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November-December 2016

Canadian media sucks at representing Muslims in Canada

Amira Elghawaby on the unflattering, unrelenting media spotlight on Muslims in Canada—and why journalists must do better

Amira Elghawaby@AmiraElghawaby

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When it comes to Muslims, even the good news stories can turn ugly. Take this example from September 2016: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited a mosque during Eid, one of the holiest celebrations in the Islamic calendar, to pay his respects. The story morphed into something sinister and malevolent.

Several newspapers owned by Postmedia reported that the mosque our prime minister was stepping into—and the imam who leads it—have ties to terrorism; that the mosque is sexist for separating men and women; and that the PM can’t really be a feminist if he is prepared to speak before such a gathering. “If Canada’s prime minister were a woman, she wouldn’t have been permitted where Justin Trudeau stood earlier this week: on the ground floor of a gender-segregated Ottawa mosque for Eid al-Adha celebrations,” wrote one columnist erroneously in the National Post.

The contention that women couldn’t speak anywhere in the mosque was refuted a few days later by a female Liberal MP who shared her own experience of appearing at the front of that very mosque on various occasions. Irrespective of the truth, the mosque and those who frequent such spaces were framed as being at odds with Canadian “values,” considered a threat to be marginalized and avoided. The stories led to at least one hateful and threatening email that was reported to police, never mind the vitriol spewed in various comment sections and on social media.

In the public imagination, the mosque symbolizes a space representative of the more than one million Canadian Muslims who call this country home. And that not all mosques are the same, or that there are many Muslims working to make these spaces more inclusive and welcoming doesn’t always matter when it comes to media coverage.

Some media outlets and personalities view stories like this one as an opportunity to perpetuate stereotypes and stoke fear. They seem to bank on heightened anxiety around violent extremism, Syrian refugees, xenophobia, and divisive political rhetoric calling into question the loyalty of Muslim minorities in the Western world, reinforcing the harmful narratives promoted by violent extremists: that Muslims can never belong here.

No one has studied the roots of this phenomenon in Canada, but according to an in-depth U.S. study, it’s estimated that seven American foundations have spent more than $42.6 million between 2001–2009 to promote anti-Muslim narratives. “The efforts of a small cadre of funders and misinformation experts were amplified by an echo chamber of the religious right, conservative media, grassroots organizations, and politicians who sought to introduce a fringe perspective on American Muslims into the public discourse,” says the report, “Fear, Inc. 2.0.” Our borders are porous in more ways than one; these “perspectives” influence Canadians too.

All of this despite the fact that polling indicates a majority of Canadian Muslims are deeply proud of this country, a democratic and prosperous nation where religion can be practiced freely, citizens can contribute positively to the wider communities without fear of discrimination, and where it isn’t impossible to dream of opportunities for oneself or one’s family—theoretically, at least.

As Canadians confront painful truths about this country—its treatment of First Nations, ongoing racial profiling, sexism in our institutions, and countless other social justice travesties—we turn to the media to understand the various sides of an issue and to find solutions to our myriad social inequities and challenges. But that’s not always the way media producers handle this immense responsibility, desperate for clicks and in a constant rush to capture fleeting attention in a 24-hour news cycle where speed often matters more than accuracy or balance. These compromised standards of journalistic ethics and integrity seem to erode further when it comes to talking about Muslims in Canada.

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There was clearly a deliberate attempt at scoring political points by suggesting that Trudeau had no feminist backbone in speaking before a segregated prayer space during Eid. But the story was presented to bolster these negative connotations, even if the supposed offences weren’t actually rooted in fact. For one, there were women at the front of the room that day, despite reports that stated otherwise; at least one columnist had to change her piece when notified of the obvious error. And separation between men and women occurs primarily during prayer services, as with most religious prayers in other faith communities. It quickly became evident that suggesting separation is sexist only when in the context of Muslim prayer space was an attempt to reinforce stereotypes.

Muslims are more frequently becoming a proxy for political manoeuvrings, as seen in the last federal election and in the last Quebec provincial election, with all the talk of banning religious clothing from citizenship oaths and workplaces. The challenge in even speaking to such slanted stories means there’s little room for nuance. Addressing universal struggles for greater female empowerment, for example, could be used as evidence of rampant patriarchy if mentioned in this context. It’s too often a lose-lose.

These Islamophobic themes in our media mean that struggling for social justice within our own faith spaces and calling for change can be a challenge. Fellow community members might see it as “airing dirty laundry” at a time when our communities are under intense scrutiny. Others might view it as fuelling the Islamophobes. We’re left wondering what we can safely say, and how we can call for positive change in such a divisive climate.

To top it all off, a third of Canadians have a negative perception of Islam and Muslims, according to the recent Environics Survey of Muslims in Canada. Other polling shows that people who actually know a Muslim will be far more likely to have a positive impression. But when our daily media diet is persistently negative, painting Muslims as a fifth column, barbaric, sexist, dangerous, deceptive, and problematic, how can we blame people for simply wondering—even on a most basic level—what gives?

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Just a few weeks prior to the mosque “controversy,” the Canadian Press ran a terribly damaging story about a so-called report by a couple of self-proclaimed researchers with the headline, “Mosques and schools in Canada filled with extremist literature: study.” How such a study was published at all is a mystery: it wasn’t peer-reviewed, and it did not contain any actual data, other than a few anecdotes clearly aimed at scaring people. “Many of those present during the visits to the libraries seemed sullen and sometimes angry. The traditional greetings of friendship were absent,” one particularly ridiculous section reads. “This is consistent with the increasing general angriness of Islamist/extremist views being advanced in some local mosques.”

Canadian Press editor-in-chief Stephen Meurice issued something of a mea culpa, admitting the story required actual responses from Canadian Muslim organizations before being published. But it was too little, too late. The Toronto Star also had to apologize for accompanying the piece with a picture of an unrelated Toronto mosque.

Most other media organizations that ran the original article didn’t publish a follow-up piece with responses from Canadian Muslim organizations countering the claims in the so-called study. In fact, an academic who wanted to share her own experience researching an Islamic school wasn’t able to find a single editor who would publish her commentary. She resorted to posting it on a Huffington Post blog. Writing for VICE, Davide Mastracci was the only journalist to do a full take-down in a piece aptly titled, “That Study About Extremist Mosques in Canada Is Mostly Bullshit.”

Do editors fail to see how such lopsided negative coverage impacts Canadian Muslims? Do people think we live in some kind of vacuum—that what is said on television or online won’t directly affect how we’re treated at work, by our neighbours, or on the streets? Hate crimes against Muslims in this country are rising at an alarming rate, doubling between 2012–2014 as they decline overall by comparison to other targeted communities. Sure, media are supposed to be “neutral,” but being fair and responsible doesn’t negate that neutrality.

The Toronto Star, despite its recent fault with the mosque story, actually leads the way when it comes to coverage of Islam and Muslims. Last spring, the country’s largest newspaper concluded that using the Islamic State to describe the violent extremist group was wrong. The newspaper decided to use Daesh, the Arabic acronym of the group, instead. It’s the term used by foreign leaders around the world, even recently adopted by our own government as the most accurate term to describe this “multinational gang of killers and rapists” as described by the Star’s editor-in-chief, Michael Cooke.

And yet, even after Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale made the announcement in August 2016 that Daesh is the right label to use, most Canadian media outlets continue to use the other term, feeding into a violent extremist myth: that this group is Islamic and that it is a state.

And there are studies that demonstrate how disproportionate negative coverage of Islam and Muslims can be. One American study published in the Journal of Communication found that between 2008–2012, 81 percent of stories about terrorism on U.S. news programs were about Muslims, while only six percent of domestic terrorism suspects were actually Muslim. A Canadian study looked at New York Times headlines over a 25-year span and found that Muslims garnered more negative headlines than cocaine, cancer, and alcohol. It’s quite likely that Canadian media are similarly inclined. Here in Canada, author and academic Karim H. Karim has described much of the media framing of Islam and Muslims as constructing “an Islamic Peril.”

More recently, a series of articles in the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism (RRJ) points out grave deficits in Canadian media’s ability to reflect and report fairly on diverse communities. “Questioning the intentions of journalists is fundamental to admitting that Canadian news has a race problem, but it doesn’t mean all outlets will be quick to address it,” concluded Eternity Martis in a piece exploring media coverage of Toronto’s gang and gun violence and the perpetuation of stereotypes related to Black communities. To scapegoat an entire group for the violent actions of a few sounds eerily familiar, even if nonsensical.

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Where does that leave us? We could talk about diversifying newsrooms, but that doesn’t fully solve the problem. Muslim journalists and writers can also face soul-destroying hate mail and attack, and even harassment from fellow colleagues, as has been reported to the National Council of Canadian Muslims, where I work. Though, no doubt, “building diversity is a collaborative effort,” as Anda Zeng rightfully concludes in a RRJ piece titled “Token Effort.”

For those of us engaged in the struggle, we should keep pushing back, writing commentary pieces, speaking out. But, again, there are limitations. Sometimes even reacting to a particular narrative frame confirms that you and your community are a problem to sort out. After all, “even though some Western media try to provide fair and balanced representations of Muslims, stereotypical media depictions of them are more common in Western societies,” notes University of Ottawa academic Mahmoud Eid in a 2014 collection, Re-Imagining the Other: Culture, Media, and Western-Muslim Intersections.

The good news is that Islamophobia is finally being acknowledged as a real concern in this country. With the rise in police-reported hate crimes, and in an increase in the number of Canadian Muslims who are reporting experiences of discrimination and fears of stereotyping, others are taking notice. There is a growing realization that fighting against this form of hatred is right up there with fighting against all other forms of intolerance. More and more people are also hearing the multitude of voices speaking out against violent extremism, and confronting the false interpretations that seek to justify criminal behaviour in the name of our faith.

Equally hopeful is the growing number of young people taking to their microphones, their pens, their video cameras and their phones, putting new narratives forward, creating new characters, and sharing new and authentic experiences to change attitudes and perceptions. “Pop culture has the biggest chance of countering Islamophobia,” said author and commentator Reza Aslan in March 2016 during a panel on Islam and the media in Oshawa, Ont. He’s totally right. Whether we’re talking about Muslim characters in the hugely successful past series Little Mosque on the Prairie (which broke CBC’s record of audience viewership during its debut), or in the teenage drama Degrassi, people want to be entertained. It’s a bonus if one can both entertain and deconstruct stereotypes— kind of like when moms blend vegetables into spaghetti sauce.

But we can’t sit back and wait for more cultural arts to feature Muslim perspectives and realities. That will take time, encouragement, and investment. For now, news media must check their own biases when choosing which stories to run, which voices to feature, and which sides to ignore. It isn’t just a matter of ethical journalism. It’s a matter of being on the right side of history and not inadvertently on the side of those who aim to construct figurative divides.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of writer Davide Mastracci. This regrets the error.

Amira Elghawaby has written and produced stories for CBC Radio, the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. She is the National Council of Canadian Muslim’s communications director, leading its media relations, public engagement, and strategic communications. In 2016, she led a project with New Canadian Media creating Canada’s first Ethnic Media and Diversity Style Guide. She obtained an honours degree in Journalism and Law from Carleton University in 2001.

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