Racist trope: fatwa as act of villainy

Canadaland joins legacy media in positioning Islam as religion of bullies.

Last week Jesse Brown and Colin Horgan, with the help of Katie Jensen, published a mostly good podcast. It’s about, in part, Haley Jarmain and the mistreatment she has received from Ezra Levant and The Rebel in the course of doing her job as a reporter. It’s a good podcast and I happen to agree with much of what Brown and Horgan get around to saying.1

Unfortunately, it suffered from a racist trope.

In the podcast, both Brown and Horgan make the claim that Ezra Levant issued a fatwa against Haley Jarmain. It’s a metaphor. And, unfortunately, this became the title of the podcast and the headline of the online post: “SHORT CUTS #98: Ezra Issues A Fatwa”.

This is a not uncommon, but racist, Canadian media soundbite that contributes to a construction of an “Islamic peril”.2

Fatwa as racist trope

Fatwa is an Islamic concept. So there is no surprise that there is a long history of misuse of this concept, especially by a media establishment that is predominantly white.3

The thing is that it’s not technically a loaded term. A fatwa is pretty much a scholarly memo. Muslims seeking moral and ethical and practical answers in the context of their faith, will seek the opinion of Muslim scholars and leaders. They issue their opinions as fatwas (also fatwās, also fatāwā). Importantly, Islam is not monolithic and there are lots of competing ideas and disagreement and uncertainty.

And I’m not Muslim, so please feel free to not believe me.4

But the Wikipedia page on fatwa is a good place to start. And please check out this article by the Islam Supreme Council of America. This council has also recognized rampant misuse of “fatwa” in media over the years and so has written this article with the express intent of trying to help journalists better understand Islam:

In recent years, the term “fatwā” has been widely used throughout the media, usually to indicate that a death sentence has been dealt to someone or some group of people. The limited use of this term has resulted in a limited understanding of its meaning. ISCA therefore offers the following statement to elucidate the true significance of the term “fatwā.” Read more.

But many media outlets have used “fatwa” to mean something short of a death sentence and this is still racism. The Canadaland use of “fatwa” is a good example.

Note to journalists: avoid using Islamic jargon to describe odious acts.

The reason is that Ezra Levant is the brigand of the story. There’s pretty wide agreement on this. This is what Brown and Horgan think in the podcast, which is the most important thing. But this is also what I think. Levant’s behaviour has demonstrated poor judgment. Stephen Maher, in iPolitics, describes Levant as rallying his followers against reporters trying to do their job, and has even used the phrase “lynch mob”:

The model for the Rebel is likely the American Breitbart News Network, which, like Rebel Media, bashes Muslims, the media, feminists and environmentalists.

My point is that Brown and Horgan, and others like myself and Maher, see Levant’s behaviour in a poor light. So we should not be using the metaphor of a fatwa to describe his behaviour. This positions the issuance of a fatwa as an act of villainy.

And given this repeated misuse over the years, and the repeated, ongoing bigotry that Muslims have faced, using this trope is racist. As Amira Elghawaby pointed out last week at This Magazine, there is an “unflattering, unrelenting media spotlight on Muslims” in Canadian journalism:

And there are studies that demonstrate how disproportionate negative coverage of Islam and Muslims can be. One American study published in the Journal of Communication found that between 2008–2012, 81 percent of stories about terrorism on U.S. news programs were about Muslims, while only six percent of domestic terrorism suspects were actually Muslim. A Canadian study looked at New York Times headlines over a 25-year span and found that Muslims garnered more negative headlines than cocaine, cancer, and alcohol. It’s quite likely that Canadian media are similarly inclined. Here in Canada, author and academic Karim H. Karim has described much of the media framing of Islam and Muslims as constructing “an Islamic Peril.”

The sad irony of the Canadaland podcast, was that it wasn’t even about Islam. But it used a metaphor that entrenches the idea of an “Islamic peril.”

I expect more from Canadaland. Now is not the time to repeat racist tropes. Now is the time to show solidarity with Muslims and shine a light on racist tropes in Canadian Media.

And really, it’s not rocket science. Here’s the guideline for journalists: avoid using Islamic jargon, even metaphorically, to describe odious acts.

  1. Full disclosure: I didn’t understand what Horgan was saying about Twitter and data and not talking about Trump.
  2. Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence, Karim Haiderali Karim, Black Rose Books, 2003, https://books.google.ca/books/about/Islamic_Peril.html?id=BKTRPNR_nlgC
  3. See also http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/views-expressed/2016/07/dear-canadian-media-your-racism-showing
  4. I’m an atheist who has traveled a bit, and has an academic background in religious studies and philosophy.

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