Activism & Civil Rights Dawah (Outreach) Media Misconceptions

Human Encounters, Perception and the Muslim Response

camreaSeveral years ago my wife had a series of phone conversations with a reporter from a local news agency. They had a couple of nice conversations and agreed on a time to meet and do an interview for the TV station. We drove to the station and when we arrived the receptionist looked surprised that we were there. My wife told her we had an appointment with a reporter so we sat down and waited for her. She came out, saw us both, then looked at my wife in jilbab and hijab. There was an expression of shock on her face. After exchanging greetings, she said with some surprise, “But your English is so good!”

At first glance it’s an amusing story, but it should raise a question in our minds. Why did she respond in such a way? It should make us think about the role of perception in the human encounter.

The early 20th century American journalist Walter Lippmann discusses some of these issues in his famous book Public Opinion. A basic premise here is that the world is too complex and our experience too limited for us to know everything from first hand experience. Therefore we rely on others to interpret information for us. What results is a “pseudo-environment.” He says that:

“[There] is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where the action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world.”1

This relates to a discussion that he terms “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” It is clear that we will have perceptions in our minds that will not necessarily coincide directly with reality, so we must ask the question: “What is it that moulds the images in our heads?”

Lippmann referred to the use of media and propaganda to influence the minds of people as “manufacturing consent,”and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote a book of the same title. In this book they talked about how the media is used to “manufacture consent” and set forth a system of analyzing that process, which was then applied to a series of case studies. This, along with the works of Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, are important reads for anyone who wants to understand how the media is used to influence public perception.

This obviously leads us to reflect on the media representations that we can remember, regarding the motives of our occupying Iraq, as well as current representations of Islam and Muslims in America and worldwide. It is no coincidence that the same terms and arguments are used over and over again and anyone that understands the history of “perception management” in this country can see right through it. One of the clearest efforts that can be witnessed in the media is the painting of Muslims as foreign and thereby ignoring the long legacy of Islam in America, as well as the large proportion of indigenous American Muslims. A manifestation of this effort is the redundant term “Shar’iah law.” It is no coincidence that neither the English equivalent of Shari’ah: Islamic law, nor the word Shari’ah is used by itself. The term, therefore, retains its foreign feel.

This, of course, is nothing new. Martyred American Muslim leader al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz (Malcolm X) complained of the same problem when he said in one of his last speeches:

“Right now in New York we had a couple cases where police grabbed the brother and beat him unmercifully – and then charged him with assaulting them. They used the press to make it look like he’s the criminal and they’re the victim. This is how they do it, and if you study how they do it [t]here, then you’ll know how they do it over here. It’s the same game going all the time.”2

In responding to the challenge of false representation by the media and the management of public opinion, in many cases against the Muslim community, Muslims in America must respond with a principled and conscious contribution to their societies that is imbued with patience, humility, and perseverance. Perhaps it is relevant to invoke Tariq Ramadan here, who said in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam:

“I have consciously decided not to deal specifically with the problems of political security faced by European and American states, or with Islamophobia or social discrimination – not because I think these problems are secondary but because my thinking is based at a higher level. It is by acquiring the conviction that they can be faithful to their principles while being totally involved in the life of their society that Muslims will find the means to confront these difficulties and act to resolve them…

Muslims will get what they deserve if, as watchful and participating citizens, they study the machinery of their society, demand their rights to equality with others, struggle against all kinds of discrimination and injustice and establish real partnerships beyond their own community and what concerns themselves alone. This will be an achievement that will make political security measures, discrimination, Islamophobic behavior, and so on drift away downstream. In the end, the ball is in their court… unless they are determined to remain forever on the margins (emphasis mine).”3

Here, in his reflections, one finds the method for confronting the reality of “the management of public opinion.” Only with principled, well-informed, and persistent action can the misrepresented overcome their misrepresentation and work towards a truly human encounter with their neighbors and societies.

  1. Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. Nu Vision Publications, LLC. 2007. Pg. 15.
  3. Ramadan, Tariq. Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Oxford University Press. 2004. Pgs 6-7.

About the author

Jamaal Diwan

Jamaal Diwan

Jamaal Diwan was born and raised in Southern California and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Third World Studies and a minor in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego . He accepted Islam in 2003 and has been married to his wife, Muslema Purmul, since 2004. He has served with the Muslim Student Association (MSA), MSA West, and Muslim American Society (MAS) at varying capacities. He remains an active MAS member and is a scholarship student with the Islamic American University. Jamaal is a graduate of the Faculty of Shariah at al-Azhar University in Cairo and has done some graduate work in Islamic Studies from the Western academic perspective. He recently finished serving as the Resident Scholar at the Islamic Center of Irvine (ICOI).


  • amazing article – really brilliant points, examples, and references mA! it is also powerful to locate the arguments in broader bodies of work and case studies such as Lippmanm, Chomsky, Herman, and Ramadan’s. thank you!

  • I think the end of the article summed it up in a nutshell .We must engage in the wider society and the problems that face them also.There are many nonmuslims going to bat for us and we refuse to stand up for our own selves.

  • As Muslims, I think we need to understand that the big cable media, in general, wants to sell controversy. If there is none, they will make one. Money and politics are the bottom line. It is definitely not about principled journalism or truth. Right now the Left appears to be defending Muslims, but I think they are only using us as an issue with which to attack the Right. The political winds can change very quickly, and I believe it will not be long before the Left attacks Islam as they do Christianity, because anyone who takes a principled stand against homosexual behavior is labeled a “homophobe” on par with racists. And if the radical homosexualists get their way, they will criminalize views that dissent from state sanctioned homosexuality.

    Allah knows best.

  • One problem: we as Muslims paint ourselves as foreign. We as Muslims pepper our speech with foreign terms. We as Muslims insist on “Allah” over “God” even though God is a concept they can easily latch onto. Therefore we as Muslims appear foreign! Unfortunately we don’t need a media conspiracy to help us out in that.

    Also, I am concerned Muslims will walk away from this article with an embattled attitude and reconfirmed views that the odds are stacked against us (I see it happening already). This will conveniently allow us to forget that we have much to learn in the way of public relations.

    • as salamu alaikum,

      It is true that many Muslims in America often portray themselves as being foreign. However, I think this is something that is changing and that is good. I also think there is a distinction between the language and terms that are used when addressing an all Muslim audience and when talking to non-Muslims. In the former I would not call for an elimination of all Arabic words as Arabic is an important part of our “din”. In the latter I would encourage people to use only English terms, in most cases. I’m saying both of these as a convert who has family that gets annoyed whenever Arabic words are used.

      As to feeling that the odds are against us and therefore becoming lazy with our efforts in public relations. I think we need to learn to accept reality while at the same time being able to work based on principle. For example, mass media is definitely a space where the odds are against us. However, that does not mean there are no other avenues for self expression. As a community and as talented citizens in the fields of journalism and media we need to explore these alternative means while still attempting to be represented, honestly, in the mass media.

      I also wonder if we can work to redefine the concept of public relations to encompass more than the mass media. Can we move to an understanding that each of us is truly a representative of Islam in EVERY action that we undertake in a public space? This could be an alternative means of public relations, somewhat tying into what Tasneem mentioned below.

      JAK for your thoughtful comments and insights. I pray that God guides all of us to that which pleases Him and accepts from us.

      your brother,
      Jamaal Diwan

  • I truly believe that making personal relationships with the local population is the answer. I live in a VERY small Tennessee town and have close friendship with many local church-going Christians. I have found many to be fair-minded and tolerant people. True humanity exists in most people, and it rises to the surface when one gets to know his neighbor as a ‘human being.’

  • Thanks to Tricia and to Tasneem for their comments! Muslims look inward too much. I am in the UK but our issues are similar here. I was at a Khutbah (uninspiring as it was!) yesterday. All inward looking and nothing relevant to todays’ world (and mostly in a ‘foreign’ language that I couldn’t understand) The sooner we see ourselves as a genuine part of the country we are in, feeling the pain of all, not just Muslims, the better. Yes, there is a media onslaught but we cannot afford to feel the ‘victim’ any longer. Get out, work and understand the people and society around you and be amongst the best examples. Everyone loved the Prophet (pbuh) , I don’t think that was because he had a victimhood mentality, even though his trials were way beyond anything we have ever seen. Think positive people…

  • Well-written, Br. Jamaal! The reality of perception as reality cannot be ignored and you raise a fine point.

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