SFCG’s Partners in Humanity program recently worked with Unity Productions Foundationto screen parts of the film Inside Islam: What a billion Muslims really think. The film explores the expertly gathered opinions of Muslims around the globe as revealed by the world’s first major opinion poll on the subject, conducted by Gallup, the preeminent polling organization. Serving as an important tool to understand the “clash of civilizations”, the film counters the assumption that Muslim beliefs and values are radically different from those in Western societies. The data reveals that there is actually substantial agreement between Muslims and Westerners on issues such as gender equality, terrorism, and democracy. For example, large majorities in several Muslim countries stated that they believed women should have the right to pursue any career that they wish. This result stands in sharp contrast to the perception that all women in Muslim societies are oppressed.
When one examines images of Muslims in the media, one finds depictions of them as violent terrorists who are intent on destroying the West. In reality, these people are less than one percent of the worlds 1.4 billion Muslims. However, according to Dalia Mogahed, the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, media content analysis has shown that 57% of the people portraying Islam in the media are militants. This overrepresentation of militants creates the stereotype of Muslims as fundamentally alien people. Alex Kronemer, one of the Executive Producers of the film, cited neuroscience studies that have demonstrated that our brains are wired to be tribal and to fear the other. He noted that media studies have determined that it takes 14 positive images for every negative image to change people’s perceptions about a particular group. Thus, it is important for the media to depict Muslims in more complex ways, rather than simply as terrorists or as victims. Kronemer noted that when he was growing up, television depictions of African-Americans showed them either as pimps and drug-dealers or as household servants. Over time, the depiction of African-Americans has diversified, and African-American characters are allowed more complexity. Something similar, Kronemer believes, can be done for Muslims.
Mogahed argued that Muslims don’t feel that they have to separate themselves from Islamic terrorists just as White Christians don’t feel that they have to separate themselves from the Ku Klux Klan, one of the world’s oldest terrorist groups, which uses the cross as one of its main symbols. The film also notes that not all terrorism is religiously-motivated. For example, groups such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland engaged in terrorist activities to achieve secular objectives. Another area of divergence between Muslims and Westerners is the issue of the hijab, the headscarf worn by many observant Muslim women. To many Westerners, the hijab is a symbol of women’s oppression. However, Mogahed notes that many women choose to wear the headscarf because they believe that it causes men to focus not on their exterior beauty but on who they are as people. Wearing the hijab does not stop women from engaging in the broader world or from pursuing their careers, as is demonstrated by Mogahed who herself wears the hijab.
Inside Islam works to counter the fundamental misconception that Muslim beliefs are so different from Judeo-Christian beliefs that they cannot be bridged. As Mogahed and several other scholars featured in the film noted, current US national security challenges are almost all emanating from the Middle East and South Asia, from what is often called the “Muslim World.” Ten years after September 11 and sustained US engagement in the Middle East, the majority of Americans still feel that they know “little or nothing” about Islam. When Gallup polled Americans in 2002, 54% of respondents said that they knew little or nothing; when the poll was repeated in 2007 the percentage of those who gave this answer had increased to 57%. This ignorance must be countered if Americans are to engage the world based on facts not fear.
As part of their effort to counter stereotypical depictions of Muslims in the media, Unity Productions Foundation has started a web-based project called My Fellow American. The project asks non-Muslims to pledge and share a real-life story about a Muslim friend, neighbor or colleague whom they admire. Using the power of social media, the project seeks to change the narrative—from Muslims as the other, to Muslims as our fellow Americans. This is an initiative that may go a long way to counter people’s biased perceptions of Muslims. You can share your own story through their site.
Through films like Inside Islam and projects such as My Fellow American, UPF is utilizing media in an engaging way to educate, counter stereotypes and change attitudes. Films and projects such as these help all of us to realize that despite our different genders, races, and religious beliefs, we are much more alike than we are different.
Readers who are interested in purchasing Inside Islam can buy the DVD from the UPF Shop.
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