The perception of Islam and Muslims in the media: An SPJ panel discussion

Moderator Kevin Riley (left), Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Shuaib Hanief and Noor Abbady.

By Fiza Pirani

A mix of journalists, interfaith scholars and community members gathered inside The Atlanta Journal Constitution building Saturday afternoon for a panel discussion on the state of media and its relationship with the Muslim community.

The lively panel, organized by the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, featured some of Atlanta’s prominent Muslim leaders, such as Edward Ahmed Mitchell, civil rights attorney and executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Noor Abbady, interfaith activist and operations manager of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta and Shuaib Hanief, creator of, a website giving voice to Atlanta’s vibrant Muslim community while challenging mainstream views of Islam. AJC editor Kevin Riley acted as moderator.

Riley kicked off the heated discussion with a big question for the panelists: What is one thing you wish people knew about Muslims?

One fact in particular resonated with all three panelists: Muslims are the most vulnerable and greatest victims of “Islamic” terrorism.

In fact, according to 2011 data from the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, in cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the previous five years.

And between 2004 and 2013, about half of all terrorist attacks — and 60 percent of fatalities due to terrorist attacks — took place in mostly Muslim countries, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database reported.

The first half of the event, albeit unintentionally, centered on understanding Islam, with non-Muslim audience members asking panelists about the treatment of women in Islam, how mosques are addressing the misconstrued image of their faith and what exactly falls under Sharia law.

Regarding Muslim women, Abbady offered anecdotal evidence of her life as a free, unsuppressed Muslim woman in America, but admitted her experiences may not compare to women in suppressed communities.

“But this isn’t just a Muslim woman problem. It’s a woman problem,” she said, arguing women across the globe continue to face injustices, despite their religion.

Panelists said each mosque addresses Islam’s distorted reputation in America in different ways, but noted many have begun developing relationships with local interfaith communities and media groups.

And when it comes to Sharia law, loosely defined as the law of Islam (similar to the canon or Halakhah), Muslims around the world fall on a vast spectrum regarding its interpretation.

But, Abbady said, Sharia law generally aims to preserve five things: life, property, lineage, freedom of religion and intellect.

The notion that Sharia law (or an extreme interpretation of it) could become the law of the land in America is false and unconstitutional, Mitchell said. No religious code can replace American law and no national Muslim organization calls for the implementation of the law, either.

The second half of the panel discussion centered on the media’s coverage of Islam.

When asked what the American media has done wrong and could potentially make right, all three panelists emphasized the importance of using the “right” language.

That includes translating Arabic verbiage into English to break down the barrier of “us” and “them” and avoiding the descriptor “jihadist” to describe terrorists, as the term itself refers to one who fights against Islam’s enemies, which terrorists likely consider a commendable signifier, Mitchell said.

In addition, according to Hanief, members of the media should consider highlighting the many ways American Muslims positively impact their communities.

“If all I knew about Muslims came from what I saw on evening television, I’d be scared too,” Hanief said.

Part of changing the damaging narrative, he added, involves covering the Muslim community before, during and after horrendous acts of terror.

Watch Part One of Media and the American Muslim Community:



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