A Look Back at Media Coverage of Islam and Islamic Law in 2012

This has been a big year for Islam and Islamic law in American media. As politicians vied for local and national office, anti-sharia messages -- and sometimes overtly anti-Islam messages -- were broadcast across the media, at times functioning to normalize anti-Islam discourse.
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This has been a big year for Islam and Islamic law in American media. As politicians vied for local and national office, anti-sharia messages -- and sometimes overtly anti-Islam messages -- were broadcast across the media, at times functioning to normalize anti-Islam discourse. Turmoil in places like Egypt and Mali ensured that there were plenty of stories with "sharia" in the forefront, but little contextualization for the average reader to give a sense of what Islamic law means in those places. As we look back at media coverage in 2012, a number of trends emerge, ranging from regional and national hotspots like Tennessee and Egypt; in specific areas, such as gender and Islamophobia; and in wider issues of how Islamic law was covered and who was cited by the media as an authority.

Anti-Islam Messages Dominate Media

A December study published by the American Sociological Review from sociologist Christopher Bail shows that over the last decade, conversations about Islam in American media have been largely dominated by organizations with anti-Islam agendas. The American Sociological Association quotes Bail:

I found that organizations with negative messages about Muslims captivated the mass media after the Sept. 11 attacks, even though the vast majority of civil society organizations depict Muslims as peaceful, contributing members of American society ... As a result, public condemnations of terrorism by Muslims have received little media attention, but organizations spreading negative messages continue to stoke public fears that Muslims are secretly plotting to overthrow the U.S. government ... They are now so much a part of the mainstream that they have been able to recast genuinely mainstream Muslim organizations as radicals.

Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon reported on the study, noting that journalists do work to "find voices that accurately [represent] Islam," but that "simply by being outspoken," "self-described terrorism experts" end up being cited in the media as authorities on Islam and Islamic law. At the same time, by covering stories about and told by anti-Islam activists and pundits -- which tend to be captivating (Creeping shari'a!, Terry Jones burning Qur'ans!, Pamela Geller and her Ground Zero Mega Mosque!) -- the media brings these organizations and speakers to the world's attention, thereby generating a greater following (and greater donation revenue). Seitz-Wald asks, "[i]f the media hadn't paid attention to them, would they have mattered?" The takeaway: reinforcement from the media makes these stories stick.

On that note, David Edwards at The Raw Story quotes Toledo, Ohio mosque arsonist Randolph Linn. When asked whether he knew "any Muslims or ... what Islam is," Linn responded

No, I only know what I hear on Fox News and what I hear on radio ... Muslims are killing Americans and trying to blow stuff up ... Most Muslims are terrorists and don't believe in Jesus Christ.

Hate Crimes Against Muslims Remain High

Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, highlights a December FBI hate-crime report showing practically no decrease in anti-Muslim crimes in 2011, according to an article published in Salon. Sadly, 2012 is shaping up to be worse. Crimes this year included an arson attack against a mosque in Ohio, a mosque in Missouri and a Muslim home in Florida; a bomb threat against a Washington State mosque; vandalization of a Virginia mosque, a Rhode Island mosque and Muslim graves in a Chicago cemetery; shots fired and a bottle of acid thrown at two Illinois mosques; and pig parts thrown at a California mosque and at a New York outdoor prayer space, among other incidents. Potok attributes hate crimes against perceived Muslims to "anti-Muslim propagandizing," while others point to specific remarks made by politicians. Hate crimes are the ugliest, worst manifestation of the fear and tension that can result from misinformation, but messaging around Muslims and Islam has had other effects as well.

Anti-sharia Legislation in the United States

Kansas lawmakers passed a ban on foreign laws in May, seemingly without much discussion. Elsewhere in America, legislation to address "sharia creep" -- and creep would accurately describe the speed of some of these proposed laws -- continues to be put forth. A bill proposed by Rep. Dave Agema of Michigan in January of 2011 popped up again in December, but after outcry and opposition from local Muslim, Catholic and other organizations, the bill ended up dying in the Michigan House of Representatives, despite being on the schedule. Rep. Kim King pre-filed a bill for 2013 in Kentucky. Sen. Alan Hayes re-filed a 2011 Florida bill that drew outcry from various religious and secular groups. And New Hampshire bill HB1422 was killed for 2012. See Gavel to Gavel for a comprehensive list of anti-shari'a bills.

In related news, Hamed Aleziz at Think Progress profiled a Muslim libertarian activist who reaches out to Tea Party groups in Tennessee, and has changed some groups' positions on anti-sharia legislation.

Big Trouble in Little Tennessee, or, I Always Rely on the Kindness of Strangers, Unless They're Muslim

More than any other state, Tennessee dominated news coverage of anti-sharia activism. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, commented that Tennessee's anti-sharia legislation was "[t]he most aggressive version" of such legislation to date, though public opposition led to the removal of specific references to Islamic law. (Also, read her explanation of why these laws don't make sense). David Waters at the Memphis Commercial Appeal looked at anti-sharia activism in Memphis, thoughtfully probing the question from multiple angles and offering perspectives from individuals on both sides of the debate.

The Murfreesboro, Tenn., Islamic Center officially opened its doors in November after two years of lawsuits and anti-mosque activism. Opponents to the mosque made claims that local Muslims were promoting Islamic law, that the mosque would breed terrorism, and even asserted that Islam isn't actually a religion and therefore doesn't receive constitutional protection (incidentally, a Tennessee judge did determine in 2011 that Islam is indeed a religion). Opposition attorney Joe Brandon was quoted by Blake Farmer in NPR:

Shariah law is not religion, and I'm unaware of any situation where you can separate Shariah law out from under Islam. Quite frankly, I see that as a problem.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam was criticized in 2012 for, in the words of The American Prospect's Abby Rappaport, "just not [being] concerned enough about the threat of Sharia law." In particular, some Tennessee Republicans took Haslam to task for hiring Samar Ali based on her faith and her previous work "as a corporate lawyer who helped Muslim-owned companies arrange deals to fit with Islam's ban on collecting interest and comply with other religious rules," according to The Knoxville News. Politifact rated accusations against Ali as "Pants on Fire," that is, completely without merit.

Other Tennessee politicians running for office took great pains to show that they were concerned, very concerned, about Islamic law, and especially that they were more concerned than their opponents. NPR's Blake Farmer looked at the State House race between Lou Ann Zelenik and Diane Black. The race found Black "on the defensive after being called soft on Shariah law," after which point she commented, "I understand the devastation that Shariah law could mean here in our country, and I'm a sponsor of a bill that will once again say that the United States Constitution is our law and that it is the supreme law."

As Dr. Quraishi-Landes reminds us:

Muslims in the United States are decidedly uninterested in sharia criminal law. Contrary to insinuations from the anti-sharia campaign, Muslims in the United States show no interest in having American law criminalize actions such as extramarital sex or alcohol consumption, or punishing theft with hand amputation. Although some point to Iran, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan to suggest that Muslims desire state punishment of these crimes, these references are inappropriate for the context of Muslims living under a secular government like the United States. Simply put, the criminal laws of foreign Muslim countries say nothing about what laws American Muslims would like to enact in the United States, any more than the laws of the Jewish state of Israel tell us anything about what laws American Jews want enacted in America.

Constitutional Debates Leave Egypt in Turmoil

As the year drew to a close, protests in Egypt became increasingly violent as different factions battled in the streets, paralleling intellectual battles among members of Egypt's constitutional committee over the extent to which the new constitution will draw on Islamic law. Commentary from experts on Islamic law ranged from Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School in Bloomberg situating President Muhammad Morsi's power grab as a means of restoring democracy, whereas University of Utah School of Law Professor Chibli Mallat called it "outrageous" and "unconstitutional" in JURIST. Clark Lombardi of the University of Washington School of Law broke down Egyptian constitutional Article 219 -- the one that all the fuss is about -- in a piece co-authored with Nathan Brown for Foreign Policy. Asifa Quraishi-Landes of the University of Wisconsin Law School examined religious pluralism and Egyptian politics in a piece for The Immanent Frame in April, while University of Toronto Associate Professor of Law Mohammed Fadel regularly blogged about the constitutional process on his website.

Western media was particularly interested in the impact of the new Egyptian constitution on women, and featured a variety of stories about how Egyptian women's lives were impacted by post-Arab Spring changes. These included stories on Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, the wife of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Sisterhood, manifestations of religiosity in public and mediated spaces such as news anchors donning headscarves and television stations run by niqab-wearing women, to questions over how the new Egyptian government will (or will not) discourage female circumcision. Gallup Muslim Studies Director Dalia Mogahed reminded journalists to look at the data -- citing a Gallup report showing that the majority of Egyptian women favor greater inclusion of Islamic law in Egypt's legislation -- and that they need to represent a wide array of voices in their articles.

Islamic Law Around the World

The world watched as a coup in northern Mali propelled the Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group, to power. There was considerable coverage of the Ansar Dine's ongoing efforts to impose their interpretation of Islamic law, including stories on banning music, keeping tabs on women having children out of wedlock, publicly executing accused murderers, amputating the hands of accused thieves and other punishments, which has seen pushback and outrage from local Malians. University of Michigan History Professor Rudolph Ware reminded readers that the Ansar Dine has no formal training in Islamic law, asking them to critically assess messages about sharia in coverage of Mali. Rarely do journalists point out that practicing Muslims in Mali already follow Islamic law, though this looks quite different from Islamic law as interpreted by the Ansar Dine.

Many of the international stories this year focused on gender and sexuality: A French Muslim opened an LGBTQ-friendly mosque in Paris; transgender Muslims in Malaysia fought for expanded rights; Muslim clerics made it easier for women to obtain divorces in the Palestinian territories; UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El-Fadl commented on the tradition of female imams and women-led mosques in China; and there was considerable coverage of the experience of female athletes in the 2012 Olympics, as well as those pushing boundaries in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Blasphemy and Free Speech

Questions around Islamic law and blasphemy made it to the headlines in a big way this year. The trailer for an amateurish anti-Muslim film titled "The Innocence of Muslims" (the background for which in itself might win the award for the year's most convoluted and bizarre story) prompted widespread protest across the Muslim world for its intentionally offensive depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Outcry in the Muslim world was primarily peaceful despite heavy media attention on violent protests in Egypt, Pakistan and Libya -- where they were confused with a deadly al Qaeda attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. University of Colorado assistant professor Megan Reif noted the difference in coverage between the Arab Spring and this year's protests (problematically exemplified by Newsweek's "Muslim Rage" cover):

While media reports on the Arab uprisings discussed the difficulty of estimating crowd size and pondered what percentage of the population they represented, much of the current media coverage of the recent riots that erupted throughout the Muslim world on September 11, 2012 in response to the anti-Islam film, "Innocence of Muslim," [sic] has described the events as "days of rage" and violence "sweeping" the entirety of almost a quarter of the world's population.

Some Muslims expressed confusion that American laws permitted mockery of a revered religious figure, and called for the video to be taken down and the filmmaker arrested. These messages prompted widespread discussion in American media over blasphemy, speech rights and Islamic law, recalling similar debates in past years over the Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons.

A second major story centered on Rimsha Masih, a Christian Pakistani girl arrested for allegedly burning pages of Quranic text, though it was later shown that the accusations were false. The story laid bare the complicated issues behind Pakistan's blasphemy law, which originated under the British as a means to preserve the peace. Since then, the law has been used for personal vendettas and sectarian attacks and many have called for changes to the Pakistani legal system. Despite outcry following Masih's arrest, reform remains unlikely.

In one of the most interesting articles of the year, reporter Daniel Denvir did a comprehensive profile of the city of Dearborn, Mich., for The Atlantic, calling it "a must-visit location on 21st-century America's newly established anti-Muslim protest circuit." He notes that activists frequently portray Dearborn, which is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States, as being controlled by Islamic law. Notably, several activists have brought cases claiming that their speech rights were violated in Dearborn, including Terry Jones and a group of Christian activists from California who, most colorfully, paraded through an Arab-American festival with a pig's head on a pole.

Oh, a Little Thing Called THE ELECTIONS

Bringing to a close two years of apocalyptic grandstanding on the subject of Islamic law on the part of some Republican presidential candidates, Barack Obama was re-elected in November. Jillian Rayfield and Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon summarized the top 10 "most hateful examples of bigotry against Muslims" during the campaign. Newt Gingrich, whom Justin Elliott at Salon refers to "one of the most vocal Muslim-baiting Republicans in the country," was this year's winner in the "he said WHAT?" category. He elevated us/them rhetoric to an art form, repeatedly implying that President Obama was in cahoots with radical Islamists bent on imposing Islamic law abroad and, of course, in the United States. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic asked last February how Gingrich manages to get away with it, explaining that "anti-Muslim bigotry in America is treated differently than every other kind." Not surprisingly, there are far fewer Muslim Republicans around these days, reversing the pre-Obama trend.

Numerous state and national Republican candidates ran with a strong anti-sharia message, which the Republican Party ultimately adopted at its National Convention. But in the end, how was that message received? Spencer Ackerman at Wired suggests that election results -- citing Allen West's loss in Florida, Rep. Michele Bachmann's slight win over her Minnesota challenger and Rep. Sue Myrick's decision not to run in North Carolina -- point to the "emerging political costs to embracing irrationality."

Though at times it seemed as though the issue of Islamic law and anti-shari'a legislation was itself an election issue, University of Toronto Law School Associate Professor Mohammed Fadel commented on what Islamic law might contribute to discussion of bigger questions of economics, immigration, reproductive rights and more.

From the Local to the Personal

Finally, some of the most compelling stories this year were those about Muslims discursively figuring out Islamic law for themselves. These stories challenged monolithic portrayals of Islam, giving readers a sense of what it actually looks like to follow Islamic law in the contemporary world. Coverage of the Olympics, for example, highlighted the plight of athletes who had to determine whether to fast during the holy month of Ramadan while also going for the gold. Stories about marriage and divorce, halal vaccinations, facial hair, Muslim burial plots, and negotiating piety on Wall Street and in yoga studios gave a wide variety of examples of what it means to be Muslim today. The diversity of voices and opinions in these stories give us a sense that Islamic law is enacted in the everyday lives of Muslims, much more so than the stereotypical view that Islamic law as enacted top-down by the state, or by religious leaders.

As stories that cast doubt on anti-sharia hyperbole as well as on the spurious claims of politicians and pundits who seek to portray American Muslims as some sort of fifth column in the war on terrorism, these are tales worth telling.

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