By Parvez Ahmed
Nearly four in 10 Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam and Muslims. That number has remained steady since 9/11. Several factors contribute to this negative perception, certainly none greater than Muslims, albeit a few, committing terrorism in the name of Islam. The media exasperates this negativity, as aptly noted in Edward Said’s 1981 classic “Covering Islam.” However, some media outlets are more egregious than others. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that the majority of Fox News viewers perceive that Muslims want to establish sharia (Islamic law) in America and express the distressing view that Muslims are NOT an important part of America’s religious fabric. Nearly seven in 10 viewers of Fox News believe that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. In contrast fewer than four in 10 viewers of public television hold such negative perceptions.
The difference between Fox News viewers and those who watch Public Television is palpable. Spurring the gulf of difference is the content of programming. Fox News did not find anything morally objectionable with airing the virulently Islamophobic movie “Obsession: The Threat of Radical Islam.” While cognizant of the threat from those who kill in the name of Islam, public television and radio has better grasped the importance of providing viewers and listeners with the opportunity to develop a more holistic view of Islam. The fact that four in 10 Americans have never socially interacted with a Muslim, necessitates such holism.
On Friday, July 6 at 9 p.m. EST, PBS will nationally broadcast a documentary titled, “Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World” narrated by Susan Sarandon. The documentary is a timely reminder about the many contributions made by Muslims to art and culture. As an educator, I am looking forward to this documentary as it adds to a growing collection of well-made documentaries that provide a semblance of balance to the general propensity in the media to stereotype Muslims.
Recently I was conducting a Sunday school class for a group of Muslim teenagers at my mosque. To my great disappointment, but not surprise, I found that the Muslims are almost as ill-informed as my non-Muslim elderly students who attend the continuing education class on Islam that I teach at my university. Both groups did not have an appreciation for the many innovations that the Muslim world has given us, which we take for granted in our daily lives. The word “coffee” has its genesis in the Arabic qahwa, which became the Turkish kahve, then the Italian caffé. The game of chess originated in India but it was introduced to Europe by the Moors in Spain during their 10th century rule. The word “rook” comes from the Persian rukh, which means a chariot. A millennium before the Wright brothers, Abbas ibn Firnas made several attempts to build a flying machine. He had constructed a device that allowed him to stay in flight for over 10 minutes. He crash landed and correctly concluded that he had forgotten to give his invention the tail it needed to stabilize while landing. Shampoo was introduced to England by a Muslim who was appointed Shampooing Surgeon to King George IV. Many of the modern-day surgical instruments are nearly the same design as devised by a Muslim physician named al-Zahrawi in the 10th century. Almost half a century before Louis Pasteur, children in Turkey were being vaccinated to inoculate against small pox.
The British non-profit and non-religious organization the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization through their 1001 Inventions exhibits and research is helping to reintroduce these facts to not only the Western world but also to Muslims. They have held exhibitions and film shows from New York to Istanbul.
Criticism of Muslims, when warranted, is a legitimate exercise in public discourse. But our national interests are ill-served if we only criticize and never appreciate. We are still paying the price of our many adventures in the Muslim world often initiated on a foundation of misguided views about the beliefs, history and culture of Muslims. Recently, TIME Magazine ran a cover story asking the rhetorical question “Is America Islamophobic?”
I do not believe so. PBS airing yet another documentary about Islam suggests that a small but critical mass of Americans remain open minded about better understanding other cultures and religions. Critics of public radio and television, I am sure, will accuse PBS of a pro-Islam bias. And many Muslims may hastily conclude that the negative attitude of Fox News viewers is representative of the general unawareness of Islam in America. PBS’s Friday night national broadcast provides both critics countervailing facts to reconsider their stereotyping.
Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D. is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida.