This is a piece inspired by Khalid A. Ali’s art and how much of the world misinterprets the muslim faith.
Ever since the terrorist attacks directed at the US on September 11th, 2001, non-radical Muslims have faced increased hardship around the globe. Due in part to media sensationalism, personal prejudice, and historical misinterpretation, a balanced view of the religion of Islam has become unavailable for many non-Muslims (especially those in the West). The minority (radical Islamists) has been incorrectly characterized as the majority, and the struggle for understanding is rooted in looking beyond this misconception.
Media sensationalism regarding Islam has been a hot-button topic that has been used to increase viewership, but it has caused many non-Muslims to harbor misconceptions about Islam as a result. A recent study has shown that since the attacks on 9/11, news stories that portray Muslims in a negative light receive more attention from the media than any positive stories. This revelation was proven from “articles from the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Times, as well as from CBS, CNN and Fox’s television broadcasts to ensure a wide range of ideologies.” The widespread demonization of Islam in mainstream media cannot help but influence the ideas and opinions of non-Muslim viewership. The significance of this type of indoctrination can be incredibly detrimental to Muslim and non-Muslim relations, as researcher Christopher Bail points out that “[t]here are consequences of this media coverage, so that fringe organizations can actually come to redefine what we think of as mainstream.” This type of redefinition exposes entire audiences to the views of “fringe” groups, who are already radical themselves, and takes it one step further by portraying these views as prevalent and accepted.
Personal prejudices, often compounded by media bias, are yet another obstacle in understanding Islam. There is a general tendency to assign the view of a single person or group of persons to an entire religion, both in the media and in the public. The problem of essentialism—viewing one aspect and applying it to the whole—is especially apparent in non-Muslim views of Islam, as high-profile radical figures can become representative of the entire faith. There is far too much complexity and scope within Islam to apply one set of values, radical or not. The divisions that exist within the Muslim world are many: the different ethnicities and religious views, from Sunni and Shi’a to Wahhabis, cannot be classified under just one ideological umbrella. It is important to let Muslims self-identify in order to clarify any possible misconceptions and to allow individuals to distance themselves from radical groups.
Similar to essentialism, scriptualism is yet another analytical device that further separates non-Muslims from an understanding of Islam. One piece of scripture cannot speak for a whole people or religion; it is imperative to understand individual communities and cultures. The Quran, which at its essence is an anthology of religious text, is often seen as one absolute definition of Islam. Although even the most learned religious scholars face challenges when reading and interpreting the Quran, many laypeople assume they can interpret any piece of prominent scripture. For example, Sura 8 Ayah 38 and 39 can be seen as a part of text that could be easily misinterpreted:
“You tell the unbelievers in case they desist whatever has happened will be forgiven them. If they persist, they should remember the fate of those who have gone before them.”
Out of context, these Ayahs make Islam sound radical, militaristic, and intolerant of all other “unbelievers”. These particular Ayahs are indeed militant, but the idea of Jihad in this Sura is not an all-encompassing offensive war against non-Muslims. In context, the Ayahs produce a very different story—in the case where Islam is being directly threatened by outsiders, the Quran tells believers that it is acceptable to fight back in order to protect the religion and people. If the aggressors cease fighting, the Muslims will do so in turn, and the aggressors will be forgiven. When taken completely out of context, parts of Quranic scripture are very susceptible to misinterpretation. The obstacle to overcome for non-Muslims is to view these texts not as stand-alone passages, but as a complete work that is an integral part of the structural backbone of Islamic communities.
The overall theme that emerges for each obstacle is not to judge a whole by one of its parts. The complexity and elaborate nature of Islam as a religion cannot be simplified by the media or by personal opinion: it is only through open and honest dialogue about scripture and practice that non-Muslims will come to a better understanding of this consistently misrepresented faith.