Canadians were shortchanged on good news

It is shocking, but true. When it comes to good news, Muslims are routinely shortchanged by the western media. But when a Muslim commits a crime, those same media, whether in print or broadcast news, fall all over themselves in their eagerness to identify a perpetrator as Muslim.

How many readers know, for example, that at about this time last month it was announced that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was being given to the first Muslim woman ever in the 102-year history of the award?

The fact that a woman has been so recognized is of itself newsworthy. But that Shirin Ebadi is a Muslim is doubly significant, and doubly worthy of celebration.

So, you might have expected to see her on the front page of every major newspaper in the country, with prominent and detailed coverage, with a sizable photo (in colour, perhaps) and positioned above the fold for maximum news impact. And you would also expect that print and electronic media reporters would be lined up to capture in-depth feature interviews with her and that key representatives of the Canadian Muslim community and women groups would be asked to comment on the groundbreaking significance of Ebadi’s international honours.

But you likely didn’t know much about this at all, did you? And it hasn’t been your fault. Little or nothing of substance about Ebadi has appeared in the media since October 10, when the Peace Prize was first announced.

On October 11 The Globe and Mail was among the few papers to give Shirin Ebadi front page space, but her story ran below the fold, with only a small photo. Moreover, the editors added a negative tone with a headline reading: "Ebadi’s Nobel Peace Prize exposes tensions in Iran." And the sub-headline continued: "Laureate to represent Kazemi, son says."

In pushing a Canadian spin on the story, the Globe interviewed the son of Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian Canadian photojournalist who died at the hands of Iranian authorities. He confirmed that Ms. Ebadi has agreed to take up the family’s legal fight, which is certainly good news for numerous Canadians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who are outraged and saddened by Kazemi’s unnecessary death.

There was no balancing coverage of Ms. Ebadi’s struggle as a committed Muslim woman who has worked brilliantly and tirelessly for the betterment of her country. To its credit, however, the Globe did mention in the photo caption that Ms. Ebadi is the first Muslim woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Toronto Star ran only a front page banner on its Saturday edition: "Nobel winner unlikely rebel" and then referred readers far back to its regular supplementary news section to a story on page A21.

The National Post gave Ms Ebadi front page coverage, but it was below the fold, without a photo, and was the shortest of five stories appearing on that page. The headline read: "Gutsy Iranian wins Nobel Peace Prize," making no reference in the headline to the unprecedented facts of her being a woman and a Muslim.

Shirin Ebadi joins an illustrious fold of previous Nobel laureates, including the Buddhist Dalai Lama, the Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the Catholic Mother Teresa, and the devoutly Christian former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.

Most Canadians can name several of the Nobel celebrities listed above after having seen their names in the news and views of many media outlets. But who can name the Muslim woman from Iran who was announced barely a month ago as the latest Peace Prize recipient? Not many.

Few Canadians know so far that Ebadi, 56, a lawyer and human-rights activist, was the first woman ever appointed to be a judge in Iran. Thus, according to the Nobel committee, she was given their prestigious award for "her efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights in her country." But even the fact that Ms. Ebadi will also receive $1.7 million to continue her good work seems to matter little to Canadian journalists and their assignment editors.

Instead, Canadians who are really interested have had to search for her in the foreign media. Newsweek, for example, interviewed Ebadi for its October 20th edition, focusing on her views; "If in many Islamic countries human rights flouted, this is because of a wrong interpretation of Islam." And I, along with numerous fellow Muslims can say, "Amen to that, sister."

The good news for Muslims is not only that Ebadi is the first Muslim woman ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but also that she has not blamed Islam for the shortcomings of Muslims. Demonstrating remarkable grace and good faith, she has refused to rail at or denounce her co-religionists, whether in Iran or abroad. And that also is good news, to which so many of us can respond with "Amen."

The Norwegian Nobel committee’s statement summed up this historic achievement eloquently in saying: "It is a pleasure to award the Peace prize to a woman who is part of the Muslim world, and of whom that world can be proud."

The pleasure is also mine and my community’s. As Canadian Muslims, we can be proud and thankful for Shirin Ebadi and hope that the media will embrace her achievements as being worthy of front pages everywhere. It’s not too late to do her justice.

Congratulations, sister — well done!