Q&A: Hannah Allam on covering Muslim life in America for BuzzFeed

Fewer than half of Americans say they personally know a Muslim person—which means many draw their opinions of Muslims from news coverage that is overwhelmingly negative. A recent Harvard analysis of major newscasts of CBS, Fox, and NBC from 2015 to 2017 found that war and terrorism account for 75 percent of the coverage of Muslims, and that “human interest stories or those depicting Muslims as productive members of society were overlooked” by news directors.

At best, that creates a poorly painted picture of a community that numbers 3.3 million in the United States—and offers a challenge to news organizations to provide fuller coverage to encourage understanding. That type of groundbreaking work is already under way at some publications, notably at BuzzFeed News, where reporter Hannah Allam wants to offer a richer, though not always glowing, depiction through her beat: Muslim Life in America.

Since March, the former McClatchy war correspondent and Middle East bureau chief has been digging into the lives of American Muslims full-time. Allam’s work bears witness to a tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in modern America, and is intent on dissecting the challenges facing the multi-faceted and diverse religious community.

She spoke with CJR about how she approaches the beat and what reporters should avoid or seek out in coverage of Muslims. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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After covering the Middle East from overseas and Washington for McClatchy, what brought on this transition to cover Muslim life for BuzzFeed?

I came back from being a foreign correspondent in 2012, right after the Egyptian election where Morsi was elected. I came back here to do a foreign policy beat, so I was still covering a lot of the same issues about Middle East policy, especially Syria, but from the Washington perspective, a policymaking perspective rather than from on the ground. As McClatchy’s mission shifted toward more domestic reporting, my beat expanded and basically became more of a broader national security beat.

I had a focus on Middle East and counterterrorism issues but even then I was really cognizant of trying not to write about Muslims only through that lens. For me a pivotal point in understanding how foreign Muslims are portrayed in mainstream media came in the aftermath of the San Bernardino killings. When that cluster of reporters went into the shooter’s home and they were marveling over ordinary items of a Muslim household, as if they were evidence of extremism, when in fact it was like a Quran or a string of prayer beads or a prayer carpet. Those are things that many Muslim homes have all across the country. I just thought about how little the reporters knew about Islam to point to those things as, you know, “ooh look here’s evidence.”


It made me realize what we’re really up against in terms of portraying this community accurately and with nuance. That was the jumping off point for doing more stories about US-Muslim life while I was still at McClatchy. I was very lucky that at McClatchy they totally supported that and recognized that it was a community that isn’t always written about with nuance and depth. It coincided with the 2016 presidential campaign, and the rise of Trump and this new era of really open, vocal hostility toward Muslims.

Even though my beat was more broadly race demographics, I was writing a lot about what it felt like to be Muslim in the United States during the rise of Trump. And so that was just sort of expanded when I joined BuzzFeed in March.

 

The fallout of American global policy and who it impacts locally, in a sense.

Yes, and not even just policy but the social changes, the changes in how Americans all across the country speak about Muslims. And how it’s not confined to one demographic or political leaning because even during the campaign I would always point out how Clinton also, you know, when describing Muslims, almost always spoke about Muslims through a national security lens. As in, “you are some line of defense, you sort of should be out there sort of policing your neighbors.” That is sort of the subtext that Muslims heard, and that doesn’t sound good either.

 

Right, a lot of people responded to that and felt doubly harmed. As if somehow Muslims that learn that this violence exists like anyone else were supposed to also be able to police that?

Right. I don’t think people understand how absurd it sounds to many Muslims. At least, Muslims I’ve interviewed, who say, “You want us to stop international terrorist plots that the world’s best spy agencies couldn’t detect? (laughs) You know, I’m trying to make rent and feed my kid. I don’t know what you want from me.”

The other thing that I think gets lost in reporting these issues is that after these big attacks, American Muslims also feel grief, the same grief as any other American. And they say they’re sort of not even allowed to grieve with the rest of the nation because they’re already worried about the next phase which is the backlash or retaliation that they often face after a big attack.

 

One of the things I like best about your coverage is that you depict this community as not being a monolith, but as being very diverse. We see that in your coverage of LGBT Muslims, and the discussion in your Nabra Hassanen coverage, where you depicted not only the reactions to her murder, but also the tensions of black Muslims and how they don’t feel embraced by other Muslims sometimes.

I’m wondering if that’s key to your approach, to express how within Islam there are so many different people?

Yes, absolutely. It’s important to me that I don’t write about this fictional thing called “the Muslim community.” Whenever I speak about it, I try to always say Muslim communities. And absolutely, I do go out of my way just to make sure that I’m not talking about one narrow Muslim experience, and to broaden it and to show that there are so many different ways of being a Muslim in America.

And this current era of open hostility toward Muslims affects different communities in different ways. I just think that is fertile ground for so many stories because there is not one single Muslim experience and how is this moment is feeling for the estimated 3.3 million American Muslims?

 

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How is the rise of hostility that you note affecting these communities?

Everyone’s interpreting it a different way, and everyone is handling this in different ways. Yes there is this sort of response that is defensive: youths sometimes literally taking self-defense courses. Or staying inside, removing the hijab, watching what is said in public—there’s that but there’s more.

It’s important for me to also depict that Muslims aren’t just victims, but they’re responding in other ways such as increased activism, reaching out to communities they haven’t partnered with before, pushing into political office and leadership positions. It’s not just [as if] Muslims are cowering in a corner, really worried that the country is turning against them. There’s a lot of fear, for sure. But that’s just part of it.

And then the other thing is yes, my beat is called Muslim Life in America. I don’t want to use my beat as some sort of—I don’t know how to say this, but I don’t want to get in trouble.

 

Say it carefully, take your time.

I’m not an activist; I’m a journalist.

 

Right.

And so I’m covering these communities in a way that I hope is complex and accurate and fair, and that shows what it’s like to be Muslim at this point in America. And that doesn’t mean portraying Muslims as victims all the time. It doesn’t mean portraying Muslims as perpetrators all the time and only covering radicalization sorts of stories.

But to show that this is, as studies have shown, the most diverse major religion in the United States. No single ethnicity dominates it. I think the largest single bloc is African-American Muslims, who are more often left out of the conversation.

 

What else gets left out of the conversation?

It’s important to show also that these communities are in transformation. And they’re struggling. There’s a crisis of leadership right now where people are asking: Who speaks for American Muslims? What are the main priorities? How far do Muslims go in allying with other groups? Those are all questions I’ve heard Muslim communities asked, and I think as a journalist I also have to point out controversies and the sticking points and the thorny issues within the community.

 

What is an example of a thorny issue among American Muslims right now?

Right now those issues include: women’s roles in leadership, and what is turning away people from the mosque.

 

What do you do to avoid missteps in this coverage?

There’s this idea that all Muslim life in America is centered around the mosque, when studies have shown that [less than half] of American Muslims even attend a mosque regularly. And yet so much of the reporting about them is centered around the mosques.

I try to get outside the mosque. I try to definitely include African-American Muslims, the biggest single block of Muslims in America in my stories. I try to have a good mix of foreign born and homegrown Muslims. I always try to have women in every story.

 

Thank you.

(Laughs) And to show the generational differences, and also marginalized voices such as LGBT Muslims, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Shia Muslims, et cetera.

 

Which means that—as someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States—you are investigating Muslim experiences that are fairly unfamiliar to you.

Yeah, to me it’s exciting and it’s daunting because I grew up mainly knowing Sunni Islam and then later was exposed to Shia doctrine and leadership in Iraq and the Middle East. Now I take those overseas foreign experiences of Islam and to see how they’re being interpreted here: what’s being kept, what’s being discarded, how that’s meshing with homegrown American Muslims.

All of those traditions and questions and interpretations get even more jumbled up. To me, all of that is great fodder for journalism, to understand the transformation of the practice of a faith at a stressful time.

 

I also imagine that there’s a little bit of media fatigue that you have to work past with some Muslim sources. With so many negative and clumsy portrayals in the news, I can’t imagine people are always really excited to meet a reporter from BuzzFeed. How do you bridge that gap and assuage those fears if and when you encounter them?

I really try hard to make sure that my beat is not a hate-crime-of-the-week beat, that it goes beyond that and really explores the lives of American Muslims. I try to include as much of people’s stories and, as I can, their backstories. The great thing about BuzzFeed is that that’s what they hired me to do. They asked me to do these deep stories about Muslim life in America.

When you’re out reporting, people [need to] see that you’re really committed, you’re not just parachuting in for a day but you have a couple of days to spend with them. [They see] that you want to really go beyond the surface of their lives, that you ask follow-up questions, that there is a dedication or commitment to understanding and getting it right.

 

How has being an American Muslim and your global travel shaped your reporting?

I was born in Oklahoma and grew up some in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, and returned to Oklahoma. I was in high school in Oklahoma when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred—I remember it, we could hear it. Within a few hours sketches had come out of John Doe #1 and John Doe #2, who were these suspects that appeared to be Middle Eastern men. This was before we knew that it was McVeigh. I remember other kids in high school saying “Hannah’s dad is John Doe Number Two. Ha ha ha.” That was a painful experience because I was just this kid in Oklahoma who was as devastated as every other Oklahoman about this horrific act of terrorism, and then within hours I’ve got kids pointing at me, saying my dad’s responsible?

So I am definitely attuned to how it feels to have your faith and your background and your religion questioned. Some people say “Oh you’re a Muslim. That must be easier for you to understand how the religion is practiced here.” Actually, I’m learning every single day. I’m encountering so many different interpretations. If you go in just sort of saying I’m here to learn, people are willing to teach.

Also I think the flipside is true, where they might see you as a Muslim so maybe they trust you more to write accurately about their faith and not to distort things—but at the same time they have to understand that I am writing with a critical distance. I’m not there to write a Valentine or a P.R. campaign for them. I’m a witness, basically.

So many times I’ve started on a story on this beat thinking it was one thing and then finding out it was another. It’s not just this beat but any beat—it’s so important not going with the preconceived notion of what the story is because then you start talking to people and it’s always more complex. I also try to stay in touch with people when I’m not writing about them. And I recognize too that it’s not everywhere that has that space and time. Those are luxuries now.

 

That luxury seems to be offering a very unique vantage point, one that is really needed right now to inform the zeitgeist.

Some of these ideas about Muslims are so ingrained I can’t pretend that a dozen stories I write are going to change overnight how people think about or perceive Muslims. A lot of how I think about my beat is that I’m just witnessing these communities going through a tough moment and trying to record what that looks like: How it’s changing Muslim Activism. How it’s changing Muslim leadership. How it’s changing Muslim political engagement. How it’s changing Muslim’s physical safety and sense of place in the country.

I think about how: If I look back in a year and read these stories would I get a sense of how these communities have transformed?

 

Are there reporters you admire on your beat?

Oh absolutely. Hamed Aleaziz at the San Francisco Chronicle, Niraj Warikoo at the Detroit Free Press, Jaweed Kaleem at the LA Times. Leila Fadel from NPR is starting to do this. Abigail Hauslohner from the Washington Post, Emma Green at the Atlantic.

And I think a lot of people right now are starting to look at these issues—if not as a full time beat, at least as a sub-beat.

 

Which probably means there are journalists who feel like they should be covering this and they don’t know how to get started. Do you have advice for the reporter who wants to cover this community and doesn’t know how?

It would be good to remember that most American Muslim life happens outside the mosque. So while the mosque might be a good starting point to get to know Muslims who can regularly attend the mosque, it’s only one way in. Look at other organizations—doctors’ associations, Muslim free clinics, Muslim student associations at universities, and maybe just ordinary families in your hometown. That’s actually the most typical Muslim experience, somebody who doesn’t go to a mosque regularly.

In addition to certain negative stereotypes that are out there, the other most common and narrow representation is the cleric, or that only clerics speak for Muslims and we don’t have a whole lot of just ordinary Muslims. The example that I always think about is how some producers tried to make that reality show about Muslims years ago. It got canceled because they were just boring. It turned out that they just lived their lives, raised their kids, and paid their taxes. And who wants to see that? So it was canceled. That’s why I always try to tell people. Like, it’s really not that spooky and mysterious.

 

Do you run into people who wonder why your beat is necessary?

[I’m asked] why can’t it just be a religion beat or part of a race and demographics beat. And I think about that a lot. And you know the response I would give is: There was one religion singled out in the inaugural address in January. There was one religion singled out in the travel ban. There’s one religion that is constantly vilified in political discourse and has a whole sortof industry dedicated now to smearing it. So I think that there’s plenty of justification for looking closely at what Islam is, how it’s practiced in the United States. Why does this radical fringe exist and how did that fringe come to represent. 3.3-plus million Americans?


Those are all really interesting things to explore and these things have implications in so many other aspects of American life, [beyond] national security. I mean it gets to the fundamentals of civil rights, justice in the court system, and all of those other questions of US democratic values. I mean they’re all sort of put to the test with how Muslims are being regarded right now.

 

Race in America seems to be predicated on (often fuzzy) perceptions and fears that develop from those perceptions. How do you see that play out when it comes to race and American Muslims?

Race is one of the most interesting aspects to cover right now. And one of the most surprising aspects about Muslim life right now is covering how the hostility toward Muslims in general have forced confrontations that the Muslim population—and Muslim leaders and these advocacy groups etc—that they have all really shied away from for a long time, many people would say for too long. It’s forcing conversations within the Muslim community about how Black Muslims are perceived, embraced or not embraced. Why aren’t they reflected more in leadership and advocacy groups? Why are there specific issues that aren’t being addressed?

There’s enduring racism that exists even within the Muslim community. There’s a lot of movement against that in this new generation. Young Muslim activists for the most part are looking at race in a much different way than I think the previous generation did. We’re talking about a homegrown American generation of young Muslim leaders emerging and their values don’t always mesh with the older generations.

The face of activism in America is changing, and one of the positive things that I hear from African-American Muslims is it’s creating a bigger platform for their voices, and a reckoning for how they’ve been treated by other Muslims in America. That’s a very interesting conversation about where to go from here. I hear African-American Muslims saying that they still have a degree of wariness about working with other Muslims, foreign-born Muslims, South Asian and Arab Muslims. They say “Oh well now we’re all facing this hostility so now you want to band together?” I think that’s an important schism to cover on this beat.

In a sense, Muslims face the same issues that other communities of color have dealt with for years and years, you know especially African-Americans who were always portrayed in stereotype or associated with crime and negative stereotypes. So I often hear Muslim community activists saying it’s to the detriment of Muslims if they do not support, work with, connect with, and learn from African-Americans and, as many have pointed out, Japanese-Americans. It’s interesting to see a number of Japanese-Americans come up and start speaking out on behalf of Muslims, recognizing the kind of demonization of an entire community that preceded Japanese internment.

 

Do you ever worry that you’ll be the reporter who files from an internment camp? Do you hear those fears in the community?

Oh, absolutely. There is a lot of fear. I’ve written about people who are coming up with Plan Bs and escape routes and exit strategies from the only country that they’ve ever known. It’s sad to hear that.

 

Every journalist I talk to these days has concerns about feedback and trolls. What’s your mail look like these days? Are you seeing an increase in threats? Are you ever nervous on your beat covering this stuff? Do you feel vulnerable?

Yes, absolutely. I remember even before I applied for this job that BuzzFeed posted it and the posting itself was getting all kinds of criticism on social media. With people saying “oh look, why are they hiring a Muslim reporter. What’s so special about that community?” Just basically questioning the wisdom of hiring that role and taking a lot of criticism.

So I thought, OK, if they’re getting criticism from just the job posting, what’s going to happen when the female Muslim reporter shows up? [But] I’ve had really wild comments said to me throughout my career. Even back when I was covering things in the Middle East, I remember a reader writing in to say “if this doesn’t work out for you maybe you can go be Osama bin Laden’s secretary.”

I talked to BuzzFeed’s security team about what to do in case I encounter online bullying, plus what I know already from working as a foreign correspondent in conflict zones for many years. I kind of already have a security protocol that I live by. So I try to be very careful about doing things that reveal my location or that could be used against me. I take some basic precautions.

Luckily though I haven’t received outright threatening emails in a long time. They’re mostly offensive. A lot of memes. I think it’s less about my being Muslim and more about the general anti-press statements in politics right now.

 

What beats can do a better job of covering Muslims?

The politics beat, public safety beats, and yes, national security—but also just the religion beat. Considering the study you mentioned about how often and how badly Muslims are portrayed—there are just so many easy ways to quote Muslims on stories that are outside the national security beat or questions of Islamophobia. Muslims are over represented in the medical corps, so if you’re doing a story on Parkinson’s disease or heart attacks, why not quote a Muslim doctor?

I will say also—and this is something that I don’t think gets covered enough—is Muslims’ sense of humor. I mean, it is a difficult time. It’s a hard time. It’s a scary time for many Muslims, but I also hear a whole lot of humor in how it’s discussed. [Like] Hasan Minhaj’s White House Correspondent’s speech where he introduced himself as “My name is Hasan Minhaj, or as I’ll be known in a few weeks, number 830287.” It’s taking ownership of labels and hashtags like #notaterrorist. I think it’s also being dealt with in many different ways than just being scared and staying indoors.

There’s activism, there is humor, there’s art. I mean there’s a lot. This moment is also leading to a real era of Muslim creativity. Whether it’s creating memes to counter stereotypes or deciding that the narrative about Muslims is so negative that they’re going to write their own TV pilots and movies and screenplays and novels. So that’s also a really exciting aspect to cover.

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Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.