This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on August 23, 2013.
By Amer Aldeen
Even without Rolling Stone’s ill-advised cover, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is likely to haunt the entire nation (especially Boston) for some time. But it’s worth noting how quickly the media turned this ordinary college-going teenager, who was quite literally Caucasian, into something more dangerously foreign – a Muslim – after he committed a heinous act of mass murder. "Muslim" was the only label deemed appropriate for the negative, the horrific, the violent.
Interestingly, the reverse happens when someone who is Muslim commits a heroic act. This struck me most powerfully when reading about the tragic Bangladeshi clothing factory collapse on April 24. In telling the sad stories of destruction and loss interspersed with uplifting tales of heroism, news outlets wrote about the resilient "Bangladeshi people." Not a single news carrier that I could find called even one of the victims or heroes "Muslim."
That’s striking, because ninety percent of Bangladeshis are Muslim. If the factory had been brought down by a terrorist act, religiously motivated or not, I guarantee you that Bangladeshis would have been described, over and over, with the words "Muslim" or "Islamic." Where in journalism’s code is it written that when people are living positive, productive lives, they can have many identities – national, individual, professional – but are reduced only to one, Muslim, if they commit an act of terror?
Consider, for instance, a BBC story about a Bangladeshi rescuer, Didar Hossein, that described how he was forced to amputate victims’ hands and arms in order to free them from the rubble. Hossain, a $70 per week worker at the nearby Al-Muslim factory, acted with incredible courage after a doctor whom he asked for help with the amputation was afraid to go to the site. Unnerved though he was, Hossain told the BBC, "As a human being, I felt it was my duty to try and save other human beings." He described how he cried with the victim during the amputation because of the pain he was causing. But he carried on because he needed the courage to save someone’s life.
In a country that is 90 percent Muslim, with a name that literally means "glimpsing Hossein [the prophet Muhammad’s grandson]," this hero was almost certainly Muslim. Somehow, his religious identity was not described anywhere in this remarkable story. Consciously or not, the BBC reporter – like so many others – was deleting Islam from a portrait of the positive, leaving it to be linked only to violence and aggression. Apparently, when a Muslim is a hero, his religious identity is irrelevant, but when he is a villain, it is pervasive.
Don’t just believe me. Examine this phenomenon yourself. Count how many of the next 10 articles you read mentioning Muslims that show them doing something positive, and how many something negative. I would bet that when Muslims are victims, heroes or otherwise ordinary, they are described instead as Bangladeshi, or Egyptian, or Qatari, or American. Tsunamis, earthquakes and ordinary life apparently happen only to Indonesians, Iranians and Iraqis, respectively – not Muslims. You will almost certainly find that Muslims make the news as Muslims only when they do something violent.
Not only are Muslims never the "good guys," they struggle even to be perceived as ordinary. Persian stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani ("originally Muslim," in his own words) tells a joke about the rarity of any news story about the simple guy in Iran named Muhammad who is just baking a cookie – no bombs involved.
Given this news climate, it’s easy to understand why some people view Islam as worthy of hatred. According to a 2010 Time magazine poll, more than 60 percent of Americans reported never having met a Muslim. Most Americans just do not have any personal knowledge that could counterbalance the news media’s violent portrayal.
But more than 1 billion human beings on this earth are Muslim. If Tsarnaev and other unhinged extremists truly represented most Muslims, there would be multiple terrorist attacks every minute. The truth is that the vast majority of Muslims spend their lives in ordinary pursuits, living as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, doctors, lawyers, engineers, farmers, students and others. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "A person is a person because they treat others as persons." Muslims are simply humans. They, like all of us, are as a group, no better or worse than anyone else.
The news media have thus far exclusively told Americans about people like Tsarnaev – namely, the McVeighs, Mansons, and Capones of the Muslim world. I humbly submit that it is time to tell more Didar Hossein stories – and to identify these ordinary heroes as Muslims.
-Amer Aldeen is an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University.