An Open Letter to ABC’s 20/20 regarding “Islam: Questions and Answers” Season 31, Episode 3

After an enlightening email exchange on the Middle East Islamic Studies email listserve, Maytha and I collaborated to produce this letter with the intent on delivering it to the show’s producers. We took into account many of the great points listed brought up by the scholars and academics in the email exchange. Maytha and I took into account some of the many thoughtful suggestions from a number of folks who signed the letter. Insha’Allah, we can get a group going similar to Muslimah Media Watch and have some scholar-activists willing to critique, discuss, and explore media depictions. The iPetition version of the letter below is located here.

An Open Letter to ABC’s 20/20 regarding “Islam: Questions and Answers” Season 31, Episode 3
October 19, 2010

We applaud ABC’s 20/20 for producing the program “Islam: Questions and Answers,” which attempted to address the American public’s curiosity about Islam and show the true face of Islam in America. However, as scholars, activists, educators, and community leaders, we are concerned about the ways in which this program misrepresented Muslim Americans. We would like to address three major areas where your program inaccurately depicted Islam in America: first, by continually asserting that moderate Muslims do not speak up; second, by overlooking the contributions of African American Muslims; and finally, allowing women who have complete antipathy towards Islam (Pamela Gellar and Ayaan Hirsi) to speak for Muslim women. The producers and researchers may have been well meaning; however the program’s insensitivity and lack of nuance alienated many American Muslims and perpetuated many misconceptions about American Muslims. Our aim is to address these three areas and provide some recommendations for more accurate coverage of American Muslims in the future.

1. First, the show continually asked, “Why don’t we hear or see more mainstream, peaceful Muslims speaking up?” or “Where are the moderate voices?”
* It is problematic to divide Muslims into binary categories of “moderate” and “radical.” Would the same categorical statement be made about the socio-political orientation of followers of different religious faiths and other ethnic groups? How would the mainstream reaction to your program be had you produced a segment titled “Where are all the moderate Christians?” or “Where are all the moderate Latino Americans?” The framing of these questions and methodology of answering these questions highlights an acceptability of a bigoted stance on Muslims that is rarely acknowledged.
* Muslim Americans are constantly blamed for not speaking up. However the media bears some responsibility. Muslims continually speak out and do positive things for American society, but this does not make it in the news. Every major national Muslim American organization has condemned acts of terror. American Muslim scholars and leaders hold conferences, talks, and lectures devoted to the topic of “Forging an American Muslim identity.”
* Where is the media when peaceful Muslims gather, participate in the American political process, and protest terrorism, violence, and hatred?
* At one point, a discussant posits a recommendation “They need to have a million man march on Washington,” while conveniently ignoring that the Million Man March was actually led by a self-proclaimed Muslim, Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
* On September 25, 2009, Islam on Capitol Hill gathered an estimated 8,000 to pray Friday prayers.  And on October 15, 2010 thousands of Muslims once again convened on Capitol Hill to demonstrate their belief in American democracy and promote religious freedom, however, there were few media outlets at the DC event.
* Muslim Congressmen Keith Ellison wrote an Op-ed, “Should We Fear Islam?” in the Washington Post, speaking to the first point made in this section. Ellison and Muslim Congressman Andre Carson were also completely absent from the program, which brings us to an important issue of accurate portrayal of American Muslims.

2. The program re-inscribes Islam as a foreign religion by focusing on Arab and South Asian immigrant communities in the US, at the expense of African American Muslim communities.

* Your program excluded African American Muslims in the narrative of Islam in America and conflated Arab with Muslim. African Americans make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America, and yet your program visited Dearborn, MI, Patterson, NJ, and even Egypt to speak with Arabs who compose the third largest group of Muslims in the US.
* The Nation’s first capitol is also a city with a rich and long history of Muslims. There was a community of orthodox Black American and Caribbean American Muslims from the 1920s. Philadelphia is also a city with a high concentration of Muslims, a Muslim chief of police, Muslims who work in city government, etc.
* With the over-exposure of Arab Muslims, your program even failed to mention that Arab American Muslims are in the minority in Arab American communities. Most Arab Americans are Christian.
* The program did a poor job discussing, engaging with and highlighting the diverse community of Muslims.
* Low figure for Muslims (2-3 million?), and no breakdown of the demographics.
* It has also come to our attention that a number of “moderate” Muslims were in fact interviewed for this program, including most notably Dalia Mogahed, White House Advisor and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, yet their interviews were not aired. The exclusion of her voice, amongst others, and the inclusion of alarmist voices such as Ms. Geller’s is troubling and reduced the caliber, professionalism, and honest journalism that is expected of programs such as 20/20. It leaves us to question whether the issue at hand was a lack of cultural competence of our community or a desire for a certain bent that feeds into many of the vitriolic stereotypes of Muslims in post 9/11 America.
* No discussion of converts.
* The program even failed to show celebrated athletes (NFL, NBA, soccer players and boxers), politicians and historical figures who are Muslim and African American.

3.  Finally, the segment, “Does Islam oppress women?” did a great disservice to Muslim women.

* While we appreciate the inclusion of one Muslim voice, Irshad Manji, she herself is not a scholar on Islam and is also considered adversarial by many Muslims.
* Instead two polemical figures who are vehement in their anti-Islam stance, Ayaan Hirsi and Pamela Gellar received undue attention.
* Your program failed to include any Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson (a Canadian scholar who recently ended her term as ISNA president), or Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud to speak in this segment. Their and other scholars’ absence is an indication of an asymmetric representation of oppositional views.
* Perhaps these scholars would have shed light on Muslim women’s contributions through history such as Islam’s first convert, Khadija al-Kubra, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, who was also his employer before marrying. One of the first Sufi saints was a woman, Rabia al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Rabia al-Basri) or Nana Asma’u a West African educator and reformer.

In order to explore our rich diversity, we have provided some recommendations to improve your coverage of American Muslims below:

1. Explore the long history of Muslims in the US, a history of residency and settlement that predates the formation of America as a country. As one example of many, American born Nawawi scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has written extensively on this subject.
2.  Include broader segments of the American Muslim community to ensure that each major race and ethnic group, South Asian American, African American, and Arab American, is represented in your programs.  
3. Attend Muslim American events, banquets and conferences like the prayer on Capitol Hill, MPAC, CAIR’s functions, etc. Do not just focus on sensationalism, but cover American Muslims during Ramadan or Eid al-Adha (the end of Hajj).
4. We ask your researchers and staff to be more careful in their selection of “experts.” Make distinctions between socio-politics and Islamic scholarship. None of the women you interviewed in the question on the oppression of women in Islam had training in Islamic scholarship on covering or the hijab. We can help provide a list of scholars and experts who would be happy to lend their expertise.
5. Consider diversifying your staff, researchers and interns with knowledge, expertise, and experience in various communities may yield better results.

In summation, your program provided a rare opportunity to provide accurate coverage of Muslims and clear up misconceptions. As acknowledged at the onset of your program, the controversy surrounding the Park 51 community center elicited a renewed curiosity in Islam. We were pleased with the inclusion of Edina Lekovic’s (MPAC) and Eboo Patel’s (Interfaith YouthCore) comments, Reza Aslan’s explanation of the definition of “fatwa,” and Faiza Ali’s (CAIR-NY) elucidation of the hijab’s complex historical place in cultural and religious practice, “coerced headcoverings are tribal.”  However, while we note that your program was a step in the right direction, its lack of attention to detail, and excess attention to individuals with no scholarly background, noticeably decreased the value of what your program could have and should have earned. It is apparent that the producers cut corners, did not research and were not curious to find other sources, and as a result, the piece suffered.
In light of the suggestions and criticisms we have made—ones we hope are constructive and practical—let us iterate once more that we appreciate your initiative to educate Americans about Islam. We hope you will air more programs in the years to come about Islam in America. It would be a great service to this country.
Please also note the signatories of this letter. We have the best interest of 20/20 in mind, as well as the American people in general, and would look forward to lending our services and resources in the future. Please do not hesitate to contact, and we look forward to a response to this letter.”


Maytha Alhassen
Doctoral Student
American Studies & Ethnicity
University of Southern California

Margari Hill
High School Teacher,
Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy

Musings on Black Suffering

This article, Two State Supreme Court Justices stun listeners with race comments,” got me thinking. How do we explain the continual cycle of poverty and crime without essentializing an entire group? It reminds me of an opinion piece by Orlando Patterson, “Black Culture to Blame? Poverty of the Mind”, we avoid cultural explanations, even though anthropologists march off to other countries to study exotic culture. I find that many activists often refer to racial inequality to explain poverty, incarceration, low literacy, and teen pregnancy rates. Very rarely do they address the effects of the moral decline in the Black community. Often radical groups differ in their approach from say the black nationalism of proto-Islamic movements, which were conservative in nature. Many Black uplift movements were critical of the moral state of Black people, but still infused with love for the community. We have to ask ourselves difficult questions. How do our own personal choices shape our lives? Going further, one might ask why is it that certain things are now acceptable in our community? What cultural, social, and economic factors shape our proclivities?

The problem is, that many Black folks, Muslim included, are very comfortable in their bad habits and even worse choices. During the Jim Crow era, it was a bit harder for Black Americans to abide by Middle Class morals and values. There are many reasons, such as the exploitation of Black women’s sexuality, but most are outside the scope of this short piece. While the cultural revolution of the 60s may have “liberated” many Americans from the cultural mores and standards of their forebearers, the Black community is more vulnerable to the negative outcomes of these social changes. Women entered the workforce, but Black women were always in the workforce, as domestics and low wage earners. Women could leave unhappy marriages. The car allowed for greater mobility. Nuclear families relocated to urban areas far outside the reach of extended family networks. The Pill allowed for sex without risk of pregnancy. Even with the morning after pill still women and girls have unplanned pregnancies and abortions. While there is more candid talk about drug abuse and alcoholism, but little prevention. Black Americans have fewer resources, and therefore it is harder to recover from the break-up of the family, separation from extended family, substance abuse, teen delinquency, and college recidivism. Often, our Black youth have one shot to get it right, whereas somebody from a privileged family with financial resources can rebound from their mistakes.

I don’t want to sound self-righteous. But the reality is, we can’t change “the system,” but we can reform ourselves. We can acknowledge the institutional racism and its legacy on the psyche of Black Americans. That legacy still affects Black American Muslims as they struggle for their identity and place in the Ummah and American society. And while Islam has reformed many Black Americans, I have seen too much ghetto Islam where the same problems that plague the Black community are in the masjid: Sisters discovering their husbands were crackheads, serial marriages where women are exchanged, brawls in masajid, drug dealers, turf wars in masajid, etc. The imams from abroad don’t even know what to do with us Black Americans.

Teaching at a Muslim school with a large Black student population, I am worried about Black American Muslim youth. Honestly, I don’t worry about the Arab students because they have family and social networks that help mediate the problems. The boys will eventually find jobs or work at the family business. Families can easily find a spouse for the girls, as long as they sweep past scandals under the rug. But for the Black American Muslims, there is less of an extended family network to serve as a safety net following a crisis. I worry about my Black American boys and their futures. For a number of reasons, many have chosen other options rather than attending a Muslim school. So, there are only a few left by the time they hit 10th grade. Those that are left, I see how many of my Black male students don’t take anything seriously. They have that non-chalant attitude about their work. And the reality is, they have full knowledge of the consequences of their choices. Everybody tells them, their parents, their relatives, their teachers, and friends. But there is something enticing about rebelling and not caring. I hear the stories of our youth all around this city. They trickle down. How this graduate ended up an un-wed mother. How this one ended up locked up. I pray at that one’s janazah. I’ve been to too many janazahs. You don’t want to ask anymore, “How did they pass?” We will protest unjust cops killing one of our own. When is Philly going to take to the streets and speak out against the gangs saying, “We had enough!”

Just like the problems in the Muslim world: where Muslims blow each other up at mosques, at checkpoints, at wedding parties, on roads, in hotels. Just like the rampant corruption that eats away at the very foundation of social and political stability. Just like the nepotism that breed incompetence and economic stagnancy. Racism and neocolonialism are big problems in the world. But we are 10 times more destructive to ourselves. We are doing the job for those that hate us and see us as sub-human. We suffer because we are self deluded and arrogant. We will have to keep learning our lesson until we get it right. We suffer because we don’t try to change what is within us and pray that Allah will change our condition.

I try my best to stay optimistic…but we have many trials ahead of us.

Islam on Capitol Hill

Are you going? I am and so is our future.
Let us pray that America will support us in this day as we display our hopes and dreams for this country of ours. We are American, we pray that God guides all of us, that other Americans will join us in living out this country’s ideals. This year the organizers will feature the voice of American Islam’s future, our children. Today I listened to my students share their touching stories, thoughtful analysis, and hopeful messages. At times, we were moved to tears. This day will mean so much for them. They stepped up and amazed us. Congratulations to all the participants in the speech contest. We are proud of all of you. Masha’Allah!

The Truth Is…

I’m glad that the Time Square Bomber failed and was sentenced today. But I’m a little scared.

He clearly admitted his guilt in the plot to kill civilians. One can’t claim some conspiracy theory, he doesn’t claim he was framed, instead during his sentencing he issued a threat:

“Brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun,” 31-year-old Faisal Shahzad told a federal judge. “Consider me the first droplet of the blood that will follow.”

Faisal Shahzad believes that killing civilians is self-defense. He, and other Muslims who target unarmed civilians in order to exact revenge for America’s military occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, support of Israel, and dictatorships in South Asia and the MIddle East, have some ideological underpinning that must be addressed. Sadly, our scholars just ignored this issue for so many years, sticking their heads in the sand. The truth is, we need to wake up and face the elephant in the room. We don’t have just one elephant, we got a few. Well, enough that we have a circus show going or maybe even a zoo.

I remember in the 90s, suicide bombings were fairly rare. In fact, many people then saw terrorism as something that came out of the nationalist cause in Palestine. Muslims I knew disowned terrorism, “It has nothing to do with Islam.” Now, we have seen Muslims use terrorism, targeting civilians, in the Philippines, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Africa, Algeria, Morocco, Indonesia, etc. The reality is that it has to do with Islam, somebody’s interpretation of Islam. Somebody came up with a novel idea that it was okay to target civilians.

Our scholars need to face this stuff head on. I don’t think every Muslim in America is responsible, but the scholars who refused to deal with dangerous ideologies do have to bear some responsibility. Now, certain ideas spread like poison branches throughout the globe. Sadly, it is the Islamophobes that are pointing it out, all the while conflating Islam with identity movements. They seized the opportunity because we failed to take stock. Muslims who take the Middle Way, the Path of Moderation, now must face a two-front battle. Without being reactionary or self-loathing, we need to address the ideological roots of extremism. We have to have courage because we may be shouted down, threatened, or ostracized for not sounding sympathetic to this cause or that cause. We may be despised by the Right because we won’t give up our Muslimness. As a Muslim, I stick to my principles and condemn all forms of injustice, whether it is from our own or not. And the terror that Shahzad is trying to strike in our hearts is indeed a great injustice.