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.”

Sincerely,

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

Margari Hill
High School Teacher,
Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy

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

  1. This letter is awesome! I particularly agree with points 2 and 3 as they were things that I thought about while watching the program. I hope it gets traction with the powers that be.

    Spot on!

    Like

  2. Salaams,
    Glad you dropped by. I don’t follow your blog enough. I was just wondering how you were during and was delightfully surprised by your latest adventures. Keep up the excellent writing! Have you thought about linking up with Kameelah from Kameelahwrites?

    Like

  3. Walaikum Salaam,
    Dr. Jamillah Karim! I’m so honored that you would stop by. I love your work and have drawn from it for my own research. I’m excited that you have a blog up. I’m going to be an avid follower.

    🙂

    MA

    Like

  4. Asalamu Alaykom,

    I think the best thing about the letter is that you did it 🙂 Too many Muslims sit around and crab about, “the way the media portrays us,” without ever speaking up for change. You do! That’s great!

    The tone of your letter was serious but not scary. It was informative and useful ishahallah with their next report.

    May Allah reward you.

    Like

  5. Asalaamu Alikum Margari,

    Well written letter! – much fairer than I would have been.

    Did you ever hear from the folks at 20/20 at all?

    Like

  6. Salaam You did an excellent job setting out some things for 20/20 to work on. I think you get results when you actually sort of give them a tutorial, I think another thing that could help is to encourage the three major networks and the cable shows to develop Islam research teams specifically to make sure the news as presented hits all the points you discussed.

    Like

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