An Interview with Prof. Ahmadullah Siddiqi
by Samana Siddiqui
Originally published by Sound Vision
Samana Siddiqui: Assalamu alaykum Br. Ahmadullah Siddiqi
Ahmadullah siddiqi: Walaykum as Salam wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu.
SS: Welcome to Sound Vision. We, Insha Allah, will begin the interview by simply asking you to give us a brief background of your own involvement in media.
AS: Thank you for this opportunity. Initially, I have degrees in physics. I have a B.S. and M.S. in physics and it was 27 years ago when I was halfway into my PhD. in physics that something happened in India while I was a student at Aligarh (university) that persuaded me to leave physics and come into media.
The vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim university invited the director of Delhi Television station and he also invited some senior students at dinner and after dinner we were complaining to him about the bias that the national TV and media has against Muslims and Islam.
So while he was leaving, he said, well, if you have some young enterprising Muslims, I can give them opportunity at our television station. And when he left, we were just discussing that we don’t have anyone to recommend. And then I realized that if as Muslims we will only complain, we will not be able to get anywhere as far as media are concerned and since then I was searching for an opportunity to get formal education and training in media and that came in 1981 when I came to Chicago at the University of Illinois and got my Master’s in Mass Communication and in 1984 I went to Temple University in Philadelphia and got a PhD. in International Communications and Public Relations.
After my PhD., since 1987, I have been teaching at Western Illinois University which is about 250 miles southwest of Chicago, as a professor of public relations and media studies. But my research interest have always been to examine and analyze the portrayal of Muslims and Islam in American media.
Some 10 years ago, I developed a media workshop that I have conducted in many cities across the U.S. and Canada. The workshop can be conducted for as little as six hours to as long as four days. And it’s basically to introduce Muslims with some basic media skills and to persuade them to give some time to this field of study and profession.
Then I developed an interest to do some more in depth studies on media. I took a sabbatical leave in 1994-95 and conducted some research which resulted in my book on Islam, Muslims and Media.
Right now, I am active in media ethics. The question of ethics has become very interesting and important for a lot of non-Muslim scholars also. As media are broadening, and as they are becoming more and more value-free, people are concerned that the journalistic ethics and media ethics have to be taken into account.
So I have conducted, in 1997 a panel in Glascow, Scotland on media ethics where I invited many Muslim scholars from around the world to speak on this topic and I found that a number of non-Musilm scholars and practitioners showed significant interest. This summer, I am also going to conduct another panel on the same topic in Singapore. This is right now, the type of involvement that I have.
In addition to all of this, I also try to develop personal contacts with media people in various newspapers, TV stations and radio stations.
SS: Well, Maash Allah, given your expertise, extensive in terms of education and also as a practiioner of media education, can you briefly describe the evolution of Muslims’ relationship with the media, particularly in America, in the last 20 years?
AS: Sure. Three events have significantly affected the evolution of Muslims’ relationship with media in the United States, or you can say, North America. Two have become history and one is still continuing.
The first one was the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 which was very adversely felt by common people in North America and elsewhere.
Second was the revolution in Iran in 1979 which probably in this century for the first time, impressed upon non-Muslims that Islam can become a viable state power as well. And third is the conflict in the Middle East, especially the conflict between the people of Palestine and those who call themselves the people of Israel.
Thus, when Muslims started looking at how dramatically media can influence people, to misunderstand both Muslims and Islam. Both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, as well as practitioners, began to address this issue.
Among the non-Muslim scholars, the most prominent name is Edward Said who wrote a book, Covering Islam and Arabs in America, and then he subsequently wrote a number of articles and books on this topic. There are others, also, who wrote books, and conducted seminars, workshops.
Initially, the relationship was more reactive, defensive. But gradually, Muslims realized that mere defensive and reactive strategy will not work. So they began to think in pro-active and positive terms.
At this point, I can say that a lot of Muslims, especially those who realize the importance of media, have formed local, regional, as well as national organizations, that are dealing with media, both to monitor media for their misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims, as well as to establish a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with media.
SS: So, you do feel that Muslims today are much more assertive in how they deal with media attacks and discrimination.
AS: Sure, yeah, definitely. One thing that I would like to relate, that media are power. It occurred to me very vividly I think in 1996 when I was going to give a lecture at a university in central India and I saw a huge poster which said that anyone who will dare to challenge us will not be able to become news and then there was the name of a local newspaper. I thought about that. That, yes, media are such a powerful institution, that unless they realize the strength of those who are being reporting, and unless those who are being reported [on], assert themselves, media are not going to pay any attention and definitely I think Muslims have become more assertive in dealing with media attacks and discrimination against them.
SS: But is it enough? Or do you think we still have to do more?
AS: I don’t think that it is enough. It is just the beginning. A very positive and good beginning and I wish and I hope that we realize and invest more of our resources in this field because media in North America are a vast institution. They are very powerful, they are everywhere. And to deal with such a powerful institution which is present everywhere, which is on the internet, which is in print and electronic, we have to have much more resources invested to deal with this issue than we are doing right now.
SS: You’ve just mentioned the power and vastness of the media. Can you tell us, generally today, who and what are the controlling interests in the media and how does that affect the way Islam and Muslims are covered?
AS: Well, most of media are owned by large multinational corporations [with] interlocking interests. In one sentence I can say that media serve the elite and corporate interests of the capitalistic society which is based on the notions of capitalism and secularism, and that’s whom they serve.
I think, from that perspective, Muslims’ involvement, as far as the ownership of media is concerned, is negligible.
If you want, in terms of figures, right now, 21 large corporations own more than 90 percent of the North American media and these are not single corporations. Their interests are intertwined.
For example GE (General Electric), which is a major defense company and electric company and appliance company, owns CBS and now other mergers are taking place.
Even Coca-Cola company, they own a number of newspapers and TV stations.
Now, independent media are gradually diminishing and more monopoly and more concetration is coming. As a result, a community, if it remains weak and less assertive, will be hurt more. I think that this concentration of media is not, at this point at least, in favor of Muslims as a whole in North America.
SS: So then how can the average Muslim and Muslim community in North America deal with such a monopolistic media?
AS: Well, in many ways.
Number one, to get as much as possible, into the mainstream media. To get involved. And this involvement could be of different types and at different levels. Muslim students should pay attention to the field of journalism, broadcasting, mass communication.
When we will have more graduates and when they will get jobs into various media outlets, their mere presence will affect the situation. More media monitoring should be done.
There is one national organization, CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) that does [this] in a very effective way. Imagine what would happen if there are similar organizations and networks at regional levels or we invest more resources into CAIR so that it becomes more effective at local and regional level as well. I think that every Muslim organization of medium to large size community should have a media relations group.
We should do away with the term of media monitoring because, it sounds to me as if it is a reaction to whatever is coming to media. We should call [them] media relations committees. There should be persons, brothers and sisters, in those committees who should acquire skills in relating themselves to media, in knowing media.
Sometimes, we don’t know the number of outlets that are available and just with mere contacts and persistent effort, we can make way. I have dozens of examples of places and communities where Muslims had believed that nothing could be changed. And now they are finding that their relationship with media is excellent, and whenever something is being written or something is being presented on television or radio, they are consulted first and then something is aired.
SS: You’re a professor of media and communications. You mentioned the importance, just now, of Muslims being involved in the field of journalism but the fact of the matter is we still see those negative stereotypes, etc. although less so than before. Do you think part of the reason for the continued negative coverage [of Islam] is due to the education journalists receive in academia or is it something else? Is it the media industry which takes these fresh faced young students, perhaps, and turns them into people who develop these understandings of Islam which are negative?
AS: Very good question. Based on my experience of teaching in university for about 15 years and knowing most of the books that are being taught at [the] graduate and undergraduate levels in various courses in both broadcast and print journalism, I can say that there is not much that is of negative consequence, as far as the reporting of events about Muslims and Islam is concerned. The only thing that I can point out is that the roots are secular.
They have no positive outlook about Islam and journalists are trained to see religion and secular life as two separate entities. It’s not only with Islam. A journalist by [his/her] very nature, is trained to think with suspicion about something that is coming out of a religious quarter. So that’s the only thing.
The political climate that exists in the country, it is really that which shapes the mind or the skill of a journalist and turns it into something that becomes negative for Islam and Muslims.
SS: You mentioned the suspicion against religion in general but do you feel that Islam and Muslims are specifically targeted?
AS: Sure because all other religions have compromised with the fact that secularism is a dominant ideology and a way of life.
Christianity, Hinduism, all the major religions, Judaism, except Islam. Islam emphasizes in the beginning and at the end, that there is no such thing as separation of religion and state. That’s why Islam comes right in front as a major target.
Secondly, the politics of the nations, especially the major powers in the world, for them, they need an enemy. After the demise of the Soviet Union, after the end of the Cold War, that enemy, very naturally, tends to be Islam and Muslims.
SS: So you don’t believe that other faiths and other religious communities are similarly attacked?
AS: Not similarly, but to some extent, yes. There is one other factor that I would like to mention that the tradition of media, especially in North America, has a lot rooted in the sensational journalism that developed in the 19th century and early 20th century. So, journalists tend to like scandals. They know that if they sensationalize an event, dramatize a story, they will be able to sell the story more quickly than if they just rely on hard news.
All new communities, weaker communities have been targeted. When I was doing research for my book, I was reading through the editorials of the Chicago Tribune in the Chicago Public Library that were written between 1844 and 1850. At that time, the people of Ireland were very new and I saw five or six editorials, not articles, editorials that looked at Irish people so negatively and so badly. It reminded me that probably Muslims are seen as an emerging community, they are not very organized, they have recently begun to respond to media in an organized and more assertive manner.
So, there will be a time, when probably this will also fade away, provided Muslims deal with the situation in a systematic and scientific manner.
SS: You talked about how the media, in general, likes to focus on what is sensational and I think the Muslim community knows quite well. We’ve bore the brunt of that in many cases.
How would you say Muslims, on a general level, those within the media and those outside of it, should respond when issues are covered which are very difficult to deal with? I think a more recent example is this whole question of honor killings of women in places like in Pakistan and in Jordan. This became somewhat of a media sensational story last year. They’ve actually aired a couple of reports in the last couple of months about this. How should Muslims deal with this on a practical level?
AS: I think facts speak for themselves. A patient, skilled way of approaching an issue, based on facts. Muslims should not be hesitant to point out that honor killing, wherever it happens, has nothing to do with Islam. If it happens, it may be a local tradition and they should say that they don’t condone it. They condemn it. They want to join hands with anyone who wants to eliminate such things.
A lot of times, when things like this happen, Muslims feel that they have to defend it because it is happening in a Muslim country. I think, as bearers of the message of Islam, we have to stand [steadfast] without any hesitation, for the establishment of justice, which is a primary obligation of every Muslim.
This could be done at local levels. People should approach, on a personal basis, editors, reporters, who write such stories. Bring facts to their knowledge and keep on trying. I’m not saying [that] if it’s done in this manner, there will be success in the first shot. No. Maybe, after persistently trying and presenting the facts and keeping in touch again and again, Muslims will be able to give a message that they are alert, they know the facts, and they know how to respond in a very timely manner because news has to do with a timely fashion, timely manner of conveying of an event and Muslims are very inefficient as far as the sense of time is concerned. They are also very unprofessional as far as presenting facts rather than expressing their emotions is concerned.
If newspapers learn that these people are professional, they research the facts and information and whatever they present, they can substantiate those things, they will pay attention to what Muslims say.
This will not end the sensational treatment of media about events that affect Muslims. But this will minimize [it]. And maybe after some time, this will come to an end and some other community will be targeted.
SS: So how can, in the meantime, Muslims develop more media analysis skills? What kind of things should Muslims know about the media on an average level? I don’t mean going into the field of journalism. How can Muslims do that? How can they develop those skills?
AS: One of the most basic skills that is needed to deal with media, even if it is electronic media, is the skill of effective and persuasive writing. And it’s not only Muslims. In general, there’s a trend that we are very deficient in our writing. We don’t know how to present a point precisely.
To begin with, we should have one day or half-day workshops and seminars, in which those who are interested, may be exposed to some basic skills of writing letters to the editor, appearing on a TV or radio talk show, writing an effective news release, organizing a successful news conference, writing a feature story and then sending a query letter [so] that they can get response from an editor, using the internet effectively, so we don’t need to have necessarily everyone to go to a journalism school. We can make a plan and conduct these workshops wherever they are possible.
When I started teaching media, there were only two or three people who were available as resource persons. But Alhamdu lillah, now there are more than two dozen resource persons who can visit communities, conduct these workshops and create some enthusiasm, among young people especially, to prepare themselves, to deal with media as well, along with whatever their profession is and whatever they are doing.
SS: So far, we’ve talked a lot about the outside world’s media, particularly American media. There are a number of Muslim publications in English now for the North American Muslim community. What is your perception of these publications? What effect do you think they have had on the Muslim community here?
AS: I think Muslim publications have come a long way in terms of the quality of the publication, in terms of the diversity of articles, the quality of the content. The only thing that worries me is the management and administration of those publications. I see a lot of publications emerging in this society with a circulation of 10,000 and in a year or two they cross 50, 000, 60,000 subscribers, not on receivership copies.
But Muslim publications, in 30 or 35 years, their subscription has reached to 10,000, 12,000, 15,000. When you try to dig it out, you find that paid subscription is half of that. That’s not mass media, that’s a personal media. That’s a personal way of approaching people.
One thing that really pains me is that despite the fact that Muslims see that in this country, where the tradition of newspaper was local, a paper could emerge with the claim of being a national newspaper, I’m talking about USA Today, and can become the largest circulation paid newspaper in the country. There are magazines with 100,000 plus circulation without any advertisements, so a lot of things can be done. But it seems that Muslims are resigned to the idea that well whatever is going on, that’s enough.
As long as Muslims are not taking a professional approach. For example, when they hire an editor, they should also hire a manager, a circulation manager, an advertising and sales person. That will boost their subscriptions to many thousands and they will get much more than their investment. But unfortunately, they have not come to that mark.
The second thing is some sort of coordination among these major English language magazines. In my humble understanding of it, most of them address the same audience and we don’t approach a lot of other Muslim audiences that exist there because we don’t serve them. The content of our magazines do not concern them.
So if all the Muslim publications reach 30 to 50,000 Muslims in this country and we say that Muslims have become six million, then that’s a very poor show, despite the fact that compared to what these publications were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, they have improved a lot, there is no doubt about it. But still we need to focus a lot on the management of these publications, on the circulation, on the advertising and on eliminating duplication. There’s a lot of duplication in terms of content, in terms of the audience that we reach.
SS: I also wanted to ask about another aspect of media. We were focusing on news media, in particular, but it seems one of the last bastions of negative media coverage of Islam and Muslims is now the entertainment industry. I think movies like The Siege which came out last fall, and more recently, Rules of Engagement are examples of continued negative perceptions , stereotypes being presented through the entertainment media about Islam and Muslims. What do you think Muslims should be doing in this regard?
AS: Well, for a long, long time, we have excluded entertainment as a valid form of communication. We thought that the only way people could be entertained is to violate certain principles of Islam.
Whenever scholars of Islam had been asked about entertainment, about film, about movies, about drama, they have always had a negative opinion. It’s only in [the last] 10, 15 years that some institutions, organizations, companies, such as Sound Vision, have taken a courageous step to develop some entertainment with use even for children. Before this, that was not even present for children.
As far as the movie industry is concerned, we have a lot of talents, both here in this country, as well as in Muslim countries, but somehow, Muslim scholars have not given this aspect a serious consideration.
One way is that we challenge the distortion of Muslim images, Islamic images in movies like The Siege and Rules of Engagement and like. Well, those industries don’t care. They are money making industries. They are powerful industries.
Recently, the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, for example, has established some good relationship with Time Warner and Universal Studios and it has brought some result. But only some.
Hundreds of movies are produced and there are people who think that through this medium also they can attack Muslims, they can malign Islam, so unless we have talents, unless we have investment, unless we have people who enter into that industry…..
I am not a Mufti or an Islamic scholar. I will say that whatever humble understanding of Quran and Sunnah I have within the framework of Islam we can fully utilize Muslim talent to present entertainment because entertainment is something that people need in their light moments and if there will be no entertainment that we can call acceptable, then there will always be other types of entertainment that people will tend to watch and entertain themselves [with].
The best strategy would be to keep on trying, monitoring, responding as positively, as effectively as we can, lobbying, pooling, networking, joining hands with others. There are a lot of other religious groups, among the Christians among the Jewish people, among the Buddhist, maybe among the Hindus as well, who will join hands for a certain moral stand on some of these things that are coming out of Hollywood and [the] entertainment industry.
But unfortunately, we are very reluctant to join hands with others. We are always suspicious. This is probably due to the fact that we have a lack of confidence among ourselves to stand in the marketplace of ideas. As long as that remains part of our psyche, the Muslim personality, we will be suffering from this negative image that is coming out of the entertainment industry.