Someone asked me the question recently — ‘what can Muslims do to change the negative image that sticks to Islam?’
To answer that, we have to look at where the negative image actually comes from. By and large, the media are responsible for perpetuating narratives and stereotypes. It does go deeper, into institutions, systems and psyche etc but let’s keep it simple.
In my opinion, if the media want a label to stick, there’s nothing really that can be done about it. This is what a narrative is. You might think we need to integrate more, or add more value to society, or counter the narrative with feel-good stories about Muslims’ etc.
I disagree, to be honest.
I’m sorry if it may sound defeatist but there is a strong precedent to demonstrate this.
Malcolm X famously said:
For example, how is it, that black people, despite having so much success over the past 50 years in pretty much every sphere are still portrayed the way they are?
Think about it for a second. They are represented by the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Denzel Washington, Barack Obama, Dave Chapelle, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur, Morgan Freeman, Aretha Franklin, Mo Farah, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Usain Bolt, Spike Lee, Bob Marley, Pele, Oprah Winfrey, Neil deGrasse Tyson (and the list goes on).
Whoa. Just look at that list of stellar names, all of these are probably considered the GOAT’s (greatest of all time) in their respective fields, or if not, highly, highly respected and rated. Seriously. Re-read that list again — it honestly reads as a who’s who of global icons and definitely people you would say have made an impact on the modern world.
So, we have established that black people have added immense value to society and some of them have even changed the world. What more is there left to achieve, certainly in terms of worldly success?
Proportionally speaking, there are perhaps more household names the black community have produced (in terms of reaching the very pinnacle of their fields) than any other community — certainly in the last 50 years.
And yet what are we conditioned to think of when we think of black people? How does society still portray them? Is the first thing we think of, is of them as world-class performers? And if not, why not?
Sadly, no. It’s things like gangs and crime, unfortunately.
THIS is the real problem, the systematic and institutionalised racism that exists within Western culture.
This is a pervasive, deep-rooted problem that filters through the entire fibres of society. No matter what they do, it’s a stigma they can’t seem to get away from. What’s more, the media are going to continue to perpetuate the stereotypes that push their agendas, no matter what they do — and they’ve got an unlimited pot of funds to do so. Akala talks about this at length in his book Natives.
So, what do they need to do to be ‘accepted’ and ‘change this negative image’? And why has it taken so long?
After all, they integrate. They embrace Western culture. They intermarry. They add value. They are not second or third-generation immigrants, they’ve been here a long, long time.
Here’s the REAL problem. I read somewhere that 150 years ago when slavery ended in the US, black people owned 0.5% of the total national wealth of America. In 150 years, despite all the success and all the global icons — that number today is only around 1%. Is that really progress?
Therein lies the real answer. Until you can build institutions to compete with and counter the mainstream — or alternatively, be truly independent in a place you can call your own — you’re forever going to be under the thumb and a victim of your circumstances and what the dominant culture put upon you. You’ll never really have the opportunity to control your own narrative, no matter how much you do for queen, crown and country.
This is why Malcolm X not only tried to his people to own their own businesses, but he was pushing for their own segregated state, and eventually, wanted them to perform a psychological and eventually physical migration back to Africa.
There’s wisdom in that. We might be comfortable here and we might not like the idea. But truth is truth. It depends on what you want. If you’re fine with being the subservient class where individually you may get to some level of success but never as a collective, then it’s fine. But if you aspire for something greater as a community, then your entire thinking may need a paradigm shift.
Why then, do we think it’ll be different for Muslims? We have quite some way to go before we can produce a list like that in the West. No matter what Muslims go on to achieve — you could cure cancer, covid or even the common cold and we’ll still be considered an ‘other’ at best and a would-be terrorist at worst.
When it comes to the negative image, we can either continue to complain about what we see as unfair. Or we can accept it as part and parcel of the challenges of being a minority and move on. In any case, the ‘official narratives’ pushed by the media are often extremely questionable anyway, so I try not to make judgements or decisions based on questionable data. Just like we wouldn’t do that in science, why should we do that in our life?
Have you noticed, whenever you buy a new car, you end up seeing it everywhere, even though you hardly ever noticed it before? Your brain actually adjusts as it becomes something your subconscious looks out for and notices. Psychologists call this the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon; or more commonly, frequency illusion.
In the same way, if the media are pushing out a terrorist or criminal narrative constantly, even if it’s based on complete lies — our brains will now be attuned towards noticing anything that will fit that particular story. A Europol report in 2013, for example, stated that Muslims were only responsible for 0.7% of all terrorist attacks committed (whether seen through, failed or foiled). That means that 99.3% were not Muslim. Where does this label then come from? Is it justified and based on facts? Or is it something we’ve just accepted because we’ve failed to counter the propaganda effectively? In fact, we’ve probably accepted the mantle through our frequent apologies and condemnations. I’ve never understood why Muslims feel the need to ‘condemn’ atrocious attacks any time they happen. By doing so, all we do is reinforce the association between Muslims and terrorism further and play into the (false) narrative.
When I went to Cape Town around 10 years ago, I remember being pretty impressed at two things — the unity of the Muslims, and also their influence and strength in the city. People and politicians would always go to the Muslim leaders, in particular, to try and win the collective support of the community. I was told this was because Muslims owned a lot of businesses so were relatively wealthy as a demographic and informed they were unified because South Africa has traditionally had a lot of racism, so Muslims all decided to band together, no matter their sect. Even their resources were pooled — for example, I recall there was a radio station shared by both Shia and Sunnis. It’s a good start and shows what is possible in terms of influence if you focus on the right things.
So what’s the solution?
The negative image of Muslims will continue, and probably get worse. This has been prophesied. Even Western writers have commented there’s likely to be a clash of civilisations between Muslims and the West this century. So propaganda and othering will probably get stronger and stronger. You either comply with the status quo so you’re liked, or you handle it. What really needs to happen is we mustn’t get demoralised by this. What we need to do is to have confidence and strong self-esteem and identity, and of course, to be the best Muslim you can be. If you are, that is enough. Whether they like or accept you or not — it shouldn’t matter. If you’re the best Muslim you can be, you will naturally be someone who serves the people, who add value to society and has strong relationships with all. No matter what you’re told, no matter the pressure you’re under, you’ll know the right thing to do. This is the individual approach.
As a collective, the strategic approach is really to build true wealth (in real assets, not fiat currency) and to build real institutions that have societal influence and impact. Education, media, arts, technology, culture. If you can’t do it where you live, then maybe, just maybe it’s worth thinking about doing that migration that Malcolm X talked about, way back then.