Daniel Tutt –
In today’s globalized world, it is fair to say that “Islam doesn’t speak, Muslims do.” Muslims define Islam. Islam is not only defined in a transcendent way by the text of the Qur’an or the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, but more realistically, Islam is defined by the ways that Muslims (and non-Muslims) represent and talk about Islam in public. The consequence of this reality is that the public image of Islam remains up for grabs, and those Muslims that have the loudest microphone – or who are given the loudest microphone – are the ones who end up defining the image of Islam.
Who is capturing the media conversation on Islam today? According to Media Tenor, a global media tracking agency, over the last year, ISIS has captured seven times the volume of news and media coverage than all other stories having to do with mainstream Islam and Muslims. Many terrorism analysts, including the U.S. State Department, have recently announced that ISIS is winning the media and social media war globally and that more work needs to be done to combat their tactics. Indeed, the ISIS media strategy is winning. If we measure the success of ISIS by the way in which they have shaped non-Muslims into thinking that their actions represent true Islam, they are steadily gaining ground. Over a quarter of Americans think ISIS does indeed represent a true picture of Islam according to USA Today.
With this in mind, it bears repeating: Islam is what the community of Muslims or the ummah understands it to be at any one time and nothing more. Therefore, in many ways, the onus for defining Islam is placed squarely on Muslims.
I’d like to argue that American Muslims have a unique role to play in the effort of re-defining Islam. For American Muslims have a story to tell that is compelling. If American Muslims are able to garner greater media attention, their story could itself present a foil to the ISIS media strategy. Why?
Recent polls on American Muslims paint the picture of a community that is the most diverse racial and ethnic religious community in the country. According to a 2012 Pew Forum poll, 57% of American Muslims said that there is more than one way to interpret the teachings of Islam, a finding that reveals a good deal of interpretive diversity over how Islam is defined. In the same study, American Muslims say that religions outside their own can lead to eternal life at a higher percentage than does the Christian majority. This poll also shows that Muslims who attend mosque on a regular basis hold a greater level of religious pluralism than Muslims that do not attend religious services regularly.
According to USA Today, well over half of Americans – 65% – report that they do not know a Muslim personally. A majority of Americans say they get their information about Islam and Muslims from the media. And we know what the existing media narrative on Islam is about.
What can be done to wrest this toxic image of Islam from the extremists? For starters, it is important to recognize what assets we already have in the American Muslim community. American Muslims are already in powerful positions in society. There are two America Muslim congressmen, a number of noted Muslim standup comedians, hip-hop stars, novelists. There are also more than 20,000 Muslim physicians nationwide.
The stories of Muslims in America need to be amplified and disseminated widely, not just for Muslims alone. Traditional and social media must amplify the narratives of American Muslims. For Islam has always been defined as the Middle Path, between two extremes. Between the barbarity of ISIS and the textual rigidity of defining Islam as transcendent set of teachings lies a much more dynamic form of Islam, embodied in the lived experience of American Muslims every day. Their story demands the attention of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Daniel Tutt, Ph.D., is the Director of Programs at Unity Productions Foundation, a media and educational organization that has produced more than 12 award-winning PBS documentary films on Muslims such as “Allah Made Me Funny,” “Prince Among Slaves” and “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.”