Muslims and the Media
A uniquely shameful chapter
Last fall, the world commemorated the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, revisiting the shock and horror of the massacre of 2,977 innocent people on that fateful day but offering little or no reflection on the countless horrors that America then inflicted on others. The list includes at least 800,000 killed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the ten other countries where the $3-trillion war on terror has been waged overtly, and in another seventy-five nations where it has played out more covertly. Further calamities: The 38 million people displaced, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. The environmental disasters caused by the unprecedented bombings over a wide swath of the earth. The extrajudicial killings, including of people slaughtered by drones, which have frightened millions more. The torture chambers, including at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, which remains open. The suspension of civil liberties. The distortions of public policy and, indeed, of secular liberal democracies.
That the United States has failed to take responsibility for its actions is not surprising, given its history and its morally rudderless present. Sadly, Canada and much of Europe acted as appendages of the American empire in the aftermath of 9/11. And our ostensibly free media has dutifully amplified the imperial propaganda. Worse, it has played a leading role in the cultural warfare waged on Muslims, chiefly against the more than 30 million who are fellow citizens in the West and, most ironically, against Muslim women.
It should go without saying that the media cannot be blamed for reporting on the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has become an acceptable part of mainstream public discourse. And journalists are not in the business of doing PR for any specific group. We are adversarial. We thrive on conflict. Understanding basic journalistic practices is essential to appreciating that Muslims are not the only minority to have been marginalized by the media. Yet that very understanding also lets us see through the myth that media outlets are equal opportunity offenders. They are not and never have been. But their portrayal of Muslims constitutes a uniquely shameful chapter in modern history. In fanning fear of Islam and Muslims, the media’s Green Scare is arguably worse than the Red Scare of the 1950s: it has had a bigger footprint, extending beyond the U.S. to Canada, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere; it has lasted much longer; and it has impacted, besides the Muslim minorities in the West, much of the Muslim world.
The ubiquitous anti-Muslim coverage and commentary — in newspapers, on television, and on radio — has been studiously corroborated by scholars in North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom. And their findings have been just as studiously ignored by my fellow journalists. Even such icons of liberalism as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Toronto Star, along with leading British, French, German, Indian, and Australian dailies, have been guilty to varying degrees.
In 2015, for instance, a Toronto-based firm, 416 Labs, did a sentiment analysis of print and online headlines in the New York Times, using computational techniques to gauge the positive, negative, and neutral messages conveyed in them. The study looked at 2,667,700 examples spanning a quarter of a century, from 1990 to 2014, and found that the most negative terms appeared in stories about Islam and Muslims — more so than in stories about Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Yankees, even cancer and cocaine. Of all the headlines associated with Islam and Muslims, 57 percent had a negative connotation, compared with just 8 percent that had a positive one. “We talk a lot about media and Islamophobia, but nobody has done the math,” one of the analysts, Steven Zhou, said at the time.
After 9/11, it did not take the media long to conflate terrorism by a handful of Muslims with the deeds of all Muslims. “What do you have to say about this?” I was routinely asked, for quite some time, about any atrocity by a Muslim anywhere. I decided not to be baited. But most Muslims and Muslim groups did not have that luxury. They felt obliged to respond to incessant media demands to condemn terrorism. They did so frequently and forcefully — but they got little or no coverage. They learned to write and issue news releases, develop websites and social media platforms, and hold press conferences, only to be ignored or mocked. That put them in a no‑win situation. “Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?” the punditry kept asking.
Muslims were deemed fifth columnists, as were Japanese citizens in Canada and the United States during the Second World War. Although Muslims have not been detained en masse, they have felt psychologically interned: subjected to suspicion, surveillance, and siege, not only by the security agencies but also by journalists and commentators.
Terrorism by a Muslim was presented as a crime committed by a faith, but an atrocity by a non-Muslim was seen as an individual act. “When a Muslim person mows down innocent victims and terrorizes a community, media and authorities are quick to declare it terrorism,” the Poynter Institute, the non-profit journalism school and research organization, observed in 2017. “When a white, non-Muslim attacker does the same, he is usually described as a disturbed loner in a freak incident.” The scholar Pavan Kumar Malreddy, who has taught at both York University and the University of Saskatchewan, put it this way in a 2012 article for the Journal of Postcolonial Writing : the media routinely labels non-Muslim killers as crazy lone wolves, nutbars, and mavericks but rarely as homegrown terrorists, “as if ‘home’ is congenitally incapable of breeding terrorists, let alone the ideological manure required for it. Thus, by definition, a terrorist is always already ‘foreign-grown.’ ”
Terrorism by a Muslim was tied to Islam but terrorism by a Christian was not tied to Christianity, nor were a Buddhist’s acts to Buddhism, a Jew’s to Judaism, a Hindu’s to Hinduism, even though some of these perpetrators also invoked their faith or their aggrieved faithful. This pattern was in keeping with an earlier formulation: there were fears of the “Islamic nuclear bomb” beginning in the 1970s but not of a Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu bomb.
A frequent post‑9/11 journalistic assertion was that mosques in the West were crawling with potential terrorists, incubated by radical imams. The reality was less exotic: some young people were getting radicalized — not so much in mosques and madrassas but rather online. In fact, imams, mosques, and other institutions have been helpful in ferreting out several potential troublemakers. In the U.S., for example, a study by the University of South Carolina and Duke University showed that in the ten years after 9/11, Muslims tipped off security officials in forty-eight of the 121 terrorist incidents unearthed. In 2014, Stephen Harper conceded that Canadian mosques were helpful in warding off radicalization. “Our security and intelligence people would tell you that a good relationship with our Muslim community has actually really helped to identify a lot of these threats before they become much more serious,” the prime minister said. Yet many journalists, especially those with the Postmedia Network and some Quebec tabloids, kept linking certain Muslims, mosques, and organizations to jihadism without proof.
In 2003, the police arrested twenty-three Muslims in the Toronto area, an “Al‑Qaeda sleeper cell,” for plotting to fly planes into the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station and to bomb the CN Tower. None of the allegations turned out to be true, and the suspects were released. A later analysis of the coverage, by Felix Odartey-Wellington, a professor of communication at Cape Breton University, showed how the Globe and Mail and the National Post “acted in concert with the Canadian security apparatus in generating a moral panic” and how young Muslims were framed as “folk devils.”
The editors of Muslims and the News Media, a 2006 collection, described the work of their British contributor David Miller as detecting “a quite frightening degree of complicity between governmental propagandists and the news media in whipping up waves of panic regarding the presence of Muslim terrorists.” Miller, who co‑founded Spinwatch, which monitors both corporate and government propaganda, explained how “dubious intelligence is fed to journalists; which, because it appears credible to most mainstream journalists, is reported as the authoritative views of experts; and, in an ‘almost absurdly circular’ fashion, these same reports have been used as evidence in the deportation of Muslims.” The cycle simply reinforced itself.
In 2006, the police picked up eighteen young men in Toronto for planning urban terrorist acts. They were said to have been radicalized at local mosques. In actuality, they seemed motivated instead by Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. John Miller, the former head of journalism at Ryerson University, and Cybele Sack, a student in the department, analyzed the coverage that appeared in five major newspapers and Maclean’s magazine. “The media’s standards for granting anonymity were violated to an alarming degree,” they wrote in the Canadian Journal of Media Studies. While “investigators were allowed to violate the accused plotters’ presumption of innocence without being held accountable,” many journalists went further, by “putting Muslim leaders on the spot to tell Canadians what they were going to do to stop it and encouraging them to pledge allegiance to Canada, as if it were their particular responsibility to do so because they shared a cultural background with the suspects.”
A similar pattern permeated the opinion pages, according to a separate study by Miller and Sack. In examining 225 articles, they found “a significant portion of the published commentary raised unreasonable public alarm, cast suspicion on the followers of a major religion and impugned the religion itself, failed to subject the allegations of our government and security officials to rigorous scrutiny, and predicted guilt before the suspects were able to exercise their democratic rights to a fair trial.”
When the Toronto 18 case broke, a mosque in Scarborough held a press conference to plead that the alleged perpetrators were not representative of the community and that Islam did not condone terrorism. That they felt compelled to say all this was itself telling of the times. What the Globe and Mail ’s Christie Blatchford filed after attending the event is worth quoting at some length:
I drove back from yesterday’s news conference at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto in the northeastern part of the city, but honestly, I could have just as easily floated home in the sea of horse manure emanating from the building.
So frequent were the bald reassurances that faith and religion had nothing — nothing, you understand — to do with the alleged homegrown terrorist plot recently busted open by Canadian police and security forces, that for a few minutes afterward, I wondered if perhaps it was a vile lie of the mainstream press or a fiction of my own demented brain that the 17 accused young men are all, well, Muslims. . . .
Even before I knew for sure that they’re all Muslims, I suspected as much from what I saw on the tube, perhaps because I am a trained observer, or you know, because I have eyes.
The accused men are mostly young and mostly bearded in the Taliban fashion. They have first names like Mohamed, middle names like Mohamed and last names like Mohamed. Some of their female relatives at the Brampton courthouse who were there in their support wore black head-to-toe burkas (now there’s a sight to gladden the Canadian female heart: homegrown burka-wearers darting about just as they do in Afghanistan), which is not a getup I have ever seen on anyone but Muslim women.
The editors of Canada’s self-declared national newspaper featured the column on A1.
I’ve done my share of defending columnists, who are traditionally allowed wide latitude. The same is true of cartoonists. But they normally don’t cross certain red lines. In 1997, however, the Montreal Gazette’s Aislin depicted an angry dog wearing an Arab headscarf. The headline read, “In the name of Islamic extremism,” while a balloon below added, “With our apologies to dogs everywhere.” As the American journalist Lawrence Pintak, a Middle East veteran, noted a decade later, “It is difficult to conceive of a North American newspaper running such a cartoon with the headline: ‘In the name of Jewish extremism,’ or ‘In the name of Christian extremism.’ ”
Six years after Aislin’s cartoon appeared, the Globe and Mail published one that showed an Arab boy joyously giving his dad a suicide belt for Father’s Day. As he recounts in his 2021 book, Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line, the Toronto lawyer Dany Assaf was enraged. He met with the paper’s editorial board and brought with him a picture of his son, Mohamad, and daughter, Danya, then three and two. Sliding the picture across the table, Assaf asked, “Which of my children do you imagine giving me a suicide belt for Father’s Day?” The editors offered him “an apology of sorts.”
The media helped manufacture public consent for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. In addition to editorials and opinion columns, there was news coverage filled with more jingoism than journalism.
The rah‑rah narrative of the Afghan war, especially from those embedded with their nations’ armed forces, obscured the reality that, after the initial success of toppling the Taliban, the war lost its meaning; it was being waged on a people who had nothing to do with 9/11, and it was going nowhere. Victory that was ostensibly just around the corner never arrived. It should have come as no surprise, then, that last August’s easy-peasy Taliban takeover was met with utter disbelief among Canadians, Americans, and Europeans. Reporting trips away from the allied troops and into the Afghan interior might have prepared us better.
On Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, too many journalists were easily manipulated by anonymous officials, either lured by the promise of scoops or drawn by affinity for the cause. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and others would eventually acknowledge their folly — though too late for the dead and maimed Iraqis and their decimated historic civilization. At its centre was the birthplace of Sufism, Baghdad, whence my ancestors went to India in the fourteenth century.
While the British and French media — newspapers, in particular — critically examined Washington’s claims, especially after Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations in 2003, most Canadian publications remained gung‑ho about the war. This even though an overwhelming majority of Canadians were opposed to it, as was the government of the day. Jean Chrétien had already informed George W. Bush that we would sit out the campaign unless it was authorized by the UN. On the eve of a visit to the White House, he phoned me at home to ask what he should be telling the president. Far be it from me to advise a prime minister, I replied, but I was hearing growing opposition to our involvement. “Yes, that’s what I hear, especially from immigrants,” said he. His antenna was up: the new Canada of the more recently arrived people from around the world, innately skeptical of the U.S., did not want to be dragged into another war, especially one based on a set of transparent lies.
Around the time of the invasion of Iraq, the conservative media, in particular, was amplifying the voices of Stephen Harper, Stockwell Day, Mike Harris, and Don Cherry, who berated the prime minister for not standing up and saluting when Washington called. There was also dutiful coverage of a rather pathetic pro-war demonstration at Toronto City Hall, where Ontario’s premier, Ernie Eves, and some corporate supporters arrived in limousines.
Once the wars got rolling, the media was more concerned about the victims of terrorism in the West than about the far more numerous Muslim victims abroad. Even allowing room for parochial bias, there was no escaping the reality that many simply followed the official script enunciated by Tommy Franks, the commander who oversaw the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. “We don’t do body counts,” the general explained. Nor did the media. It took academics and others to provide estimates, of varying degrees of accuracy, of the mounting death tolls.
The media also showed little or no interest in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s “extraordinary renditions”: cross-border kidnappings of suspects who were forced onto roughly a thousand secret flights. About 3,000 detainees were held worldwide and tortured at so‑called black sites, beginning as early as 2001. It was the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others who sounded the early alarm. And although the Washington Post reported on a secret CIA prison at Bagram Air Force Base in December 2002, it wasn’t until 2005 that the New York Times broke the rendition-flight scandal.
All the while, the media across the West exaggerated Muslim terrorism and downplayed terrorism by non-Muslims. “A perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about seven more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who is Muslim,” said a co-author of a study in Justice Quarterly that was based on 3,541 articles published between 2006 and 2015, including from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 357 percent more coverage than the other attacks. And while Muslims committed just 12.5 percent of the attacks, they received half of the news coverage of 136 terrorist incidents. This imbalance created “a feedback loop of incorrect information fueling prejudice and discrimination.”
Barack Obama was said to have periodically reminded his White House staff that more Americans die in bathtubs every year than perish at the hands of Muslim terrorists. Yet the media remained fixated on Muslim terrorists long after far-right white extremists supplanted them as a major security threat in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, especially in Germany.
The Quebec City mosque shooting, in January 2017, left six people dead and nineteen injured. It was the biggest massacre in this country since the 1989 mass shooting at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. In spite of that, the attack did not make the main headline on the Globe and Mail ’s front page the next day. On television, the CBC’s coverage of the event was in “stark contrast to the many hours of live reporting and commentary” it would devote to the London Bridge jihadist attack five months later, as Azeezah Kanji observed in the Toronto Star. A legal scholar at the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto, Kanji also complained to the public broadcaster about a special edition of The National, prompted by the events in London. She noted that the host, Peter Mansbridge, “focused exclusively on ‘jihadist’ terrorism” while blithely ignoring the massacre here. The CBC’s ombudsperson, Esther Enkin, sent Kanji a six-page reply. In classic bureaucratese, Enkin semi-conceded the lapse but couldn’t resist adding that a reporter “did reference Quebec City,” as had one panellist, as though that mitigated the relative neglect — in an episode entitled “A National Conversation on Terror”— of the most deadly attack on Canadian Muslims.
Two years later, in 2019, two mass shootings by a single gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, left fifty Muslims, from two mosques, dead. Again, the Globe failed to give the story prominence on the front page, a point conceded by the paper’s public editor, Sylvia Stead. One should avoid second-guessing the placement of news stories — unless a pattern emerges. Which is what we have here.
The media has also displayed less regard for the plight of Muslims than for non-Muslims in non-terrorism cases. Take Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, unjustly detained for 1,019 days in China. The media kept exemplary vigil for the two Michaels, yet it has hardly bothered about the fate of another Canadian, Huseyin Celil. He is not the only other Canadian being held in China (there are more, on drug-related charges and such), but his is a high-profile case. An activist fighting on behalf of his persecuted people, the Uighurs, he has been in prison since 2006. Unlike the Michaels, he has had not a single Canadian consular visit. Contact with his mother and sister, in China, was cut off five years ago. We know nothing about his condition. We don’t even know if he is alive. A critical difference between Celil’s case and that of the two Michaels: he is a naturalized Canadian Muslim, and he is not white.
Beijing does not recognize Celil’s Canadian citizenship because he was born in China, and on that basis, it has denied him Canadian consular access. That is the Communist Party’s convenient excuse. What is the media’s?
For the longest time, the media’s first instinct when news broke of a terrorist incident was to declare that the suspect was Muslim. In the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995, several outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, confidently pronounced it a jihadist attack. Those initial reports make for amusing reading today — in that they got it so horribly wrong with such arrogant certainty and then were so shamelessly blasé when it turned out that the culprit, Timothy McVeigh, was a white Christian.
Similarly, soon after 9/11, when letters containing anthrax were sent to two senators and several news organizations, eventually causing five deaths, the New York Times reported that officials were looking into the possibility that “Al Qaeda confederates of the hijackers are behind the incidents,” even while noting that investigators “lacked concrete evidence or intelligence to explain who sent the anthrax-contaminated letters.” The paper was not alone, but the culprit turned out to be a Catholic microbiologist with the U.S. Army. Ten years later, when Anders Breivik massacred seventy-seven people in Norway, the New York Times once again rushed to call it a Muslim terrorist attack, as did the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, European media hyped the demographic time-bomb theory: that Muslims were outbreeding others and were bound to take over the continent. “The idea of a stealth takeover by Islamic believers is a delusion,” the Globe columnist Doug Saunders wrote in his 2012 book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide. Despite the notion being discredited, Maclean’s had run a 4,800-word book excerpt in 2006, claiming that Muslims posed a demographic, cultural, and security threat to the West. After a group of students complained to the magazine, which was dismissive of their concerns, they contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission, as well as two provincial commissions, on the grounds that the excerpt constituted hate speech. Whether it did or not is a matter of opinion. They had a right to complain. Yet they were vilified by Postmedia newspapers in a manner that previous complainants had not been. All three commissions ruled that the issue was outside their remit, but the one in Ontario condemned the article as Islamophobic. “By portraying Muslims as all sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to ‘the West,’ this explicit expression of Islamophobia further perpetuates and promotes prejudice towards Muslims and others,” the commissioners wrote.
At times, the media simply made things up. In 2007 and 2008, the Bouchard-Taylor commission on cultural accommodation in Quebec reviewed publications that had stoked hysteria with stories of outrageous requests for religious accommodation. The commission hired its own reporters and researchers and concluded that the articles they checked bore little or no resemblance to the facts. “The foundations of collective life in Quebec are not in a critical situation,” explained the final report.
Islamophobia being the new antisemitism, many a media outlet has applied familiar tropes to Muslims: Islam is incompatible with secularism, just as Judaism is said to be. Muslims cannot be trusted, just as Jews cannot be. Muslims harbour dual loyalties, just as Jews do. Muslims wield too much influence, just as Jews do. Muslims are unassimilable, just like Jews. One of the more popular tabloid refrains in the U.K. has been that there are “no‑go areas” in Britain where sharia law dominates and non-Muslims “cannot enter.”
Such assertions are jarringly at odds with the real world, especially in the U.S. and Canada. “There is an astonishing disconnect between the reality of Muslims making successful inroads in the media, as writers and as elected representatives and businesspeople all over Europe and North America, and the continuation of a media narrative of Muslim unwillingness to ‘integrate,’ ” Jytte Klausen, a Brandeis University professor and the author of The Cartoons That Shook the World, once told me. American Muslims are a highly educated and successful minority. Muslim women are more likely to have college degrees than American women overall, and they are the second most educated group after Jewish women. We are familiar with high-profile Muslims: Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in the U.S. Congress, the entertainers Hasan Minhaj, Mahershala Ali, and Aziz Ansari, and the writers Fareed Zakaria and Ayad Akhtar. Less known is that Muslims are disproportionately represented in professions like medicine, pharmacy, and engineering. In our 2021 federal election, there were more than thirty Muslim candidates, and a dozen were elected.
Nonetheless, the media mindset has been so full of stereotypes since 9/11 that even when journalists try to portray a Muslim in a positive light, their limitations show. Consider when the Globe and Mail ’s chief political writer in Ottawa, Campbell Clark, went to bat for Omar Alghabra, the Liberal MP who, upon being named transport minister in early 2021, was besmirched by the Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet as a possible extremist. Part of Campbell’s defence: “Mr. Alghabra is not an imam. He sports no religious symbols. He wears a beard as closely trimmed as Mr. Blanchet’s. Over years in politics, he has given no particular sign he is especially religious.” So the test of a good Muslim is that he not be too religious and that his beard not be too long.
While members of the media have talked incessantly about Muslims since 9/11, they rarely talk to ordinary Muslims. Those they interviewed and quoted copiously tended to be gun-toting militants and fire-breathing imams; “moderates,” defined as those who attack Islam and who do not question the received wisdom about geopolitics; those who were once “radical,” “militant,” or “jihadist” but have seen the error of their ways; and ex-Muslims, like the activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who confirm every cliché.
Needless to say, critics are entitled to their views, including their distortions. Yet those who write commentary and opinion, while given the freedom to express controversial views, must still follow the usual journalistic standards, such as adherence to the facts and the test of plausibility. Such basic rules have rarely been applied in these cases. Editors and producers infrequently publish letters or allow rebuttals, let alone countervailing opinions. Instead, they offer the same excuses that Islamophobes often do: They are not against Islam or Muslims — not at all. Rather, they oppose political Islam, radical Islam, militant Islam, extremist Islam, Islamism, Islamicism — terms that can mean whatever one wants them to. Such a formulation is also convenient for those who believe that terrorism involving Muslims is Islamic, while the terrorism involving someone like Breivik is not Christian.
For twenty years, Western media organizations have been at the forefront of advocacy for the rights of Muslim women. As the West responded to 9/11, many journalists actively promoted the mission civilisatrice of liberating Afghan women, a project initiated by Laura Bush, Cherie Blair, and others as part of their husbands’ war propaganda. Paradoxically, many of those same journalists have failed to give Muslim women fair and balanced coverage.
Afghan women needed liberating, all right, but we didn’t invade Afghanistan to liberate them. As much as the initiative was appreciated by many, the project never could escape the orientalist stench of white folks saving brown women from their cruel fathers, husbands, and brothers. Some journalists and media outlets, such as my own paper, the Toronto Star, have sponsored Afghan women to come to the West. They mean well, obviously, but we can be certain that they would never sponsor Palestinian women from, say, the Gaza Strip.
It was inevitable that propaganda to justify invasions and to save Muslim women from traditional societies would deteriorate into cultural warfare. If Afghan and Arab men are misogynists, Muslim men everywhere are likely the same. Therefore, Muslim women in North America and Europe — those who wear hijabs and niqabs, in particular — also have to be rescued from their retrograde menfolk. These women couldn’t be wearing the scarves and chadors of their own volition. Those pieces of cloth had to be banned, and they have been throughout public-sector Quebec and in several European states. (Fittingly, Naheed Nenshi, the former mayor of Calgary, has taken to asking audiences abroad to guess which Western jurisdiction openly denies jobs based on faith practices.)
If the Taliban and the ayatollahs tell women what to wear, much of our media tells them what not to. Neither side grants them agency to make their own decisions. The urge to control them is about the same. We are left to argue only about the degree of the control and the punishments for disobedience.
On issues associated with the hijab and the niqab, especially the latter, the media provides mostly one-sided views. It shuts out even those who personally oppose the hijab or the niqab but want to respect an individual’s choices. It is only since Quebec banned the wearing of religious symbols by public servants in positions of authority, in 2019, that some members of the media have come around to providing a semblance of balanced reporting.
The niqab being a powerful symbol of Muslim women’s oppression, the media cannot resist using the image even when it has little or no relevance to what is being discussed. Reality is thus distorted: an overwhelming majority of Muslim women do not wear the niqab worldwide, and 99 percent of those living in the West don’t.
And then there is sharia.
Contrary to common journalistic assumptions, there is no one Islamic law. There are as many as there are governments and groups in a position to proclaim a version of it. Sharia is based on the Quran and the Hadith — the corpus of the sayings and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. Both have been open to interpretation through the ages by eminent jurists, all of them male. And the sets of laws so derived continue to be tinkered with. Increasingly, Muslim women are challenging the rules that deprive them of their rights, just as women of other faiths are doing. Yet many of these women adhere to other parts of sharia, such as saying their prayers, keeping their fasts during Ramadan, making an honest living, giving to charity, being kind to neighbours, and being good citizens.
Neither in the U.S., where more than half the states have taken panicky legislative or administrative steps to stop sharia, nor in Ontario, which had its own sharia hysteria around 2004, does the media ask the simplest of reportorial questions: How, exactly, would sharia come here? Would Congress and Parliament pass legislation to replace all existing laws to permit, say, the chopping off of the hands of thieves?
The answer is blowing in the wind, floated by the chief instigator of the anti-sharia movement himself, David Yerushalmi, a lawyer in Brooklyn. The Anti-Defamation League condemned Yerushalmi for his “anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black bigotry,” and he made no secret of the fact that the anti-sharia movement was his invention, designed to sow fear and suspicion.
The narrative on sharia doesn’t have much to do with Muslim women — or with logic. It is just another cudgel. That the hyped concern for Muslim women is suspect shows up elsewhere. For years, hate crimes against Muslim women, especially those who wear hijabs and niqabs, have been skyrocketing across Canada, Europe, and the United States. Individuals have been accosted in public spaces, called names, spat on, chased, pushed, shoved, and kicked, and the media, especially in Europe, barely reported the incidents.
Even twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, journalists and pundits remain oblivious to one of the great ironies of our age: a major concern of the media and the public about Islam has been its treatment of women, yet a major target of Islamophobia and Islamophobic coverage in the West has been Muslim women. As Ryerson University’s Tariq Amin-Khan has observed, this contradiction reflects “a schizophrenic Orientalist attitude.”
Elastic journalistic standards have also been applied in cases of domestic violence. Just as acts of terrorism by Muslims are attributed to their faith, acts of domestic violence are attributed to the perpetrator’s faith and culture. As Zareena Grewal explains in Death by Culture? How Not to Talk about Islam and Domestic Violence, “When white males perpetrate violence the focus is on the psychological portrait of this individual: family history, childhood, mental health. Yet when a Muslim woman is killed violently by a Muslim man, we are willing to accept culture as an explanation in a way that would never be satisfactory if the perpetrator were white, just as we tend to look for cultural explanations for teen pregnancy among blacks and Latinos but treat pregnant white teens as individual cases.”
Two tragic cases help illustrate the point.
In 2009, three Afghan Canadian girls were killed by their father, Mohammad Shafia, who also killed their mother, his first wife. After a sensational trial that attracted international attention, he was convicted, along with his son and his second wife, on four counts of murder. The girls had been caught between their father’s strict rules and their own social mores. Yasmin Jiwani, a communications professor at Concordia University, analyzed the Globe ’s coverage — some sixty stories over two and a half years. Jiwani said the girls were depicted as “exceptional” or “worthy” victims, who were to become “like us ” and “join the dominant society which . . . offers them freedom, sexual and otherwise.”
Two years earlier, in 2007, Aqsa Parvez, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani Canadian girl, was murdered by her father, in what was widely characterized as an honour killing triggered by her refusal to don the hijab. But one journalist, Craig Offman of CanWest News Service, found a different narrative, reporting that “the traditional Islamic clothing was not a major factor and that other girls in the family did not wear the hijab.” Those who knew Aqsa also told him that she “was religiously observant but mainly wanted to be more independent.” As Wilfrid Laurier University’s Jasmin Zine observed in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, “any attempt to insert a more normative frame of reference through which to understand Aqsa’s death was overshadowed by the barrage of media sensationalism that framed the issue as a ‘death by culture.’ ”
Concerning the tragic Parvez case, I interviewed Vivian Rakoff, the former director of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Intergenerational clashes transcend race, religion and ethnicity, he told me: “It’s the story of almost every single immigrant group adhering to the strict values of their past or indeed their present. I’ve heard this from Greek families, Italian families where the daughter wants to go and be with friends on the Yonge Street strip and the father calls her a whore and kicks her out and she gets beaten up.”
Even the most liberal media outlets are not free of biases when it comes to Muslim women. Rochelle Terman, who now teaches at the University of Chicago, analyzed their portrayal in the New York Times and the Washington Post over a thirty-five-year period, by looking at 4,531 articles. In 2017, she wrote that coverage was driven by “confirmation bias,” which affirmed the papers’ pre-existing theories and prejudices. Journalists placed disproportionate emphasis on inequality in Muslim lands, while ignoring egregious violations of women’s rights in non-Muslim nations, such as those across much of Africa. When reporting on non-Muslim women, the papers disproportionately featured those living in societies where their rights were respected. Thus Muslim women were “associated with countries that violate women’s rights, whereas non-Muslim women are associated with countries that respect their rights.” The two papers also concentrated on Iran and Saudi Arabia rather than, say, Malaysia. Thus, “Muslim women from relatively egalitarian societies are less visible than women in oppressive Muslim countries,” further distorting the picture.
But given their atrocious records, why wouldn’t the media concentrate on Saudi Arabia and Iran? When I put that question to Terman, she responded, “It may be perfectly reasonable to focus on Iran and Saudi Arabia over Malaysia. But non-Muslim countries that also do horribly on women’s rights are not featured in these papers. Also, papers frame stories about Muslim women around ‘women’s rights and gender equality’ regardless of the situation on the ground.”
Regardless of the great diversity of views among them, I find that Muslims are as one in being disappointed, enraged, and estranged from Western media outlets, which they see as anti-Muslim crusaders. The alienated fall into two broad categories: people in the Muslim world and the communities of Muslim minorities in the West. The former have the luxury of criticizing from a distance. The latter have had to deal with the constant fallout of bad coverage and demonization. Muslims don’t trust my profession and my colleagues. Indeed, they fear us, especially what they see as our tactics of entrapment. They are petrified that their words will be twisted and distorted if they don’t fit the prescribed clichés and stereotypes. “We don’t recognize ourselves in your media,” I have been told repeatedly over the years, across North America, Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, and Africa.
The other main concern is that media organizations are usually dismissive of their complaints and don’t take Muslims seriously. We can see this attitude in the episode of those infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet, when the editors of Jyllands‑Posten ignored concerned voices, including a 3,000-strong demonstration in Copenhagen and a petition with 17,000 signatures protesting against the daily’s decision to publish the images. Met with disdain, Danish Muslims and eleven Muslim ambassadors to Denmark took their case to the larger world in late 2005. Critics pointed out that the very same paper had rejected caricatures of Christ three years earlier, saying they were offensive and would “provoke an outcry.”
A bigger complaint is that in their knee-jerk defence of free speech, journalists have time and again become apologists for Islamophobes, in a way they never would be for antisemites and other hate-mongers. Indeed, the media has helped normalize anti-Muslim hate, as with the Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo cartoons, amplifying the claims of these offenders (and their defenders) that they had not only the right to offend but a duty to do so.
Not surprisingly, few advocates of free speech spoke up in 2015 when Concordia University started culling “controversial” and “inappropriate” books in an office run by the Muslim Students’ Association. The irony of a postsecondary institution censoring reading material seemed to have been completely lost on all concerned. Three years earlier, the Toronto Sun raised a hullabaloo after a visit to an Islamic bookstore in the city’s east end rattled the owner into removing a book that referenced beating disobedient wives. Are there not misogynist and other inappropriate materials in the religious texts of most faiths, starting with the Old Testament? Should we be pulling all those from public view as well?
Studies have shown that more than 75 percent of people in the West rely on the media for their information regarding Muslims. “What many of us know about Islam, or what we think we know, is filtered primarily through the media,” Todd H. Green, an expert on Islamophobia, writes in The Fear of Islam. “Without a doubt, the media functions as the most powerful and influential conveyor of ‘knowledge’ of Islam.”
Media organizations see themselves as champions of the underdog, yet they are deferential to the rich and the powerful while being careless and cavalier with the poor and the vulnerable. Historically, mainstream journalists in the West have a poor record of reporting on and portraying minorities, from Indigenous peoples to immigrant communities of all stripes. Thankfully, members of the contemporary media have improved. But where we have, we’ve done so mostly under societal pressure — refraining from demeaning those people whom society no longer devalues. In keeping with changing social norms, we have learned to call out overt misogyny, homophobia, and racism.
However, we still demean groups that continue to suffer racist, religious, and other forms of bigotry in society at large primarily because they lack the power to effectively counter it. When Muslim bashing became the norm after 9/11, most journalists joined the stampede, kicking Muslims further down the media caste system. Some organizations, such as Fox News, adopted Islamophobia as a business model. They took to peddling what John Cruickshank, then the publisher of the Toronto Star, described to me in 2016 as “flat‑out racism and bigotry” and “profoundly awful” content. “The popular press,” he said of the Canadian media, specifically, “are doing what they’re doing not out of some deep conviction or ideological basis, but because they are playing to the notion of building the loyalty of a certain segment of their customer base by creating a tribal solidarity against Muslims. It is despicable.”
I once thought that Canadian coverage of terrorism would be of a higher standard. Why? Because we are Canadian. We don’t have the warmongering exceptionalism of the Americans. I also thought that under multiculturalism, our newsrooms have made progress in producing what I once grandly called “the dignity of equal coverage for all groups.” I further assumed that our media organizations, in a reflection of our national progress, had freed themselves from the inferiority complex that used to make us look up to London and then Washington.
I also believed there have been some marked journalistic improvements, perhaps a reflection of public opinion shifting for the better, starting with the disgust at the Conservatives’ proposal for a so‑called barbaric cultural practices hotline, in 2015, and Harper’s demonizing of Syrian refugees as potential (Muslim) terrorists. The massacre of four members of the visibly Muslim Afzal family, out for a walk in their neighbourhood in London, Ontario, shook up Canadians in June 2021. This was rightly called a terrorist act: security forces and the media now seem more ready to acknowledge that terrorism can be perpetrated by non-Muslims.
Not until I started gathering all the thematic strands of news coverage and commentary did I realize how much and in how many ways the media has demeaned and dehumanized Muslims over more than two decades. In considering the many sins of commission and omission that I’ve outlined, readers may assess for themselves how various newspapers, magazines, and radio and television outlets stack up. Some may feel that I’ve overemphasized certain trends and underplayed others. Such is the nature of any subjective exercise.
Although journalists are in the business of critiquing everyone, we are not very gracious when critiqued. If we are indeed central to democracy, we do need a reckoning. We should be summoned regularly to pay heed to our better angels: in the case of the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star, by their ombudspersons, and across the profession by the National NewsMedia Council and the Conseil de presse du Québec, as a start. But they all tend to be complaint-driven and have been too absorbed in nitpicking to confront this dark period in our history. Perhaps they can now find the will and the way — in partnership with such groups as News Media Canada, the Canadian Journalism Foundation, the Canadian Association of Journalists, and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, as well as interested journalism schools — to conduct an honest examination of what we have wrought. Should there be such an undertaking, I’d be happy to be proven more wrong than right.