Some of my memories as an expat brown kid in American schools dominated by white staff and students was how it was often up to me to explain Islam to the class. I’m talking about early to mid-1980s when the information and visuals about Islam were very limited; I’m guessing the Iranian hostage crisis may have been the big story then.
Imagine the burden placed on a nine-year-old in Beijing expected to explain her religion, especially when said child identified culturally as a Muslim but was irreligious in practice. And desperate to fit in. When pitted against Diwali, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the Lunar New Year celebrations, my classmates found Ramzan or Eid the least fun and I had to argue otherwise.
Today’s nine-year-old may not be in the minority in terms of her skin color in a Beijing classroom, and she may not have to explain Ramzan to her classmates but that doesn’t mean the burden on her shoulders has lessened.
I was reminded of this while watching video snippets on social media demonstrating the double standards in the reporting on the war in Ukraine. So many have highlighted the problematic language used in the reporting of Ukraine when compared to the coverage given to civil wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia or the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
But for those of us who continue to live this experience of a lifetime of being othered, this is all too familiar a tale – it’s just that it’s now playing on TikTok and Instagram.
Revisiting Edward Said’s book Covering Islam. which was first published in 1981 – before the two Gulf Wars, 9/11, Afghanistan war, Iraq war, Daesh, Yemen – becomes necessary reading because it reminds us how little has changed.
Said documents how the American media has little interest in informing its audiences about Islam and instead perpetuates lazy, ill-informed soundbites which end up supporting America’s foreign policies that then lead to the unrest which the media ultimately reports on. It’s a weird, horrible cycle.
The Ukrainian leader is a hero for staying to fight in influencer style videos posted on Instagram compared to corrupt, Afghan leaders who abandoned their people. This is disingenuous and disgusting. And it's gone on too long. It must be called out.
Said was prescient when he saw how the negative role played by the western media would lead to the creation of an Islam “ready to play the role prepared for it.”
Who can argue with him when he wrote that "negative images of Islam are very much more prevalent than any others, and that such images correspond not to what Islam 'is', but to what prominent sectors of a particular society take it to be.” He reminds the reader that knowledge is open to interpretation provided the aim of that interpretation is to be humane. Otherwise “we will offer the Muslim world the prospect of many wars, unimaginable suffering and disastrous upheavals."
And it is clearly evident in the way the Ukrainian conflict is being covered. Western media is keeling over with soundbites from Ukrainian leaders appealing to European nations to save their blond and blue eyed children who are, of course, from civilised nations unlike brown and black babies.
Language matters. Reporting from a place of understanding and knowledge matters. There is no good refugee or bad refugee, a war worth fighting for or not. Journalists have to challenge leaders who say their country is only open for white people.
The media continues to fail in its reporting fairly on Islam and Muslims who are still portrayed as potential terrorists.
In 1981, Said wrote that to put a stop to media's hostile coverage of Islam, one needed to apply antithetical knowledge which he defined "as a kind of knowledge produced by people who quite consciously consider themselves to be writing in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy."
That knowledge "puts intellect not at service of power but at the service of criticism, community, dialogue and moral sense."
Said's call to antithetical knowledge is not just relevant today, but necessary.
The writer is head of digital properties at Aaj News and tweets at LedeingLady