Khaled A Beydoun
In his landmark work, Orientalism, Edward
Said theorised that Muslims are fundamentally subjects of study and scrutiny
for Western outsiders, systematically excluded from the enterprise of
contributing and commenting on their very existence.
While the modern media discourse is
preoccupied with Islamophobia, Orientalism remains front and centre - in the
form of an alarming absence of Muslim experts and analysts on mainstream news
media examining issues that implicate and impact their lives.
This is particularly troubling in the Trump
era, and more specifically, the prolific media attention given to the
immigration executive order, commonly dubbed the "Muslim Ban".
Recent coverage of the immigration order
featured predominantly white men weighing in on an issue that targets Muslims,
with Muslims again watching from the sidelines.
Aligning with the spirit of the immigration
order, mainstream news media effectively excluded Muslims from the airwaves.
This was not exclusive to "conservative" media outlets like Fox News,
but even more extreme on outlets commonly perceived as liberal mediums.
According to research by Media Matters for
America, a progressive research and information centre, during a five-day
period (January 30 to February 3) after the immigration order was signed into
law, only seven of the 90 commentators CNN featured to discuss the order were
MSNBC, widely perceived to be the most
progressive of the three primary cable news networks, only had two Muslims out
of 28 during that period.
Fox News, on the other hand, had the
highest percentage of Muslims on air discussing the order during that stretch,
with five out of the 58 contributors identifying as Muslims.
These figures offer a snapshot into the
long-standing exclusion of Muslims in a space where news coverage of Islam and
Muslims is robust, recurring, and big business.
Media attention on Islam has naturally
increased during the rise of Donald Trump, and for Muslims, the stakes of
exclusion and the importance of inclusion are much higher.
This is particularly true on liberal (or
moderate) media outlets, where the analysis of the Trump administration's
rhetoric and policies is comparatively more even-handed and critical.
Liberal news media remain forums where
liberal Orientalism thrives - treating Muslims as subjects worthy of sympathy
and pity, but ultimately, individuals unfit to add expertise on laws that
directly impact their lives, offer direct testimony, and ultimately, cast them
as outsiders in stories that are entirely about them and their community.
Prominent liberal news personalities often
point to featuring one Muslim to discuss the Muslim Ban. Or brush the alarming
shortage of Muslim voices (at the height of the media's coverage of the Muslim
Ban) aside by responding that, "cable news media should do more".
But rather, liberal news networks should
actively reach out to the extensive and emerging pool of Muslim American
scholars, lawyers, advocates, organisational and community leaders volunteering
to assist detained individuals at airports, educating and mobilising their
communities, teaching at colleges and universities, and fighting the Muslim Ban
in the trenches.
Suggesting that liberal media outlets
feature a critical mass of Muslim voices, to address a policy that exclusively
impacts Muslims, seems a logical request.
Yet, the exclusion of Muslims illustrates
just how deeply entrenched Orientalism within liberal news media networks,
driven by the belief that Islam itself is an area of intellectual or
professional expertise that non-Muslim white men are more adept to speak on
than Muslims themselves.
While conservative media outlets are wed to
featuring specific Muslim personalities to propagate a caricature, carry
forward a stereotype, or showcase a native informant bent on slandering the
faith, liberal media outlets call on a small handful of Muslim voices to meet
what seems to be a minimal quota while relying on white males to carry the
intellectual and analytical load.
In fact, an all-white-male panel discussing
a matter that directly impacts Muslims is a common sight on liberal news media
This sight is particularly concerning in
the Trump era, where an endless pool of effective Muslim commentators are
lending insight on mainstream print media and social media, and are within easy
reach for cable news outlets and their bookers.
However, the exclusion of Muslim voices
seems to be heightening at a moment when regular inclusion of Muslim voices has
never been more important.
Participating in the exclusion of Muslim
voices feeds into the process of dehumanising Muslims and rendering them
incapable of speaking for themselves. It also deepens widely held stereotypes
about Muslims as foreign, violent and subversive - tropes that saturate the
immigration order enacted by Trump, and those still to come.
While Bill Maher's routine slander of
Islam, and his recent attack on prominent Muslim American civil rights activist
Linda Sarsour, illustrates that Islamophobia is also pervasive among
progressives, the exclusion of Muslim voices from liberal news media outlets
symbolises that Orientalism is likewise firmly steeped within the left.
Orientalism and Islamophobia are deeply
interlinked systems that dehumanise Muslims. Therefore, fending off the hateful
policies unleashed by Trump must be accompanied by an institutional commitment
by liberal news media to prominently feature Muslim commentators when
discussing Muslim issues, and grant them the basic dignity to contribute to the
very stories that directly impact their lives.
Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O
Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.