Faysal Hussain lies sleeping in his home in Oakville, Ontario, oblivious to the eruptions in the night. Hours later, he is woken by his radio alarm clock: Good morning, Oakville…d’you hear about that bomb explosion last night…?
Faysal, dark-skinned with cropped black hair and a goatee, pleads with the announcer, “Let it be the Serbs, the IRA, crazy cults from Japan….”
-two Middle Eastern men are considered suspects.
“Noooo,” Faysal howls.
This bombing has all the markings of Islamic fundamentalists: a large hole in the ground, charred grass and dead animals. What else could you ask for?
The morning paper arrives bearing the headline, “2 Suspects Wanted in Oakville Bombing.” Accompanying the story are amateurish sketches of men with stereotypical Muslim features: beards, black hair, beady eyes.
“Remind you of anyone?” Faysal, now hysterical, asks his brother Iqbal. The neighbours clearly think so. They stand outside the Hussain house, gathered around the smouldering remains of the Hussain’s barbeque.
“Damn those bloody camel-jockeys,” says one neighbour. “They never should have let them into this country.” A burly police officer arrives shortly and arrests the Hussain brothers on the grounds that their description “fits the profile of some very dangerous Middle Eastern terrorists.”
The Oakville bombing is a fictional event in Zarqa Nawaz’s satirical short film BBQ Muslims, but the treatment of Muslims by the media and police is all too real. Nawaz made her film in the wake of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people.
The lead in The Vancouver Sun‘s headline story the next day reported that FBI and counterterrorism officials were “probing a suspected Middle East terrorist connection.” Other Canadian papers were more presumptuous: “Islamic Fundamentalists Suspected in Explosion” (The Toronto Star); “Islamic Militants Draw Suspicion” (The Globe and Mail); “Some Say It Looks Like Work of Islamic Terrorists, but [U.S. Attorney-General Janet] Reno Is Cautious” (The Gazette).
In the days following, many in North America’s Muslim community were harassed. In the U.S., mosques were defaced and Arabs and Muslims questioned. In Toronto, on the day after the bombing, two plainclothes RCMP constables dropped by the Pathfinder Bookstore-which sells socialist literature-to question 19-year-old Nojan Emad, then a volunteer at the store. The Canadian Arab Federation, which documented the complaint, said the agents queried Emad about his views on Cuba. He refused to answer. Four hours later, two other RCMP constables arrived and, without a warrant, forcibly dragged Emad from the bookstore into a waiting van, where they interrogated him for nearly an hour with questions like, “Have you ever been to Oklahoma?”, “Do you know how to make a bomb?” and “What is your religion?”
Several days later, Oklahoma police arrested Timothy McVeigh, a white American, who was sentenced to death late last year. “There was a collective sigh of relief [in the Muslim community],” Nawaz says, “[but] then there was justifiable anger toward the media, like, ‘How dare you be so wrong, you had nothing to go on, not a scrap of evidence.'” Nawaz, a second-generation Muslim Canadian, says the event galvanized the Muslim community in Canada and impelled her to make the short film, which premiered at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival. “I remember my little brother had said that in The Toronto Star there were all these pictures of suspects in the Muslim community that they were looking for,” says the 30-year-old, who previously worked in Saskatchewan as an associate producer for CBC Radio. “I remember the entire community was just like, ‘Oh my God, don’t let it be us.'” Now living in Calgary, Nawaz visualizes chronicling her faith in film the way “Woody Allen does intellectual stories about the Jewish community.” Her next short film is called Death Threat.
Many Canadian Muslims regard media coverage of the Oklahoma bombing as a classic example of our society’s predilection to assume the worst of Muslims. The anti-Muslim bias seems to be predicated on the false assumption that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Inaccurate as it often is, the media’s reporting is influential: Muslims are often harassed by police and maligned by the general public.
The media’s distortion of Islam is not a new phenomenon. During the Gulf War in 1991, Canadian broadcast and print media inadvertently vilified Canadian Muslims. Local Arab and Muslim reaction was often reduced to opposition to Canada’s action in the Allied war effort. Youssef Chebli, the imam of the Al Rashid mosque in Edmonton and an outspoken critic of Canada’s participation in the war, contested Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, but applauded Hussein’s continued support of the Palestinians. (Chebli had opposed Hussein’s policies during the eight-year Iran-Iraq conflict.) Infuriated that military aggression in the Persian Gulf jeopardized innocent civilians, Chebli called the Allies the “satanic coalition.” The two Edmonton dailies tagged the story with hot-headed and blatantly inaccurate headlines: The Edmonton Journal ran the story on January 23, 1991, under the dramatic head “Local Muslim Cleric Sees Saddam as God’s Agent”; The Edmonton Sun‘s story read “Muslim Backs ‘Hero’ Saddam.” In the days following these sensational reports, Chebli and his family were harassed and received anonymous death threats; the Canadian Security Intelligence Service also paid Chebli a visit. Zuhair Kashmeri, then a reporter for The Globe and Mail, encountered dozens of similar stories across Canada. By the end of the year, Kashmeri had written The Gulf Within, a book detailing the experiences of Canadian Arab and Muslim families with the media and Canada’s intelligence community during the war. Kashmeri believes the media’s reporting wasn’t ill-intentioned or malicious, but was, and remains, willfully ignorant.
“[The media] pick something out and just run the thing without even trying to understand what the event is all about,” Kashmeri says. “They don’t interpret it, analyze it or try to put it in context. I don’t know if the media, in their zeal to get sexy headlines, realize the damage they do. It’s the whole thing about ‘run it and let the chips fall where they may,’ which is a kind of journalism that you don’t need.”
The misrepresentation of the North American Muslim community was not helped by the fact that media accounts of the Gulf War were censored by the U.S. government. As noted media critic Ben H. Bagdikian observed after the war: “Newspeople were sequestered and forced to transmit totally controlled military versions of what was happening.”
Haroon Siddiqui, editorial page editor at The Toronto Star and one of the country’s most prominent Muslim journalists, feels that the backlash against Muslims in Canada during the Gulf War reflected society’s tendency during wartime to lash out at those who resemble the enemy. But he believes debates about civil liberties provoked by skewed reporting actually improved coverage of Muslim issues. Fair treatment of minorities and Muslims especially became “the predominant thinking in the public arena,” Siddiqui says. “I hold [the Gulf War] up as an example of [the media’s] maturity and growing up as opposed to an example of how bad we were.” As for harassment and CSIS interrogations in the Canadian Arab and Muslim communities, he contends that these were “isolated incidents.”
But Kashmeri’s book illuminates how CSIS took its cues from conjecture in the Canadian press, so much so that following a flurry of CSIS investigations, the Canadian Arab Federation published an instructional pamphlet entitled “When CSIS Calls,” apprising community members of their rights. “We were fighting fires for the duration of the war,” says Jerry J. Khouri, who monitors media coverage at the Canadian Arab Federation. “What happens over time is that [the media] take the liberty of generalizing.” By recklessly tossing around terms like “Muslim extremists” and “Islamic fundamentalists,” the media fail to acknowledge the great diversity of the world’s approximately one billion Muslims.
Sitting in the Canadian Arab Federation’s Toronto office, Khouri brandishes the federation’s press clippings of stereotypical portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. He has files on the Gulf War and racist editorial cartoons, and a particularly thick dossier on True Lies, the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger star vehicle that cast a group of Arabs called the “Crimson Jihad” as the enemy. Khouri says the Canadian media’s propensity to publish the slightest suspicion of Muslim involvement in an event colours readers’ perceptions. “When it’s in the papers for a couple of days, people have already accepted it in their mind that Arabs or Muslims have done something.” Muslim Media Watch, a national monitoring group, was established in the wake of the Gulf War to stem the media’s negative and inaccurate portrayals of Islam. Seven years after the Gulf War, the Canadian Arab Federation still receives on average three calls a month from community members being investigated by CSIS.
For Canadian Muslims, who feel that the Canadian media deem them culpable for what goes on in other parts of the world, circumstances are unlikely to improve. Dissension between the U.S. and Iran and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict have kept Islam in the news, as have terrorist attacks on tourists in Egypt, civilian slaughter in Algeria (which may or may not be attributed to insurgents) and a brutally oppressive regime in Afghanistan. Though not all Muslims come from the Middle East or are linked to violent political activities, the media have forged an indivisible connection between Muslims and Middle Eastern strife.
Islam is the fastest-growing faith in the world-more than 60 countries acknowledge it as their main religion. Canadian Muslims stem from a variety of states, including Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey. The first record of Muslims in Canada dates back to 1871. By 1911, there were 1,500, two-thirds of whom emigrated from Turkey; the other one-third were Arabs. The first wave settled primarily in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, and as they did not assimilate easily, maintained close-knit families. After gaining some economic security, they formed Muslim associations like the Arabian Muslim Association in Alberta, which in 1938 laid the groundwork for the Al Rashid mosque in Edmonton, the first mosque built in Canada. The 1991 census (1996 figures were not available at press time) estimated that approximately 253,000 Muslims live in Canada, though Muslim groups estimate the number to be as high as one million. (Until recently, the Canadian census included Muslims in the category of “other” religious groups.)
Most of the misconceptions surrounding Islam stem from misguided interpretations of the Qur’an, the faith’s holy book, which is the Word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel beginning in 610 A.D. The Qur’an sees some Jews as misrepresenting the Scriptures and Christianity as worshipping Jesus as the Son of God, although God had commanded His followers to worship only Him; regardless of this, Islam does not assume a combative stance toward these or other religions, maintaining that believers must not force their faith on non-Muslims. Islam is based on five pillars: submission to the will of one god, Allah; prayer five times a day; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; a levy of 2.5 percent of every Muslim’s excess wealth, usually distributed to the needy by the local mosque; and, for those physically and financially able, a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The religion also prohibits ingestion of intoxicants (alcohol or drugs)-as they inhibit a person’s judgement-and forbids sex before marriage. Extreme groups, claiming to be carrying out the will of God, interpret the Qur’an to suit their goals. Female circumcision, which ranges from cutting off the tip of a young girl’s clitoris to removing all external genitalia and sometimes sewing together the labia, is sometimes cited by misguided Muslims (and often the press) as a doctrine of the Islamic faith to ensure a woman’s virginity before marriage. But genital mutilation is not sanctioned by Islam, and is rather a cultural ritual practised in countries like Sudan and Egypt (in December a top court in Egypt upheld a ban on female circumcision, despite the recriminations of some clerics who ardently believe it to be a requirement of Islam). The Canadian media often fail to distinguish between extremist groups and mainstream Islam.
“The paucity of voices who confidently put forward the peaceful and humanistic Islamic values that most Muslims hold quietly allows the militants to hijack the public agenda,” says Karim Karim, who teaches international communications at Carleton University and worked as a reporter for the Rome-based Inter Press wire service. “This then presents a view to journalists and other outside observers of a society dominated by the militants.”
The issue of female circumcision is only one example of how the Qur’an is manipulated by various extreme groups to justify political ends. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan is another. There, women are forced to wear burqas (garments covering them from head to toe) and are beaten if they expose any skin; they are also banned from working and attending school. Media coverage does little to explain the nuances of the Taliban’s misrendering of Islam. A September 25, 1997, article in the Globe entitled “Growing Fear, Frustration Mar Life in Afghan Capital” suggested that the Taliban is run by “Muslim clerics” who have the “intention to create a ‘pure Islamic society’ modelled on the teachings of the Koran.” The reporter confuses the edicts of the local regime with that of the Qur’an, which grants every individual-male and female-the right to work and a full education.
The media often align the extreme fringe of political Islam with mainstream Islam, thus contributing to a general demonization of the faith and a moral climate in the West that believes there to be an Islamic conspiracy. “Because [journalists] don’t have a clear understanding of Islam, anytime there is a political movement that happens in an Islamic country, it gets perceived as Islam, as opposed to a political movement that has taken over the religious banner [to justify its means],” says Sadia Zaman, a journalist who has worked for the CBC and is currently a producer and story editor at Vision TV. Political Islam is akin to the political extension of Christianity-the Christian Coalition in the U.S. being one example-in that it tends to interpret the Scripture more literally.
“They tend to be antiliberal in their social attitudes, and they tend to be authoritarian in their attitudes to how a state should be organized and how society should be run,” says Jim Graff, president of the Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation, an organization that furthers understanding of the history and culture of the Arab world. “Most Muslims are not members of political Islam or Islamist movements.”
The invocation of religion to relate news about specific political movements is misleading. A story in Maclean’s on September 9, 1996, about People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, an organization that uses brutal methods to fight street crime in South Africa, is deceptively titled “Islamic Vigilantes.” This gives the impression that religion alone ordains PAGAD’s cause. “If you use that kind of terminology, eventually what you’re saying is Muslims are inherently violent because of their religion,” says Thayyiba Ibrahim, coordinator of the Canadian Association for Islamic Relations. Unfortunately, both the media and top-ranking world officials continue to make that connection. The late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, made the audacious claim that “the religion of Islam is our only enemy,” although the Palestinian fight in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, led by the military wing of the Palestinian group Hamas, is motivated not by religious invective but rather by resistance to Israeli occupation.
Insurgents may invoke Allah, but they are not necessarily engaged in religious battles. Some in the media feel that it is not their place to make that distinction. “Some of these [extreme] groups actually say they’re Muslim militants,” says Garry Dwyer-Joyce, foreign editor at CTV News. “Unfortunately, it’s not the business of news to say that 99 percent of Muslims are not like that.”
Those who believe there to be an Islamic conspiracy cite recent terrorist acts as proof. The Globe and Mail suggested on April 20, 1995, that “Middle Eastern” terrorists were suspects in the Oklahoma bombing because counterterrorism specialists thought “the bombing resembled four previous Muslim fundamentalist attacks against U.S. citizens,” namely, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six and injured 1,000; the destruction of a Pan American jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 that killed 259 passengers; and the 1983 truck bombings of both the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that altogether killed 287.
Some Islamic countries openly harbour anti-American sentiment. In December, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told an Islamic conference in Iran that the main threat to security in the Middle East was “the poisonous breath” of the U.S. and its military presence in the region. It is this sort of vitriol that has put the media on guard and prompts CSIS, according to its 1996 report, to remain alert to what it perceives as “the continued rise of Islamic and other forms of religious extremism.” But the terrorist acts aimed at the U.S. are hardly religious in nature, and most conflicts occurring in Islamic countries become irrelevant beyond their borders: Iran is primarily concerned with keeping Western influence from eroding Islamic values, and Hezbollah, often cited as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups, simply wants to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon.
The media’s view of Islam as a fanatical religion, according to renowned scholar Edward W. Said of Columbia University, stems from orientalism, an ethnocentric Western mind-set whereby the East is seen as the “other.” As a result, the media reduce Islam to “a special malevolent and unthinking essence,” Said writes in his 1981 book Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. “Instead of analysis and understanding as a result, there can be for the most part only the crudest form of us-versus-them.” Orientalists denigrate Islam and the Middle East in order to legitimize the West.
Canada’s Muslim journalists agree with Said-to a point. “Any media is a reflection of total societal values,” says the Star‘s Siddiqui, and at present “a genre of anti-Islamic sentiment runs right through the mainstream society.” But for the most part, they see the Canadian media’s skewed reporting on Islam as the result of something far less sinister: shoddy reporting.
“It’s easy to peg somebody into a slot, like they’re Muslim,” says Kashmeri, who spent three days interviewing Yasser Arafat back in 1986 for the Globe. Born in Bombay, Kashmeri was a stringer for Associated Press and Reuters, and worked for The Indian Express before coming to Canada 25 years ago. “Are you going to spend like half a minute explaining the fact that Arabs don’t even make up 18 percent of the Muslims of the world? That Indonesia is the biggest Islamic country in the world? That takes time to explain, it takes time to research.”
Kashmeri cites the inherent pace of journalism-the lack of time to adequately research a story-as the biggest encumbrance to a better understanding of Islam. The result, he notes, is that many Arabic words are used recklessly. The press often translate the word jihad as “holy war”; in fact, jihad is a much more intricate concept for which there is no direct translation. It roughly means “struggle to bring out the best of oneself,” and with regards to battle, means “defensive war” as, according to the Qur’an, Muslims are only allowed to engage in war as self-defence. The media also misrepresent the word fatwa, which also has no direct translation, but is basically a religious injunction that can be decreed on anything from the wearing of garments to the consumption of certain foods. Unfortunately, since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie, the word has come to mean “murder contract,” according to the media’s definition.
As a result of lopsided and often inaccurate representation of Islam in the media, many Canadians feel threatened by local Muslims. In June of this year, pamphlets were disseminated at Toronto’s Weston Collegiate bearing titles like “Islam: A Religion of Darkness and Deception…” and “Are All the Muslims Living in Canada Today TERRORSITS? [sic] This Is a Warning to all Canadians and Their Families.” Metropolitan Toronto Police arrested Mark Harding, operator of the Christian Standard-a hate group based north of Toronto-and charged him with three counts of willful promotion of hatred. Harding was incensed that Muslim students were using the school’s auditorium for their prayers. “Since when is it okay to turn our schools into Mosques?” he wrote, arguing that “the Muslim religion is full of hate and violence as we in Canada can see by the national headlines.”
Harding shored up his argument by citing specific articles from The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun that included details of strife in Algeria (“Muslims butchered 47 victims including babies and pregnant women”). “The Muslims who commit these crimes are no different than the Muslim believers living here in Toronto,” he wrote, “their beliefs are based on the Koran.”
Muslim advocacy groups such as the Canadian Association for Islamic Relations and Muslim Media Watch are trying to quell the media’s hyperbole through education. Both groups have met with editorial staffs of broadcast and print media. A sign of increased sensitivity to the issue is evident at The Toronto Star, where the diversity editor, Carola Vyhnak, monitors her paper’s coverage of minorities. Vyhnak says that the Star tries “not to identify the person’s race or religion if it isn’t necessary.”
Despite this mandate, the newspaper sometimes still publishes inflammatory stories painting Islam as violent. An article on the Algerian conflict on November 2, 1997, by Martin Regg Cohn of the Star‘s Middle East Bureau used the terms “Islamic guerrillas,” “terrorists” and “Islamic fundamentalists” interchangeably. Vyhnak defends this reporting by saying that extremists in Algeria “are claiming to be doing all this in the name of religion.” However, a letter to the Star several days later articulates the misconception: “A fundamentalist is one who adheres to the fundamentals of his religion. I am a fundamentalist; I am not a terrorist!”
Advocacy groups see the media’s response to their apprehensions as mere lip service. “[Editorial boards] give the impression that they’re concerned about issues we have raised,” says Ahmed Motiar, director of Muslim Media Watch. “But the effort to correct the situation is not reflected.”
At the end of BBQ Muslims, Faysal and Iqbal Hussain, despite their pleas of innocence are thrown in jail. Outside the police station, three men wielding picket signs protest this action. They are antibarbeque activists and are furious they are not getting credit for their act of terrorism on the Hussains’ barbeque.
The moral of Nawaz’s satire is all too clear: even when wrongly accused, Muslims still receive all the attention.