How to write about Muslims

"The Western press and social media often seem to exercise two options for dealing with the Muslim population of the world: overt, unabashed Islamophobia or slightly subtler Islamophobia," writes contributor Belen Fernandez at Al Jazeera English. She has some suggestions on how to avoid clichés and stereotypes.


  1. I’d be curious to know what and how much(if any) stylistic difference there is between US and ‘other western’ media on the matter. 

    The US, particularly its right and hard right, is in the slightly curious position of exhibiting crazy-high levels of Abrahamic monotheism by first world standards; but it has a substantial brand dispute with much of the middle east.The rest of the ‘west’, though, tends to be somewhere between ‘less pious’ and ‘much, much less pious’ than the US, and certainly much less than the Muslim populations either at home or abroad that they are writing about.

    I’d be inclined to imagine that the US(where religious hardliners are accorded significant deference in public, so long as they are the right kind) would have to write with a rather different emphasis than would places where unabashed religious enthusiasts, rather than merely unabashed religious enthusiasts who don’t love jesus enough, are something of a foreign element…

    1.  She gives examples from the British media in the article, for what that is worth–it seems to be the tabloids, but those papers have pretty large readerships, right? I think important questions to ask would be who supported the burqa ban in France, as far as the media goes and who supports strong suppression of religious symbols in general — the Swiss banning of the building of new minarets, in a country that has like 4 of them (and the majority of Muslims are refugees from Yugoslavia).

      A friend of mine is doing a project about the embrace of religion and Christianity by the so-called “secular left” during the early 20th century in France when it came to the struggles in North Africa. Surely the same thing could be true now. Besides, I think we’ve seen something of a resurgence of the right in some of Europe, including Western Europe. I’d argue that the language of secularism in Europe can function as a means to disenfranchise some people.

      1. I would argue that the fact that secularism disenfranchises some people is by design.(Not terribly recent design, or notably anti-muslim design, the European Enlightenment types who hammered it out had bigger fish to fry at home).

        Like it or not, a religion can(and some, though not all, do) include overt directions on who will hold power, what power they will hold, and who will be subject to that power. Secularism explicitly denies such claims. That’s part of the point. This makes it broadly compatible with basically any religion that focuses on the belief-states of its adherents, along with a few cosmetic ritual/behavioral practices; but fundamentally incompatible with any religion whose practice includes the allocation of anything analogous to force of law along religious lines, as well as causing nontrivial compatibility problems with religions whose ritual demands conflict with secular state objectives(ie. photo IDs vs. ritual modesty demands).

        The same thing happens in the US(see basically every court case ever pitting creationists and christian theocrats vs. the establishment clause); but it doesn’t really stand out as much because we have homegrown, 100% whitebread religious factions whose demands are simply irreconcilable with secular governance. 

        My curiosity is about whether the US population of essentially theocratic Christians(mostly protestants, with a few token catholics tagging along), who enjoy a certain amount of public and media deference changes the tone of writing about a group that is both substantially pious and ‘foreign’ compared to the tone one might find in a place where both the intensity of the piety, and the flavor, seem pretty weird.

        In the US, you can say things like “[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards,” while running for president(albeit as Mike Huckabee, who was pretty tepid as a Republican candidate; but wasn’t from one of the real kook outfits like the ‘Constitution party’) and not be laughed right out of the room. My assumption, without empirical data, would be that this creates an incentive to play up the ‘alienness’ of the competing brand of theocrat; because you don’t really have the option of scathing criticism of religious enthusiasts generally.

        1.  I agree about secularism, to an extent. Secularism was about shifting power to the state over religious institutions. But it was not a mistake that it emerged with capitalism, so I’d argue it does not get off here. Secularism was not/is not about making an atheist state or even a state where people of all beliefs could live in harmony and hash out disagreements on the political front, but was/is about power… but I think we are suggesting the same thing here? If secularism is a long-term European Enlightenment project, the question is to see how it’s unfolded over time across the world. I’m afraid given the realities of European colonization and imperialism (and in the US era, too), the verdict isn’t a resounding affirmative. Religions aided this too, but secular authorities did not reject violent means of ensuring their march across the world. Often times, the fact that the subject people were religious (or of the wrong religion) was pretext and justification – by not following post-enlightenment religions, people were coded as uncivilized, hence making it permissible to invade and conquer. I think we should focus on what do power structures do, as opposed to what they say on a propaganda front.

          I think we kind of flatten the argument when we focus on the “ideal” or “utopian” visions of religion espoused by politicians and religious leaders, rather than on religion as a lived reality. That’s part of the problem I think the author is trying to point out. It’s all well and good to focus on the outrageous statements or even the extreme cases (marrying off a 9 year old girl, snake-handling churches, or the shutting up of women during their periods – to name but 3 examples from the Children of Abraham), but is this the norm? The media likes to hype extreme cases, because “if it bleeds, it leads”.  The realities are much more complex…

          All politicians, religious or not, gesture to the ideal of their ideology, because that’s what gets them elected – just like politicians like Mike Huckabee embrace a religious language to rally his constiuents, left/secular ones employ the language of rights, secularism, and environmentalism in order to garner votes. Not all of them stand behind their beliefs on both sides. Behind the scenes, they wheel and deal, religious or not. That’s just the way power functions.

  2. ‘She has some suggestions on how to avoid clichés and stereotypes…’
    Your gloss and the article title notwithstanding, there’s essentially no constructive suggestions in this article at all – just a large number of examples of how *not* to do it. Also, the hyperbole is a little over the top. Pamela Geller is not ‘a certified sociopath’, however objectionable Belen might find her politics. Violence against Muslims is not ‘at record levels’ (follow her link and see what it actually says). Ad so on.

    1.  I have to agree about her not offering suggestions for writing more productively on the war on terror, Islam, and Muslims.

      However, I disagree with you on Geller. I think her ideas about Muslims are more widespread than is probably helpful. And I do think she is a socio-path or at best a crass opportunist. The woman is flat out crazy, as far as I’m concerned and gets way too much of a voice in at least some circles (she’s been on CNN, Fox, and the like, and NYT will cover her, too). The woman thinks that halal slaughter is gross and icky and ignores the fact that Kosher slaughter is quite similar (or the fact that the Nazis made similar arguments about Kosher). She thinks that Malcolm X is Obama’s dad and Obama is also a Muslim. She’s a proponent of “greater Israel”, which would see the complete ethnic cleansing of Gaza and the West Bank of the Palestinian people. She is a socio-path and not really someone who I find at all defensible:

      The link does seem to say that attacks on Muslims and those thought to be Muslims are on the rise (or were at the time of that artifcle), so I’m not sure what you are suggesting about her conclusions on that front. Do we have to see complete social exclusion of a group, backed by state violence to be concerned about something like this? At what point does it become not okay to attack people whose religion you disagree with?

      1. All that plus support for Milosevic and denial of the Srebrenica genocide. (She also seems to think the Ustashe was Muslim… whatever)
        Re: violence against Muslims, I don’t think state violence was mentioned. Even domestically against citizens, the US gov has put many Muslims behind bars on trumped up terrorism charges. Some of the Islamic charity cases, for example.

        1. Agreed to all that…  Geller is pretty sick and I’m not surprised that she tries to rewrite Balkan history to make the Muslims in the region look like “invaders” and “devils” despite the reality of the situation. She tries to shoehorn reality into her ideology.

          That being said, Chomsky comes down on that side of the argument, too, because the Serbian government were “victims of US imperialism”, according to him.  It’s one place where Chomsky let’s his critique of American imperialism get the better of him, sadly.

    2. The piece links to a couple stories that cite violence against Muslims as remaining high after record levels. Also, I’d wager that the sadistic level of Geller’s endless efforts at inciting hatred and violence suggests a mental illness of some kind, but I doubt she’s going to submit to a test any time soon…. Also, you frame Geller’s fanatical and incredibly extremist (designated) hate group activity as a simple difference in “politics”. Geller would probably face charges in countries that aren’t as absolutist about “free speech” as we are.

      Yes, you see, me and this Klansman just have different “politics”….

      Statistics released today suggest that the numbers haven’t dipped since an unprecedented 50 percent spike in 2010

      1. I just find the attempt to tag political opponents as ‘sick’, ‘crazy’, or ‘sociopathic’ as lazy, obnoxious and to some extent sinister (it having been a sometime tactic of the Soviets, as you probably know). In the case of the original article, I would have skipped over it had Belen not gone the extra mile and called Geller a *certified* sociopath, which goes beyond being opinion and raises the question of who is supposed to have certified this, and when. I suspect that modern progressives have trouble with the idea of evil, and so when faced with someone who has such an enormously different idea about what the world should look like, are left to grasp at other concepts to try and explain what’s going on. But I would rather maintain a distinction between normative differences (however large) and actual clinical pathology.

        1. You keep referring to her as a “political opponent” which seems to be trying to give her completely fringe and extremist behavior some kind of air of legitimacy. There is none. Granted, calling her what she is: an extremist, fringe character, or hate leader would have been more professional than “certified sociopath”, but we both know that the author was using hyperbole for effect. Considering that her behavior actually does match up with many of the symptoms of anti-social behavior, it seems even more of a nit pick to split hairs over the author’s choice of words. Doesn’t seem much different than getting angry at a writer for calling Fred Phelps a “nut” or something. They are nuts.

          None of her famous statements or views are rooted in any kind of sane reality. At best you could say that she secretly knows better and is just conning bigots for fame and money, but even that unbelievable lack of morals and ethics would hint at the presence of a warped mind…

        2. I just find the attempt to tag political opponents as ‘sick’, ‘crazy’, or ‘sociopathic’ as lazy, obnoxious and to some extent sinister (it having been a sometime tactic of the Soviets, as you probably know).

          So it’s bad to characterize her sociopathic writings as sociopathic, but it’s okay to compare us to the Soviet Union? You made a funny.

          1. Is she a sociopath/psychopath though? I’d see her more as psychotic, and it’s important not to confuse the two. Even more embarassing than the old confusing schizoid/ schizotypal/ schizophrenic faux pas.

          2. Judging from the descriptions in this thread, I’d say both.   Supporting genocide makes you a sociopath regardless of what else is wrong with you, and believing things that are demonstrably counter to reality (eg. Obama is a Muslim, CO2 doesn’t cause global warming, etc.) makes you psychotic.

  3. Should I feel bad if I feel distrustful of most large/organized religious groups, especially those of Abrahamic origin? Christians and Muslims and Jews are all equally capable of buying into mindsets influenced by group-think and fallacious appeals to tradition, and such thinking is all dangerous to open societies.

    What the media conglomerates do by twisting information to make a gripping but falsified story is morally repugnant, but is this any more repugnant than someone justifying denying their children and spouses medical care and education which measurably improves their quality of life because some community elders claimed to understand a decontextualized book written centuries and even millennia before?

    I don’t wish to say that all religious folks ail from a hive-mind of traditionalism and intellectual inbreeding, but I would argue that the systems which organized religions tend to foster encourage that kind of thought-pattern.

    1.  I think the best way to judge people is how they treat you, others, and how they live in the world. If someone is an ass, trying to force others to conform to their way of life – they suck, not matter what their religion or ideology. I’d point out that at least some more militant atheist would gladly see all religion wiped out, no matter the cost–both the peaceful kind and the destructive kind. They focus on the “religious” issue and not the institutional issue.

      If someone is out there, trying to make the world a better place for all of us, not just their group, I’m down with them. This happens to include individuals who are religious. Would you reject someone like Bayard Rustin, who used his religious beliefs to justify non-violent protest of the Second World war, the Civil Rights movement and later gay rights? I’d supsect not – his influence on King proved decisive in the Civil Rights movement. Religion has been used in the service of human-centered rebellion against oppression as much as it has been used in the service of institutionalized oppression. But the historical narrative we generally live with – progressing from religious ignorance to secular enlightenment – misses much of the more complex stories about religion and modernity. It also misses the use of science and the enlightenment in justifying atrocities, too. It’s a problem of institutions and the construction of power, more than it is about the “backwardness” of religion. I’ve always thought that the question we should ask is what is the belief actually in service of, not what is the belief and how is it wrong.

      So, I agree with you about the “hive-mind” aspect of your statement, as that exemplfies how institutions can become dangerous, but religion has no lock on the hive-mind, I’m afraid. Anything can become a dangerous dogma, I think.

      1. I agree absolutely. Secular groups can be just as vicious as religiously-based ones.

        My beef lies with that Abraham faiths, scripture-as-written, are rooted in fairly static approaches to how societies operate. Out-of-the-box, (without reform or modernization), they promote rigidity.

        Theologically motivated individuals can do as much social good as ill, I agree. I just find that, in the groups I’ve interacted with, folks operating from a theological basis are less reflective on the values they claim to uphold and tend to abide by a code of conduct based on “because my pastor told me this is right.”

        My cynicism levels are a touch high right now, though, so this could be the rumblings of a disgruntled old man negotiating with exam season.

        1.  Yeah, but none of them agree with scripture as written, or at least they all interpret their scriptures in different ways – not all Christians are Westboro Baptist or even conservative evangelicals. I think my point was looking at how people actually live, versus the dogma, even the dogma they espouse when it comes to discussing political and social issues. 

          And of course, anecdotal evidence is fleeting and a very small sample set to pull from.  I’m not saying that religious folks are to a man good, I’m saying it’s a case by case basis, right down to the individual. And also a question of how people practically live in the power structures that they inhabit.

          I think my cynicism levels are high, too, so don’t feel out of place on that front.  But my cynicism tends to be aimed at the power structure which we live in…  I tend to doubt that stories in our media are as free from bias as journalists like to claim.

    2. What you should feel bad about is your inability (or possibly refusal) to distinguish between members of the group and individual behaviors. The former is repugnant.

  4. The Al Jazeera comments section gives HuffingtonPost a run for its money in the “That escalated quickly” department…

  5. I would think that an organization like Fox News, etc. cannot simply incorporate a critique tailored to make it “less islamophobic” since its bias is fundamental, not simply limited to islamophobia, and causes it to disseminate a whole host of many different biases.

    1.  Agreed, but I think that the argument of the article is not just that of the extreme cases, but of a general trend. The way, say the NYT presents stories on the Mid East is just as responsible for skewing our view of the Mid East and Islam. They all bear some responsibility for creating a negative view of Muslims, she’s arguing.

  6. Maybe a good exercise in evaluating whether or not a story is biased in some way is to take whatever story it is, replace it with another group we all agree we should not discriminate against or buy into the stereotypes of (women, African-Americans, Jews, whoever) and use that in place of Muslim and see how it sounds. If it makes you feel icky, then it’s probably a biased story. 

  7. There’s one constructive thing to be read between the lines in this column, and that actually answers the “how to” question:

    If you’re reporting on Muslims who are not involved in headline-making-violent activities, don’t make offhand references to same. For example, if you’re reporting on tourism in Oman, don’t make irrelevant references to al-Qaeda.

    Fair enough.

    But the rest of the article offers nothing. Yes, Pamela Geller is a nutcase. So what? So should if she uses a story for her hatemongering, I should refrain from reporting on it les I be tarred with that brush? To hell with that.

  8. Pamela Gellers is nuts, indeed. I resigned to the board of a society because she was also there. No sympathy for her and her extreme hate.

    However, the article remains completely silent about stuff like honor killings, extreme misogyny, child abuse and internal fighting and terrorism between Muslim sects, and the brutal abuses against foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive. There are serious problems for Muslims caused by their own fellow Muslims. To point that is not islamophobia, neither it is to state that blind hate and paranoia are the only reasons why a person can be concerned about Islam. Just ask Latino women in Europe harassed because some jerk thinks they are Muslim, as they have dark skin, called whores and all sort of names because they don’t use a hijab.

    1. The way the Saudis run the show is a reflection of Islam, or a reflection of them being unelected billionaire autocrats?

      1.  Well, it’s a reflection of the Saudi royals and their Wahabbi preacher allies, only.

        And it’s the obligation of a reporter to portray their behavior as such, without smearing other Muslims.

        But this article says very little about how to go about it. If anything, it’s advice appears to be “just don’t report on these issues.”

        1. But this article says very little about how to go about it. If anything, it’s advice appears to be “just don’t report on these issues.”

          It doesn’t remotely suggest anything like that.

          The main thing I got from it was not that, but to please not use incredibly bigoted language in reporting and not to tie religion to issues that have nothing to do with it. You’ll notice the way people protesting anywhere in the Muslim world are portrayed as religious mobs all the time, instead of people just angry with their leaders or whatever, when their grievances have nothing to do with religion or their faith.

          1. Dude, nobody who isn’t in Geller’s fan club needs to be told “don’t write like Pamella Geller.” The question is how to write about the same fodder Geller uses without playing into her hands. 

          2.  The writer gave a number of examples of MSM writers using pretty outrageous language. Clearly they DO need to be told.

      2. Just to give another example, compare India to Bangladesh and Pakistan.  Many things, including the treatment of women, are incredibly fucked up in India, but not as much as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Culturally and linguistically, Bangladesh is far more similar to West Bengal, and Pakistan (except for the tribal areas)  is far more similar to Rajasthan, than Bengalis are to people in Rajasthan, so the real common factor these two very different countries that both manage to be even more fucked up than India (which is an impressive achievement) is religion. 

        1. That’s not true. India is the worst country in the world for women. Selection abortions, lack of prenatal care for women carrying female children, systematic abuse, slavery, forced prostitution, incest, rape, forced marriage, bride burnings, honor killings, etc. are massively widespread in Hindu communities in India. You just don’t hear about it because they don’t have oil so nobody cares.

          In fact, you’re just replicating the memes generated by the islamophobic press and illustrating why this article needed to be written.

          1. I’m aware of all that.  As I said:” Many things, including the treatment of women, are incredibly fucked up in India.”   And I think all of those things are even worse in Bangladesh, where they also don’t have oil.   There is enormous cultural diversity in India, and all of those things are far more prevalent in the north (Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh) than in the south. My actual comparison was of two cases where you have cultures right next to each other in different countries that are much closer to one another than they are to other cultures in the same country.    I have to admit, I’m not as quite as up on Pakistan as I perhaps should be before making that statement, though it is a failed state, while India is still teetering on the brink.  Even considering how bad things are in West Bengal, I don’t think there’s any question but that they’re worse in Bangladesh. Just to give one example:
            The punishing the victim part is pretty much particular to Islam in this case.    Also, I’ve spent time in, and have a number of good friends in NE  India.   These are some of the poorest provinces in India, and the locals don’t like  Bengalis much, and are prone to engage in ethnic violence against them (which I by no means condone, regardless of their religion), and yet there are still enormous numbers of illegal immigrants flooding over the border from Bangladesh.  

          2.  Speaking of flooding, there’s a lot of that happening in Bangladesh, through no fault of Bengalis on either side of the border. So don’t be too quick to blame the migration on social disfunction.

    2. And the Saudis are autocrats we support, whole-heartedly, to boot. Your tax dollars pay for the Saudis to behead people in stadiums and keep women from driving. Mine too. The Saudis that consistently crack down on religious minorities and work to export their brand of Islam, even while they most likely don’t practice it. But hey, according to the US government, they are the “good guys” because they do what we want them to do… so it’s “internal affairs” there. It was “internal affairs” in Afghanistan until 9/11 and the desperate need for a central Asian pipeline arose… all of a sudden, we cared that the Taliban were theocratic punks, brutalizing women. Also, we ignore the fact that our support of the opposition parties to socialism in Afghanistan helped to lead to that theocratic state of affairs. If people backed the Taliban, it might been in part because they were some of the few people willing to bring order and to move against invading powers.

      Need I point out how mum we are on the state of affairs in other Arab states that are “our allies”? Or how we refused to recognize the secular Palestinian organizations for decades, because they leaned to the left and employed various forms of violence in their resistance to a bigger power? Should I point out our decades of support for the thug Mubarak, who used Egypt as his personal play ground, because “hey, at least he’s not an Islamist”… Meanwhile, the Islamists spent those same decades out of power working for the day when there would be a space opened up for political opposition. They actually went to the country side and the slums of Egypt and ministered to the needs of people there. They listened to them, and gave them something that the regime did not do — they actually cared about them enough to listen to what they had to say. 

      1. Sorry, my tax dollars don’t do that. It’s your tax dollars. Don’t assume that everybody is American just because you are. Americans are only 5% of the population of the planet, and increasingly many other voices are starting to be heard in the Net. This is just a sample of the Americ-centric view of your post.
        My tax dollars fund the jerks who support Bashar Al Assad at the UN and pay for Iranian products… However, the oil of my country certainly powers your planes, tanks and ships. Well, these days I am in Chile, so,  AFAIK, my tax dollars are not funding any international atrocity, only a few domestic ones.I do not stay silent, mum or justify the cozy relationships of your govt and the Saudi royalty. I know perfectly what’s going on, and I still can condemn the nasty stuff going on there, no matter what your govt says or does (no “we”, again, I consider myself to be part of the Western civilization, but that’s about it).And, I don’t fucking care what the US does, to be honest. None of that justifies killing other fellow Muslims because they happen to believe a slightly different version of Islam. None of that justifies oppressing women and harassing my friends doing PhDs in Europe because they happen to have a shade of skin color that could come from Northern Africa. People do have a responsibility to do the right choice and stop being assholes and oppressors. The existence of the US does not change that.Up to a certain point, arguments about 9/11 can be discussed and it is understandable to attack the US if you feel wronged, but I do fail to see how can you blame the US of acid attacks to women of honor killings. To me, that infantilizes the guilty, assuming they have no will and act in response to America and Americans. Sorry, your country is important  but not that important.There is a problem with a lot of Muslims, and that hurts all of them, because it feeds irrationality and paranoia. Had the article acknowledged that, and given tips on how to address this thorny subject, without making terrible generalizations, it would have been much more effective. There is a problem, I repeat, and  all of us, Muslims and not Muslims, should do something about it. I am grateful to see that many Muslims realize that and are doing their best to change the situations. People Like Irshad Manji Javed Ghamidi Malala or my friend Khalida Brodi are shining lights and reasons for hope.

        1. Didn’t you know that you and everyone else on the internet is American? No? Then how am I going to make my point without sweeping assumptions!?

        2.  Many of the things you address aren’t exclusive to any one religion and usually are the poisoned fruits of a number of awful conditions and factors where religion is incidental, or simply used as an excuse. You will notice that Christians weren’t vilified over Brevik or terrorist acts in my country. You country is majority Catholic, yet practitioners are let off the hook for supporting institutionalized child abuse, homophobia, opposing women’s rights etc.. If we like, we could also easily attribute the past atrocities in your country to the “religion” of neoliberalism if we want to choose that path.

          Also, women are harassed on the street *everywhere*, but I guess it bothers you more that there may be ( according to your anecdotal cite) a sexist religious angle vs. a purely sexist one.

          1. No, those things are not exclusive, even Buddhists can commit genocide, as it might happen soon in Thailand, Burma or Sri Lanka, with Muslims as the victims . Are they more common? Maybe yes, maybe not. But, even if Catholicism is not progressive, AFAIK, acid attacks and honor killings based on religious reasons are not common here. Even Muslims like Irshad Manji and Khalida Brohi accept there is a problem. It’s not stuff that racist old men say. 

            “Also, women are harassed on the street *everywhere*, but I guess it bothers you more that there may be ( according to your anecdotal cite) a sexist religious angle vs. a purely sexist one.”
            It is an anecdote, but I trust my 3 friends, all in different places in Europe who have gone through the same experience. They get called whores for not wearing the “right” way, that’s much worse than being catcalled, which is bad enough. 

            That’s why I get upset. These attitude of not criticizing Islam because any criticism shows you are a bigot needs to stop. We need to separate obvious nutjobs, racists and sociopaths from legitimate criticism. Christianity was a mess once, it is still bad, but it’s not imprisoning people, or torturing anymore. Islam can do the same, they can keep worshiping and believing, while also getting rid of the violence and misoginy (or at least most of it). Insisting that there’s nothing wrong with some (a lot of) Muslims, won’t help to make it happen. 

            And that’s why it is important that we speak of these subjects without putting all Muslims on the same bag, we need to be careful to not generalize and alienate, they are our allies,  but we need to recognize the problems.

          2. Christianity was a mess once, it is still bad, but it’s not imprisoning people, or torturing anymore.

            I think the joke here is lost on you….

  9. Here’s a solution: Stop reading press that presents anything in a fear-mongering context, or read it with consideration that the relative value of an article (if you bought a paper) is much less than 1 cent. It’s basically worthless.

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