Nieman Reports at Harvard: Reporting on Islam


Italy Muslims Protest

Luca Bruno/AP Photo

With Islam threaded through beats from foreign affairs to crime to education,
journalists are stepping up efforts to provide nuanced coverage of Muslims
and their religion.

The concept was simple: Seven Californian Muslims, each photographed against a grey background, talking about the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” usually translated as “God is great.” No voiceovers. No cutaways. Just seven Californians, talking about two words.

If there’s one phrase non-Muslims associate with acts of terror, it’s “Allahu Akbar.” Witnesses to the July 1 attacks on the café in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, in which 28 people were killed, reported hearing the assailants yell the phrase. The Paris murderers shouted it as they killed 130 people in November of last year, as did the Pakistani Taliban who massacred 21 university students and staff a month later in Peshawar. The U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan yelled it before opening fire at Fort Hood in 2009, killing 13 people.

Knowing that most Americans have only heard the phrase in Hollywood thrillers or terror-related news—and given that, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, only 38 percent of Americans personally know someone who is Muslim—the Los Angeles Times set out last year to make a video exploring its place in the lives of ordinary Muslims. “The idea was, How can we unpack this very charged word?” explains videographer Lisa Biagiotti, who made the piece with LA Times photographer Irfan Khan. “How do we get at some bit of the spirit of Islam in this word? How do we make it both intimate and relevant?” Their piece, “The Use and Misuse of Allahu Akbar,” succeeds in making it both.

Mindful of the fact that Arabs comprise only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims, Khan and Biagiotti chose a rich ethnic mix of interviewees, including Americans from Thai, Indian, African-American, Indonesian as well as Arab backgrounds, showing that the Muslim umma, or global community, is, much like the United States itself: an ethnic mosaic.

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