Muslim communities are telling new stories to break old stereotypes, say panelists

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:

Staff reporter

If you want to learn about the Muslim community, don’t read the news, says the associate editor of The Islamic Monthly.

Steven Zhou, who converted to Islam six years ago, said writing about a community takes time and resources.

As a result, too many publications produce “surface-level” stories fulfilling their role as being part of the public record “because the truth needs to be told.” But as a freelancer for publications including CBC News Online, Zhou said he’s sympathetic.

“It’s easier to make money pounding out a thousand words in your underwear than it is to go on a bus and spend your money and cover something,” he said.

He was joined on the panel Know Thy Neighbour: Local News as a Tool for Overcoming Difference by Muslim Link coordinator Chelby Marie Daigle, BuzzFeed’s Ishmael Daro, and producer, writer and broadcaster Naheed Mustafa at a conference on the future of local news hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism.

The Muslim community is not as homogenous as mainstream media portrays, they said.

“I can tell you, in almost a decade of interaction with people in the community, I’m probably more confused than when I started,” Zhou said. “How does one person cover a million people?”

The answer to such a question is more critical than ever, said panel moderator Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“I usually like to tell a lot of jokes but, again, we’re having another terrorist attack in London,” she said at the beginning of the discussion.

Elghawaby played a clip, recorded the night before by a Muslim friend while out for a walk with her 11-year-old son in in Kanata, Ontario. A male voice yelled hateful racial slurs.

“He went on to say they should all be killed,” Elghawaby said. “This is what we’re talking about, knowing thy neighbour, and it’s not just a cute title of a panel.”

Getting to know the Muslim community, a community subject to an increasing number of hate crimes, which Elghawaby charts on an online map, means building connections, said Mustafa, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Walrus and numerous other publications.

Of workplaces such as CBC, where colleagues assumed certain communities trusted her with their stories because of her ethnicity, Mustafa said, ”I don’t actually have access to that community. I built access to that community.”

Building access could mean contacting at least a dozen people and attending events such as a women’s gathering in Thorncliffe Park in Toronto, as Mustafa did for a CBC documentary about what it meant to be Canadian. It could also mean being aware that journalists are in a position of power.

“If you have people in the community who are still relying on us to filter their stories,” she said, “are we really engaging in a meaningful way or are we basically forcing people to help us tell the story we’re interested in telling?”

At Muslim Link, Daigle is focused on telling the stories her community wants to tell, she said. Daigle, who says she has no background in journalism, “has learned that “people want to read about people they might actually know, or people who look like them, or people they might run into.”

“I think local news is so important for community building,” she said. “It’s how you get to know your neighbours.”

Muslim Link tells stories that explore the spectrum of a multi-dimensional community that isn’t often reflected in mainstream media, said Daigle, from Eritrean Canadians launching a charity to support refugees in Sudan to an Ottawa bus driver standing up to Islamophobia.

“The interesting thing about telling the stories of Muslims in Canada is that it’s as interesting for Muslims as it is for non-Muslims because our community is so diverse.”

Ishmael Daro, social news editor at BuzzFeed Canada who covers Islamophobia as a sub-beat, said he uses stories to help bust stereotypes. One method of doing this is to tell positive stories about the Muslim community in response to hate incidents, he said. For example, Daro countered a story about anti-Syrian-refugee graffiti at a Calgary light rail transit (LRT) station with one about a group of young Muslims armed with messages of love greeting commuters the next day.

Daro also wrote about a Palestinian donair shop owner who gave free food to the hungry. The business owner did so because it was part of his culture, Daro said, and this became a central aspect of his article.

These are the types of stories that can teach people about his culture from a Muslim perspective, he said.

Such feel-good stories aren’t going to make the front page of the Globe and Mail, he said, “but those are the stories that really connect with people. Those are the stories that I get mail for.”