It is no secret that Asian Americans have felt the brunt of the backlash against coronavirus in the U.S. The racism and hateful attacks, amounting to at least 100 per day, have been well recorded by the media. But there is another group that has also been marginalized during this time — Muslims. Every week, we see stories of Muslims facing attacks related to coronavirus, from receiving Islamophobic insults by web conference call intruders to being tasered in supermarkets for wearing a face mask, or facing modern day “apartheid” in India, where patients are being segregated by faith. Unfortunately, the media’s coverage of coronavirus isn’t helping, as it unnecessarily scapegoats Muslims and ties us to terrorism.
Recently, the conservative New York Post published a piece about a Muslim firefighter named Omar Sattar who caught COVID-19 in the line of duty. But even before stating his name or what occurred, the authors completely disqualified his heroics and humanity by declaring that his “father is a convicted terrorist.” After much outcry, the phrase was removed, but the article still included several paragraphs about his father interspersed with quotes from Sattar about his long-time admiration for firefighters. Several other outlets did the same, creating a bizarre and disgusting example of the explicit and implicit Islamophobia perpetuated by the media that has largely gone unchecked during this unprecedented pandemic.
In other reports, news outlets paired photos of people disinfecting mosques around the world alongside stories about coronavirus cases in completely different countries. On March 13, for example, the Associated Press (AP) published a story about Puerto Rico’s first cases of the virus. The slideshow that accompanied the article did not begin with a scene from Puerto Rico. Rather, it started with a photo of a mosque in Jakarta being disinfected. When ABC News ran that same AP article, the outlet did not even offer a slideshow — just a picture from the Jakarta mosque. To anyone glancing at that story without reading the photo caption, it would appear that Muslims were uniquely afflicted or that Muslim-majority countries had high numbers of cases. Both were untrue.
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Advocates started screenshotting the growing number of similar examples, alleging they were too numerous to be just a coincidence. In addition to pictures of mosques, news articles and home pages dedicated to the coronavirus featured photos of Muslims praying in protective gear and women in hijab wearing face masks or blowing their nose. Perhaps the most nonsensical one was The New York Times homepage announcing President Trump’s travel ban on European countries. It displayed a photograph of people walking in front of a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey — which was strange because Turkey is not one of the countries included in the ban.
This matters because most Americans don’t actually know a Muslim, so media play a significant role in influencing non-Muslim perceptions of Muslims. For years, Muslims have urged media outlets to reverse their tendency to only mention the community in stories relating to terrorism.
These misrepresentations increase perceptions of Muslims as aggressive and encourage negative emotions and harmful policies toward them, including the idea that Islam is not compatible with so-called “Western values.” In other words, the media using Muslims as the stock photo for the universally despised coronavirus is not only inaccurate, but it is also downright dangerous to the community.
One only need look back at the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections to understand this. It is not a coincidence that violence against Muslims and those who “appear Muslim” skyrocketed during that time, reaching their highest number since 9/11, while candidates, including now-President Trump, repeatedly bashed Muslims and Islam on the campaign trail. They called for prohibiting Muslim immigration, patrolling “Muslim neighborhoods,” closing mosques, and registering and tracking Muslims in a database. Trump even said “Islam hates us” and perpetuated Islamophobic stereotypes of oppressed Muslim women by stating that Ghazala Khan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, stayed silent on the Democratic National Convention stage because, “She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” Fast forward to April 2020, when TikTok users pointed out the hypocrisy of Trump extolling the virtues of wearing a scarf, the very same one Khan wore on her head and other Muslim women may wear on their face.
The current situation in India should serve as a severe warning of what could happen if this misrepresentation continues. Muslims there have already been subjected to abuse, life-threatening riots and loss of citizenship by the Hindu nationalist ruling party. And now they are being blamed for COVID-19. This has only furthered the rampant Islamophobia there, leading to people committing suicide because their businesses were boycotted, news channels reporting false news about Muslims spreading the virus as a “Corona Jihad,” and the tragic death of a newborn baby after the mother was refused admittance to a hospital due to her Islamic faith. And, as mentioned earlier, these hospitals are now segregating Muslim patients because of lies that they are spreading the virus.
Let us be clear. Religion and race play no role in whether one contracts or transmits the disease, and Muslims are not a foreign virus that must be identified and defeated. Media must be held accountable for their role in promoting Islamophobia, because we know full well that stoking this hatred endangers innocent people regardless of faith.