ISIS, U.S. Media and The Muslim World

Huff Post: JAKARTA — On her first visit to Washington, D.C. in late August, Darshini Kandasamy stopped by the Newseum, the expansive building in downtown Washington dedicated to the history of journalism in America, looking forward to a lesson on the freedom of the press in the United States. She was easily impressed by the seven-story, 250,000-square-foot museum’s interactive exhibits on some of the highest moments of TV and print reporting, but it was a much simpler digital gallery of the day’s front pages that stuck with her.

“Islamic group beheads journalist,” one of the American newspapers said in big, bold print. Others similarly described the tragedy of James Foley, the journalist murdered by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It was days before another innocent reporter, Steven Sotloff, would suffer the same barbarism.

Kandasamy, a journalist who works for Kuala Lumpur-based Malaysiakini, an independent online newspaper, was appalled and confused.

“Why didn’t they just say terrorist group?” she asked me later as she reflected on her travels throughout the U.S. “Nearly every Muslim country has condemned what they do as un-Islamic,” added Kandasamy, who is a practicing Hindu in the majority-Muslim nation.

That kind of question is one I’ve heard repeatedly over the last three weeks as I’ve traveled with a group of 13 international journalists throughout the U.S. and Indonesia with the Honolulu-based East-West Center to study Islam in America and Asia. Most of the reporters and editors I’m with are Muslims who hail from places with Muslim majorities, such as Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Others come from countries with significant Muslim minorities, like India and Singapore. During visits to mosques and temples and between panels with professors and activists, we’ve differed on religion, politics and the role of the media. But the consensus on ISIS among these journalists, whose colleagues, friends, kids and families are proudly Muslim, has been unified.

“They are just crazy. That’s all,” said Khaldoun Barghouti, foreign news editor at Alhayat Aljadeeda, a newspaper in Ramallah in the West Bank. “That’s what we print. This is not Islam. We are as worried as Americans.”

As President Barack Obama prepares to give a primetime address on Wednesday night to outline his strategy against ISIS, many of my new friends are also wondering if the American media will make its own shift on its coverage of extremism and Islam in general.

“ISIS is not a Middle Eastern phenomenon and it’s not one just about Islam. It’s a global problem,” reflected an Asian reporter in our group, citing fighters that have been recruited from Singapore and Malaysia. Here in Jakarta, daily headlines English and Indonesian-language newspapers highlight fears of ISIS. The government officially banned support for the group in early August after it released a YouTube recruitment video featuring Indonesians. The nation’s minister of religious affairs has threatened to revoke citizenship from anyone who dares support the group.

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