On Thursday, May 15, Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers bailed himself out of jail after being arrested on a domestic violence charge. That same day, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was indicted in a 2012 double homicide. And later that night, members of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks participated in a charity bowling event hosted by quarterback Russell Wilson to raise money for inner-city youth programs.
To recap: On one random day in May, two NFL players ran afoul with the law, while at least 10 NFL players performed an exceptionally good deed.
Now venture a guess as to which story received the least amount of media coverage.
Actually, don’t guess, because the numbers tell the story. A few days after May 15, I did a Bing web search for “Greg Hardy” and “arrested” and came up with more than 860,000 results. “Aaron Hernandez” and “indicted” returned 2.46 million hits. Then I searched for “Russell Wilson” and “charity.” That turned up a mere 43,000 results — and many of those were articles about last year’s bowling event, or other past events unrelated to Wilson’s most recent project.
Is there any wonder now why America’s mainstream public has embraced the narrative that the NFL is full of criminals and is severely lacking in men with good character?
Greg Hardy’s arrest made it to ESPN, FOX Sports 1 and every other national media outlet you’d expect. The Hernandez indictment — the latest twist in the former player’s troubling saga that will be adapted into multiple movies, books and magazine features — even reached some international outlets.
As for the Seahawks’ charity event, the only thing resembling national coverage I could find was a blurb on Perez Hilton’s celebrity gossip site. That blurb focused less on the charity and more on a selfie Wilson snapped with a young fan.
To be honest, I only knew about the charity bowling event for two reasons: (1) I live in Seattle and our local news covered it, and (2) that night I happened to be in the same building that houses the bowling alley that hosted the event.
So as far as I know, the Seahawks weren’t the only NFL team whose players did their part on May 15 to make the world a better place. Any number of the league’s 32 teams and any number of the league’s 1,600-plus players could have been doing good deeds that day. But if you watched the news or browsed the Internet, odds are you only heard about the off-field activities of two: Greg Hardy the alleged woman-beater and Aaron Hernandez the suspected murderer who allegedly shot two people over a spilled drink.
And in an oddly un-American twist, celebrity doesn’t even matter in these cases. In the hierarchy of mainstream popularity, Russell Wilson outranks Aaron Hernandez and Greg Hardy. (So does Wilson’s teammate, cornerback Richard Sherman; and you could make a case that Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and head coach Pete Carroll are more recognizable than Hernandez and Hardy. At least that was the case before Hernandez landed in trouble.) But in the Western media’s presentation of the NFL, the image of the last man on the practice squad for the worst team in the league being handcuffed is more attractive than the league’s biggest superstars and most successful champions giving back to their community. (That is, unless a media outlet has a self-serving agenda, e.g. ESPN’s “My Wish” campaign, or if there is a substantial corporate sponsorship deal involved.)
So when the media is all too eager to spotlight athletes on their worst behavior while ignoring athletes on their best behavior, what else could the audience possibly think?
At the same time Hardy and Hernandez graced America’s sports pages, the front section of the newspaper featured the deplorable actions of Boko Haram.
The mysterious and violent criminal organization has been terrorizing the citizens of Nigeria for the last four or five years, but only recently became a household name in Western culture when reports began surfacing in April that Boko Haram had kidnapped more than 200 innocent girls from a secondary school and were threatening to sell them into slavery. Before and after the kidnappings, they’ve been known for attacks that have killed and maimed scores of innocent people.
Boko Haram has been identified as a Muslim extremist group, the kind of group that, since 9/11, has unfortunately come to represent all of Islam to many people in the Western world. It’s not dissimilar to how the NFL’s criminal element has come to represent pro football as a whole in the eyes of those who simply don’t know any better, or choose not to look beyond what the media presents.
And that said, I’m not trying to blame the media for everything.
Even as a Muslim, it’s hard to get mad at Westerners who believe extremists and terrorists make up a significant percentage of the Muslim community. If I wasn’t a student of Islam and only paid attention to mainstream media outlets, I might think the same thing. Extremism and terrorism are undeniably present in and problematic for the Muslim community, and for any Muslim to act like they don’t exist and are purely media creations is being delusional.
What I cannot stand for is the popular belief among non-Muslim Westerners that the Muslim community is not speaking out and condemning groups like Boko Haram.
The media certainly deserves to be called out for failing to present a balanced view of Islam, but in 2014, anybody who can use the Internet can no longer pretend they can’t find Muslim opposition to terrorism and extremism.
Go back to that web search. Enter “Muslims condemn terrorism” and you will find literally hundreds of thousands of articles, speeches and statements in which Muslims around the world — from high-profile sheikhs and imams to amateur bloggers — denounce any violence committed in the name of Islam. (Of course, if you enter “Muslim terrorism” you’ll get about nine million hits. See what I mean about unbalanced presentation?)
Go to YouTube and you’ll find thousands of videos in which Muslims — from the certified scholars to the regular guy with little more than a webcam and the remembrance of Allah in his heart — make it overwhelmingly clear that Islam does not encourage, promote or reward terrorism, and that Boko Haram is as accurate a representation of true Islam as the Ku Klux Klan properly represents Christianity.
Go to Twitter and search the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls or #BokoHaramYoureHaram.
And if you’re feeling adventurous or want a more genuine response, visit your local mosque, masjid or Islamic center. Talk to a Muslim. You probably work with or go to school with at least one. Ask them how they feel about Boko Haram. Ask them what their religion says about violence what and their religion says about peace.
Open your eyes and ears. Then tell me if you still think the Muslim community supports extremism and terrorism.
In an April 2013 column for the Huffington Post titled “Do you even hear Muslims when we condemn violence?” and posted shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings, author Qasim Rashid wrote:
Muslims condemned 9/11, we condemned 7/7, we condemned the Fort Hood tragedy, we condemned the underwear bomber, we condemned the Times Square bomber, and now yet again we find ourselves condemning the Boston Bombers on the mere suspicion that they were “motivated by Islam.”
And this is why I am unsure if people hear Muslims when Muslims declare — in response to every violent act or attempt at violence — that Islam condemns all forms of religious violence and terrorism. Because even after condemning the Boston bombers, I receive messages that the condemnation wasn’t “loud enough” or “clear enough” or passionate enough.” In other words, all they heard from me was blah blah blah blah blah.
Painting the world’s one-point-something billion Muslims with the broad brush of extremism is just as ignorant and unacceptable as painting the NFL with the broad brush of prison orange. But such is a common trap of Western privilege.
Similar to White privilege, Western privilege is not exclusive to any race, but is more about cultural upbringing and ignorance of the larger world around us.
A telling symptom of Western privilege is an inability to see diversity. And I don’t mean being unable to see the various shades of brown that make up the human race. I mean being unable to see diversity within marginalized, minority and faraway groups of people that don’t look like, talk like, act like, love like, or worship like those within your comfort zone.
Sufferers of Western privilege are like jury members in a courtroom. As much as they have been instructed to be objective and as much as they might even try to be objective, their decisions are still driven mostly by the values with which they were raised and by their own idea of what is “common sense.” And while they are willing to consider evidence to the contrary, that evidence must be brought to them, laid out in front of them and explained in detail by a trusted source.
All it takes for those stuck in the Western privilege trap to get out — to stop acting like a juror confined to a box — is some effort, some legwork and an open mind. The evidence is out there, and no one has to wait for it to be served with a smile on a shiny platter.
Because while Boko Haram was rising to prominence as the Western world’s latest piece of evidence to convict Islam as a religion of violence, the Muslim community was speaking out. Although it’s likely your favorite Western media outlet didn’t bother turning its cameras and microphones in that direction.
During a 10-day span from May 17 to May 26, two major Muslim gatherings were held on opposite ends of the world: the Ilmfest conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, and the INCA-MAS convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Thousands of attendees, dozens of speakers, one peaceful community with zero violence. And, yes, among the topics discussed in various forums and lectures was the Muslim community’s condemnation of groups like Boko Haram.
Did you see CNN or MSNBC or FOX News giving any coverage at all to Ilmfest or the INCA-MAS convention? Was any major media outlet interested in telling that story, in showing that side of Islam?
Again, go back to the NFL example. Players like Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman can do all the stereotype-smashing good deeds they want — and if they are genuine, they won’t care if they get media coverage for those deeds — but if the public only sees the actions of Greg Hardy and Aaron Hernandez as their representation of the NFL, the league’s image will be skewed. The media is partly to blame, but the public deserves some, too.
You can’t label and judge a large group of people simply by what the media decides to show you, especially when they’re showing you such a small piece of that community, and especially when you have plenty of resources to provide yourself with a more accurate depiction of the truth.
From packed auditoriums in Malaysia, to public protests in Nigeria, to social media movements that have no borders, the Muslim community is doing its part to fight against forces that threaten Islam from the inside.
It’s up to those who claim they want to see that fighting spirit to actually peel back their privilege, open their eyes and look for it.