Canada’s Nearly 400,000 Muslims Concerned about Media Stereotypes
By Faisal Kutty – Media interest in Islam and Muslims has proliferated since the growth of Islamic revivalist movements, the Gulf war and, more recently, in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing. Members of the 400,000-strong Canadian Muslim community, most of whom live in the larger metropolitan areas such as Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary, contend that rather than educating the public positively, the reporting has tarnished their religion and its adherents.
Sensationalist coverage has cultivated fear of Muslims, Islam and Arabs, says Ausma Khan, a third-year law student at the University of Ottawa, and one of the estimated 150,000 Canadian Muslims with roots in the Indian subcontinent.
Canadian Muslims who take pride in transcending ethnic, linguistic and social differences in organizing their community in the new world claim that the media focuses on peripheral matters when it comes to describing their communities. “As soon as an Islamic movement takes root in a particular country, the media starts beaming pictures of adulterers being punished, or women in veils,” says Iqbal Rahman, a student at York University. “It is as if this is all there is to Islam.”
Many feel that the alleged actions of a few individuals, such as those charged with the World Trade Center bombing and those more recently charged with conspiracy to blow up tunnels linking New York and New Jersey, are used to discredit the vast majority of Muslims who are law-abiding contributors to society.
Rashad Liao, one of a growing number of Canadians embracing Islam, says: “Islam teaches that we are not allowed to harm women, children, the aged, or those involved in worship, and that we must not destroy places of worship, or cut down trees, even in warfare.”
Liao, a Scarborough student, sums up the feelings of most Muslims when he points out that with such stringent conditions imposed during warfare, Islam certainly cannot be used to justify killing and maiming the innocent in times of peace. These feelings are shared by most Muslims and by Christian Arabs living in Canada.
Muslims feel that the inaccurate reporting about them derives from misinformation and stereotypes. If a Muslim, or an Arab, be he Christian or Muslim, does anything negative, then the fact that he is a Muslim or an Arab is highlighted, says Maher Abdullah, a Christian and a member of the 300,000-strong Arab-Canadian community. “This kind of wholesale indictment of a people or a religious group is not tolerated if they are other than Arab or Muslim,” he adds.
Muslims also share a belief that the Western media is preoccupied less with Islam than with its own false stereotypes. Sheikh Ahmed Kutty, imam of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, the largest Muslim center in Canada, says, “They only seek evidence that confirms their preconceived notions of Islam and Muslims.”
Sheikh Kutty, hailing from India and a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, also blames Muslims who use un-Islamic means to advance their goals, providing the media with ammunition. To halt this spiral, he says the West must stop meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim-majority states, and stop applying double standards with respect to Israel Serbia, etc., which fuel much of the Muslim anger against the West.
Negative media coverage is attracting growing concern by the community. The March edition of The Message, a monthly magazine with great influence among Canadian Muslims, was almost completely devoted to addressing “How Media Eyes the Muslims” and what should be done to change the present predicament.
The two largest Muslim organizations in North America, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) make a point of including sessions on media-related matters in their annual conventions and gatherings. The 19th annual ISNA Canada conference this summer at the University of Toronto, attended by a cross-section of Muslims, included two sessions on the topic: “Overcoming Negative Media in Television and Newsprint” and “Islam and Media/Responsibility and Accountability.” The latter was presented by a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
A specialized workshop in Toronto this summer on how to write letters to the editor attracted over 50 participants who listened attentively and took notes.
Prior to Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha—the two most important celebrations in the Muslim year—the Islamic Foundation, one of more than 15 mosques serving the 150,000 Muslims in the metropolitan Toronto area, sent out press releases and invited the media to attend observances.
Half a dozen newspapers and stations covered the events, each attended by well over 12,000 worshippers. The Toronto Star, the leading Canadian daily, even reprinted a large segment of the Eid al Fitr khutba (sermon), during which Sheikh Kutty said much about the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media and the responsibility of the media and community in this regard. The organizers hope to continue such successes in reaching out to the greater Canadian society.
Muslim individuals also are becoming more active. Iqbal Rahman wrote a story for the York University campus newspaper titled “Media Intolerant Toward Muslims.”
The 23-year-old Pickering resident, who had never even penned a letter to the editor prior to writing his article, was inspired to write it by a spiteful cartoon in the Canadian daily Globe and Mail. It depicted a Muslim sitting on his prayer mat reading books on how to kill, maim and make explosives. In the background was a poster calling for the death of British author Salman Rushdie.
The mathematics student, who is one of 15,000 Canadian Muslims of Caribbean descent, was surprised by the response of the student population to his article. Most felt that his accusation was inaccurate. He feels, however, that Canadians apply a double standard to caricatures or negative coverage of Jews or other minorities.
In fact, many Muslims protested the Feb. 24 cartoon in the conservative Globe and Mail. There was an organized phone-in, a letter-writing campaign and a letter of complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, according to businessman Jamal Hassan, a central figure in the campaign.
This is the second showdown between the paper and Canadian Muslims in less than a year. In the first incident, the paper carried a series of disparaging articles about Islam. Many complained and a group met with editors of the publication.
Some Canadian Muslims feel that even such proactive measures will not suffice. They maintain that hatred of Islam is deep-rooted and the result of factors other than misinformation and stereotypes.
“Nothing we do is going to ensure complete impartial coverage, not when Israel goes around paying off the media and gets away with it,” says Mohammed Faisel one of the 80,000 Muslims in Montreal. He was referring to media payoffs emanating from the Israeli embassy in Washington uncovered a few years ago by The New York Times.
Unlike Faisel, a member of the fast-growing Somali-Canadian Muslim community presently estimated at around 65,000, most Canadian Muslims are optimistic. They feel that the community can improve matters by monitoring and meeting with the media, and providing incentives to Muslim youth to pursue media careers. They also believe, however, that the media has to do its share by reaching out to the community and educating itself to ensure objectivity and accuracy. Canadian Muslims, like their U.S. counterparts south of the 49th parallel, believe that the latter two pillars of responsible journalism are increasingly being disregarded in the pursuit of sensationalism.
Faisal Kutty is a free-lance writer presently living in Ottawa.
Note: First Published: September/October 1993, Page 54
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