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What do non-Muslims in America think of their Muslim neighbors? And what can we Muslims do to improve our public image?
Those were just two of the questions answered during the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s recent policy forum in Washington, DC. I had the opportunity to participate in the event, which included panel discussions addressing the intersection between national security and civil rights as well as pubic perception and narrative building.
During the public perception panel, Hattaway Communications Vice President Alex Cole presented a two-year study that analyzes non-Muslim perceptions of American Muslims. One of the most fascinating findings: the difference in perception between the terms “American Muslim” and “Muslim-American.”
When focus groups were asked to describe a “Muslim-American,” these were some of their responses: immigrants\foreign, more traditional\religious, follow stricter rules, wear Muslim clothing, Arab.
But when asked to describe an ‘American Muslim,’ the focus groups offered drastically different answers: born in America, U.S. citizens, came to America for a better life\to escape violence and\or oppression, follow religion but not more strictly, more ‘Americanized’, want to be here, contribute to society.
Let that last point sink in for a second: contribute to society.
With a simple switch from Muslim-American to American Muslim, the entire perception of our community transforms from strict Arabs who wear nothing but thobes to contributing members of American society who have shared values with their non-Muslim neighbor.
This may not be a fair portrayal, but when ⅔ of broadcast media news coverage portrays Muslims as terrorists (another statistic provided to us during the presentation) it makes a lot of sense to simply adjust the terminology we use to describe ourselves to our non-Muslim friends. The terminology does not define our personal identities or how we relate to both our religion and American society, but it helps combat negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media with almost no effort on our part.
Hattaway Communications used their study to create a handbook for our community to use while engaging the media and being asked difficult questions in our personal lives. I encourage everyone to download and read the handbook, which can be found here.
One of the key takeaways from both the session and the handbook was to tell the unique stories of American Muslims. That is, discuss how we fit into, and contribute to, American society. Doing so makes the average American Muslim a more relatable figure to the average American rather than being an ‘other’ (someone who lives in America but does not necessarily fit into American values or culture).
This can be accomplished by telling many different stories, but some of the most powerful ones are those that show Muslims as firemen, police officers, and other professionals who help others for a living.
Indeed, one of the most compelling segments on NPR, StoryCorps, actually uses this same tactic. The StoryCorps segments are short clips of two individuals speaking to each other about their lives. For example, a grandson talking to his grandfather about participating in the Civil Rights movement, a couple telling the story of how they met and struggles they’ve been through, and a single mother telling her daughter of the difficult times they experienced when the daughter was young.
Even though these segments are only a few minutes long, the stories leave a lasting impression on the listener. So much so that my co-workers and I used to joke that we would listen to NPR on a Friday, feeling good about the end of the week, and then end up crying during the StoryCorps segment and feeling sad for the rest of our commute. Imagine how powerful it could be to use the same format to broadcast the American Muslim story. Using a proven method, we can create the same feeling of connection to the American Muslim community as StoryCorps creates.
At the end of the day, the American Muslim community faces many struggles due to how the media describes us as well—to be fair—due to the atrocious crimes a minority commits overseas in the name of Islam.
Instead of constantly defending ourselves from media attacks, we need to take control of the conversation and actively strive to change the narrative, both on the local and national levels.
We need to engage the media and invite them to events that do not fit into the current narrative, such as Eid picnics, community events, and events like Muslims Day here in Atlanta.
Every time we can inject a positive image of Muslims into the media, no matter the scale of the exposure, we have the opportunity to fight negative stereotypes and take control of the narrative rather than letting it control us.
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