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

An Analytical Model For Media Output

If I have one overarching principle in my media analysis work, it’s this: effective media output is about understanding user behavior to meet needs. Whether it’s porn or a movie schedule or looking up a recipe or researching new tires, people seek out the information contained in media to solve a problem or meet a need.

Content is, in a strict sense, independent from the form or delivery method that carries it (media), though the two share an increasingly symbiotic relationship. For example, to look at movie times, I have a variety of distinct options: I can check online, look at the newspaper, call the theater on the telephone or download an iPhone app.

Content is just a part of what people seek to ultimately meet a given need; media or platform is solving the problem of how they want to meet it.

Your press release or blog post or web site– no matter how effective and targeted it may be — isn’t the end game; fulfilling your audience’s need is, solving their problem is.

I approach the entire process through an active, behavioral lens, with that user’s need always in target:

and

Then measure your press release or media output or blog against the above two questions by asking yourself:

Whether you’re planning some simple grassroots steps, blogging, designing a web site, writing an article or press release, or preparing for an interfaith lecture, this kind of analytical model is useful because it forces you to evaluate your output in terms of solving the target audience’s problems. It doesn’t matter how well you write if you’re not identifying deep issues and offering palpable solutions.

It also helps identify any weak links or loose threads: sometimes you’ll find either the message won’t adequately address the need, or perhaps it will but the platform doesn’t. Or, as in the underutilized Facebook and Twitter examples from the last post, you may also have tools at your disposal that are well proven to help meet needs (2, above), but no specific needs have been identified (1) nor content or good practices employed (3).

This model is run through from the perspective of your targeted audience to see if your planned output meets all the listed criteria. Then run it again, this time putting back on your Muslim-media-producer shoes by replacing the ‘what are they’ phrases in the above questions with ‘what am I’: what am I truly trying to do with this press release, is the release itself adequate, would a tweet be better for what I’m trying to convey? Rewrite, adjust, run the models again. Achieve the best balance between the perspectives that you can.

The Need Of Non-Muslims

The need of the non-Muslim, on an individual level, to better understand Muslims — a central challenge within this series’ title –has been examined up to now in terms of meeting our own need of reclaiming our perception, but it’s also a real, tangible need for non-Muslims.

Review everything covered in this series so far — the lack of grassroots civic involvement, a self-referential Islamosphere, and a less-than-stellar level of engagement with non-Muslims through media, ranging from oppositional stances to ineffective messages — from the point of view of a non-Muslim that’s asking questions, seeking answers, turning to us for guidance, and it’s clear we’re not meeting that need, either.

We’re not building bridges, and this failure only furthers the level of distrust and frustration the non-Muslims may feel about our community.

Viewing all the strategies and techniques discussed so far though a non-Muslim lens puts the final polish on any civic or media engagement we undertake.

Listening

Earlier I pointed out the reticence adopted by Dr. Assaf in his blog post following Ft. Hood. When his post was also placed on NJ Voices, here’s some of the response he garnered:

jerseyopine wrote:

After every violent Muslim aggression/association we hear 2 things- 1) Islam is a peaceful religion, & 2) Muslims fear a “backlash” after whatever recent Muslim activist violence has occurred.

And I wonder why isn’t the peaceful Muslim community sending out a strong message to the public throughout the year- an ongoing public condemnation against such acts of violence? An ongoing reinforcement of Islamic values that repudiates terrorist murders in the name of the Muslim faith?

It seems the ‘aftermath’ Muslim leader public comments are only some half hearted rebuttals in reaction to potential fear of some discrimination. The concern seems more about negative public feelings that may cause inconvenience to Muslims. Where is heartfelt remorse, indignation, & condemnation? Reminding yourself and reporters of anti-violent Quranic verse is not sending too much of a statement here.

Posted by BanditGuy:

don’t know much about the Muslim religion, nor do many Americans, and that is a failing of organizations like yours. But I think I understand that Islam is not hierarchical. So, perhaps it’s not easy to present a “united front.” Nobody is in overall charge. That does not mean, however, that organizations such as yours could not coordinate your efforts in getting your message out. If you fail to do so, you will continue to be looked on with suspicion by many. You, as an American, should understand the power of public relations. As Christians like to quote, “The Lord helps him who helps himself.”

Later the same commenter writes:

If Muslims/Arabs/Farsi and the rest want greater understanding of their culture and religion, it’s going to be up to them to see that that happens. Perhaps a national organization that could explain the mysteries of Islam could be created. It could start by condemning with a single voice fanatical Muslim atrocities (I know that this will be difficult culturally but necessary). It could also proclaim for all to hear it’s belief in Israel’s right to exist. When this happens, I will begin to suspect that Middle-Eastern Americans are truly Americans first and Muslims/Arabs/Farsi etc. second.

When Muslimmatters.org covered the Swiss minaret affair, here are some responses:

iMuslim: “I’m not saying we shouldn’t assert ourselves, but if the neighbours of the original mosque project were offended by something as benign as a minaret, that should signal alarm bells to the Muslim community, and lead to the decision: “let’s talk to our neighbours, and address their fears”. Not: “let’s fight this in the courts, and risk the problem going national”.”

Muslim Apple: “I take this situation as a wakeup call for myself within my own community and spheres of influence that if my neighbors, friends, coworkers, classmates, and others are afraid of me or afraid of Islam that I have not lived the life of a Muslim to convey the message. Even though we will never be able to please everyone but if half on those concerned enough to vote feel comfortable passing measures like this or other ones, we haven’t done our job effectively.”

Jeff: “I am ashamed to say I may even have felt the same way if something hadn’t happened to me two years ago. I met an actual Muslim. Since then I have made many Muslim friends. I may not agree with all aspects of Islam, but all the Muslims I have met are kind, decent, hardworking people.”

Note how in the examples listed above, all the steps discussed to date in this series could help in meeting these concerns. There are thousands of similar comments and examples from this year’s current events as well, too numerous to list here.

It serves no purpose to have platforms for input and comments and then ignore those conversations. Muslim institutions involved in media output need to be sifting through the dialogues in the Islamosphere, other interfaith blogs, and regular online news coverage. ldentify recurring concerns and questions, look for the larger patterns of inquiry — that unmet need — then build a response or PR/social media campaign around it.

At an individual level, get involved, engage responsibly and respectfully on those articles and comments (see postscript below for commenting tips).

Listen, then leverage.

Conclusion

In context of this series, there are a number of broad needs trying to be met that have been addressed: that of Muslims trying to clarify and broaden their identity as perceived by non-Muslims; that of mainstream media news outlets to have easy access to clear information on Muslim issues; and that of Muslim organizations to provide a clear, effective outreach.

The needs of Muslims and non-Muslims are actually very close: the need to be better understood, and the need to better understand; that newsrooms need stories, and Muslims need their stories told.

The good news is these aren’t mutually exclusive: By helping to meet the needs of the other participants and constituents in these equations, our own need to reclaim the perception of Muslims gets met as well. Helping others, we help ourselves.

Such closely shared objectives give me a great sense of optimism that a better perception of Muslims can be created, if we’re willing to step up to the plate and do our end of the work, build those bridges to close the gap.

Hopefully, some of the ideas passed on in this series can help make that work easier to achieve.

Postscript: Dealing With Comments

Allowing comments on your blog is a big step, and while I think most Islamic blogs should, I certainly respect the choice not to. Long and short: If you’re not willing to commit the considerable time and effort to actively monitor and focus the discussions, then don’t do it at all. It is far better to not go there, in my view, than to do it poorly or leave those discussions unattended.

That said, here are some pointers if you do decide to go there, or if you want to engage on other blogs or articles.

There are a number of sites and resources for commenting best practices, but in a nutshell, a) clearly posted rules of engagement, b) strict and consistent enforcement of those policies, c) and active monitoring and engaging with the commenters yourself are sound strategies to adopt for starters.

Non-Muslim commenters on the Islamosphere tend to fall into two categories: those with a genuine interest in seeking information, and those who just want to inflame. The latter you do not want any protracted engagement with, but you do need to address such commenters, and identify and draw them out as early as possible.

If you get flamed:

If their intent is not clear, then draw them out, and take a higher, calmer ground in your response. Respond, by using some of the following sample templates, in your own words. These aren’t written in a way to recopy, but to provide a kind of mindset to get into:

If you truly want an answer to your concerns, then I’m happy to answer as best I can, with the understanding that I don’t represent the full range of thought and ideas across 1.5 billion Muslims, just as you may not wish to speak for every Christian, be they Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant or Baptist. What I can’t answer, I’ll try to point you to sources that I feel are sound and reasonable.

If on the other hand, you are here to instigate or flame, I won’t play. You and I both know that kind of exchange won’t lead to any greater understanding or appreciation of each other’s perspective, and I’d rather find out what’s *really* concerning you about Muslims.

So how can I help? Now that you’ve said how you feel, can you explain what you’re really worried about?

This takes you off of the defensive and puts the onus on the commenter to clarify their position and intent.

Some commenters may have genuine concerns or issues that are hidden underneath a layer of fear that presents itself as aggressive language. This kind of proposed answer gives them a chance to work through and better frame their issues.

True Islamophobes or trolls will either stop, or keep attacking — but if they do, they’ve exposed themselves by not fashioning their response under the terms you’ve requested. You can ban them from that point.

* If you have to answer with a verse, here are some that I’ve found pretty consistently effective in disarming a lot of heat, especially if you personalize it: (“This is MY Qu’ran!”):

Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. 13:11

Have you seen him who denies Judgment? That is the one who repulses the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy. Woe to those that pray and are unmindful of their Prayer, those who want to be seen, and who refuse small kindnesses. 107:1-5

Do not let your hatred of a people incite you to aggression. 5:2.

Unto every one of you We have appointed a (different) law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works. Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. 5:48

Repel the evil deed with the one that is better. Then lo! He with whom you shared enmity will become as though he was a bosom friend. 41:34

We believe in God and what has been sent down to us, what has been revealed to Abraham and Ismael and Isaac and Jacob and their offspring and what was given to Moses and Jesus and all other Prophets by the Creator, and we make no distinction between them. 2:136

Truly, those who attain to faith in this Word as well as those who follow the Jewish faith and the Sabians and the Christians—and those who have faith in God, and the Final Day and do righteous deeds—no fear need they have and neither shall they grieve. 5:69