Turning off the stereotype

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???From the news to shows like “24,” the American media continues to present a one-sided view of Islamic culture. Five Muslims offer some different perspectives. ??? T he assimilated Muslim family on television seemed like any other American family. That is, until the mother murdered her son’s girlfriend, and viewers discovered that she and her husband were part of an “Islamic terrorist sleeper-cell,” hell-bent on killing thousands more. To many, they represent our worst fear realized: the “all-American” terrorists living right next door. In the straight-from-the-headlines habit of Hollywood, the Americanized Middle Eastern Muslim family on Fox’s “24” is strictly a creative invention, a make-believe family. No real harm done. Or is there? With images of executions conducted by “Islamic extremists” on U.S. newscasts almost daily, and entertainment shows like “24” using Islam as a nefarious plot point, some Muslims express concern about the effects these images have on their lives. The American media, they say, is making it harder to be a Muslim in America. A show like “24” could foster distrust of law-abiding Muslims, said Rabiah Ahmed, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “If you had Muslim neighbors, you might think, ‘What if they’re part of a sleeper cell?'” she said. CAIR, along with the Muslims Public Affairs Council, voiced their concerns about the show and arranged for a meeting with the producers and Fox executives in January. At the meeting, Ahmed said the producers’ argument was that there are some Muslims who participate in terrorism. “We aren’t denying that,” Ahmed said. “But there are Muslims fighting terrorism as law enforcement, as military.” And what about the Muslims who are part of our everyday lives? You don’t see Muslims who are working as lawyers and teachers represented on television shows and in films, Ahmed said.

F atma Saleh, a former journalism major at CSUN in the mid-1980s and currently a volunteer at the Islamic Educational Center in Costa Mesa, said she doesn’t see much difference between fictional shows and the news. “Even the news is entertainment,” Saleh said. Saleh gets most of her news from PBS and from newspapers, primarily the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. She tried to watch Fox News once. “I found it very boisterous, obnoxious, and I turned it off,” Saleh said. She finds similar problems with CNN. “(It) depends on who is anchoring,” Saleh said. “(They) tend to put their opinion in. I don’t think that’s professional at all.” When Lebanese-born Saleh visits the Middle East, she sees al-Jazeera, the popular Middle Eastern news agency, as the other side of the opinionated coin. “You get tired of it,” Saleh said. “They do some good things, but the constant showing of people being shot and blood, believe me, these images move people. They have a profound effect on people.” Ultimately, she criticizes al-Jazeera as much as the American press. “In journalism, there has to be accountability there,” Selah said. “You shouldn’t play with people’s judgments.” “If I lived in any part of the world besides the U.S., and I picked up a paper and read about incidents in America, violence, rape, would it be fair for me to say, ‘All Americans are the same?'” Saleh said. “Small groups of people are doing these (terrorist) things, and they judge a billion people for their actions.”

CSUN student Melati Mohdsalleh, junior liberal studies major, is attempting to foster understanding in one child at a time as a teacher’s aide at Granada Elementary School in Granada Hills. “(The students) come from families that may have a negative image about Muslims through the media,” said Mohdsalleh, a Muslim born in Malaysia and raised in the United States. “So I try to give them good examples of Muslims.” Mohdsalleh has given several “culture and heritage” presentations for fifth-grade students at Granada. There are a few Muslim children attending the elementary school, and Mohdsalleh hopes their childhoods will be better than her own. “When I was growing up, I was ridiculed,” said Mohdsalleh, who wears a hajib, the traditional Muslim headdress. “I felt left out.” But Mohdsalleh describes college as “a dream come true.” At CSUN, she has been active in the Muslim Student Association, serving as treasurer last year. “I would like this experience to be more positive,” Mohdsalleh said. “The American school system is so tough. Every day is a struggle and a triumph.” There are a couple misconceptions about Muslims made by the American media that Mohdsalleh said she would like to dispel. For example, they’re not all Arabs, she said. More than half of the world’s Muslims are actually Asians, Mohdsalleh said. And the hajib, the traditional headscarf worn by many Muslim women, is not a symbol of oppression, but an expression of modesty, Mohdsalleh said.

Last year at Antelope Valley College, the head -scarf received national attention when CSUN student Amal Burhan’s younger sister Fajr refused to remove hers at the request of a professor. Burhan, former vice president of MSA and current A.S. director of international students, said the incident with her sister began when Fajr showed up at the professor’s computer science class, hoping to add. The professor told Fajr that he did not allow hats or scarves in his classroom, Burhan said. According to Burhan, after her sister told the professor that she wore the scarf for “religious reasons,” the professor stopped class in order to take her to the dean’s office. The dean asked Fajr if she wore the headscarf for religious purposes. When she responded that she did, the dean turned to the professor and said, “Then you have to respect that.” After class ended, the professor refused to add Fajr onto his roster, even though there were empty seats in the classroom, Burhan said. Within days, the incident blew up to national proportions when CAIR and other Muslim organizations, along with an interfaith civil rights group, lobbied the school to discipline the part-time professor. He resigned before the school board could act. The incident received national news coverage. The story magnifies the ignorance of some individuals, but also illustrates the increasingly organized response of Muslim groups in America, Burhan said. Burhan said efforts like the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s National Anti-Terrorism Campaign engages news organizations to educate them about Islam. Progress is difficult because “there are two sides to every story,” Burhan said. “Americans are generalizing that Islam is bad.” Burhan said criticism goes both ways. “I tell my (Syrian) cousins, ‘Don’t generalize about Americans that they’re all bad,'” Burhan said.

Other Muslims say the American media “generalizes” on a number of things. “Especially since Sept. 11,” said Assal Hamedi, senior family studies major. “We’re really not portrayed good at all. If we are portrayed, we’re portrayed as non-Americans. Every spokesperson (on the news), they can hardly speak English.” Where are the American-born Muslims? “We’re raised in America,” Hamedi said. “We have our traditions, but we have American culture (as well). But the image is like we don’t want to be a part of it, and it’s not true.” For example, not all Muslim women wear the hajib without any makeup on, said the American-born Hamedi. “You can be a normal person with a Gucci bag and still be a devout woman who prays five times a day,” Hamedi said. She cites her own Iranian-born grandmother to disprove the stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands. It is very clear in her family that her grandmother is the boss. “She makes more money than my grandfather,” Hamedi said. But Hamedi said you never see people like her grandmother in television or films. “(Give) us the opportunity to highlight ourselves as more than a terrorist, submissive wife, or (someone who) hijacks a plane and blows it up in the name of God,” Hamedi said. Hamedi said Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Academy Award-nominated actress who plays the murderous terr
orist on “24,” is well known in the Persian community. Hamedi said for many years Aghdashloo has produced and starred in local plays for Iranian audiences. Her role on “24” has received a lot of criticism from the Middle Eastern community, Hamedi said. “You feel bad because she wants to be successful, but she’s making us look bad,” Hamedi said.

Sociologists have suggested that the reason young white males did not become the objects of fear and hostility after Timothy McVeigh’s murderous actions in Oklahoma City was because Americans have many positive images of young white males, either from personal experience or through the media. Do we know Muslims in America? And if not, is the media totally to blame? Rabiah Ahmed said Muslims bear some responsibility. “(In the past), the Muslim community was an isolated community,” Ahmed said. “We stayed with our own kind.” Then Sept. 11 changed everything. “Now, we’re more engaged,” she said. Through the meeting with CAIR and MPAC, the producers of “24” agreed to air a public service announcement prior to the first episode, in which star Kiefer Sutherland says: “(It) is important to recognize that the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism. So, in watching ’24,’ please, bear that in mind.”