Magazine article Nieman Reports

Reporting on Islam: With Islam Threaded through Beats from Foreign Affairs to Crime to Education, Journalists Are Stepping Up Efforts to Provide Nuanced Coverage of Muslims and Their Religion

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Reporting on Islam: With Islam Threaded through Beats from Foreign Affairs to Crime to Education, Journalists Are Stepping Up Efforts to Provide Nuanced Coverage of Muslims and Their Religion

Article excerpt

THE CONCEPT WAS SIMPLE: SEVEN CALIFORNIAN Muslims, each photographed against a gray background, talking about the phrase "Allahu Akbar," usually translated as "God is great." No voiceovers. No cutaways. Just seven Californians, talking about two words.

If there's one phrase non-Muslims associate with acts of terror, it's "Allahu Akbar." Witnesses to the July 1 attacks on the cafe in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, in which 28 people were killed, reported hearing the assailants yell the phrase. The Paris murderers shouted it as they killed 130 people in November 2015, as did the Pakistani Taliban who massacred 21 university students and staff a month later in Peshawar. The U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan yelled it before opening fire at Fort Hood in 2009, killing 13 people.

Knowing that most Americans have only heard the phrase in Hollywood thrillers or terror-related news--and given that, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, only 38 percent of Americans personally know someone who is Muslim--the Los Angeles Times set out in 2015 to make a video exploring its place in the lives of ordinary Muslims. "The idea was, How can we unpack this very charged word?" explains videographer Lisa Biagiotti, who made the piece with LA Times photographer Irfan Khan. "How do we get at some bit of the spirit of Islam in this word? How do we make it both intimate and relevant?" Their piece, "The Use and Misuse of Allahu Akbar," succeeds in making it both.

Mindful of the fact that Arabs comprise only 20 percent of the world's Muslims, Khan and Biagiotti chose a rich ethnic mix of interviewees, including Americans from Thai, Indian, African-American, Indonesian as well as Arab backgrounds, showing that the Muslim umma, or global community, is, much like the United States itself, an ethnic mosaic.

In the video, a motherly Indonesian-American notes that many Muslims say "Allahu Akbar" 85 times a day, as part of their daily prayers; she herself uses it when she sees a beautiful sunset. An Indian-American describes how he says "Allahu Akbar" on seeing people help after natural disasters, "like in Haiti or Katrina." An African-American in a suit and tie remarks that since the words appear in a prayer Muslims use before travel, he frets that "everyone's going to freak out" if fellow passengers hear him whisper "Allahu Akbar" before takeoff.

"Allahu Akbar" is the first phrase many Muslims whisper in the ears of their newborns. It frequently greets the joyous news of a wedding or to express awe. In 2013, after the disastrous collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka, there were cries of "Allahu Akbar" from the crowd after a woman was pulled alive from the rubble, 17 days after the building crumbled.

Though commonly translated as "God is great," scholars tend to render "Allahu Akbar" as "God is greater," stressing its affirmation that the power and possibilities of God exceed everything else. For most Muslims, it is not a battle cry, but an acknowledgement of humankind's surrender to an omnipotent deity.

Misunderstandings around the meaning of "Allahu Akbar" show that, even as Islam surfaces in stories from presidential campaigns to city zoning debates, most media coverage of Muslims remains narrow, bound up with terrorism and violence. Muslims rarely appear in mainstream media as anything other than extremists or terrorists. Yet Islam is threaded through beats from foreign affairs to crime to education. How do reporters cover a faith that's shaping global geopolitical debate and whose 1.6 billion adherents range from Pathan tribesmen to Argentinian mystics to Kansan heart surgeons?

With both jihadis and Islamophobes eager to equate terrorism with Islam, chipping away at stereotypes is necessary but may not be sufficient for balanced coverage. For that, boosting coverage of Muslims outside the news cycle--and indeed, in the context of something other than their faith--would help. …

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