By Sarah Jackson
On Jan. 29, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly walked into a Quebec City mosque during evening prayers and began shooting. The 27-year-old white supremacist is accused of killing six people.
On Oct. 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau arrived at the Canadian National War Memorial with a rifle. The 32-year-old Muslim shot and killed one man and attempted to enter Parliament Hill when he was killed by security.
American media watch group FAIR ran an analysis of the number of times each man’s name was mentioned in the four days following each attack in eight mainstream American news outlets, including MSNBC, CNN and Fox News.
Every outlet mentioned Zehaf-Bibeau more than Bissonnette.
Most did so by a wide margin. ABC mentioned Zehaf-Bibeau six times as often as Bissonnette. For Fox News, the factor was 10. CNN mentioned Zehaf-Bibeau 46 times, far more than any other outlet analyzed and far more than the four times it mentioned Bissonnette.
News outlets often sensationalize acts of terrorism committed by Muslims, a move which in turn perpetuates damaging stereotypes and Islamophobia.
On average, attacks by Muslims receive 449 percent more news coverage than other attacks, according to a working research paper entitled “Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?” by political scientist Erin Kearns and colleagues.
The research also found that an attack carried out by a non-Muslim spawned an average of 18.1 news articles. If the attack was carried out by a Muslim, the number more than quadruples to 90.8 resultant articles. If a Muslim suspect is foreign-born, news coverage soars to 192.8 articles.
The possibility that the one-sided coverage of Muslims in the news bolsters Islamophobia is undeniable as news outlets release videos of ISIS members beheading their captives with few positive depictions of the Muslim community to balance the scales.
R.J. Khalaf, president of the Muslim Students Association at N.Y.U., agrees that the news coverage of the Muslim community is limited almost exclusively to attacks carried out by radicalized Muslims.
“An accurate representation of Muslims also includes a positive representation of Muslims; that just isn’t even mentioned,” Khalaf said. “More often than not, it’s [Islam] presented in a very violent sense,” Khalaf said. “For kids growing up, the only time your faith is ever talked about in media is when there’s an attack or talking about radical Islam. It’s not in the same way that you would talk about the KKK or other extremist groups that operate under a religious ideology.”
Khalaf also believes the media is largely responsible for the blurring of lines between traditional Muslims and radicalized extremists, or what he calls “the terrorist-next-door mentality.”
“Islamophobia is an industry,” he said. “There’s real money that goes behind this. There are people who are profiting off of this. So there are think tanks that are dedicated to pushing out sensationalized, fake stories about the Muslim community that are only meant to incite fear and hatred. It [Islamophobia] isn’t just an organic product of 9/11.”
An easy way to determine bias against Muslims in the news is to examine the news’ treatment of their White counterparts.
News tends to humanize White perpetrators of mass killings and stress that they are lone wolves, according to “The Double Standard in How the Media is Portraying the Las Vegas Shooter,” an analysis by Huffington Post of the differences in news coverage of White and nonwhite mass shooters.
Shortly after Stephen Paddock opened fire at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, The Washington Post released an article entitled “Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, liked to gamble, listened to country music, lived quiet retired life before massacre.” It detailed Paddock’s hobbies and portraying him as an unassuming average Joe.
The lone wolf argument so often applied to White killers but rarely used to defend nonwhite Muslim killers usually dovetails with claims that the killer has mental health issues, thus the tragedy is an “isolated incident.” Failure to give this benefit of the doubt to Muslim killers gives the public the idea that Muslim killers strike because of faith, that they have no mental health problems that, if solved, would quickly put an end to the violence.
Data from Mother Jones reveals that, from 1982 to 2017, approximately 54 percent of mass shooters were White men. If the discrepancy between the frequency of Bissonnette’s and Zehaf-Bibeau’s appearances in the news is any indication of public perception of likely terrorists, then most people probably underestimate this figure.
Imam Ali Mashhour has been with the Islamic Cultural Center of New York for almost two years. He believes Muslims are the current scapegoats in a long history of the American blame game.
“It definitely has to do with current American policy,” Mashhour said. “About 30 years ago, it was the Russians, which correlated with political issues at that time. Before that, it was the Vietnamese and communism at large. Before that, it was the Germans. We like to think that government, state, and church have been totally divided and severed from each other in our policy, but it’s just unrealistic.”
When asked about his personal encounters with discrimination, Mashhour said he is not often a target of Islamophobic sentiment but knows that many Muslims are subject to such discrimination.
“People have been shot, people have been stabbed in broad daylight, women have been set on fire in New York City,” Mashhour added. “We can only imagine what’s going on in more bigoted cities.”
When it comes to the predominantly negative news coverage Muslims are subject to, Mashhour chocks it up to human nature.
“Negative publicity is far more desirable to people and far more sought after than positive things,” he said. “After that, it only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the pie.”
Imam Abdelghani Benyahya of the Muslim Center of New York would seem to agree that profits write a story, even if they come at the expense of furthering harmful stereotypes.
“The media is a business,” Benyahya said. “When there’s some news, they have to make something big out of it, regardless of if it’s true or not true. Anyone who’s able to bring more news, and more attractive news—he’s the one who is able to make a big boom.”
Benyahya is quick to criticize the myopic portrait the news often paints of Muslim crime suspects.
“If the person has a beard and he is a Muslim, the first thing that has to be mentioned is that he is Muslim,” Benyahya added. “It’s not ethnicity, it’s not mental illness, always the first thing that matters is that he is a Muslim, even if he is not a practicing Muslim. It’s not the same way as [with] any other ethnicity. This is the unfairness that we see clearly in the media.”
The tendency in news to sensationalize violent attacks conducted by Muslims has another effect: People drastically overestimate the population of Muslims in their countries.
Americans believe approximately 17 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, even though the real number is less than one percent, according to a 2016 Pew Research survey. This pattern of falsely perceived “demographic threat,” or the growth of an ethnic group in a country in which it is a minority, prevails in many European countries as well, including frequent terror targets France and Germany.
Such misunderstanding may have contributed to the anti-immigration argument that helped garner support for President Trump’s ban on six Muslim-majority countries, also known as Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, or simply “the Muslim ban.”
At a time when terrorist activities and conflict make up for 75 percent of news coverage on the Muslim community, according to former president of the Malala Fund Meighan Stone’s report, “Snake and Stranger: Media Coverage of Muslims and Refugee Policy,” what can be done to flesh out this incomplete image of Muslims?
“The people have to be educated, to differentiate between a person who does something and a person who is innocent,” Benyahya said. “You cannot always accuse the Muslims. In any religion, there are good people and there are bad people.”
“It’s really simple,” Khalaf added with a laugh. “Just include Muslim voices in the media.”
Imam Mashhour, however, is doubtful that the news can portray Muslims fairly and accurately. Perhaps because of this, he does not hesitate to distinguish himself and his experiences from those of other Muslims.
“By the way, these are just my personal opinions,” Mashhour said. “I am not a representative of all Muslims.”