By Tazim R. Kassam
“The Media and 9/11: Then and Now” is the seventh and final article in the series, Ten Years After 9/11, which is also the theme of Political Theology 12.5. The article was originally delivered as part of a panel on the media and 9/11 at Syracuse University on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011.
Islam in the US in particular has only come to attention in periods of conflict, that is, in the context of controversy, war and politics. Examples include: The Iranian Revolution in 1979 (Khomeini toppled the Shah who was favored by the US); the Hostage crisis (Americans were held in US Embassy); the Iran-Contra Affair in 1985 (Irangate – Reagan secretly facilitated selling arms to Iran); the Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 (the longest conventional war in 20th century – and the US sold weapons to Saddam Hussein); the Gulf War against Iraq in1990 (to protect Kuwait from his invasion); after 9/11 the war on Afghanistan 2001 and Iraq 2003. Etc etc.
The fundamental problem is this: speaking about Islam and Muslims only in contexts of conflict and war perpetuates and perpetrates the idea that Islam and Muslims are confined to situations of conflict. They are endemically associated with this paradigm and thinking of them outside of it is, that is, in a regular, normal, day to day manner is, well, unthinkable.
The capacity to command and secure this view rests squarely with the media – and here we refer to the spectrum from popular to the elite broadsheets. The reporting on al-Qaeda in the New Yorker may be vintage in comparison to a US daily, but both share one thing in common: the subject matter. What no other institution in the world has the power to do but the media is to determine what people will focus their attention upon. The media decide for us what to put the spotlight on. Spotlight is a good analogy because usually everything around the spotlight is dark – or significantly darker – not in view, therefore, (maybe) not that important. So we don’t see as a result many other pressing issues and realities.
We permit this occlusion to happen. We submit our own powers of thinking and investigating to others who shape the news. Often times, news and media networks are committed to a national need for amnesia and self-indulgence. Why otherwise does it seem perfectly natural for the orientalist Bernard Lewis to ask as he does in his bestseller titled “What went wrong?” with Islam? The scrutiny of the “other” protects us from scrutinizing ourselves and our own society. Books such as Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and Esposito’s “The Islamic Threat” become as self-evident as gravity and fall in line in the national project of manufacturing fear, a key emotion to sustain and justify war.
What truly strikes me, however, is why have there been so few discussions about Muslims and their experiences since 9/11? This is the elephant in the room. The news was saturated for a couple of years after 9/11 with interviews, documentaries etc on Islam and Muslims. This is a pattern that repeats itself during every conflict and crisis involving the latter. However, it is astonishing (perhaps not surprising) that the endless programs, lectures, news articles, even scholarly papers and monographs on Muslims and Islam in general appear to have had no noticeable impact on the everyday American’s understanding. The general lack of knowledge remains the same as do the attitudes and stereotypes. The majority of Americans – 57% in 2002 and 2007 report they did not know much about Islam nor the opinion of Muslim populations in other countries.
Here are some random incidents that underscore this dearth of understanding. In 2002, the Christian evangelist Pat Robertson declared that Muhammad “was an absolute wide-eyed fanatic. He was a robber and a brigand. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam, they’re carrying out Islam… I mean this man was a killer. And to think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent.” Muslims believe themselves to be part of the ahl-al kitab, the people of the book, and revere Jesus, Moses, Abraham etc. so such a harsh and false declaration about their prophet caused great anger and anguish.
In 2006 in Fremont California, Ansari, an Afghan woman who was wearing a scarf was gunned down while she was holding her 3 yr-old daughter. A Catholic, Sister Mary Funk, involved in interfaith dialogue, received 480 pieces of hate mail for circulating among her congregation a flier titled “What Catholics should know about Islam.”
Most recently, we observed the power of defaming another by being identified as a Muslim. Despite all efforts to prove this untrue, including a birth certificate (!), there are those who still believe that President Obama is a Muslim. During his campaign in 2008, he was falsely and routinely “accused” of being a Muslim. So eight years after 9/11, the public was no better off in it’s perception of Muslims. Ironically, the attitudes were more favorable in the couple of years after 9/11 then they are now.
This matters because almost one forth of the world’s population is Muslim, or at least will be in the next few decades. And the Muslim world is the most visible player on the world stage even though it is perceived to be there in the negative context of conflict. There are about 1.3 billion Muslims spread around 56 countries and roughly 135,000 converts to Islam in the US a year.
By no stretch of the imagination can al Qaeda speak for Islam. But for all intents and purposes, the media’s exclusive focus on “Islamic” terrorists, itself a bad designation, upholds him and other criminals like him to be spokespersons of Islam and Muslims. For instance, how many of us have heard about Shirin Ebadi, the nobel prize winning lawyer from Iran; the Aga Khan whose development network has one of the finest records in the world; and Yunus Ebrahim whose micro-credit scheme for poor women in Bangladesh is a model that has been adopted with great success in diverse geographic and cultural areas.
It bears repeating that al Qaeda is not the face of Islam. Bin Laden is also a creation of the media in that with its help has become an icon. Actually, he was just a very evil man in the lineage of other men like Adolf Hitler. Most likely, the general public might know so little about him that they might identify him as a Taliban. He isn’t a Taliban! He was born in 1957 in Riyad, was the son of a fabulously rich billionaire; he aided the mujahiddin (freedom fighters) in the Afghan – Soviet war 1979-1989 and assisted US / CIA to recruit fighters; and when the US left the theater after the cold war, Laden turned enemy. He denounced his family for allowing US troops on Saudi soil on the pretext of religion; fled to Sudan whence he was expelled; and found safe haven in a war ravaged country, Afghanistan. He was not a saint by any stretch of the imagination, much less a recognized religious leader in the Muslim world.
The question has been repeatedly asked “What has changed since 9/11”? And of course, everyone’s answer is the blithe “Everything has changed.” Really? What hasn’t changed? A more intelligent question is “What things have changed, and what things haven’t changed.” And even more important, “Why did these specific changes occur?” Especially with respect to law, liberty, and security. Are we really ahead on these latter values or have we fallen behind? What changes have been hidden from view, e.g. the reach and powers of Homeland Security. In the course of this “war on terror” congress expanded the government’s authority to even prosecute free speech that gave or could give “material support” to terrorist groups.
In other words, could it be that the changes that have taken place are quite bad and these changes came about at our own hands? The counter terrorism budget is approximately $80 billion / yr (excluding Afghan & Iraq). It is estimated that there are 3-5000 active terrorists in the al-Qaeda network. This means we spend between 16-27 million dollars per year for each potential terrorist! And here we are at home in the US with millions of Americans living under the poverty line. What of the potential rise of crime given this dire situation?
Said’s seminal and prescient book, Covering Islam is even more compelling and applicable today. His basic idea is that in the coverage of Islam, be it media, popular culture and even many scholarly monographs, but especially in the media (hence, “coverage”), all the so-called knowledge generated about Islam only succeeds in covering it up. The more is said about it, the more opaque it becomes.
In this case, the “covering up” is the absence of reference to Islam/Muslims. The silence is a form of erasure of their experience in the historical narrative post 9/11. Both are processes that hide Islam, in one case through distortion in the other disinterest. And the bottom line that remains is the belief that the West and Islam are incommensurable. They have nothing in common, not even faith. The permanent outsider, hence, American Muslims are not even made visible as Americans with a view of how Muslims in US have fared since 9/11 attacks – and how it has changed them.
The not innocuous question, “Why do they hate us?” was first asked in the Christian Science Monitor on September 27, 2001 soon after 9/11 and spread like wildfire. Quite ironically, since 9/11 Muslims both in the US and abroad have also been asking “Why do they, i.e. Americans, hate us?” especially since there are so many values they share in common. In the 2007 Gallup Poll of the Muslim World six years in the making, the majority of Muslims in a representative sample expressed a desire for greater understanding with America. Muslims do not “hate” America because of its freedoms but finds it unjust and duplicitous because of its foreign policy. According to the poll, on whether a constitution should guarantee free speech, the following responded in favor: Egypt: 94%; Indonesia 90%; Iran 92%; Pakistan 82%; on whether men and women should have equal rights: in favor were Iran 89%; Egypt 74%; Saudi Arabia 73%. And what did Muslims want from West? 23% said more respect for themselves and their faith; and 22% wanted Americans and the West to stop discrimination against Muslims, and not to interfere in their internal affairs.
The commemoration of 9/11 was in many ways a lost opportunity to build bridges to the Muslims living in the US and beyond for there is so much common ground – and now hope given the fresh energies expressed in the Arab Spring.
 Esposito, John, “The Many Faces of Islam,” in Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (2007: 2).
 Cole, David, “After September 11: What We Still Don’t Know,” in the New York Review of Books, September 29, 2011: 27-28.
 Asad, Talal, “Some Thoughts on the WTC Disaster,” in ISIM Newsletter, January 2002: 1.
 “What do a billion Muslims really think?”, in The Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 2008: 12.
Professor Tazim R. Kassam is Associate Professor of Islam in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. She is trained as a Historian of Religions and specializes on Islamic cultures and South Asian religions. Kassam’s research focuses on Indo-Muslim folk religious poetry and performance traditions in South Asia. Her book Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance: Hymns of the Satpanth Ismaili Muslim Saint, Pir Shams offers the most extensive scholarly translation of Ismaili devotional songs called ginans. Kassam is also general editor of Spotlight on Teaching which is included in Religious Studies News, an international publication by the American Academy of Religion for its members.