Experiences

Under Cover – On Being an American Muslim Reporter

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One year ago, at around midnight on election night, I sat in the back corner of a local restaurant and bar with my laptop, filing a story on a local political race. I hadn’t prayed Isha yet. I was hungry.

“BREAKING: A Donald Trump presidency is on the horizon…” The headline was met with a four-letter profanity that interrupted the sound of my fingers rapping against the keys. The printers in the newsroom were waiting. Cries of incredulity and concern hung in the air.

It had been a long Tuesday hopping between polling sites and pooling quotes about local and national races for our live election feeds. I had found myself seeking out non-white voters to understand the Trump phenomena. It was an eye-opening exercise in avoiding assumptions. In what felt like a teaser of the results of the election, exactly 23 of the 24 immigrants I interviewed said they were voting for Trump. I felt intrigued, awkward, and shocked as these individuals explained their reasoning and offered concerns about Muslim radicalization, mounting terrorism, and illegal immigration. Trump was the “people’s man,” as one immigrant from the Philippines told me.

At the restaurant, an elderly woman with a beer in hand approached me. I peeled my eyes from the screen and told her I was on deadline, assuming she wanted to talk to me about the local political scene.

“I just wanted to say we’ve got your back. Whatever happens,” she said, offering a gentle smile. She opened her mouth to say something more, but stopped midway.

I filed my story, drove home, grabbed a granola bar for dinner, and slept.

The next morning, I awoke to the land of Trump, a candidate who had called for a national registry of Muslims, expanded the political space for anti-Muslim rhetoric, and planned to build on pre-existing domestic programs and a hidden industry that feeds on Islamophobia.

My phone buzzed with texts from sources offering words of solace and comfort. Wary of crossing the line between personal and professional, I hesitantly read the messages.

“I know this may not be appropriate, but I just wanted to say that I will fight to do anything and everything to protect the rights of Muslims,” one text read.

Thinking of all the immigrants that told me they were voting for Trump, I responded, “How can you be sure I didn’t vote for Trump?”

No response came.

These kinds of conversations routinely crop up in my work, though the beat I cover is as insulated as it gets—low-lying hyperlocal politics, far removed from national news. Yet, as a Muslim journalist, I have grown accustomed to my claim to Islam being a defining point—and in some cases, a starting point—in conversations.

The innocent, open-ended question, “Where are you from?” has often become an opportunity for me to define my identity in an increasingly secular, liberalizing society.

“Maryland,” I respond.

Confusion usually crosses their faces. Some accept it. Others try again.

“Yes, but where are you really from?” they ask.

I explain my American Pakistani roots, offering a coined phrase.

“I’m an American Pakistani Muslim—in that order,” I say, smiling.

What many don’t realize is that it has taken me much time to cement that order.

Being a Muslim journalist instantly earns you the cool badge among friends and acquaintances, perhaps at the expense of eyebrow-raises and subdued nods and achas among the uncles and aunties in the community who struggle to understand what an online journalist does. My physical appearance, namely my hijab, precedes me when I enter any room. Most of the time, I am the only minority present.

Ironically, I found myself relying on my uniqueness as a Muslim in journalism to separate myself from peers. Only later did I realize how dangerous that was.

Fresh out of college, a Jewish national reporter and editor I worked with on a post-graduation stint said he’d keep an eye on me.

“Muslim, hijab, and a reporter! Well, isn’t that one hell of a story!” he said over dinner at a halal restaurant.

I gawked. Was it really?

Unfortunately, anti-Muslim hostility has given rise to a pitiful genre of corrective journalism that seeks to normalize the mundane actions of “everyday” Muslims. Headlines blare, “Look at this Muslim doing such a normal thing!”

In doing so, these otherwise well-intentioned stories reduce the American Muslim experience to fit a preconceived notion of what it means to be “normal” in this country. Yet, people mistakenly perceive the greatest power of a Muslim-minority journalist is representation in a less-than-diverse newsroom.

One of my Muslim mentors pulled me aside after November 8, 2016, and said, “Well, don’t you have a responsibility, missy? You’re in a powerful position.” She then went on to draw an imperfect comparison between Muslims breaking into the field of media to black journalists changing the narrative during the civil rights movement.

Admittedly, there is no denying there is a growing need for alternative voices to represent the American Muslim experience. But the greatest power of my role extends beyond representation. It means adopting a career mantra that is stubbornly staked on pursuing the raw, honest journalism that speaks truth to power that the American Muslim community has craved for many years.

And when you pursue that mission, that means no excuses.

Journalists are not stenographers. They have a responsibility to seek the truth and report it. When you know what it’s like to feel misrepresented, misconceived, and misplaced in mainstream media narratives, you understand the plight of the most vulnerable and underrepresented segments of the community. When you see acts of terror conflated with and connected to Islam, spun and respun into a self-serving, ad hominem argument, you understand the struggle and pain when an undocumented immigrant chooses to share her experience.

“I’m not a criminal. That’s what they say on the news, but it’s not what’s really true,” one undocumented college student recently told me. “You can’t paint a people with one brush.”

I feel a vested responsibility to ensure that I do not approach any story with baggage and a pre-written narrative. And though I have made many mistakes and written stories I would be ashamed to re-read, I know that I am open to the thoughts of others, no matter who they may be.

As one local black leader put it over the phone the other day: “Let’s just say you’re not a blonde, blue-eyed reporter. That changes things.”

“You don’t belong here, ma’am.”

After visiting a polling precinct – my first time as a reporter – I closed my car door, put my hands on the cold steering wheel, and cried.

The election judge barred me from taking photos, a typical move veteran journalists are accustomed to. “You don’t belong here, ma’am. I don’t think you understand how things work here. So, please, leave,” he said. “I can tell you’re getting emotional, but please, just go.”

State and federal law allows reporters to take photos at precincts, so long as we abide by certain restrictions like not shooting photos of people filling out ballots.

In hindsight, a thousand rebuttals stream into my head, but in that moment, nothing came. As I sat in the parking lot, I thought, “What did he mean I don’t belong here? Was I unfairly interpreting this statement to mean I don’t belong in this country? Or did he mean the polling site?”

I discovered the plight of Islamophobia. By inciting fear of Muslims, this phenomena incites fear within them. I interpreted every negative encounter as evidence of Islamophobia. The run-in with the election judge was routine, I later learned.

As my one of my editors told me, “If you want to be loved, you don’t join journalism.”

But at other times, clearly Islamophobic encounters have happened. When you are in a visible role, you are visibly targeted. A few days ago, a man, who introduced himself as a Trump supporter, told me to go back to my country and poked fun at my hijab as I prayed near a public government campus.

This time, I felt prepared. I finished my prayer, looked up, and said, “Thanks for the invite, but I’m already at my home. If you feel so strongly about this, I can certainly quote you on that.”

I knew the man’s name, as you often do in local politics, and the web of ties between people is fascinating to uncover, especially for a newcomer.

These encounters stick with you. They make prayer a challenge in public places. They rattle you, even though you tell yourself they are the exception rather than the norm.

On a daily basis, however, the challenge is less headline-worthy.

In between assignments, you must find a spot to pray, to make wudu or to break your fast during night meetings. You must establish lines with non-mahram colleagues in a profession where private sit-downs and coffee chats are a proven way to gain the trust of sources and learn what’s going on in the community. You find yourself expertly maneuver yourself between non-mahrams at press conferences where space to prop your recorder or camera in front of the person presenting is limited.

And, most importantly, you embody a silly pun to die for: You’re a journalist. Under cover.

Always.

In Search of a Code of Ethics

Famed newspaper commentator and author Walter Lipman famously said, “There is no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

In journalism school, I recall circling this quote, drawing a straight line with a pointed arrow, and writing the famous hadith, “Enjoin the good and forbid the evil.”

It seemed Islam and the secular code of ethics in journalism, written by the Society of Professional Journalists and taught in classrooms across the country, was beautifully in sync with the Islamic principles of truth, honesty, and justice. The code highlights four broad principles: seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.

But in practice, a Muslim journalist must recreate a code of ethics that is more closely in line with Islamic beliefs. This is necessary because there is no formal professional organization or network of Muslim journalists.

For example, an individual’s right to privacy often butts up against the public’s right to information. In Islam, one requires a compelling argument to interview a grieving mother, to divulge their secrets, and lay bare the most intimate, emotional parts of their lives. It is hard not to feel like you are exploiting the vulnerable.

Verification is also a major tenet of journalism. Sources routinely provide information—sometimes for political gain, to score points, or to sway coverage. As a journalist, I must evaluate my personal comfort level with the information I’m exposed to. It’s almost as if there is a sanad, or chain of narration, that is necessary to vet the quality of information. As Allah says, “And cover not truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth when you know what it is.” (2:43).

Haqq is, ultimately, the central driving force. When your career and your deen depend on this guiding tenet of truth, you have a high standard to uphold. There is no room for games.

Despite this challenge, I am elated to hear of anyone entering an non-conventional career that strays from wielding a stethoscope or becoming an engineer.

At a recent community iftar, a first-year college student told me she wanted to become a journalist, but her reasoning disturbed me.

“I want people to know that Muslims can do anything. I can be a journalist and be normal too,” she said. “Any advice?”

What a sad place to begin, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, many aspiring youth buy into a dangerous, self-serving narrative, ultimately reframing their identity and justification for their career to fit a reductionist, mainstream model that seeks to normalize Muslims in non-conventional careers.

I told her that the headscarf on her head will no undoubtedly drown her presence when she enters a room. To the world, she will undoubtedly be known as the “Muslim” journalist. She would often be the only minority in the room. But that should not define her.

What should define her is her work, her ethics, and her commitment to upholding the tenets of true journalism: accountability, transparency, and a quest for uncovering the truth.

Once she embraces that, there is no falling back.

This is what I told the young college student who approached me that Ramadan night after an especially mundane meeting.

It is also the scoop I tell myself.

I am not the story. The story is my work. I must not let my career be defined by my commitment to my Islam. My Islam must define my commitment to my career.

And nothing is ever, as they say in journalism, “off the record.”


Memoir by Anonymous Guest Writer | Photo by Shefa Ahsan

MYM Staff

"Unity is strength... when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved." - Mattie Stepanek. We couldn't agree more.