearly the language of terrorism, according to whatever hit TV show you find yourself mindlessly watching in the middle of the night.) News outlets released pictures of brown individuals as ‘suspects’ because they satisfied the image, formed from a decade of mainstream media coverage, of what a terrorist looks like. In the process they destroyed the lives of innocent individuals – and the lives of people who looked like them.

And then a Boston woman who wore a headscarf was attacked a few days after the bombing because – shocking! – she was a Muslim.

When I first started working at my job as the only scarf-wearing Muslim woman in the office, I thought that I’d finally made some type of breakthrough into media that would help me change the way Islam was perceived and represented. It’s why this morning I forced myself to fight through my fear of violent American racism and commute to the office anyway – subways, heavy NYPD presence and all. And then I sat down at my desk, and, as soon as I started catching up on the Islamophobic coverage of the Boston bombings I’d missed on my way there, was elbowed for an inquiry.

‘Hey, could you take a look at these Qur’an verses for me and let me know if they reveal anything about why the Boston bombers did what they did?’

Sure, but I might not need the Qur’an verses. If you want to know why the Boston bombers did it, then I, a practising Muslim woman, will finally let you in on the troubling and well-kept secret of ‘why’.

It’s because they were freaking crazy.

If you are freaking crazy then you will find something in anything to reason out your actions. You might be convinced that you’re fighting some twisted and nonexistent ‘jihad’ against the West. Or that you’re protecting American democracy by killing civilians in other countries.

A key difference between terrorism and insanity is the type of media attention it gets.

Of course, when the perpetrator of a high-profile killing spree is white and presumably Christian, the media immediately starts to investigate the perp’s background, his upbringing, his personality, his mental state and any traumatising life events that might have impacted his psyche. Coverage frequently leads to the eventual conclusion that he was ‘mentally unstable’.

But God forbid the perpetrator is a Muslim. Then, all too often, it’s because of Islam. In fact, a perpetrator’s religion seems to become relevant only if he’s Muslim. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when a Muslim commits a crime, no matter the degree, his religion is much more likely than others to be invoked and blamed for his actions. But the more reasonable explanation would be that he’s just a crazy person who happens to be Muslim.

If crimes are only called terrorism when they’re perpetrated by Muslims, and we only hear about the religion of perpetrators when they turn out to be Muslim, then clearly we’re going to think all terrorists are Muslim and, worse yet, that all Muslims are terrorists.

We begin to lack the understanding of how vast terrorism really is, and how often it’s being committed worldwide. Hint: it’s more often than you think.

Receiving considerably less press coverage two days after the Boston attacks was news of an American drone strike in Pakistan that killed five people. Or that at least 11 children were killed by an American drone strike in Afghanistan just last month. Or that our drone strike programme is being considered for deployment in Syria. Our media is doing such a good job of dehumanising Arabs and Muslims – and deciding what ‘terrorism’ looks like – that much of the public doesn’t seem to care.

For American Muslims – or anyone who an ignorant fool might mistake for one, like our Sikh or Hindu brothers – societal drones have been falling on American streets since 9/11, and they’re targeted at Muslims. Whether we’re singled out for our attire, attacked verbally or physically, or straight-up killed, the media coverage, fear mongering and racism is picking us off one by one.

All I want is to be able to get to work in one piece.

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