How Muslim voices are breaking stereotypes online
In the last week of March 2013, Delhi Police released the sketch of a man they suspected to be a Hizbul Mujahideen member involved in a plot to execute a terror attack in the national capital.
The sketch was based on the CCTV footage and inputs shared by the staff of a guest house in Old Delhi where the man had stayed as part of the terror plan, according to the police.
Within hours of the police making these revelations, news channels started beaming the camera footage obtained from the guest house. It showed the accused, a bearded man, climbing the narrow staircase of the building. Muslimmirror.com, an independent, non- profit website, highlighted a flaw in the police theory which mainstream media had missed: The man in the CCTV footage was wearing a sun cap and the one in the sketch released by the police sported a velvet skullcap.
The website carried a piece titled ‘From skullcap to Arabic scarf: Delhi police communalising war on terror’ arguing that the police were portraying a negative image of Muslims.
Muslimmirror.com belongs to the expanding group of alternative media platforms founded on the premise that the Indian mainstream media narrative tends to reinforce stereotypes around Muslims.
“The reporting with regard to Muslims has been biased. It is important to have alternative platforms which have the potential and space to report important incidents related to Muslims. In that sense, these site make the information ecosystem inclusive” said Hilal Ahmed, Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
Syed Zubair Ahmad, an MBA from Patna university, launched Muslimmirror.com in 2012 to articulate the concerns and aspirations of Muslims and disadvantaged groups. “It is easy to see that the mainstream media caters to the masses. When it comes to the coverage of Muslims and particularly the cases involving violence, there is a tendency among some to feed on scare mongering and fear psychosis,” said 41-year-old Ahmed.
He said he launched the site during the phase when every terror accused paraded before the media was projected as a devout Muslim. He was either a bearded man or wearing skullcap or a keffiyeh (head scarf). “These images broadcast on national and international news outlets were giving disturbing signals about Indian Muslims,” he said.
In 2007, similar concerns compelled Massachusetts-based Kashif ul Huda to launch twocircles.net (TCN), non-profit, community-funded site. “Our objective was to humanise Indian Muslims at a time when they were being vilified and stereotyped. TCN aimed to bring back the reality of Indian Muslims. Just like everyone else, they were workers, family members, voters, students, elderly - basically, citizens,” said Valli Karunakaran, executive editor, TCN.
These platforms routinely publish news reports, book reviews, investigations, opinions and data-driven stories on issues concerning Indian Muslims, apart from highlighting their under-representation in crucial sectors such as civil services, armed forces and journalism.
However, they face the challenge of reporting on Muslims and yet avoid inward -looking reportage which could strengthen the “us versus them” narrative. “Muslim websites should see to it that they are not motivated by ideology and do not become mouthpieces of religious and political outfits,” said A Faizur Rahman, secretary-general of the Chennai-based Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought.
Aleem Faizi, resident of Maharashtra’s Malegaon town and founder-editor of the site ummid.com, is aware of the trap. “I am conscious that I need to have a progressive outlook. It will not work if I keep publishing stories of Muslim men being victimised. This is why I encourage positive stories. The success story of a person from the marginalised community reflects the progress of the country. This is the editorial line we take in our write-ups,” said Faizi.
In September 2006, serial blasts in Malegaon killed 37 and injured over 100 people. Investigative agencies suggested that sectarian differences among Muslims might have been behind the blasts. Faizi did not rely on the police’s version of the story and launched ummid.com three months later.
The site graduated from focussing on stories of police branding Muslim men in terror cases to an online knowledge hub focusing on education, science, research and entrepreneurship.
“When we started, we were looking for what the mainstream media was misreporting or underreporting. Now we scan the Urdu media to explore what they should have carried but did not,” said Faizi.
When the debate on instant triple talaq was heating up, the site published a piece arguing that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and women activists both were hiding key facts; a data story was published to counter that polygamy was widespread among Muslims.
In 2008, Delhi based journalist Sultan Shahin started Newageislam.com as a forum to debate Islamic theology and provide an alternative to the opinions propagated by clerics. “Since terrorism has become a distinguishing feature of our age and has done more damage to Islam and Muslims than anything else, we accord it primacy. But we try to discuss all issues of relevance and interest to Muslims from a theological perspective,” said Shahin about the content on his site.
Shahin said he often finds himself antagonising the fanatics and had received death threats more than once. “They say that this site is my short-cut to hell,” said Shahin who runs the site with eight staffers from a flat in Patparganj, East Delhi.
PAYING LIP SERVICE
Lack of funds plagues almost all the digital platforms telling stories of Muslims. In 2016, after frequently raising appeals for funds, Zafarul Islam Khan, founder editor of Milli Gazette, shut the 10-year-old English fortnightly. It continues in digital form. Khan, who spent more than a decade as a journalist in the Gulf, said he started the publication as many of his friends and members of the Muslim intelligentsia told him that there was need for an English newspaper for Indian Muslims. Khan said that he experienced a paradox in running the Gazette. “Such efforts can be successful only if they get funding from corporate houses or Muslim organisations. But when that happens, you don’t remain independent anymore,” said Khan.
Agreed Kasihf ul Huda, founding editor, TCN. “If the reader is not paying for news, someone else is paying for it. If an interest group pays, then you are likely to get news from their angle,” he said.