In a span of just over a month two incidents rocked my city of Jacksonville, Florida, garnering wall-to-wall coverage in local media: the first was my nomination to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission (JHRC), whose mission is to promote fair treatment and equal opportunity for all people regardless of race, colour, religion, gender or national origin. The mayor's nomination is routinely approved by the City Council. But in my situation, the nomination drew unprecedented scrutiny.
The second incendiary (no pun intended) situation was related to a pipe bomb that exploded at my local Islamic centre.
Both situations had something in common: they impacted Muslims who were the target of hate, anger and violence. And neither situation drew any national media attention, which led Muslim American groups to question the national media silence and perceived double standards.
But is such silence, as disturbing as it may be, a sign of bias?
Decrying the national media's silence as bias solidifies a misperception that the Muslim community is perpetually playing the victim card. The Muslim community in Jacksonville faced formidable challenges but responded with positivity – with timely help from public officials, faith leaders and law enforcement professionals.
Far from being the victims, the Muslim community has been helped by the controversy as local media have sparked a public dialogue on difficult issues like diversity, inclusiveness and faith.
Much of the controversy surrounding my nomination to the JHRC was contrived. The first sparks flew when City Councilman Clay Yarborough emailed me a series of irrelevant questions regarding my views about the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the US oath of loyalty, and the issue of legalising gay marriage. Although I was under no obligation to answer his questions, I did so, being very sensitive to the extreme misunderstanding about Islam and Muslims that permeates American society.
Our local newspaper, The Florida Times Union, found out about this exchange and wrote a story on it. This report led an anti-Muslim hate group called ACT! for America to organise opposition to my nomination.
As the situation unfolded, however, the local newspaper ran several stories refuting their spurious allegations. The newspaper also exposed Yarborough's prejudices: when he was pressed by Florida Times Union columnist Mark Woods, he could not answer whether Muslims deserve a chance to serve in public offices.
The newspaper later used a full-page editorial to offer its unequivocal endorsement of my nomination. And the local public radio station interviewed me on their morning show “First Coast Connect”, allowing me to share my side of the story.
Later when Jacksonville City Councilman Don Redman made the awkward request that I "pray" to "my God" at the council meeting dealing with my appointment to the JHRC, it was the local media that took umbrage and, over next several days, painstakingly explained to the public the potential economic and social damage that are likely to result from this hullaballoo.
As a result of the media spotlight, Redman later apologised.
Rather than decry what the national media did not do, Muslim Americans should celebrate what the local media did, despite heavy pressure from a minority but vocal group. They exemplified that even in an age of extreme sensationalism responsible journalism is alive and well.
Partly as a result of this, the City Council voted 13-6 in favour of my nomination.
When my mosque got bombed, literally hours before I was to attend my first meeting of the Human Rights Commission, the local media speculated – but did not sensationalise – that the bombing could be related to the vocal agitation against my nomination. They exhibited great professionalism by staying with the story even when the blogosphere was complaining about too much attention being given to the bombing of a Muslim house of worship.
The local media rightfully felt that this matter required extended attention so long as the perpetrator of this heinous crime remained at large. This is a teachable moment that shows the importance of relationship building, a task that is not undertaken with the seriousness it deserves.
The silence in the national media is less related to bias and more the result of a lack of meaningful relationships between the Muslim American community and national media outlets. The Jacksonville saga shows that getting the appropriate media attention and support from religious/civic organisations is much easier when the community has taken the time to build such relationships well in advance of a crisis.
The path to empowerment that Muslim Americans rightfully seek must result from relationship building and not from riding the waves of the news cycle.
* Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar, Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida and a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.altmuslim.com.