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American Muslims and the 9/11 Anniversary: Is the Best Defense a Good Offense?

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The 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is a few weeks away, and American Muslims, interfaith advocates and the mainstream media are switching to offense against the inevitable Islamophobia kicked up by this tragic day.

Life goes on in bustling New York City and Washington D.C., but the 2001 anxieties are never far beneath the surface: The Washington Post and other outlets noted that many people jumped to the conclusion that the recent earthquake tremors were an attack, underscoring fears that the anniversary will inspire al Qaeda terrorists or their sympathizers.

So it's no coincidence that the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies recently released a comprehensive poll, touting that American Muslims are similar to other religious groups and even more likely than most to decry violence against civilians. This made plenty of headlines, although it hasn't pushed aside coverage of the studies that continue to show that Americans feel threatened by Muslims, strangely even more so after Osama bin Laden's death.

Given that Ramadan, the holy Islamic month of daytime fasting and reflection, fell during August this year, there has simultaneously been a lot of positive coverage of American Muslims carrying out their faith and living their everyday lives as students, athletes, coworkers and neighbors. This coincides with an uptick in stories about the 9/11 ripple-effect on the innocent majority of Muslims, including the prejudices routinely faced by Muslim children and 9/11 anniversary itself, are being framed as an opportunity for greater interfaith understanding. American Muslims have also ramped up efforts to build relationships with Christian and Jewish groups, and interfaith stories tend to get better coverage, because editors know that people -- or more specifically, their Internet searches -- are drawn to stories about their own communities. There's also starting to be some man-bites-dog coverage, including new stories from Religion News Service about post-9/11 converts to Islam and a Muslim pride movement seeking to counter the damage inflicted by an extremist minority.

The Norway shooting, perpetrated by an anti-Muslim xenophobe, seems to have quieted the loudest American voices against Islam -- for now. Journalists who were already thinking twice about helping to publicize extremist language before may now be even more careful about how they cover Islamophobic rhetoric and behavior.

It also helps that 2011 isn't a major election year, so all the fuss last year over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" has predictably died down. Some research reports that anti-mosque sentiment is rising, but it's important for media outlets to examine where and when such data were collected, especially if they predate the Norway shooting and positive Ramadan coverage. The New York Times reports, for example, that plans for a once-controversial mosque in Staten Island are proceeding without further incident.

Still, this may simply be the calm before the storm. No doubt anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller will use the 9/11 anniversary as a platform for their agendas -- Religion News Service reports that Terry Jones, the infamous Quran-burning Florida pastor, plans to head to New York for the occasion.

In our 24/7 news world it's impossible for the mainstream news media to ignore or downplay small protests and extremists -- on both sides of this issue. Although U.S. Muslim groups have spent the past 10 years improving their community outreach and media relations efforts, even if professional reporters agreed to disregard isolated hate speech and actions by or against them, people would still get the information from blogs, Twitter and YouTube -- so it's even more important to put these events into proper context, rather than making it seem as though they represent the sentiments of a majority. It'll be a balancing act for journalists to cover the emotions of the 9/11 anniversary: without sacrificing the facts, they will also have to maintain some responsibility for the effects of publicizing the inflammatory language and images that factor into the occasion.

This article first ran at USC's Trans/Missions Scoops blog.