Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Time is Running Out (of Interesting Things to Say About Muslims)

The latest issue of TIME features a photo essay and article on American Muslims. From a magazine that featured a cover “Should Christians Convert Muslims?” (June 30, 2003) and headlines like “Does the Koran Condone Killing?” (Sept. 13, 2004), this latest coverage is markedly different. There’s nothing shocking, and it gives a hint to why TIME might make the rest of its coverage of Muslims so inflammatory. These new pieces are, frankly, dull.

A personal essay on being a Muslim woman accompanies a series of photographs of Muslims in the New York area. The essay, titled “What It Means to be American — and Muslim” — yes, the two identities can coexist; get over it — outlines the pillars of Islam, explains why the writer wears hijab, and references an incident of harassment in response to the hijab. As far as coverage of Muslim women living in Western countries goes, this is as basic as you can get. For anyone who knows anything about Islam, these pieces offer nothing new. That doesn’t mean they’re not valuable — surely and sadly, there are still people who don’t know that non-violent Muslims exist. Additionally, it was fascinating to see that the writer of the piece, Shireen Khan, is a producer for (They actually hire Muslims?) Still, TIME could have and should have done a better job.

The fact that Muslims aren’t all terrorist fanatics seems to be such news that TIME hasn’t reached the point of portraying Muslims as real people. Take a look at the collection of 15 photos, which feel more decorative than anything else.

The photo essay opens with a photo of a Palestinian-South Korean college student working on a design for fashion school. Yes, a Muslim woman can be interested in fashion. Even if she wears hijab. Old news. (Points for including a Muslim of East Asian descent though.) But at least this Muslim woman is doing something. Other women do absolutely nothing unless wearing hijab and looking at the camera counts (example #1, example #2). It’s even more exciting when the lighting is dramatic or there’s a window involved. Children are featured for being children (example #1, example #2), or being children — get this! — near a mosque. With another mosque photo, a Muslim chaplain, Islamic classes, an Islamic school, and the standard “Look at them pray” shot, you’d think that the Muslims never ever leave the mosque — unless it’s to do something else stereotypically Islamic. Wait, there is something else they do: gather. And this is something across the board: women gather, men gather, and even children gather!

And there’s the Muslim existence, summarized. Nonthreatening perhaps (but I don't know about all that gathering...) but completely uninteresting. Photographer Ziyah Gafic was born in Bosnia and is based in Sarajevo — you’d think he’d have seen enough Muslims by now to be able to show them as real people with real and complex lives. He does, however, nod to ethnic and racial diversity. On the other hand, he shows little diversity in dress. Little girls are the only females not consistently shown in hijab.

With the focus on hijab and prayer, Khan’s written essay does nothing to challenge the photo essay’s portrayal of Muslims. Come on, where are the issues Muslims face? Where is the diversity of the Muslim community? Where are all the things Muslims do besides pray and gather? Don’t these journalists know what an angle is?

If this is TIME’s attempt to improve its coverage of Muslims, the magazine still has a ways to go.