On Islam

Muslims and the Media

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Editor(s): 
Hilary E. Kahn, Rosemary Pennington
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     2018.
     174 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253032553.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Rosemary Pennington and Hilary E. Kahn, with the support of the Social Science Research Council, set out to create a resource on Islam that would offer proscriptive and prescriptive guidelines for researching, reporting, writing, and consuming media about Islam and Muslims. The resulting edited volume is directed to journalists, students, and the general public. In the editors’ words, “our expectation is that this volume will find its way into newsrooms, living rooms, and classrooms” (7). The impetus for this project grew out of a 2011 conference at Indiana University called “Re-Scripting Islam.” The volume speaks with immediacy and addresses recent events and subsequent reporting on those events. Though the contributors are from diverse institutions and geographies, the editors and individual contributors are of one voice in arguing for a commitment to responsible and even-handed coverage of Islam and Muslims. The work is lively, personal, and filled with fresh, informed voices, including a short essay by Zarqa Nawaz, the creator of “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a hugely popular Canadian sitcom that ran from 2007-2012. Nawaz discusses the development and reception of particular characters, from both Muslim and non-Muslim viewers. Rafia Zakaria, an attorney, human rights activist, and writer, delivers the most trenchant critique in the volume, as she points out that Muslim women are often cast as victims in morality pieces that castigate Islam, while effacing the culpability of the West.

The book is divided into three sections. The first and main section is comprised of short essays by scholars, activists, and writers whose work focuses on Islam. Some of the journalists offer lists of rules and recommendations. Some of these guidelines are very basic: Islam is not monolithic; any given individual Muslim does not speak for all Muslims. Others are more nuanced, encouraging multiple modes and levels of engagement with Muslim individuals, communities, and social networks, but with ethically defined boundaries. The second section is made up of short blog posts and interviews about subjects as diverse as calligraphy, Sufism, and homosexuality. The third and briefest part of the book is a primer with fifteen short (about half a page each) entries on different facets of Islam that together are offered as a “crash course” on Islam. This section includes the five pillars, the six articles, the profession of faith, as well as entries on Ishmael, Muhammad, and prayer. 

Unlike Edward Said’s 1981 book, Covering Islam (Pantheon), this volume does not train its focus on the ways knowledge and political power are constructed through crafted, repetitive narratives, but it does include a number of analyses of media coverage. Elizabeth Poole’s essay includes her pre-9/11 studies on the representation of Islam and Muslims in four British newspapers, and elucidates the steep increase in charged coverage post-9/11 through to the present. Perhaps it is unavoidable in a volume like this, but the revisiting of negative tropes and stereotypes to situate many of the arguments results in the re-inscription of the very narratives the book seeks to dissolve. If one is looking for a text for an upper division journalism course, Lawrence Pintak and Stephen Franklin’s Islam for Journalists (Mashreq Media, 2017) offers a deeper treatment of Islam and a richer repository of additional materials, but it should be noted that their volume is geared towards US media, and draws mainly on scholars of Islam and reporters. Covering IslamIslam for Journalists, and On Islam: Muslims and the Media would work well in concert to provide a solid background and thorough resource bank for those writing or reporting on Islam. 

The volume could be taught in lower division journalism, communications, and religious studies courses, utilized as a reference and conversation starter for the general public, and as a starter manual for journalists who want to improve their writing about Islam and/or Muslims.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Diana Murtaugh Coleman is Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rosemary Pennington has been involved with Indiana University's Voices and Visions project since 2008, serving as project coordinator, podcast producer, and managing editor. 
She is Assistant Professor of Journalism at Miami University.

Hilary E. Kahn is Director of the Voices and Visions Project, Assistant Dean for International Education and Global Initiatives, and Director of the Center for the Study of Global Change in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. She is author of Seeing and Being Seen: The Q'eqchi' Maya of Guatemala and Beyond, and editor of Framing the Global: Entry Points for Research.

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