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September 11th, the War on Terrorism, and Civil Rights

By Janine Kahn

In August 2004, 26-year-old poet and former teacher Amir Sulaiman was featured as an artist on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Standing before a captive audience, he stalked the stage, passionately stringing his political sentiments through the air with a piece called “Danger.”

"Justice is between plans and action, between writing letters to congressmen and clapping the captain. Between raising legal defense funds and putting a gun on the bailiff and taking the judge captive. It’s between prayer and fasting, between burning and blasting,” said Sulaiman, who received a standing ovation as he exited.

Four days later, Sulaiman would find himself under investigation by the FBI for his supposedly anti-American poetry, and the fact that he was a Muslim. He refused to talk to the FBI and said the government should deal with his lawyer.

"He was scared,” said Dalia Hashad of the ACLU, as she told Sulaiman’s tale to a room packed with fellows. “[He asked himself] ‘Do I have to disappear? Are they going to take me somewhere where I have no access to a court?’ “

The FBI visited members of Sulaiman’s family and the principal at the school where he taught, with a subpoena for his records and information on his former students. Sulaiman also found himself on the “No-fly List,” which meant he was subject to extra security measures each time he traveled by air.

Sulaiman’s story is a good example of what it is like for an average Muslim today, said Hashad, who played a clip of his poetry for the room to decide if it was dangerous enough to merit an FBI investigation.

“He has always been Muslim. He has never broken the law in his life. He is just trying to express himself creatively and do so within the parameters of what his faith has encouraged him to do,” she said.

The media has not given much coverage to the FBI’s questioning of Muslims and Arabs post 9/11, said Hashad, who explained that the agency puts together lists of people they suspect will be more likely to commit crimes of terrorism, and investigates each.

“And these are, of course, in their opinion, Muslims,” said Hashad.

No group has felt the impact of 9/11 more than the Muslims, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

When news of the catastrophe was spread, Muslim scholars and institutions across the globe
were quick to condemn those who had caused it, noted Ayloush. But for “political reasons and ignorance,” these sentiments were missed and not projected to the public by the media.

"We felt there was a need to condemn (the perpetrators of 9/11),” said Ayloush. “We felt that our religion was being accused and misconceived.”

The one good thing that came of 9/11, said Ayloush, was that the event forced Muslims to get out of their “self-imposed isolation, to reach out and explain Islam and this misconception. Many mosques felt the need to involve media.”

While print media has done a relatively good job of giving voice to Muslims, Ayloush said that talk shows and TV programs “created an atmosphere of hatred” and sparked a wave of vandalism upon mosques and Islamic institutions. A year after 9/11, there was a 1,700% increase in attacks on Muslim individuals, he noted.

Because of negative coverage, Muslims are distrustful and hesitant to talk to media representatives. Several fellows in attendance were concerned about this, and asked how responsible media practitioners could ease the community’s fear.

“The expression that comes to mind is ‘once bitten, twice shy,’ “ said Ayloush. “The Muslim community has been bitten so many times by media professionals.”

Ayloush noted that some media outlets come in as friends, and end up tricking the Muslim interviewee into making a statement they would not have otherwise made.

“I personally have been tricked,” said Ayloush, who told a tale of how Fox news conducted a three-hour interview with him, supposedly on the topic of Muslims and charity. In the end, they took one quote from him on a tangential topic, which was included in an international report.
Hashad said that at the ACLU, it is a matter of looking critically at individual reporters.

“If you know that a certain station misrepresented you in the past, don’t work with them again,” she said, adding that if her clients feel the reporter has been unfair in any way, they usually send a polite e-mail or ring them up.

“It’s so hard to (find) someone that wants their name and face in the press,” said Hashad, who said that instead, reporters should turn to the courts to find stories about Islam.

The panelists shared story ideas, and Ayloush noted several arenas that would make good articles for the future:

  • The selective application of the law, and the concerted effort to attempt to marginalize the American Muslim community.
  • How Muslims are actually partners in the counter-terrorism effort. “The effort of counter-terrorism is not only a military one. How to end terrorism has a lot to do with changing our foreign policy, etc.” said Ayloush.
  • How Muslims in America can be part of correcting/changing America’s negative image.

Hashad added that recent developments on stories along this vein will be aired on her radio show, which is accessible through http://www.lawanddisorder.org.

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