Islam has a big PR problem, especially in America.
We’re nearly a decade past the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and yet the suspicion and derision American Muslims and institutions face appear more widespread than ever. The vitriol over a proposed mosque and community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan was but one prominent example.
No matter how many times Islamic groups in America condemn violence, a wide swath of the population either doesn’t get the message or purposely blocks it out. So the divisions get deeper and the mistrust lives on.
Into this tangle steps former journalist Mustafa Stefan Dill. He’s launching a Ummah Relations, a new PR firm with a gigantic mission — bridging the divide between Muslims in America and their non-Muslim neighbors. “Ummah” is an Arabic word that translates to “community.”
Dill, who lives in New Mexico, took some time to answer a few questions about his firm. [DISCLOSURE: I used to work with Dill at Internet Broadcasting, a St. Paul-based digital media company that employs web producers all over the country.]
Q: Why are you tackling this huge PR challenge?
This all stems from over a year of thinking about the Muslim identity issue, analyzing it, as I was reconnecting with my Muslim life around the time of the Fort Hood incident. As I reacquainted with ongoing Muslim dialogues and the Islamosphere, I saw that not a lot had changed — the same questions were being asked, the same concerns were being raised.
It’s clear to me that since Sept. 11, Islamic groups have pointed to their efforts in decrying terrorism or to their responses to the oft-asked question, “Where is the moderate Muslim voice?” Yet Islamophobia has never been higher. So the questions for me are Why, and how to fix it.
Those questions — and a burning resolve to do my part to help answer them — have consumed me for the better part of a year.
When I looked at this from a professional perspective, through that lens of media experience, it was immediately clear that the Muslim community isn’t being very effective in their media work, in their connectability to the non-Muslim public. Whatever they’re doing for the past nine years isn’t working, so I broke it down, looked at their media output and strategies, their releases, their web use, and saw huge, huge failures at a professional media level. That in turn inspired me to put my skill set on the table.
We’ve failed to adequately transmit our experiences, our diversity, our values convincingly to those who most need to understand it. I want to help build that bridge, make those connections.
Q: What are some key messages that you think Islamic groups U.S. should be getting across?
Frankly, we need to do some work in our own community before we can leverage what I believe is a key message, which is that Muslims are here because they want to be here, because of what America offers, because we share American values. But by and large, Muslim communities tend to be isolationist and don’t really engage with their non-Muslim colleagues.
We need to engage, befriend, partake in America, because the only kind of Muslims people know about are the terrorists that make the news — our seclusion prevents them from experiencing any other kind of Muslim. So we don’t have the right to complain that we’re negatively portrayed in the media when we haven’t adequately surfaced better, alternative narratives.
I tell Muslims who get upset about media coverage, “Change it! Do something fantastic and beautiful. Go create more options.”
I think the other key messages that need to surface is that Islam has been around here, relatively painlessly, for quite some time. Look at the history of the African-American Muslim community and its relative ease of integration with the rest of America, for example.
Their history is an important aspect of American Islam that must be surfaced. I don’t see a lot of the current “Islamophobia” directed at this segment, which reinforces my belief that current fears aren’t based so much on theology but out of subconscious racial profiling borne of a wound incurred on Sept. 11 that simply hasn’t healed: Middle Easterners or South Asians are “Islamophobe” targets because they “look like”, at a subliminal level, the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Q: What obstacles do you foresee in getting the stories of Muslims into the mainstream?
For me the essence, the core of this challenge is this: Muslims need their stories told; Newsrooms need to tell stories; non-Muslims want to connect to these stories. So there’s a number of bridges that need to built across and between all those points, and that’s the mission of the firm.
The set of problems that emerges from that core are immense, varied and deep, but it’s doable, through a variety of means: training, PR services, social media initiatives, etc. I see how it can be done. We can do this.
We’ve talked about the grassroots part, and that’s something I plan to develop — I have some interesting social media initiatives or events in mind to ramp that up. The other aspect is the media skill set in institutions or groups, and that’s where the official Ummah Relations, as a PR service, can come in.
I’m actually more interested in doing intensive training with post-support rather than setting up a retainer or billable hours arrangement; I believe in empowering these groups to do it in their own. It’s a unique thing that I don’t think a lot of PR firms do, but I see it as win-win.
Q: Who are your target clients?
I think the major groups and institutions could use some support and outside perspective; they generally have PR or communications departments, but I’d like to help them optimize. I’m known for raining hard on them, but it isn’t about a beat down — call it “tough love.” It’s about working together to help improve identity, perception. What’s at stake is bigger than any one person or group.
Most major cities have a masjid and/or a community center, I can see us being of service there as well. Interfaith groups and initiatives could be better known. I’ll look at businesses as well, but more from a story point of view rather than a strictly sales campaign.
One of my training/speeches is a diversity training segment for journalism and press groups, news outlets — how to deal with and understand your Muslim community, etc. Newsrooms need to understand Muslims just as much as Muslims need to understand newsrooms. National news groups may have a religion beat reporter, but mid size markets and lower probably won’t, local TV affiliates won’t.
Q: Have you had much response or any takers yet?
Not yet, but we’re just born. We did a quiet soft launch in September, went through a couple of web site iterations, sought some feedback then tweaked the services, mainly by adding the training and speaking engagements. Our more visible rollout was Dec.1.
Q: Any negative response from anyone? Threats or nasty messages?
Not yet, but I’m not worried.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did your personal and professional background influence this endeavor?
With nine years experience in mainstream news media — first in radio, then web and social media for both print and television — I have a pretty good understanding of what makes an effective press release and what doesn’t, what qualities newsrooms need in a story and what they’ll pass on, what solutions users are seeking as they use social media.
There’s a big disconnect in what Islamic groups are supplying and what news outlets and social media outlets can actually use, and that’s another gap Ummah Relations can help close.