Human rights lawyer and journalist Arsalan Iftikhar was one of the regular commentators on the popular Barbershop Guys segment of NPR’s Tell Me More. He recently talked with WBFO about the role of Islam in today’s media and in the global community.
Few subjects have been more of a hot-button issue since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 than Islam, according to Iftikhar. He says the most prominent issue right now is the way the internet and social media brings a direct impact of events half a world away into our daily lives.
“Sadly, there’s no shortage of tragic stories around the world, whether you’re dealing with the crisis of Syria and Iraq, with ISIS and Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Civil War,” said Iftikhar. “You look at – in the last few months – Paris and Charlie Hebdo, the magazine massacre that happened.”
Iftikhar says his job is to try and address these issues and bring sense to them while giving a face to the vast majority of American and Western Muslims not represented in the media.
“People tend to think of Muslims and they only tend to think of two things: religion or terrorism,” said Iftikhar. “But most people don’t know that the greatest athlete ever, Muhammad Ali, and the funniest dude in America, Dave Chappelle, are both Muslims. Five out of the last twelve Nobel Peace Prize winners were Muslims. Three of them were Muslim women.”
Iftikhar tells community members around the country how important it is to become civically engaged with friends, neighbors and coworkers. He tells them “it’s much harder to demonize people once they’ve been humanized to you.”
Despite its knack for spreading stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, Iftikhar also sees the internet as a great equalizer that can bring people together.
“Children today are much more exposed to different ways of life and people all over the world because of things like YouTube,” he said.
When it comes to the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Iftikhar says the most important thing for the public to do is not overreact.
“We have to understand that ISIS will be defeated just like all bad guys are ultimately defeated,” said Iftikhar. “But it’s something that should not be conflated to represent all Muslims, even though they like to stick the Islamic moniker in their name. Whenever we call them the ‘Islamic State,’ that’s actually feeding into their narrative.”
Iftikhar says ISIS "is about as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan is Christian” and that Muslims ought to be afforded the courtesy of understanding, in the same way that the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church are not seen as representing all Christians.
“The acts of a bloodthirsty global street gang does not represent 1,400 years of civilization,” said Iftikhar.
The media can do a better job representing Islam and Muslims, too. Iftikhar spotlights the sensationalistic adage of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ as the reason many media outlets would ignore stories of Muslim communities hosting soup kitchens or feeding homeless people in favor of “an olive-skinned, bearded, gun-toting male chanting ‘Death to America.'”
At the same time, he says the free exchange of ideas is the best part of being in American media. While there may be “meta-narratives that are skewed in one direction,” he says, “We live in a place where people of all different political, religious, and ideological persuasions can talk and disagree without being disagreeable.”
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, media commentator, author, and Senior Editor for The Islamic Monthly magazine. He gave the keynote speech at the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York’s 11th annual banquet on June 13, 2015. You can find out more about him by visiting his website TheMuslimGuy.com.