About the Author

author photo

Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

See All Posts by This Author

An Independent Muslim-American Press? Texas Entreprenuer Is Making It Happen

As a father of two and a full-time real estate developer in Austin, Texas, Shahed Amanullah has also been able to squeeze in a side-project over the last few years: opening up the American Muslim community to debate and criticism.

After 9/11 attacks, the American-born Amanullah, now 39, watched his community “circle the wagons” under a barrage of sometimes hostile attention and decided to create Altmuslim.com, a news and opinion site that would allow Muslims to discuss their own issues, on their own terms.

Although Altmuslim.com has been successful, now receiving more than 8,000 unique visitors a day and sustaining operations through a revenue-generating sister site, Zabihah.com, Amanullah is still not satisfied. In an April, 2007, column, “Western Muslims Need a Fourth Estate,” he called for the creation of an independent Muslim press in the U.S., to

explore the religious, cultural, and political plurality within the Muslim community, hold Muslim advocacy groups, businesses, and institutions accountable for their actions, present a forum for the civilized discussion of underrepresented or even controversial opinions, and increase the ability of ordinary Muslims to defend their faith beyond bumper-sticker platitudes.

Amanullah’s forth-right embrace of debate and analysis is winning him an increasing amount of national attention. Named one of ten “young visionaries” last month by Islamica magazine, he was also tapped this month by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to advise the department on fighting terrorism.

ReligionWriter spoke with Amanullah about his impatience with “whitewashed” media articles, his favorite reporters, and his plan for putting to rest the question, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?”

ReligionWriter: Your “Fourth Estate” article has gotten a lot of attention in the American-Muslim blogosphere. Did that surprise you?

Shahed Amanullah: Yes; I didn’t think it would be news to people. Every community has a degree of internal dialogue and discussion that is healthy, and I’ve been struck by how little of that goes on in Muslim community. There’s too much emphasis on enforcing orthodoxy as opposed to respectful debate.

In the center of this storm of politics and media, we’re like a little raft tossed up on the big waves. Issues are thrust upon us; we never set the agenda. When other organizations set the agenda for us, it has a very limited scope: civil liberties or foreign policy. We constantly have to respond to things thrown at us in unfavorable terms, like the issue of extremism. A great example is the “Where are the moderates?” refrain we’ve heard since 9/11. This silence happens because there is no articulate voice. Local Muslim newspapers say, “It’s not our issue.” National Muslim organizations say, “We want to talk about civil rights instead.” There’s nothing in the middle.

RW: Which issue do see as more important: promoting dialogue among Muslims or shaping the media agenda in the non-Muslim sphere?

Amanullah: I don’t separate the two. Part of the message we need to get out to the larger media is that we’re having this discussion, that there is dialogue within the Muslim community about “What is our vision? What are our values as Muslims in America?” The wider media needs to see this conversation is happening. Because when they don’t see it, they start setting the agenda: “Muslims need to start worrying about extremism in their mosques.” If they know that dialogue is already happening, then they can take the cue from us.

RW: Do you feel mainstream journalists aren’t tapping the right sources in the Muslim community? That maybe they rely too much on national organizations like ISNA or CAIR?

Amanullah: I don’t blame journalists; they don’t have anywhere where else to go. I also don’t blame [CAIR spokesman] Ibrahim Hooper Ibrahim Hooper for his interviewing style - his job is to be a media bulldog. His job is not to provide insight that may reveal weaknesses in our community. That job belongs to analysts of the Muslim community. And right now, most people who set themselves up as media-ready analysts on Muslim affairs are not from our community.

RW: Who are you referring to?

Amanullah: Professors, whether Muslim or not, who are in their ivory towers and removed from the community. Journalists who have taken up Islam as their thing, whether it’s Tom Friedman or Daniel Pipes. So many non-Muslims put on the “Islam expert” hat, and they can get away with it, because there isn’t a Muslim alternative who says, “I’m here in the community, and I have the credentials to be authoritative.”

RW: But newspapers don’t necessarily assign evangelical reporters to cover evangelicals - and maybe they shouldn’t.

Amanullah: When you create a fourth estate, you’re not creating cheerleaders. You’re creating people who over time are going to have a reputation of being objective and analytical, critical but also giving credit where credit is due.

RW: Almost every day there are positive, Islam 101-type articles, especially from small-town papers, with headlines like, “Muslims draw closer to God during Ramadan.” Is it really fair to say Muslims are misrepresented in the media?

Amanullah: Those PR-type articles are problematic in their own way. Unless you properly deal with the larger issues, the benefit of these pieces won’t sink in for the average reader. At the national level, you get more contentious articles, assigning blame to all of us for what some of us do. What is missing are articles, either at the local or national level, that say, for example, “Here’s an interesting positive trend in the Muslim community,” acknowledging that we have issues but also that we recognize and deal with them. I don’t want to be patronized by local media or condescended to by national media.

RW: A common thread among the responses to your “Fourth Estate” article was that creating an independent Muslim media will ghettoize the community. Better, they say, for Muslims go to into mainstream journalism. What’s your response to that?

Amanullah: The role of the Muslim media would be to start the dialogue on important issues. At a certain point that percolates up to the national media. Also, it’s a training ground for analytical thinkers, whether they want to continue on into mainstream journalism or Muslim leadership.

RW: If you had 20 journalists sitting in front of you right now, who were going to cover Islam in the next few months, what would you tell them?

Amanullah: Don’t miss the very dynamic debates that can and do happen within the Muslim community. It’s not enough to report on the Muslim community as a zoo specimen: “Let’s see what happens when we poke it here.” Get into the Muslim community at a local level and find out what the debates are.

We’re at a unique time in American Muslim history, when American Islam is still being defined. When people think of Muslims as monolithic, it feeds into the impression that we’re a bunch of sleeper cell operatives. But if you can say, for example, “There’s a big debate right now about intercultural marriage,” that shows a dynamism, and that makes us human.

RW: In your view, who are the best reporters right now covering Islam in America?

Amanullah: At the metro level, Matthai Chakko Kuruvila at the San Francisco Chronicle is head and shoulders above the rest. His attitude toward covering the Muslim community is fascinating; it’s like the difference between looking at a gorilla in a zoo and being Jane Goodall, actually getting in there. At the national level, I’m fairly happy with Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Carla Power at Newsweek has done a really good job, and she’s been working on it for a really long time; I first talked to her in 1998. Neil MacFarquhar at The New York Times, generally, is trying to get in at the lower level as well. I really like the reporter I deal with here at the Austin American Statesman, Eileen Flynn.

RW: One could argue the Muslim press right now is looking great. We have altmuslim, first of all. We have Islamica, Illume, Azizah, Muslim Girl and others. Would you agree?

Amanullah: A community of our size should have had an independent media a long time ago, and now we should have a larger one. Of the media outlets you mentioned, only Islamica has any full-time staff that I’m aware of. We’re not talking Christian Science Monitor here. Look at the Jewish community, which has a vigorous free press. Or recently arrived immigrant communities, like the Filipino and Chinese communities — they have many more fulltime journalists. Why don’t we?

Sphere: Related Content

There Are 4 Responses So Far. »

  1. An Independent Muslim-American Press? Texas Entreprenuer Is Making ……

  2. [...] Religion Writer Andrea Useem conducted a really good interview with Altmuslim.com’s founder and editor Shahed Amanullah. It can be read here. [...]

  3. Excellent article - Shahed Amanullah raises some important issues which should be of urgency to all American Muslims! This post 9/11 climate cries out for more dialogue within the Muslim community as well as the need for more informed, educated coverage of American Muslims by the mainstream media. I think that the advent of literature like ‘Muslim Girl Magazine’ & ‘The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook’ are examples of open-minded discussions of Islam in America which highlight the diverstity amongst Muslims - we need to encourage more honest discussion at all levels to show that being a Muslim & being an American are not polar opposites!

  4. [...] But the part of the report that most interested me was the final section, called “Online New Media.” Ah ha, just what I’ve been looking for: an in-depth, survey-based report on religion online. This topic is important to me because, A., I’m a religion journalist and my profession either has to move online or die, and B. I love new media myself and want to see more religion stuff online, and C. I see very few authoritative assessments of online religion trends. (For my own earlier thoughts on Religion 2.0, see “Faith on Facebook: In Search of the Killer Religion App,” “Is your church ready to blog?” and interviews about blogging and online religion content with Gary Stern, Jeffrey Weiss, Sally Quinn, Amar Bakshi, Terry Mattingly and Shahed Amanullah.) [...]

Post a Response

FireStats icon Powered by FireStats