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November 2008
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Muslim Perspectives

Struggling against Stereotypes
By M. Hanif Lakdawala
Indian Muslims today face an urgent moral challenge, which they must respond to in a number of ways.

Are Indian Muslims aware of the threats they now face? Do they understand how millions of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and others see them?  Indian Muslims are viewed by many as orthodox, and hardliners who harbour a total disregard for human life. Their value system, far from discouraging the slaughter of innocent women and children, is seen to condone and even encourage such slaughter. This is the stereotypical image projected by print and the electronic media in India .  It is an image fed by the ongoing media coverage of events perpetrated by groups that claim to act in the name of Islam. Recent serial blasts in, Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad and the arrest of alleged terrorists belonging to SIMI and Indian Mujahideen once again saw the stereotyping of the Muslim image in the media particularly the electronic media.

Muslims today face an urgent moral challenge, which they must respond to in a number of ways. They must refrain from reiterating the worn-out refrain that there is a conspiracy which aims to undermine Muslims and their image in India. The current stereotype is the result by a small section of the Indian Muslims who, taking the name of Islam, commit acts which are contrary to  Islam’s basic teachings. Every country, culture and society has its adversaries and opponents, and there are always conspiracies being hatched. But we must understand that it is the behavior of individuals and groups that define themselves as Muslim, which has allowed this stereotyping of Muslims to spread.
Appeals to the media for accuracy and fairness continue, while newspaper headlines regularly print the words “Islam” and “Muslim” next to words like “fanatic,” “fundamentalist,” “militant,” “terrorist” and “violence.” Meanwhile, events such as the Delhi , Bangalore and Ahmedabad and the subsequent arrest of alleged terrorist belonging to SIMI and IM, receive enormous press coverage as evident in the new terminology coined as “Home grown Islamic fundamentalism.”

Indian Muslims ask why a few extremists, whose terrorist actions violate the central principles of Islam, should determine the public image of the entire Muslim community. As Edward Said, the author of “Covering Islam” has noted, prejudice against Muslims is “the last sanctioned racism.”

Media portrayals and stereotypes of this kind are not only demeaning to the Indian Muslim community, but they are dangerous. Muslims in India , experience the results of these stereotypes in many forms. Individuals may experience discrimination in housing and employment, or even harassment and attacks from strangers on the street. The Indian Muslim community needs to mobilize to fight against these dangerous stereotypes as well as their damaging effects. There is not a single Muslim organisation established to educate the media about Islam, and to encourage Muslims in their local area to speak out against media discrimination.

There is an urgent need to establish a forum which can coach Indian Muslims how to write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor of local newspapers as well as how to organise meetings with media and public officials in response to a crisis. There is a need to set up a toll-free number to report bias incidents. The most important challenge is to create a strong body of Islamic public opinion which loudly condemns the actions of  fanatic groups. They must no longer be allowed to hijack Islam. The Indian Muslim must declare to people of all cultures and religions, and in the clearest of terms, their condemnation of these acts, and their determination to bring them to an end.

Institutions, forums and groups must be created at the local, Regional and National level through which the public can be informed and through which it can participate and express its opinions. The emergence of a well-informed public willing to make its opinions heard cannot, however, happen overnight. Fortunately there are institutions already in place that can play an important Media management role. These institutions should be identified and given all the support.
Here are few guidelines for those individuals and groups who would like to interact with media and bring in   positive change in the image of the community:

Building positive working rela-tionships with the local media: The best relationships with media tended to be where individuals and groups knew what journalists wanted from a story. Take the time to meet journalists face-to-face, understand what they want from you and tell them what they can expect from you. Ring them when you have got a story coming up;  thank them for a particularly positive story or to discuss a negative one. Journalists will respect you if you are honest and tell them when you have made a mistake. And a strong relationship may help you manage a bad news story better. Remember to use your top team which may include academicians, entre-preneurs and even politicians who are good at delivering the message – do not just rely on the press office. Journalists will appreciate access to senior people willing to talk to them.

Proactive media relations: Dedicate a large amount of time and resources to proactive media relations, rather than letting the media set the agenda. Here’s how it can be done.

Know your media: Identify which media and individual journalists are important to you and your public audiences.

Focus on the community key messages and target key media on the issues that are relevant to their readers.

Develop an excellent relationship with key journalists – this will help you build trust, float ideas, better understand what stories interest them, and find out how they want to receive press releases and briefings. Be helpful – be prepared to give a local comment on national stories.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])