Media representation is often incorrect and hollow — however, for many religious minorities, this can have a substantial impact on their quality of life and treatment by others.
Rhonda Roumani, a contributing fellow at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, published an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week which included a very personal example of the Islam most Muslims practice, as opposed to the violent radical “Islam” that many Americans perceive. Roumani’s dilemma rests wholly within the realm of media presentation. She praises a children’s show for portraying Eid Mubarak with the childlike happiness and spirit that the average Muslim American would want, and notes the difference between this program and the violence published by news media concerning “Islamic” terrorists (whether or not to call them radical Muslims or not Muslim at all is a debate in and of itself). Media portrayal of Islam is fractured to say the least. However, fractured portrayal and vilification of religious minorities has been consistent throughout American history — even regarding groups of primarily white believers, and even under the umbrella of Christian denominations. In truth, Muslim Americans are not the only religious minority that still experience stigmatization and prejudice: Mormon Americans share a similar experience.
Unfortunately, media portrayal is not fair, and never has been. Muslims are living in a time of American fear of radical terrorism, and often become scapegoats to alleviate this fear. What seems to be forgotten, however, is that they are not the first religious minority to be wet-mounted onto a slide and thrust under the microscope of the “average” American. In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued what was known as the Extermination Order. He listed all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (more colloquially known as Mormons) as enemies and called for their extermination. It was this act that prompted the Mormons to trek to present-day Utah (Mexico at the time). Despite the hardship and unfair treatment this religious minority faced in a land of supposed religious freedom, Mormons were some of the first victims of negative media representation through film. Young Mormons today in church are told harrowingly truthful accounts of men, women and children who sacrificed their lives to make the journey to the Utah Valley.
Yet, in the early 20th century, anti-Mormon films were common: Trapped by Mormons, Married to a Mormon and A Victim of the Mormons. Despite their adverse past, though, today Mormons are considered to be some of the biggest beneficiaries of white privilege — to an unlikable level (such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney). Yet they come from a time they were ordered to be exterminated like termites from the Puritan suburban home of the “average” American. Unlike the example Roumani uses, there will likely never be a children’s show depicting the importance the Mormon holiday, Pioneer Day, despite members making up 1.6 percent of the U.S. population (compared to Islam’s 0.9 percent). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has found its place in vulgar and untruthful accounts of the actual religion — the musical The Book of Mormon and the HBO show Big Love.
Who knows — in a few decades when the number of misrepresented religious minorities reaches a majority, people might start to realize that the news coverage and movies get it wrong most of the time when it comes to portraying issues like these. Hopefully by then, we will have learned that how the media portrays religious minorities is almost always inaccurate and the multiculturalism that we all want, in theory, has always been there, waiting in the real world, away from news screens.