I Changed My Mind About Islam, The Media Should Too
by AZHAR ALFADL MIRANDA
My resentment of Islam started when I was six years old.
I was in the first grade in Saudi Arabia. My father is Muslim and my mother is Christian. We celebrated our Easters and Christmases in secrecy—non-Islamic practices were not tolerated---but religion had no meaningful place in my life until that year when I started my religious education in school.
Not long into my first semester, one of my teachers learned that my mother is Christian. She took me to the side after class one day. After all the students left the room, she sat down on the floor next to me. “It’s your responsibility to make your mother convert,” she said, then lifting my chin up with her hand, “This is a great opportunity for you to prove your faith.”
Over the years, the pressure mounted and the messages were less gentle.
I was often ordered to cover my hair and face whenever I left the campus gates. I was taught that upon reaching puberty, God would closely watch my every action. No interacting with men, no speaking loudly in public. Obedience was my ticket to heaven.
Besides this, I was also taught to hate the West, especially America. I heard it every day: Americans were to blame for deaths in the Arab world, especially in Palestine, and should pay for it. I struggled to swallow that message. Sometimes I mustered the courage to answer back to my teachers, and tell them they were wrong. It earned me the nickname, ‘Yankee.’ September 12, 2001 was the hardest day of all. Everything my teachers had repeated to my classmates, naturally rolled off of their tongues: “Those Americans deserved to die.” I wanted nothing to do with this Islam anymore.
At that time, I probably would have agreed with Bill Maher’s recent comments that characterized Islamic countries as more prone to violence and misogyny. I would have given CNN’s Don Lemon a free pass for repeatedly prodding religious scholar Reza Aslan with the simplistic question: “Does Islam promote violence?” during an interview last week.
But today, I feel completely differently. I work in news and I expect that media organizations will often be unbalanced. But the suggestion that there is a link between violence and Islam really hit a nerve.
I laughed upon first seeing the words, “Is Islam a violent religion?” flash across the screen. Who would believe that sort of question? Aslan calmly explained that it is unfair to “paint all Muslim countries with the same broad brush” because some countries are extremely progressive. Hard to argue with that, I thought. But CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota pressed on, asking once again why violence was more pervasive in Muslim countries. Shocked, Aslan asked, “Are you listening to yourself?”
I wasn’t as shocked as Aslan. Maybe Camerota, Lemon and many other viewers did not want to understand.
After all, I once didn’t want to understand either. I was committed to the idea that the experiences I had lived shaped the true version of Islam. Seven years after leaving Saudi Arabia, I was still bitter and disillusioned with Islam and religion overall. But when a friend invited me to Bahai prayer circle during my sophomore year in college in D.C. I figured I’d give it a go. It felt rebellious, hanging out with people belonging to a religion I knew was condemned in Saudi Arabia.
My view of Islam changed dramatically because of those prayer circles. Initially, I was grateful because they gave me a space where I could, for the first time, talk freely about God. Eventually, they softened my view of Islam. As a child, all my conversations about religion had been charged with fear. Prayer circle stripped that away. I approached the religion with a fresh perspective, reading everything I could about its history and philosophy. I realized that I had let the actions of a few people speak for all of Islam.
Similarly, the media often chooses to focus on isolated incidents of extremist Islam and make that representative of an entire faith. Whenever I see this I wonder: If I was able to overcome stereotypes that I’ve lived, why can’t these journalists, whose jobs require them to be objective, do the same too?
Azhar AlFadl Miranda is a TV and digital producer based in Washington DC. Follow her @alfadlmiranda.