I performed my Shahadah in March 2016 and began my journey as a Muslim. In that month I stopped drinking, learned how to perform my daily prayers, started eating halal and learning the Qur’an in Arabic. So what inspired my conversion to Islam? What caused me to become a Muslim and devote my life to Allah? It was knowledge. I had predominantly grown up in non-Muslim areas and was raised by Christian foster parents, so until I moved to East London and began to know Muslims, I had no idea about Islam.
My knowledge of Islam and Muslims was limited to what I watched on TV or read in a newspaper. The first famous Muslim I knew was Usama bin Laden. Islam and Muslims were an alien concept, an ideology and people that I did not understand and stayed clear of.
After I converted to Islam, I told my friends and they jokingly asked me not to become a terrorist, a joke which I had found funny. Then I began to wonder, when did Islam become a synonym for terrorism? Which verses in the Qur’an condoned violence? Did I join a religion of terror?
So I decided to research what the Qur’an said about violence and discovered there were a plethora of articles that focused on violent verses from the Qur’an, below is an example from Surah At-Tawbah, which I found on ‘10 Violent Koran Verses and the Terror They Spawned.’
‘Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.’ 9:29
I found it unnerving that the Qur’an, the word of Allah, my holy book, would condone such aggression. Then I read the verse (9:28) that came before the one above and realised that it was in reference to polytheists approaching al-Masjid al-Haram and not a command to fight against all disbelievers. As I continued my search I found one common thing Qur’anic verses about fighting had in common – they only permitted it in self-defence, below are some examples.
‘And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.’ 2:191
‘Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah . But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.’ 2:193
‘And if they (disbelievers) incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah.’ 8:61
As a new Muslim, the message I was getting was ‘unless you’re being oppressed – do not seek violence’, again, this can be backed up by another verse from Surah Al-Baqarah.
‘Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.’ 2:190
So my question was answered. Did I join religion of terror? No.
So why did I think I did?
There was no doubt that I had already formed opinions about Islam way before I became a Muslim. I had only seen Muslims play a negative role in the media and had formed the opinion that Muslims were mostly terrorists and Islam encouraged them to be so.
It was only when I became Muslim that I realised how the medias portrayal of Islam has created a specific image and narrative of Muslims to the non-Muslim world. There were two things to consider; how much news coverage terrorist attacks by Muslims were getting and the way they were being covered.
The graph below is the results of an analysis by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). It shows news coverage by the New York Times of all homicide deaths compared to deaths cause by terrorism. You can see under ‘American Deaths’ and ‘World Deaths’ that deaths caused by terrorism are a very small percentage, yet when you look at the ‘New York Times Coverage’ – deaths by terrorism receive almost half of the news coverage.
Note: We’ll use a 15-year average for US terrorism deaths, which includes 9/11 in the US. As a result, these numbers will be higher than any single year in the last 14 years – but also less than 9/11. We’ll also use a shorter multi-year average for world terrorism. Front page+ is defined as the first few pages (~3) of the New York Times, consistent with how an average reader may experience it.
I’m not denying that terrorism exists. I’m not denying that some terrorists are Muslim. It’s even fair to point out that some of the biggest terrorist groups still active today have claimed the banner of Islam. The point is – I was saturated by media where only Muslims were terrorists, where the only faces of murder or evil happened to be the faces of Muslims, and this one sided coverage and representation was what lead me to believe that it was only Muslims who performed acts of terror, that it was only them who killed and if not for them, we’d all be at peace.
As a non-Muslim who had very little to no knowledge of Islam – the disproportionate news coverage had two effects; the first, I believed all terrorists were Muslim. The second, I was led to believe that the people of other creeds were not responsible for any deaths or crimes due to their under-proportioned coverage.
Additionally, my opinion of Islam before I became Muslim was informed by the way in which “Muslim” terror acts were being reported. Fortunately, there is a booklet by UNESCO titled ‘Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalists.’ The booklet outlined key points to be aware of in the coverage of terrorism. These were:
The main problem with how terror acts are covered is that some of the key points listed are completely ignored by some media outlets, below is an example of a front page from ‘The Sun’ about the Manchester bombing.
This one page ignores three of the key points listed earlier: avoiding sensationalism, not glamorising terrorists and being careful about the language used. The effect of the word ‘evil’ under a picture of the terrorist smirking can only create negative opinions about those who look like him and strengthens the image of terrorists coming from one back ground or looking a certain way.
Sad to say, news articles like this one painted a negative view of Islam and Muslims in my head. There are small subtle things that we say or do that continue to breath life into the ‘Terrorist = Muslim’ stereotype.
I remember I grew my beard out when I was at University (just because I was trying a new look) and some family members told me to shave it because I looked like Usama bin Laden. I laughed, rolled my eyes, and preceded to tell them that not all Muslims were terrorists and Islam, is of course, not a religion of terror.
Sam Zekeria is primary school teacher and avid traveller, who also volunteers for the Muslim Fostering Network and Muslim Hands.