“Six of 10 Americans, according to a 2007 ABC Poll, don’t understand the basic tenets of Islam,” Bennett said.
He attributed this to the lack of Muslims working in American newsrooms.
“At the Post I want more Muslim readers and I want more Muslim journalists,” he said.
Words poorly translated from Arabic to English are a big source of confusion caused by the lack of Muslim voices in the American media, according to Bennett.
Zeyad Maasarani, 22, a Muslim reporter for California’s most circulated Muslim publication, Southern California in Focus, agrees with Bennett that terms like “jihad,” “madrasa” and “hijab” are a big source of the public’s misunderstanding of Islam.
“Jihad means holy war, which is the definition that most Americans know, but it also means struggle, and valiant attempt,” Maasarani said.
One such word that has been contentiously debated in newsrooms is “Islamist,” which generally refers to a political movement governed by Islamic law. Bennett said at the Washington Post editors still have not decided whether to add it to their style book.
Some argue the word is a useful distinction for movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, but others at the Post argue that it is too vague and should be omitted in favor of a more specific description.
Bennett spent most of his time recalling an anecdote about a misunderstood Muslim group in Walkersville, Md., who were trying to purchase a large amount of land for a retreat.
The Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect considered heretical through much of the Muslim world, did TV interviews, town hall meetings and even door-to-door interviews to try to convince the people of Walkersville that they meant well, according to Bennett, but the county zoning board ultimately denied permission to buy the land.
He cites cursorily researched articles in the local and national newspapers that neglected to figure out who the Ahmadiyya really were as a primary reason that their proposal was met with massive protests.
Bennett said that in the period following 9/11 there was a lot of uninformed writing about Islam, and that “the best journalism fought against the tide of public perception.”
Bennet’s lecture is part of a larger series of events on religion and politics sponsored by the UCI Center for the Study of Democracy.
ALAN BLANK may be reached at (714) 966-4623 or at email@example.com.