Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates Challenges Misconceptions Using New Media

The death of Osama bin Laden sparked a range of reactions around the world. Across the United States, the news triggered massive, pro-American celebrations, while others have been more circumspect—not necessarily mourning the passing of bin Laden, but also not rejoicing.

Particularly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, many Americans have viewed bin Laden as the face of Islam—a misperception that has created problems for Muslims across the United States and around the world. This stereotype of Islam as extremist has led to numerous heated debates—and not all of these conversations have been productive and peaceful.

To get an accurate understanding and appreciation of Islam, especially for non-Muslims, requires a forum that respects differences in backgrounds, life experiences, and interpretations.  The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s award-winning blog and radio show Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates provides such a public forum that promotes positive and constructive conversation.

For instance, Inside Islam addressed bin Laden’s death and September 11 with a thoughtful and informative blog entry, “Celebration or a Time to Reflect?” The entry concludes: “Instead of waving American flags and engaging in inappropriate displays of machismo, let’s reflect upon what feelings these events bring up for us, and what that says about who we are, and how we view other people and value human life.”

This blog entry reflects the group’s goal of spotlighting the diversity of dialogues and debates within Islam, as well as with other religions and communities. And it attracted an assortment of intelligent and thoughtful comments.

Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates challenges misconceptions and stereotypical perceptions about Islam and Muslims worldwide using new media, specifically a radio show, blog, Twitter account, and an underlying Web structure of pages, based on regions and themes. The project, led by Global Studies in collaboration with UW–Madison’s National Resource Centers and Wisconsin Public Radio’s (WPR) Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders, addresses the diversity of Muslim communities throughout the world. And each radio broadcast is followed by real-time chats and a blog on the WPR website.

"I Speak For Myself" event panelists, from left to right: Amany Ezeldin, Zahra Suratwala, Mariam Sobh, and Zainab Alwan
"I Speak For Myself" event panelists, from left to right: Amany Ezeldin, Zahra Suratwala, Mariam Sobh, and Zainab Alwan

Inside Islam is also starting to host events that relate to its mission, as in the recent highlighting of I Speak for Myself, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40, all of whom were born and raised in the United States. The event corresponded with a radio show, another example of how the initiative integrates different media and tools to inform and connect people.

Other recent entries have offered perspectives on the dramatic changes occurring across the Middle East, on being a Pakistani-American, and on the views of Muslim women.

The initiative has earned many accolades. Recently, the Social Science Research Council awarded Inside Islam additional funding for its fourth consecutive year of activity. In addition, the show “Inside Islam: Muslims, Mosques, and American Identity” won the Gabriel in the 2011 Gabriel Awards competition, which recognizes work that embodies a value-centered view of society and humanity, and raises consciousness.

Reem Hilal, doctoral candidate in the Department of African Languages and Literature, is a Muslim Arab-American who grew up in Madison, WI. One of two Inside Islam bloggers, Hilal has been contributing to the project since the beginning. She will go to Pittsburgh, PA on June 24, 2011 to accept the aGabriel Award.

“I think that this show in particular won because it speaks to the main goals of the project, namely to dispel stereotypes about Islam and Muslims and to explore the diversity of Muslim communities,” she explains. “Akbar Ahmad’s project on mosques in America illustrated that Muslims are incredibly diverse not only in their backgrounds, but in their practice and expression of faith.”

The initiative’s emphasis on interactive technology underlines the importance of active communication between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as between academics and the broader community. By illuminating underrepresented or neglected cultural, intellectual, and political aspects of Islam and Muslims, Inside Islam spotlights the diversity of dialogues and debates within Islam as well as with other religions and communities.

“Using more than one kind of social media has improved the outreach aspect of the project.  My primary means of reaching the audience is through the blog and the radio show,” explains Hilal. “The blog especially allows the audience to access information and provides a place for dialogue and exchange.”

She concludes, “Projects like Inside Islam are necessary because they provide a constructive space to ask questions, engage in discussions, and address concerns.  I have learned so much from working on this project.”