If there’s one statistic that explains the inspiration behind the Council of American-Islamic Relations’ Muslim Youth Leadership Program it’s this: Since 2005, the proportion of Americans with a favorable view of Islam decreased by more than ten percent.
Organizations like CAIR exist to push back against Islamaphobia and violence against Muslims that are common when those kinds of negative perceptions are so widespread.
In 2013, the CAIR-WA office received reports of over 350 cases of discrimination against Muslims in our state alone.
Established four years ago, the Muslim Youth Leadership Program (MYLP) is part of CAIR-WA’s efforts to help Muslims to take a more active role in shaping the portrayal of their communities in the media.
The free event, which took place in two sessions this month, concluding on Thursday, exposes Muslim youth to career opportunities in media, law, politics, and public relations, in order to equip them with the tools to shape information, laws, and policy.
According to CAIR-WA’s Executive Director Arsalan Bukhari, there is an increasing need to encourage today’s Muslim youth — who tend to be more attracted to careers in science and technology — to enter these fields to change the current state of underrepresentation.
“Research shows that we have a lot of work to do to get Muslim youth into these fields, that Muslims are highly underrepresented, ” Bukhari said. “We need to help Muslim youth get their foot in the door — to shape the views of the public, and the depiction of Islam and Muslims. We need actual Muslims to represent themselves and to tell their own stories.”
MYLP participants attend meetings with executives and CEOs at Seattle’s top law firms, public relations companies, and media outlets, as well as with political leaders and top law enforcement officials.
“The number one barrier is that people don’t know about the variety of careers available in these fields,” Bukhari said. “We want to encourage participants to explore options that play to their strengths, and we want them to know what starting median salaries are, career paths are, what someone in that field does every day, etc.”
Tagging along with the program earlier this week, I witnessed participants learning how to talk about the media coverage of Islam and Muslims, meeting the president of political communications consultant The Connections Group, touring Latino advocacy organization El Centro de la Raza, visiting the headquarters of public radio station KUOW, and getting in front of the cameras in the KING 5 Newsroom.
University of Washington student Varisha Khan says the program immediately helped her process current events that were of great significance to her.
“I just found out about the program over Facebook, while my newsfeed had been covered with the things that have been going on in Gaza,” Khan said. “You see news stories and you feel bad and you want to help, and it feels like you can’t do anything. But when I saw this program, I felt that maybe through being involved in media that I can do something to help things in the future.
CAIR-WA recently released an analysis of The Seattle Times’ coverage of Islam and Muslims in 2012, taking a close look at the rhetoric and framing used in those articles. While the report praised “representative” articles that portrayed everyday lives of Muslims, the main takeaway was a recommendation that the Seattle Times “be more accurate in its labeling and contextualization”
“To avoid perpetuating false stereotypes and unintentionally fueling prejudice and hate, reporters must accurately describe the background and reasoning for violent extremism,” the report said. “We found over 500 mentions of words such as ‘Islamist,’ ‘jihadist,’ and their variants. Imprecise terminology can fuel prejudice and hate in readers’ minds and becomes an obstacle in their understanding of issues.”
Highline Community College student Leyla Ibrahim says she feels a huge disconnect between media portrayal of Muslim communities and the Middle East, and her own real life experience. Ibrahim says she visited Yemen recently and saw this firsthand.
“I didn’t think [Yemen] was portrayed in the media correctly at all. The portrayal was that of chaos, and this did not match what I was seeing,” Ibrahim said. “I think the media should incorporate the perspectives of those who actually live there.”
“How did a woman [like Al-Sadi] with a headscarf and a Muslim name that is well spoken and driven make it to the top of her field?” Bukhari said. “We are hoping to have those stories told.”
Recent Foster High School graduate Ardo Hersi already has her goals in mind: upon finishing at Seattle Central Community College with a goal of a 3.8 GPA, she hopes to receive a scholarship to pursue a Journalism degree at the University of Washington.
“People see the headscarf on a Muslim woman and then assume that I’m oppressed, but then they talk to me and see that I’m articulate, confident, and know what I believe in,” Hersi said. “You have to talk to people and educate them if you want to solve anything: we need to not only become cognizant of what’s going on in the media, but also to become leaders for tomorrow.”