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Reclaiming The Perceptions Of Muslims, pt. 1 – Be A Citizen

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Reclaiming the Perceptions of Muslims: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

A lot of talk in the Islamosphere centers around the perception of Muslims by non-Muslims and by the media. “The media portrays us all as terrorists, they only cover Islamic terrorist attacks. We’re all tainted by association, because public perception is twisted by media portrayal,” the argument goes.

But this sentiment only examines the symptoms. It’s my view that the behavior of the Muslim ummah itself is a significant contributor to the underlying cause. It’s long past time to acknowledge our own culpability, in both action and inaction, in how we are perceived and portrayed. Fortunately, by taking responsibility for our own role in how we are perceived, we also empower ourselves to take ownership of it, reclaim it, change it.

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In the following series of posts, I’m going to explore this: our failure of engagement from the grassroots level to established Muslim organizations, how media works, how and why our media messages fail, and improving civic and media relations (the two go hand in hand).

But I’ll also look at remedies: writing more effective press releases, focusing and controlling one’s message, ways to leverage new media and social networking tools, developing a sensitivity and attention to the comments of non-Muslims who seek to genuinely engage with us, the importance of overcoming the Muslim reticence to cultivate long-term, healthy relationships with local and national media outlets, and grassroots tips.

I’ll start at the grassroots level and build upwards and outwards.

Underneath everything else, the root of Muslim culpability in how it is perceived and portrayed is the ummah’s powerful inclination towards isolation and separatism. This pervades everything in the chain from grassroots on up, and needs to be kept uppermost in mind as we explore solutions throughout the chain of communications and relationships with those outside the Muslim ummah. We have been separatist and isolationist for far too long, and now to our own detriment.

At a simple, grassroots, individual level, we must begin engaging with our community as citizens first, Muslims second. I know that seems uncomfortable on the surface, and understand I’m not advocating we deny our faith or go into hiding — in fact I’m proposing we need to be more visible — but more visible as citizens who just happen to be Muslim, as opposed to Muslims who are preoccupied mainly with our Muslimness to the exclusion of our civic duties and neighbors.

We need to stop being defensive Muslims and start becoming concerned civic participants.

We need to understand that the Muslim ummah is not the only ummah we are a part of.

How to do this?

A) Get involved locally: go to a town hall meeting, your school’s PTA or the school board, neighborhood association, etc. Find a civic cause and get involved. Invite your neighbors for dinner. Join a gym. Lend a lawn mower. Join any kind of recreational or social group, be it bird watchers, chess club, green causes, Democrats, Republicans, whatever.

In short: If you’re in America because of the opportunities it affords, then do your part and participate.

The key is to connect outside of our sphere, human to human, person to person, townsfolk to townsfolk.

(More than just civic engagement, it’s increasingly important to do and document good deeds and actions. Look for more on this in a future post outside this series).

B) If you’re a Muslim blogger and/or a follower of Muslim blogs: Congrats, you’ve worked very hard, shukriya for all you’ve done, mash’allah, you did great work!

In fact, your blogging was so awesome, you’ve won a vacation! Here’s your temporary exit visa from Blogistan!

Go visit some other part of the internet. Take a long hiatus from blogging about Muslim issues that — let’s be real here and call a spade a spade — are pretty much only read and discussed by other Muslim bloggers blogging about Muslim issues. I’m not saying that kind of exchange shouldn’t happen, of course it should. I love the Islamosphere and we need that internal discourse, but we need to shake any delusions about the Islamosphere’s true external reach and influence on non-Muslims. There are ways to improve that reach that I’ll address later in this series, but currently that reach is not much at all.

Start a section on your blog (or set up a new one) about what’s happening in your city. If you’re personally involved in some of the community steps mentioned above, then blog on those. Link with other community bloggers, comment on their blogs, comment on your city newspaper or TV station web sites (most of those now have reader commenting mechanisms). How much and when you want to point to your Muslim blogging interests at this stage is up to you, but the key is to build a local voice and presence that actively demonstrates civic interest and concern. For that kind of audience and targeting, building your civic cyberidentity is more important than showcasing your Muslim one, at least initially.

Here’s my throwdown: I challenge every Muslim blogger to blog on something else other than Muslim issues for their next three posts. Make it local to your community. Post a link to it on the comments below.

Can you, will you do it?

Both these activities — individual civic activism and playing a part in the local blogosphere — have an additional benefit of setting the stage for a better long-term relationship and presence with local (and ultimately national) media. How media outlets work, the Muslim reticence to develop media relationships and the Muslim failure to deliver effective lasting messages to the media — and how that can be turned around — will be addressed in the next post.

If Muslims are not willing to be known and be identified as fellow citizens — fully participating in and concerned about our civic community — then the only Muslims our neighbors will ever know about, are those Muslims that make the news when they commit senseless violent acts.

Our present isolationism has guaranteed that our civic communities know no other kind of Muslim.

But by undertaking some simple steps, we offer the civic ummah a wealth of positive experiences with Muslims — alternative experiences that can counteract the perception we’ve allowed to flourish by our separatist stance.

More to follow…

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With nine years experience in mainstream news media -- first in radio, then web and social media for both print and television -- Mustafa Stefan Dill was an early advocate and practitioner for applying social media techniques to mainstream journalism. Dill has lectured on online journalism and social change at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore, India and has been featured in Online Journalism Review, The Media Center's Morph blog, J-New Voices, motherpie.typepad.com, and participated as a panelist in a national web seminar by the American Press Institute. In August 2010, Dill planned his escape from the newsroom environment launched a new consultancy offering PR, social media and new media strategies for a wide range of clients, with a specialty in serving Muslim and interfaith organizations and NGOs working in Muslim regions. Dill reverted to Islam in 2002.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Arif Kabir

    October 19, 2010 at 9:34 PM

    Very nicely written, masha’Allah.

    I myself have noticed that our blogs “are pretty much only read and discussed by other Muslim bloggers blogging about Muslim issues”. When my father first started KabirCares.org (a civic blog addressing the city of College Park), I was pretty skeptical about it, but because of his blogging, the City of College Park held a “College Park Day” with him and another civic blogger running the show, he was able to hold several community cleanups, the Gazette (local newspaper) regularly publishes articles with his blogged quotes on it, so Alhamdulillah, it definitely paid its dividends.

  2. Mustafa Stefan Dill

    October 19, 2010 at 11:37 PM

    Thank s Arif!
    That’s awesome that your Dad did that, that’s exactly the kind of activity I’m advocating and that we need to see more of ! is it still active and can you share a link?

    We would love to have a collection of links to blogs by Muslims who are blogging on other issues — post those urls here!

  3. Holly Stevens

    October 20, 2010 at 1:20 PM

    Hello: Just a note to say I’m a non-Muslim who just came across this post — and I think you have a wonderful idea here, finding more opportunities to become engaged with the mainstream as citizens who just happen to be Muslim. People form impressions of the “other” from media and rumor, but it is not until they have opportunities to engage with, and come to know on a personal level, those unlike themselves in some particular way that they can come to see the “Other” with trust and respect. May you find fruit in your efforts, InshaAllah.

  4. ummZayn

    October 20, 2010 at 1:41 PM

    Very much needed for our Muslim communities living in the West. Regarding your point of becoming more visible, here’s a simple and wonderful way, with Eid coming up next month. Prepare a plate of goodies and share them with your coworkers, neighbours etc. Include a small note to explain that its Eid and that you want to share the happiness etc. Small things like this go a long way!

    • Yaqeen needed

      November 15, 2010 at 1:15 AM

      Well intended idea. Just want to know what one will do when Xmas comes and they offer youtheir food or invite u to participate. Or thanksgiving

  5. fester225

    October 20, 2010 at 2:17 PM

    I am an infidel who has taken an interest in Islam to America.

    You have many good ideas. From my perspective, the biggest problem Islam has in America is the near invisibility of its moderate membership. I very much look forward to the rest of this series.

    I have many friends who’s interests much more closely lie with keeping Islam out. I’d like to know why the vast majority of moderate Islam remains silent when the various atrocities occur around the world. You alluded to a cultural preference to stay out of the public light. I’d appreciate more from you on this subject.

  6. Mustafa Stefan Dill

    October 20, 2010 at 9:00 PM

    hi Fester,
    thanks for your interest, and welcome to MM! (and by the way, I never cared for the term ‘infidel,’ loaded as it is by certain baggages and connotations accrued over time. I’m sure there’s etymological/ linguistic reasons for that translation — Iesa G.? — , but in this day and age, its a lot more neutral to refer to non-Muslims as simply non-Muslims :) )

    Your question:

    I’d like to know why the vast majority of moderate Islam remains silent when the various atrocities occur around the world

    is one that’s heard a lot these days. It’s a fair question that must be answered, and Muslims need to own that: we owe our fellow citizens an answer. That lack of ownership was the major impetus behind this series, in fact.

    The conventional Muslim response is usually that Muslims have spoken up against terrorism and other atrocities.

    My contention is, however, they haven’t done it enough, but more importantly, they haven’t done it well at all. The media effectiveness of the Muslim institutional response — as I’ll show in part 3 — is tepid at best. I have to preface that installment with Part 2, which breaks down what media outlets need to make engaging coverage; part 3 will examine how we’ve failed to meet that media need.

    As to the reticence of the ummah, that’s a complex question that also needs good answers, but it’s a little outside the scope of this current series, which has a more media focus. There are others who are more qualified to take that on, from a cultural/anthropological/sociological perspective. I have found Dr. Ahmed’s recent book “Journey Into America” highly illuminating on this front, and as I mention in the link, I consider it essential reading for any American, Muslim or not, interested in the Muslim dialogue or not.

    Thanks again!
    MSD

    • fester225

      October 20, 2010 at 9:23 PM

      MSD:

      Thank you for your most kind response! With a few exceptions, I’m beginning to expect that from the Muslim community.

      The following article which I wrote for AltMuslim.org might give you a better idea of my background and motivations:

      http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/a/3327/

      P.S. I shall endeavor to remember to be a ‘non-Muslim’ rather than an ‘Infidel’.

      • Iesa Galloway

        October 20, 2010 at 10:09 PM

        Mustafa and Fester,

        P.S. I shall endeavor to remember to be a ‘non-Muslim’ rather than an ‘Infidel’. :)

        Good!

        Since you asked I dug up something I wrote a LONG time ago on this topic:

        It is important to understand the origin of the term infidel, like the phrase pagan the word infidel was coined by the church for use by European Christians to describe Muslims and Jews at the time of the crusades. The term infidel was needed to dehumanize both the Jews and Muslims (who both are clearly not pagans) for the crusaders who set out to convert or slaughter them as the journeyed to take the holy land.

        Webster’s 1913 Dictionary:

        In”fi*del, a. [L. infidelis; pref. in- not + fidelis faithful, fr. fides faith: cf. F. infid[`e]le. See {Fidelity}.]

        Not holding the faith; — applied esp. to one who does not
        believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures, and the supernatural origin of Christianity.

        The infidel writer is a great enemy to society. –V. Knox.

        In”fi*del, n. One who does not believe in the prevailing religious faith; especially, one who does not believe in the divine origin and
        authority of Christianity; a Mohammedan; a heathen; a freethinker.

        Note: Infidel is used by English writers to translate the equivalent word used Mohammedans in speaking of Christians and other disbelievers in Mohammedanism.

        Syn: {Infidel}, {Unbeliever}, {Freethinker}, {Deist}, {Atheist}, {Skeptic}, {Agnostic}.

        The Arabic word kafir which is often inadequately translated to infidel or unbeliever has a deeper meaning, and includes many sublevels for non-Muslims. The word literally means one who covers or hides something. It traditionally referred to farmers, i.e. those who bury seeds in the earth and cover them. While the term kafir can be used to refer to non-Muslims in general, Islam made a point to differentiate between pagans, idolaters and others with the term “People of the Book” the honorary title given to Jews and Christians.

      • A

        November 16, 2010 at 3:18 PM

        Excluding all the complicated politics. I too am happy to read this. I have never ever heard an English-speaking fellow Muslim call a non-Muslim an infidel.

        As mentioned before, it seems to stem from mirror-image projection & ignorant history, in the same way some Christians think that Prophet Muhammad is the Muslim God of the Trinity.

        Muslims consider the fellow Abrahamic religions as Ahl-e-Kitab i.e. “People of the Book”, even if we are engaged in conflicts. Infidel is to Muslims something really sickening, way beyond dehumanization. At the end of the day, we are from the Abrahamic tradition & children of Adam.

  7. mayubelle

    October 21, 2010 at 6:45 AM

    Good stuff Mustafa!!,

    There need to be many more posts of this character. I too as a muslim am utterly sick of and even disgusted by the blame culture fostered by our community, and our mentality of perpetual victimhood. Wish there were far stronger and louder posts of this sort. Real or percieved media-bias is merely a projection of our very real failures as a community, and failure to engage with the broader community in a constructive and positive fashion. We also don’t seem to realise non-muslims who mistrust us, may not be merely motivated by sheer bigotry and hatred, but may be spurred by genuinely held if erronous beliefs. Media statements and disclaimers aside our actual manner of conducting ourselves with others, apart from getting extremely defensive, has done little to allieviate this mistrust. Even in our legitimate objections to american foreign policy, we grossly oversimplify the political and global dynamics at play and mould everything as part of the “war on Islam”.

    • fester225

      October 21, 2010 at 5:31 PM

      Mayubelle:

      This is very interesting commentary.

      I’m brand new to this site. Is side discussion allowed?

      • Mustafa Stefan Dill

        October 21, 2010 at 9:52 PM

        how side is side? :) feel free to continue on here — if it gets way off tangent, I’ll ask a senior admin to house it,.

        nice article on altmuslim, by the way — a great read! I think thats another component of the dialogue I overlooked in the article: otires fo non-Muslims who’ve had good experiences with the Muslim community.

        Thanks for doing that; its an added and needed voice.

  8. Pingback: A Tale Of Two Press Releases: MPAC And CAIR On NPR’s Williams | MuslimMatters.org

  9. Pingback: Reclaiming The Perceptions Of Muslims, pt. 4 – Analyse Your Press Release; Serving Non-Muslims | MuslimMatters.org

  10. Pingback: Reclaiming the Perceptions Of Muslims, pt. 3 — How Muslim Organizations Fail With Media | MuslimMatters.org

  11. Pingback: Reclaiming The Perceptions Of Muslims, pt. 2 — Understanding The Media | MuslimMatters.org

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