Scott C. Alexander spoke to a room full of people about “Islam, Muslims, and the Current Global Context: Moving beyond Media Sound Bytes” Saturday evening at the Turquoise Conference Center.
His speech was organized by The Institute of Interfaith Dialogue and it centered on how the media is the sole source of information about Islam and Muslims for many and how this is the reason for many misconceptions about the religion.
“Some things that go on in our world are too complex to be treated fairly and adequately in the media sound byte,” Alexander said. “And if you overlay on top of that certain prejudices and stereotypes and ignorance that get sometimes perpetuated in the context of the media sound byte, the problem then becomes compounded.”
Alexander showed two pictures to the audience, one of Shirin Ebadi, a Muslim Nobel Peace Prize winner, and another of Osama bin Laden. Everyone recognized the Muslim terrorist, but nobody recognized the Nobel Peace Prize winner. This highlighted the role media plays in forming our perception of Islam and Muslims.
“So we have a perception problem, a very serious perception problem, which sometimes the media sound byte doesn’t help us get beyond,” Alexander said. “As my friends in the media tell me, ‘If it bleeds, it reads.’”
Alexander is an associate professor of Islam at the Catholic Theological Union. He graduated from Harvard and then went to Columbia University for his Masters and Ph.D. in the history of religions with an emphasis in Islamic Studies.
Professor Lynn Mitchell, Resident Scholar of Religion and Professor of Religious Studies at UH, has also been involved with interfaith dialogues for many years.
“We must educate ourselves in our own history,” Mitchell said. “And try to learn as much as we can about our own religious history and traditions as well as the other religious traditions.”
Alexander helped this educational effort by conveying the results of a Gallup poll of Muslims around the world and their views on terrorism.
“Only 7 percent of the Muslims expressed their feelings that there was justification for the acts of Sept. 11. The other 93 percent said there was no justification,” Alexander said. “I know some Americans I speak to think that 7 percent of Muslims condemn Sept. 11 and 93 percent think it was a good idea. They think the exact opposite. And of course that’s the impression you get from the media sound bytes.”
When asked about judging an entire faith on the actions of a few, Mitchell advised against it.
“Don’t do it. Learn how not to do it,” Mitchell said. “It is a ‘sin’ and a lack of understanding of your own religious or spiritual principles.”