Religious minorites are misrepresented in media

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.

3 replies
  1. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    Some excellent points in Hickman’s essay. Perhaps the villain here is the easy tendency to generalize. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and the other major religions do not seem to have ferocious factions that wage jihad against Western civilization, demanding the enslavement, forced conversion or murder of unbelievers.

    Yes, correct, that horror does not represent Muslims in general! But it is all too easy to generalize fear and revulsion from that jihad minority onto the greater body of Muslims. So what can Americans or Westerners do? Of course, not generalize that Muslims are mujahadeen. Fair, right, yes, but not easy. The problem will remain until jihad is no longer the terror of the Western world, and unfortunately, that will probably demand that Muslims take sides against the murderous fanatics of their own faith.

  2. Arafat
    Arafat says:

    “Muslims are living in a time of American fear of radical terrorism, and often become scapegoats to alleviate this fear.”

    During the Iran/Iraq War one million Muslims died at the hands of Muslims.

    During the current Syrian War Muslims are brutalizing and killing other Muslims ceaselessly.

    During the Sudan Genocide Arab-looking Muslims killed blacker Muslims without remorse.

    Every day Muslims kill other Muslims at crowded village markets, at mosques, in their homes and most anywhere imaginable.
    Seems to me Muslim’s real fear should stem from fear of other Muslims much more than from infidels.

  3. Tornogal
    Tornogal says:

    And again, a writer is citing Governor Boggs’ “extermination order” without understanding its context. Mary Cate Hickman is no doubt bright enough, but would do well to do some research.

    The first call for “extermination” came from Mormon leader Sydney Rigdon on July 4th (some three months before Boggs’ order) when he spoke before agitated Mormons and said, in part, ” And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.”

    A read of the Wikipedia entry on Missouri Executive Order 44 gives good background.

    But Mormons love to play the victim card even tot his day. Now they want to continue their prejudices against LGBT people by claiming their religious freedom is being jeopardized by those that call on them to realize people aren’t all like them and deserve to be treated with fairness and equality, regardless of their sexual orientation.

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