By Aijaz Zaka Syed
March 30, 2014
The other day I was looking for a good visual to go with an article about media perceptions and stereotyping of Muslims. Finally, failing to find what I was looking for from my usual sources, I did what everyone does these days -- turn to the all-knowing, omniscient St Google. And a million images instantly leaped at me in response to my single search word: 'Muslims'
Being a journalist and student of media I've never had any illusions about the generally rose-tinted image of Muslims in public perception and media discourse. Nevertheless, what I encountered did come as a startling, stunning revelation. Ninety per cent of the images that Google search came up with were those of terror attacks, suicide bombings or some such glorious adventures involving Muslims…Muslims wielding fearsome weapons; Muslims wearing masks and issuing wild threats or bearded believers angrily protesting in European capitals.
There were more disturbing images that warned of Muslims taking over Europe or changing the demographic profile of Christian, Caucasian nations with their 'child producing factories' or the so-called love jihad to ensnare pure white Christian girls or innocent, impressionable Hindu women in India.
I do not know how many Muslims are familiar with this perception of theirs in cyberspace or media but if I were an objective, neutral non-Muslim individual, I wouldn't carry home a very positive and trusting image of the community, nor would I befriend or invite a Muslim into my house. No, Sir.
Of course, this is a wildly exaggerated and distorted and misinformed perception of our reality. The media's glazed eye sees what it chooses to see. I do not know how this whole business of search engines works and what factors determine Google's or for that matter any other search engine's criteria. How come these search engines only throw up negative stuff about a particular community, as a friend wonders?
There's no denying the fact that these acts of extremist lunacy are indeed increasingly committed in the name of Islam and Muslims. But these desperate men and their desperate actions represent only a very tiny, insignificant fringe of a faith with 1.6 billion followers and a proud, rich civilization that has contributed to and influenced almost all major civilizations in the West and East.
Wouldn't you say there is more to Islam and Muslims than these myriad images of masked terrorists and mind-numbing scenes of carnage? What about the generous Arab hospitality and grand civilization that gave birth to a thousand tales of Scheherazade? What about the ethereal beauty of Taj Mahal, the ultimate epitome of love, and the majesty of Alhambra Palace and Cordoba?
What about the colossal contribution of Muslim scientists, philosophers, inventors, poets and artists to collective global heritage? What about the mystic and richness of poets and philosophers like Rumi and Sadie? Why do these not figure in these cleverly defined searches? One explanation could be the fact that thanks to its essentially ephemeral nature, it is the latest news, trends and interests that drive the world of Web. And whether we like it or not, this appears to be our reality right now no matter how insignificant it is in its representation. And if the world seems to have a poor opinion about us, there appear to be enough reasons to do so. From one end of the Islamic world to the other, nothing else except acts of terror, violence and intolerance seem to hog the media limelight. A Boko Haram attack in Africa finds instant echoes from Iraq to Pakistan to Afghanistan. In the last few weeks, hundreds of killings in Nigeria have been attributed to these new saviours of the faith.
As if Pakistan needed to add more glory to its name, a Hindu temple was burnt down last week in Sindh following reports of alleged Quran desecration. This is not the first time that Hindus and Christians have such blasphemy charges thrown at them in Pakistan though. The blasphemy law has not just become a convenient tool for witch-hunt of minority communities but also settle scores between various Muslim groups and individuals. Many innocent lives have been lost or wrecked in the name of defending the faith.
How did we end up here and where are we headed? How did we allow a tiny fringe to become so powerful that it now pretends to speak on our behalf? Religious scholars, intellectuals and ordinary believers have endlessly condemned and rejected the utterly brazen acts and atrocities in the strongest terms possible.
Perhaps never in their long history have Muslims faced a crisis of such nature and proportions. Muslim historians see the Mongol wave of death and destruction in the 13th century as the greatest catastrophe to have struck the world of Islam.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning Gulf based writer. . All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.