It’s Sept. 9, 2016. A Trump supporter in Brooklyn has allegedly attacked two Muslim women and their babies. I think about my pregnant friends in the area. I don’t want to call and worry them.
A month later, “Fuck Allah” and “Fuck Arabs” are among the anti-Muslim messages spray-painted on the Muslim Community Miraj Center in Bayonne, New Jersey. A friend texts me the photo of the mosque before it makes the news. I live 20 minutes from that center.
Another month goes by. A Muslim teacher in Atlanta is told to hang herself with her headscarf. Several of my friends are teachers. They all wear the Islamic headscarf, or the hijab. I can’t stop thinking about them.
For all of 2016, The Huffington Post tracked anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions across the country. Our list included vandalism, hate speech, policies and many acts of physical aggression. We counted almost 400 instances in total.
As a hijab-wearing Muslim journalist, there was no clocking in or clocking out. I spent my days interviewing victims, collecting reports and compiling information that could very likely predict what could happen to me at any time.
Working on this project made one thing abundantly clear: There is a severe lack of nuance in the way the media depicts Muslims. The coverage is simplistic and doesn’t reflect the richness of the most diverse religious group in the world. These generalizations are putting Muslims in danger on a regular basis, producing a climate where too many people feel emboldened to attack their neighbors.
After the San Bernardino shooting in 2015, journalists swarmed the home of Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik. National news networks quickly broadcast close-ups of the items left behind in the apartment, including a Quran, a Muslim prayer rug and prayer beads, as if these were evidence of terrorism.
In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting last year, one news outlet mistook a Muslim reporter for the wife of a terrorist because the women shared the same first name: Noor. What if they were both white and named Emily? Would the same happen?
Politicians aren’t helping matters, either. President Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment right into the Oval Office. Even Hillary Clinton fell into this rhetoric when she said during her last 2016 debate against Trump that Muslim Americans “need to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines” in the fight against terrorism. Just Muslims? How about other citizens?
Muslims are doctors, lawyers, teachers and parents. When Trump contemplates the idea of a Muslim registry or Clinton uses the community as a pawn for policies, it reinforces a false narrative that Muslims are not part of American society, and contributes to a notion that we are and will always be outsiders. Then, it becomes all too easy for other Americans to justify hate crimes and bigotry. And that’s what I saw this year. Again. And again. And again.
In reaction to the negative coverage of the Muslim community, many outlets seem to feel a need to overcompensate. Whenever a Muslim is doing something normal or “good” for society, it is as if journalists are stunned.
Hannah Allam, a journalist at McClatchy, summed up this issue in a tweet last year:
In order to prevent further hate crimes and cases of discrimination like the ones we documented this year, we need to change the conversation we are having about the Muslim community.
This means stepping aside and giving the mic to Muslims in medicine, television, media and other fields beyond the political realm. It also means providing room for nuance in the way we cover the Muslim community. The most obvious way to fix this problem is to hire more Muslims in the newsroom.
Then the media can publish stories that cover a rich community, and shine a light on Muslim contributions to American society.
We are at a crossroads in the way we cover Muslims. We just inaugurated a president whose administration has deeply troubling ideas about Islam. At the same time, hate crimes and Islamophobia are increasing at a terrifying rate. Now, more than ever, it’s time to change the narrative about who Muslims truly are.