ISIS, U.S. Media and The Muslim World

Imam Hamed Mazloum, center, and other rally outside the White House in Washington, Saturday, June 21, 2014, protesting agains
Imam Hamed Mazloum, center, and other rally outside the White House in Washington, Saturday, June 21, 2014, protesting against terrorism and the other against the al Qaida splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL (sometimes called ISIS). Two groups protested in front of the White House at the same time Saturday; the other group demonstrated against any further U.S. involvement in Iraq. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

JAKARTA -- On her first visit to Washington, D.C. in late August, Darshini Kandasamy stopped by the Newseum, the expansive building in downtown Washington dedicated to the history of journalism in America, looking forward to a lesson on the freedom of the press in the United States. She was easily impressed by the seven-story, 250,000-square-foot museum's interactive exhibits on some of the highest moments of TV and print reporting, but it was a much simpler digital gallery of the day's front pages that stuck with her.

"Islamic group beheads journalist," one of the American newspapers said in big, bold print. Others similarly described the tragedy of James Foley, the journalist murdered by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It was days before another innocent reporter, Steven Sotloff, would suffer the same barbarism.

Kandasamy, a journalist who works for Kuala Lumpur-based Malaysiakini, an independent online newspaper, was appalled and confused.

"Why didn't they just say terrorist group?" she asked me later as she reflected on her travels throughout the U.S. "Nearly every Muslim country has condemned what they do as un-Islamic," added Kandasamy, who is a practicing Hindu in the majority-Muslim nation.

That kind of question is one I've heard repeatedly over the last three weeks as I've traveled with a group of 13 international journalists throughout the U.S. and Indonesia with the Honolulu-based East-West Center to study Islam in America and Asia. Most of the reporters and editors I'm with are Muslims who hail from places with Muslim majorities, such as Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Others come from countries with significant Muslim minorities, like India and Singapore. During visits to mosques and temples and between panels with professors and activists, we've differed on religion, politics and the role of the media. But the consensus on ISIS among these journalists, whose colleagues, friends, kids and families are proudly Muslim, has been unified.

"They are just crazy. That's all," said Khaldoun Barghouti, foreign news editor at Alhayat Aljadeeda, a newspaper in Ramallah in the West Bank. "That's what we print. This is not Islam. We are as worried as Americans."

As President Barack Obama prepares to give a primetime address on Wednesday night to outline his strategy against ISIS, many of my new friends are also wondering if the American media will make its own shift on its coverage of extremism and Islam in general.

"ISIS is not a Middle Eastern phenomenon and it's not one just about Islam. It's a global problem," reflected an Asian reporter in our group, citing fighters that have been recruited from Singapore and Malaysia. Here in Jakarta, daily headlines English and Indonesian-language newspapers highlight fears of ISIS. The government officially banned support for the group in early August after it released a YouTube recruitment video featuring Indonesians. The nation's minister of religious affairs has threatened to revoke citizenship from anyone who dares support the group.

Still, problems persist. When the Jakarta Post, a liberal English-language daily, recently printed an editorial cartoon satirizing ISIS, a Muslim organization reported it to the police for defamation of religion, a punishable crime. The complaint? The cartoon's use the phrase "la ilaaha illallah" ("there is not God except Allah") on a drawing of a flag with skull, which the Muslim group said promoted the idea of Islam being violent.

"If you touch the topic of religion... that's where the fault lines lie," the Post's editor-in-chief, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, told us last week during a panel at the Indonesian Press Council.

Similar contrasts are found elsewhere. While a poll released in late August by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that 85 percent of Gazans opposed ISIS, 13 percent were in support. There are reports of ISIS literature now being distributed in Pakistan's tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, though polls have shown that a majority of Pakistanis are unsupportive of extremists. Last week, four Indians were arrested in Kolkata on charges of planning to travel to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to meet an ISIS-related contact.

"It's painful" to see signs of extremism and intolerance in her country, said Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana, the co-founder of Somewhere In, a platform of 160,000 Bangla-language bloggers that's based in Dhaka. But "bloggers are so extremely powerful at criticizing the government, opposition parties and extremists," she added. "They are trying to educate the whole nation that we are not the kind of Islamic country where there can be divisions between the communities," such as the Yazidi and Christian communities ISIS has targeted in Iraq. The nation is largely one of peace and embrace of diversity, she said, despite recent skirmishes where bloggers have been arrested for criticizing the government's promotion of Islam.

Muhammad Yasir Pirzada, a Lahore-based Columnist for Daily Jang, Pakistan's largest newspaper, had a slightly different point of view. Extremism is real, as is support for ISIS, he said. It should be covered in the media, be it the U.S. or back home. But "while you will find Urdu-language papers talking about the (global Muslim nation) and saying anti-American things," he said, "you won't find them supporting beheadings against journalists. In English papers, you'll find a different, more liberal picture."

What Pirzada would like to see in the U.S. media, he added, was "more balanced coverage" of Islam. In other words: Where is the good news?

Zeyed Nihad Al Zabaidi had the same question. An employee of the U.S.-owned Alhurra TV station in Baghdad, he said the climate is especially difficult for media when covering the ever-growing international story of ISIS that's just a day's drive from his home.

"After the 2003 (U.S.-led invasion), media has expanded, but it has gotten polluted. A lot of (political) parties have come from outside and taken up authority, building their own media and channels, but they are appointing their own followers as journalists even though they do not have backgrounds themselves as reporters," he said. "And it's very difficult to cover Mosul," where ISIS has taken over, he said. "We have to depend on the government footage and pictures."

Still, he hopes that the global media will take a wider look at his country and his religion. "I'm optimistic," said Al Zabaidi, a Sunni who was born to a Kurdish mother and whose wife is Shia. "We are are united. We need to work together against the enemy."