Islam, Racism and Media Bias

Photo Credit: Newd Magazine - Black Jews in NigeriaThe ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas has brought up discussions about media bias.  Many argue that there is a bias by American media outlets to portray Israelis as more valuable than Palestinians.  Others have said there is a racist overtone towards how Hamas and the Palestinians are portrayed in the media.  So what is the role of black journalists in reporting this crisis in a fair and accurate manner?  Many journalists of color have historically gone out of their way to report about issues affecting marginalized communities because those issues affect them too.

However, the Palestine Question has become a third rail issue that no American journalist of any color wants to broach.  The problem is that if you say anything even remotely negative about Israel’s policy towards Palestinians, you are immediately labeled an anti-Semite. This is why they is such an imbalance in coverage.

This issue was examined in a workshop I attended at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention last Saturday.   Dr. Akbar Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said that more African-Americans should speak out about the current aggression against the Palestinians, as well as the role of Islam in the African Diaspora.

He was disappointed by President Obama’s lack of political courage to speak out about Israel.  During a press conference last week, Obama said “Israel has a right to defend itself.” Both White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett and State Department’s spokesman Jen Psaki claim to “condemn” the violence in Gaza, but neither of them seem to mention that the weapons Israel is using in Gaza are paid for by U.S. taxpayer money.

Muhammad called upon black journalists to hold White House officials accountable for what they say.

“As journalists, we have to present a different picture that isn’t being presented,” he said.

Palestinians are not the only ones suffering under Israel’s occupation.  In recent months there have been documented accounts and reports of racism against black African immigrants in Israel.  Most of them are refugees or asylum seekers from Eritrea (many of them Jewish) and Sudan.  Many of them have been detained by Israel and put into prisons under seriously inhumane conditions. Last month hundreds of African immigrants staged a hunger strike in protest of the detentions.

Regarding the African Diaspora, Islam is the fastest growing religion on the African continent.  African-Americans make up to nearly a quarter of all Muslims in the United States.  Unfortunately, all Muslims worldwide are viewed through the prism of what’s going on in the Middle East, and specifically through the violent actions of al Qaeda and Boko Haram.  We as black journalists have an obligation to present more balanced discussions about Israel, Muslims of all colors and racism to make sure everyone’s voice is accurately heard.

Marjane Satrapi: Life After

Marjane Satrapi is one of the most inspiring storytellers of our time.  She is the embodiment of an artist who uses creativity to express her political views.  Satrapi is best known as the French-Iranian graphic novelist whose best-selling books, Persepolis and Persepolis 2, were turned into a film of the same name.  Persepolis is an autobiographic tale of Satrapi growing up in Tehran in a family with socialist beliefs just before the Iranian revolution.  She came to Boston recently to discuss her life after the Persepolis phenomenon, Muslim women and identity.

I discovered Satrapi’s work by accident while walking past a local bookstore ten years ago, where I saw Persepolis in the store’s main window.  I was captivated by the book cover of a young girl in a hijab.  I assumed immediately that it was just another book about how repressed women are treated in the Islamic world.  However, I went into the store anyway to see a few pages.  I quickly saw that it was a graphic novel – a format I was not used to reading.  Twenty minutes later, I had almost read half the book.  I learned quickly that this was not another repressed Muslim woman’s tale.  Satrapi’s Persepolis is a story of determination and hope that really captures a balance view of Iran from a child’s eye.

I was equally impressed with her follow up work, Embroideries, which delves into the sex lives of the colorful women in her family.  The lurid details in the book again go against the stereotype of women in Islamic countries.

“Women actually had more rights before the revolution than under the new regime,” Satrapi said.  “For example, in the 60s and 70s the miniskirts women wore in Iran were short short.  At the time in the West, the mini-skirt was a result of the women’s revolution.  In Iran women wore the mini-skirt, but had to remain a virgin.  But here is my problem with virginity.  If men have the right to make love, they had to make love to somebody.”

Satrapi’s work still creates controversies.  In March a Tunisian TV station was fined for undermining “proper morals” by screening the film version of Persepolis, which depicts Allah, an act considered blasphemous by many Sunni Muslims.

Satrapi, who was raised atheist, sees extremism in all belief systems.

“There is no clash between East and West, North and South, and Muslim and Christian.  There is a clash between fanatics and open-minded people, and fanatics are everywhere,” she said. “I see no difference between a hardcore Christian who kills a doctor because he made an abortion, or a crazy Muslim who burns something, or a crazy Buddhist who does another thing.  Fanatics are driven by emotion.”

Satrapi also commented on the recent controversial ban on veils in France.  She asked why the French government hypothetically why in 1970 no North African woman wore a veil, but they do now.  Maybe this was a larger discussion about still feeling like an “outsider” as a first or second generation Arab woman in France.

“I don’t like the veil, but I will never tell someone else not to wear it,” she said.

Satrapi has such a sound view of the world; something that is much needed today.