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The Negative Portrayal of Islam: Jihad, Terrorists & the American Media

A student in the University of British Columbia writes: "HIJAB, the head to ankle covering that leaves only the face, hands and feet visible in public, has made me a very patient Muslim woman. [...] There are many who can't formulate words coherent enough to communicate their disapproval, and so, rely on simple gestures and sign language. Walking through downtown Vancouver, I've been fingered, spat on, scowled and cursed at." (Looks)

Whether in Vancouver, Minnesota or any other place the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world live and work, they have been taking a lot of “disapproval”. From the gestures to the stares and even glares, Muslims of the world, and particularly the West, have a lot to put up with. Scenes like the one above are not only commonplace in today’s society; they are viewed as the norm. The hijab, an Islamic symbol of modesty, is constantly seen as a bad thing. In the streets of London to Downtown Minneapolis, a dark skinned man with a beard is seen to be hiding an Uzi beneath the folds of his Muslim dress. And Islam, well it is safe to say, Islam does not evoke the peaceful message it was meant to.

Today’s American audiences disapprove. To them Islam isn’t peaceful or humble, it is violence and bloodshed. Islam, jihad. They know what the jihad is; they’ve watched it live on CNN. American audiences are “witnesses” to people who call themselves Muslims; fighting and killing in the name of a religion they call Islam. They saw the Pakistani army's excesses against Muslims (Bengalis) and the Mujahideen of Afghanistan and their mutual slaughter. (Khan) They know big bad wolf Saddam and his use of chemical weapons against Muslims (Kurds) and the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians when some men with beards plunged planes of them into great buildings. They see these “Muslims” killing in the name of a greater purpose on TV everyday. It must be true. However, the American audiences are being deceived. The “holy war” does not exist. What they are witnessing is in fact the confusion, hatred and in some cases, ignorance of terrorists/extremists. The negative portrayal of Islam and of jihad stems from bad people doing very bad things. Terrorists/extremists have turned Islam’s ideal of peace and harmony on its head. “Such actions, if not sanctioned by the religion, have no place with it. They are not Islamic and should not be thought of as Islamic.” (Islam-Terror?)

American audiences need not believe what CNN feeds them. They have a right to know what is really going on. Norman Soloman writes, “[...] we're witnessing an onslaught of media deception. The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing [...] Greater is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.” Islam and jihad don’t equal death and destruction. The misuse and abuse of jihad by terrorists/extremists leads to the negative portrayal of Islam by the American media.

In order to engage in a discussion about the negative portrayal of Islam, one must know the true meaning of Islam itself. In Islam – Religion of Terror?, Kenneth Woodward explains that the name Islam comes from the Arabic root word 'salama' which means peace. Islam is a religion which is based upon achieving peace through the submission to the will of Allah. Woodward writes, “It is a word that defines the faith of more than 1 billion people, and embodies the aspirations of Muslim societies from the west of Africa across a wide arc to the islands of Indonesia. It also expresses the vision of the Qur'an, the very words of God--so Muslims believe--revealed to the last of His prophets, Muhammad.” It is not only a religion, as most people understand it to be. It is a way of life. Islam as a religion details the way millions of people live, work and play. There are rules of conduct for business interactions, the role of the student, the honor of a mother and the maturity of youth.

What about jihad? The word jihad frightens most Americans. To them, this term means bloodshed and tyranny. Yet, to the majority of Muslims, the word jihad means the struggle to be good. Karen Armstrong explains that “the primary meaning of the word jihad is not "holy war" but "struggle." It refers to the difficult effort that is needed to put God's will into practice at every level--personal and social as well as political.” Islamic scholars have challenged those who openly convey their disgust at jihad to look to the Qur'an and find the term “holy war.” The fact of the matter is the term does not exist. However, the term jihad is a fairly broad concept. It encompasses at its highest level, the struggle of the self, and to its lowest level, war and armed combat. In the Qur’an, the only acceptable war is in self-defense.

"Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress limits; For Allah loveth not transgressors." (2:190)

"We ordained therein for them: “Life for life, eye for eye, Nose for nose, ear of ear, Tooth for tooth, and wounds Equal for equal.” But if any one remits the retaliation By way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself." (4:45)

A quote not readily seen in the American media is of the Prophet Muhammad telling his companions as they go home after a battle, "We are returning from the lesser jihad [the battle] to the greater jihad," the far more vital and crucial task of extinguishing transgression from one's own society and one's own heart. (Riyadh-us-Saliheen)

So, how did jihad evolve from its peaceful beginnings to what the American public sees on TV? James Turner Johnson, a Professor of Religion at Rutgers University cites the role of the Muslim jurists after the Prophet’s death collectively interpreting jihad in a different way. The interpretation that is seen by extremists is that Muslims of the world are in an emergency state of affairs. Extremists believe the firm hand of West is puppeteer to their leaders and destroying the very fabric of the Islamic faith. “This extreme interpretation of the idea of defensive jihad implicitly rejects much of the actual history of Muslim societies and the Muslim faith.” (Johnson) Today, it stems from their frustration at American foreign policy and the lack of resolve in the Middle-East conflicts. Extremists see these things as acts of aggression on Islam and therefore believe that everyone is at War. It is their rationale for terror acts. Extremists not only believe what they are doing is right, but they also believe they have the mandate of God to do so. They refer to the Qur'an repeatedly in their “warnings” to the American public via Al-Jazeera. However, they are playing a game of deception themselves.

"Muslims are ordered by God to "slay [enemies] wherever you find them!" (4: 89). Extremists such as Osama bin Laden like to quote such verses but do so selectively. They do not include the exhortations to peace, which in almost every case follow these more ferocious passages: "Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them" (4: 90)." (Johnson)

The American public sees Osama bin Laden and his cronies on TV and believe them to be ambassadors of Islam. The American media is awash with tales of terror and oppression by terrorists. In some cases, these tales are true but in others they can be much too tall. A worthy example is of a number of years ago, when the Oklahoma City bomb went off, a headline in 'Today' summed up with a picture of a fire fighter holding a dead child in his arms, the headline read: "In The Name of Islam.” Time has of course proven that this prejudiced assumption was wrong, as Timothy McVeigh, a right wing radical has walked the last mile for this heinous crime. Paulette Chu surmises that Western democracies have characterized Muslim culture as the next most serious threat to freedom and civilization. She states that plenty of Americans believe Islam inspires its followers toward violent passion and fanaticism; Western feminists question its treatment of women and consider the practice of veiling symbolic of female oppression. Outspoken evangelical Christians like Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson are now loudly condemning Islam as a “religion of violence.” People like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are using the war on terrorism as an opportunity to promote a simplistic and unfair picture of the Muslim faith. Of course one can hardly dismiss Hollywood and their movies of terrorists hijacking planes; bearded men shouting praises of God while wielding a plastic machine gun aimed at the President. It is in fact the rowdy voices of people like Falwell and O’Reilly and the colorful picture that Hollywood gives that proves a great tool of conveying the negative portrayal of Islam.

Jihad has an immediate role in Islam’s negative portrayal. The present manifestation of jihad by terrorists has great audience appeal. It involves a lot of public opinion and allows room for media twists and dramatic flourish that bode well for the ratings. The fact of the matter is it isn’t the beauty of Islam or Christianity or any other religion that attracts people. It gives audiences the liberty to claim righteousness and liberty. Audiences have far more opinions about cardinal sexual abuse cases and suicide bombers than they do about not coveting their neighbor’s wife. They know more about the massacre of Jews during the Holocaust and the mutual slaughter of Muslims & Hindus in India than they do about the Angkor Wat Temples and the beauty of Mecca. Action, suspense, exhilaration, damnation is what audiences appeal to. The media…follows suit. In this way, jihad as it is presented will always have a place in the American media for as long as terrorists choose to represent it thus. In less than 10 minutes after the Twin Towers collapsed, CNN had the phrase “Holy War” coined on the air. Perhaps the media has taken more liberties than it should in handling sensitive issues of religion, but that has not stopped them from doing so. It ultimately lies with the root of the matter, the misinterpretation of jihad by terrorists.

What happens when negative images of Islam prevail in audience’s frame of mind? Acts of aggression are seen as religious acts. The aggression committed by terrorists is seen as an action sanctioned by “their” God. It is a label that need not become the logo of future generations. Karen Armstrong writes, “It would be as grave a mistake to see Osama bin Laden as an authentic representative of Islam as to consider James Kopp, the alleged killer of an abortion provider in Buffalo, N.Y., a typical Christian or Baruch Goldstein, who shot 29 worshipers in the Hebron mosque in 1994 and died in the attack, a true martyr of Israel.” While American audiences are fed half-truths by CNN and other news agencies, they have a wealth of resources at their fingertips. Knowledge and understanding is the key to a better grasp of what Islam really means.

The negative portrayal of Islam influences Muslims all over the world. Because of the actions of a handful of disillusioned, confused if not powerful individuals, the Islam as most Muslims know it is being viewed like a deadly disease and its followers as the carriers about to infect the rest of the world. American audiences have a lot to discover about Islam before any opinion can be formed. The renowned Islamic scholar, Hamza Yusuf writes:

"[...] we must understand a people before we can benefit from them. In the current crisis, all sides are shouting but no-one seems to be understanding. Unfortunately in the absence of real discourse extremism has produced its own language that the mob does understand. If you’re not with us, you’re against us, has become the mantra uttered by both extremes which oversimplifies a complex matter and only serves to further polarize and incite. Reason and truth have always resided in the difficult middle ground between black and white, good and evil. Indeed life seems anything but black and white and good and evil battle it out daily within our own souls. Adhering to this middle ground enables us all to see our common humanity and its shared core values whether sacred or secular."

Inasmuch as this paper was deemed at enlightening the reader of the wrongdoing of terrorists and how it does not reflect what Islam is, it appears that everyone is looking for someone to blame. It is human nature to do so, so as to find a sense of security with the knowledge that one knows who to blame and whoever it may be can get what they deserve, a form of retribution. Everyone wants to have this sense of security but it cannot be achieved at the sake of the truth. In the Holy Qur’an, “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out Clear from Error” (2:256) Islam does not equal violence and bloodshed, nor does jihad mean massacres and horror. Abdul Hakim Murad writes, “There is much despair, but there also a ground for hope. It is always hard to accept that good might come out of evil; but perhaps only a catastrophe on this scale, so desolating, and so seemingly hopeless, could provide the motive and the space for such reclamation.” American audiences are assured of the truth and hope, as long as they seek it.

Works cited

  • “Are you ready to meet the woman who can get by without her looks?” Home page November 7, 2002. .
  • Armstrong, Karen. “The True, Peaceful Face Of Islam. (The War On Terror/Why The Hate?)” MN - Minitex Statewide Database Access Program Expanded Academic ASAP. October 1, 2001. v158 i15. p48. November 10, 2002. .
  • ---. “Karen Armstrong on “Islamic Terrorism”.” November 15, 2002. .
  • Chu, Pauline. “Media distorts meaning of Islamic faith” 18 September 2002. November 18, 2002. .
  • Haynes, Charles. “Watch Out: War on Terrorism Should Not Mean War on Islam” Inside the First Amendment. September 23, 2002.
  • Islam - A Religion of Terror? Invitation to Islam Issue 5. October 5 1998
  • Khan, Muqtedar. “A Memo to American Muslims” September 29, 2002
  • Johnson, James Turner. “Jihad and Just War” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June-July 2002 p12(3). September 23, 2002
  • Murad, Abdul-Hakim. “Recapturing Islam from Terrorists” 14 September, 2001. November 4, 2002.
  • Riyadh-us-Saliheen. Vol. 1. Comp. Imam Abu Zachariya Yahya bin Sharaf An-Nawawi Ad-Dimashqi. Trans. Dr. Muhammad Amin Abu Usamah Al-Arabi bin Razduq.
  • Rushdi 9
  • Darussalam Publishers. 2 vols.
  • Rodgers-Melnick, Ann. “’Jihad’ misused, misunderstood, scholar says” Pittsburgh Post Gazette September 23, 2001.
  • Solomon, Norman. “Terrorism, Television and the Rage for Vengeance” September 13, 2001. November 4, 2002. .
  • The Holy Qur’an: English translation of the meanings and commentary. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Medina: King Fahd Holy Qur’an Printing Complex.
  • Woodward, Kenneth L. “A Peaceful Faith, A Fanatic Few: More than 1 billion faithful believers trust in the compassion and power of Allah. What is it in the religion of Islam that turns a few extremists to terrorism? (The Fallout)” MN - Minitex Statewide Database Access Program Expanded Academic ASAP. September 24, 2001. p66. November 10, 2002. .
  • Yusuf, Hamza. BBC Thought for the Day. BBC Religion. 11 October 2001. November 18, 2002. .







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