A challenge to see Muslims clearly

By: By Tom Schaefer

Terrorism has distorted Americans' views of Islam. Journalists gather to get a fairer picture.

Pamela Geller vs Imam on CNN Sunday Morning June 6, 2010

Knight Ridder News Service

'What did the Muslims say about the bombings in Jordan?"

That was the question I was asked when I returned to Wichita, Kan., from a five-day seminar in Los Angeles on "Covering Islam and Muslims in America."

I was among 25 newspaper, radio and television journalists who met with Muslim leaders, university scholars and everyday folk who are followers of the Islamic faith. The event, sponsored by the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, was at the University of Southern California.

Even when questions about terrorism weren't asked, they hung in the air:

"Terrorists/extremists have turned Islam's ideal of peace and harmony on its head," said Aslam Abdullah, editor of the weekly Muslim Observer newspaper and one of the first speakers at the seminar.

And it wasn't the last time the assertion - and condemnation of terrorism - would be made.

Yet, despite such condemnations by various Muslim groups and individuals at this gathering and since Sept. 11, their voices tend to get lost in the cacophony of media coverage of terrorism.

No wonder a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 45 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam: Terrorism has corrupted non-Muslims' perceptions of Muslims.

Should we be surprised? After all, people often view a religion through distorted lenses.

Some people consider all Roman Catholic priests to be tainted by the sexual misconduct of some of their fellow priests.

Mainline Protestants are sometimes branded as feuding partisans because of differing beliefs over sexuality issues.

And evangelicals are seen by certain people as narrow-minded proselytizers who want to impose their way of life on others.

When it comes to Islam, terrorism can become the dominant part of the picture.

The fact is that for many non-Muslims terrorism has become the prism through which the faith of an estimated one billion Muslims, including three million to six million in this country, is understood.

That's why the 25 journalists came together - to see the kaleidoscopic images of Muslims.

We asked questions of Muslim leaders who spoke of the challenges they face to be Muslims and Americans.

We visited one of the largest mosques in Southern California and its school, with 400 students, preschool to eighth grade, to learn about a new generation of believers.

We heard young adults talk about their struggles to live their faith in a society highly suspicious of them.

Karima Alavi, program director for Dar al Islam Madressah in Abiquiu, N.M., spoke of the "double whammy" of being an American and a Muslim.

"We get blamed for 9/11," she said, "and if I go overseas, I get blamed as an American: 'You're so violent.' "

We also learned some surprising facts: Most Muslims in America are African Americans. Only 15 percent to 20 percent of Muslims in this country go to a mosque to pray. The Koran does not require any specific dress code for men or women.

Throughout the sessions, young Muslims told of their struggles to relate cultural practices to traditional beliefs.

As one Muslim student said: "We are searching for identity. For me, it's: 'What does it mean to be a Muslim in America?' " Which cultural traditions are not religious obligations? Can freedom lead to license and ultimately disobedience to God? Where are today's Muslim role models?

"Islam is going through a transformation moment," said Teresa Watanabe, a reporter with the Los Angeles Times who covers ethnic and immigrant communities. How that moment will shape the Muslim faithful is yet to unfold.

No doubt the challenge is theirs, but it is ours as well.

Can we who are not Muslims view them - and anyone of a faith different from ours - through clear lenses and not allow prejudices to distort the picture?

Can we say Muslim without thinking terrorist?

As Muslims say, Insha'Allah, God willing. I can only add, amen. May it be so.