I read Carl Ernst’s “Following Muhammad” in 2007, back when it was my dream to study Persian literature and become an academic. Understandably, I was fan-girling a bit when I finally got to meet him in person. Ernst is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As someone who has been directly involved with Islamophobia and the media, he had some very blunt advice for journalists:
If you want to tell a good story, you can get a skeleton from a single person, but you need to have a little bit of context and know where they’re coming from. And one of the most important things to say is, there is no “Muslim world.” There is no separate planet that is inhabited exclusively by Muslims who somehow have never had any contact with America or Europe…What you need to know if you want to understand a Muslim is, what country do they come from? What political formation? What economic class? What ethnic group? What language? What religious teaching or grouping or community or tradition? What tendencies are there? Because there are lots of different things going on. The next thing to do after listening to somebody, if you want to have a context, you need to know the kinds of things you would need to know about anyone to place them in time and space, because they’re not on some remote asteroid out there that just zoomed in for a quick bit of terrorism.
He spoke a bit about the need for more Muslims in journalism, education, the arts and culture, etc. (ahem #AliceInArabia ahem):
In recent years, in fact for quite some time, I’ve had this conversation when I’ve been invited to speak to Muslim groups. I ask, you know, what are the professions of the people who are there and then I ask how many people are involved in journalism, the arts and culture? And there’s hardly anyone. And so my question at that point is, for people who are worried about Islamophobia and about media representations of Muslims, if you’re not involved in it, you really don’t have very much of a right to complain. I think that, for people like yourself who are going into journalism, education, the arts and culture, that’s a very appropriate thing to do and it needs to have more attention by everyone.
And he gave me a little bit of his own background:
I had an experience as an exchange student in South America when I was 16 and I was kind of taken aback by how little prepared I was for that experience. And this drew my attention to the way in which many Americans are simply not in a good position to be familiar with other cultures. People come here from around the world, but then it’s no longer necessary for us to know anything about those other cultures. That’s the paradox. So I think international studies and global culture is a big challenge for American education. So I’ve really devoted my career to that. So I asked myself at one point — I thought religious studies would be a good way to deal with this because it deals with such a profound level, that goes all the way through culture, society, you name it. And then — what is the area of biggest ignorance? To say Islam is the area of biggest ignorance is still obviously the case.