Local Muslim leaders respond to San Bernardino, media coverage

Dec 4, 2015

In response to Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, local Muslim leaders and educators are speaking about the tragedy, how the greater Muslim community is portrayed by mainstream and social media, and how negative portrayals are possibly contributing to the risk of some falling into radicalization.

Local leaders first expressed their sorrow over the tragedy and sympathies for the families of the victims. But they also admitted frustration over what they perceive as a rush to assume a terrorism connection and how media approach a violent act when an attacker is identified as a Muslim.

A view of the Jaffarya Islamic Center of the Niagara Frontier, one of numerous local places of worship for the WNY Muslim community.
Credit courtesy wnymuslims.org

Professor Faizan Haq teaches courses at Buffalo State College and at the University at Buffalo and also runs the website WNYMuslims.org. He says the media cover violent acts with a double standard, placing more emphasis on the suspect's religious background if it is Muslim, while not doing so if the suspect is non-Muslim. Haq noted the example of last week's deadly shootings at a Planned Parenthood branch in Colorado.

"I would like to know what religious group this person belonged to," Haq said. "I would like to know if there's any training going on, or any persuasion going on where people are trying to take such actions against people of different practices."

Because, as leaders add, there are radicals from other faiths who have committed violent acts on U.S. soil. An immediately recalled example was the 1998 shooting death of Western New York doctor and abortion provider Barnett Slepian. His killer, James Charles Kopp, was known to have ties to violently radical Christian organizations including the Army of God and the Lambs of Christ.

Haq says the media need to cover acts of violence more consistently: "If it's an act of terrorism, it's an act of terrorism. If it's religious terrorism, then it's religious terrorism."

There are also many similarities among the faiths including messages of peace, faith and non-violence, local Muslim leaders point out. Tahmina Rehman, president of the Local Women's Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, represents an organization which has on numerous occasions rejected violence. She told WBFO that one who is truly faithful to the Quran lives a life of peace and humility.

Why, then, do so many people invoke Islam when carrying out violent acts?

"They justify it because I think they have the money and the power, and once they feel they have the money and the power, they go blind to the teachings," Rehman answered. "That's what they're doing."

Rehman encouraged Western New Yorkers to continue following their respective faiths, stating that if one observes more closely, the messages of prophets such as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are remarkably consistent.

"If you look at all the teachings, it's the same teachings," Rehman said. "Every prophet who came from God brought the same loving message."

But local Muslim leaders say the consistent message their community is receiving is one of them being outsiders who bring an agenda of no good. Many including Dr. Khalid Qazi, founding president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, say while his generation overcame the obstacles of prejudice and mistrust, many younger Muslim Americans do not wish to take that quietly.

"The progeny saw it and they're saying 'listen, you took it on the chin. We're not going to do it.We are Americans. This is our right. This is our country. We're not going to be silent like you are,'" Dr. Qazi said.

Dr. Qazi pointed to a 2009 Gallup Poll survey, known as “Muslim Americans: A National Portrait,” which revealed nearly one quarter of all Muslim American youth surveyed considered themselves angry, while only 40 percent of respondents considered themselves "thriving." The reason, they explained, was Islamophobia. 

It's that prejudice, Dr. Qazi said, that drives many young Americans Muslims into alienation.

"That can create issues of mental health," Dr. Qazi said. "It can create issues of mental instability. It can create issues of introvertedness in the sense that someone can disassociate himself or herself completely from the community."

The danger, Dr. Qazi warns, is that it is that type of individual ISIS and other terror groups look to exploit and recruit.

Why do media show an inconsistency in their coverage and what American Muslims consider a bias? WBFO asked Professor Haq if it was a quest to attract more broadcast listeners or viewers and internet clicks and 'likes,' or perhaps another agenda.

"The competition for ratings is a very big motive, but at the same time we have to know which organizations, which businesses are doing this," he answered. "What is their background? Who do they support. Where does support come from?"

Dr. Qazi suggested that if the public is serious about addressing its issues, including the rising wave of gun violence, it needs to include American Muslims in the conversation.

"They can bring to the table what non-Muslims will not be able to bring," he said. "It is very important for us, as a community and as a country, to be able to engage our Muslim citizenships and bring them to the table and address this menace."

Meanwhile, Haq added that the Muslim community, for its part, needs to speak up.

"People of violence only win if we let them win," Haq said. "The examples we have, of tolerance and love and understanding and communication, are far more powerful than theirs."

The Local Women's Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, according to Rehman, is currently planning to host an interfaith forum early in 2016. The date, time, location and guest speakers, she told WBFO, were still being finalized. It would be the latest of many such opportunities in which her organization has participated to brings people of various faiths together.

"I am an American first," Rehman said. "We come here and we take the nationality and we become Americans. That's what our religion teaches us, to be supportive and protective of the laws of the land which we live in."