SCHOLAR vs JOURNALIST – Avoid Tripping Over Live Wires

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s interview with Mehdi Hasan at the Revival of the Islamic Spirit (RIS) convention in Toronto on December 23, 2016 ignited an unprecedented controversy. I suspect the fallout from his interview will have a negative impact on an already tenuous relationship between Muslims and the media. Before we move on from this hiccup on our collective radar, I believe there are some important take-away lessons, particularly for anyone courageous enough to agree to an interview.  

The Muslims I know don’t trust the mainstream media and will run as far away as possible from investigative reporters. Those who can speak intelligently are few in numbers. From experience I can say that imams and community leaders in Toronto are not interested in attending training courses, even cheap ones organized and taught by qualified Muslim journalists.

In a paper I wrote for the Tabah Foundation in February 2011, I argued that when it comes to the mass media, our community is stuck in “flak attack” mode. In other words, the media is a sworn enemy of Muslims, and rather than engaging with the media, we attack it.    

In my 25 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), I’ve done my share of big interviews. I’ve never gone into one unprepared or without a clearly defined strategy.

Viewers never see the amount of work that goes into scripting an interview. Preparing and rehearsing the first few questions, anticipating the answers, setting the tone (challenging, confronting, probing). The middle segment is critical. It is where journalists seek to expose faultlines, apply pressure, play devil’s advocate, anticipate, provoke anger, disgust, evoke emotions, tears, expose lies, obfuscations, and/or rebuttals. Then comes the all important wrap.

I’ve produced interviews for Allison Smith with subjects as message driven as Minister Louis Farrakhan during his visit to Toronto in the late 90’s and as belligerent and cantankerous as Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. Over the years with the Palestinians leader Abu ‘Ala, Benazir Bhutto, and countless others who could easily snatch an interview away from a journalist.   

The “millennials” that made up a chunk of the audience at RIS may not know that Shaykh Hamza, in my estimation at least, is among a very small group of Muslims who have done exceptionally well across from seasoned journalists whether live in studio or pre-recorded. There is no one I would prefer to have answer thorny questions about Islam and Muslims other than Shaykh Hamza.

He began earning his stripes after 9/11 when he was pushed, reluctantly I might add, into the limelight. Whether it was the BBC’s Hard Talk with Sarah Montague, I believe, who was filling in for Tim Sebastian, or CBS’ 60 Minutes, CNN, or CBC’s Sunday Morning with the inimitable Michael Enright, Shaykh Hamza did us all proud. He was candid, wise, eloquent, and added depth and perspective to all his conversations. Enright was so intrigued by him that he agreed to interview Shaykh Hamza along with Noah Feldman live before a packed hall at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall in the late 1990’s. I was not only there, I organized it.

Following the 2006 arrests in Toronto of young men and boys in what came to to be known as the “Toronto 18,” the CBC’s 5th Estate’s Linden MacIntyre sat down at ISNA’s conference in Chicago to interview Shaykh Hamza. I was the producer. The content of that interview never made it into the documentary – “The Cell Next Door” – but an edited version was posted online and a transcript still lives on PBS’ website. 

MacIntyre and I had traveled to Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in 1993 for the making of “Seeds of Terror,” a 5th Estate documentary that attempted to assess the “blowback” from American foreign policy with regards to the war in Afghanistan. The documentary won the 1994 Canadian Association of Journalist Award (CAJ) for best investigative reporting that year.

I was with MacIntyre when we interviewed Hasan Al-Turabi in Khartoum. Turabi was host to Osama Bin Laden and an assembly of  “jihadis” from every corner of the world. Earlier that year Turabi had been kicked into a three week coma at Ottawa’s airport.

I recall sitting for hours after lunch preparing questions for the interview with Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the founder and spiritual head of Jamaat Al-Fuqra. It was the first and only on-camera interview he ever did with western journalists. The FBI, CSIS and RCMP had accused him of ordering his followers to commit murder and mayhem in Canada, the United States and even in the Caribbean.

Later we were shot at, hijacked and robbed on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. I almost got myself killed on the way back from interviewing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at Char Asiab from where he was launching nightly missile attacks on Kabul. All of this to say that MacIntyre and I had been in the trenches and I respected him as one, if not, the best of what Canadian investigative journalism has to offer. He is a class act of an interviewer.  

After the interview ended and Shaykh Hamza had left the room, MacIntyre came over to me and said, “that man is a giant, your community should be proud to have him.”

It was a steep learning curve. Shaykh Hamza had to master the art of brevity by learning to keep his answers to no more than 30-40 seconds. He would have to make one point at a time and not complicate his answers so that viewers at home could follow his thoughts. He learned not to squint his forehead or have facial expressions, even the slightest movement of his eyes would make him look shifty when amplified on TV screens.  

So why was Shaykh Hamza’s RIS interview performance so poorly received? A scholar with lots of media experience was squaring off against a journalist who had interviewed him multiple times before. A seasoned journalist and a Muslim, Mahdi works for the Arab-Muslim owned media company, Al-Jazeera. He has done his share of contentious interviews. If his recent interview with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is a typical example of his style, Hasan thrives on conflict and tension. He is no pushover. The real deal. Shaykh Hamza and Hasan weren’t tucked away in an intimate studio or in  a cramped hotel room. This was live on stage before an audience of thousands. The scholar was at home. The journalist was the guest.

I sat at the front of the packed hall that evening, taking nearly eight pages of notes. I left the hall agitated, disturbed and asking myself what happened?

Shaykh Hamza said he was tired right off the top, again in the middle of the interview when Hasan brought it up, and yet again at the tail-end of the interview. Three times in the course of 40 minutes.

Perhaps the interview should have been cancelled or postponed, I thought. The organizers should have asked Hasan to deliver a longer talk that evening instead of limiting his presentation to a 20 minute rant.  In any case, I took away several lessons from what I saw:

Lesson 1. Never go into a live or recorded interview tired or confused. Arrive early, make sure you know exactly where you are going, and anticipate how long it will take to get there. Avoid anything that will distract you from being relaxed and focused.   

Lesson 2. Be prepared. Hasan’s questions were scripted. He was prepared. Hasan had offered to review the questions with Shaykh Hamza but he declined the offer. He didn’t want Hasan to treat him any different than he would his other guests. (Update: 01/02/2017 I wrote this based on information that was given to me, but I was told by  credible sources that Shaykh Hamza was ‘not’ offered to review the questions ahead of the interview. Because it was not an Al-Jazeera interview but rather an RIS conversation with a journalist, he would have had no issues having a look prior to getting on stage). In any case, the theme of the interview was “Islamophobia” and the challenges it presented to Muslims. It’s a subject matter with which Shaykh Hamza is thoroughly familiar. 

Lesson 3. Listen carefully to how the questions are framed. The first two questions Hasan asked were double-barrelled followed by a triple-barrelled question. I am not sure why he did that. We are trained to ask “fundamentally hard-working questions” and asking two or three questions at once is either an attempt to confuse the guest or to throw him or her off their game. Still, Shaykh Hamza managed to get through the blizzard.

Lesson 4. If the questions are complex, pick an aspect of it that you believe is the most important. If the other ones are important the journalist will be forced to bring them up. If s/he doesn’t, don’t sweat it.

Lesson 5. Think carefully before answering leading questions. Hasan asked Shaykh Hamza to identify the driving forces behind Islamophobia and then he rattled off a list. Why did he do that? He was steering the conversation. Shaykh Hamza acquiesced. He said “all” on Hasan’s list contribute to Islamophobia. Hasan followed up: Which one stands out?

Lesson 6. Recognize when a journalist has turned a corner. The first 10 minutes was the opening. Now comes the busy middle. Hasan asked another close-ended question: “Do you think Muslim communities in the West have done enough to tackle Islamophobia and racism in the criminal justice system?” Shaykh Hamza could have said “No” or “Yes” and that would have sufficed. Hasan would then be forced to ask him to explain?   

Lesson 7. Highlight preambles and isolate actual questions. Hasan began the question above by saying that people in the room wanted to do something about bullying of kids in school or women in hijab. Then he said: “The really pernicious Islamophobia is in the criminal justice system with Muslims being detained, rounded up, demonized, no access to fair trial, use of informants, etc.” We are not involved in the debate, he suggested. In the end of his long preamble it was still a “yes” or “no” question. Instead of answering the actual question Shaykh Hamza picked up on something that got stuck in his mind from Hasan’s preamble. He talked about his son’s experience with a bully, Muhammad Ali, taking boxing lessons, being nostalgic of Muslims accomplishments in the past and he ended it with something about creating a Youtube channel. He was off-track and Hasan’s job was to bring him back on track.  

Lesson 8. If you feel you are rambling, stop. Allow the journalist to steer you back to the question. Hasan reminded Shaykh Hamza that the question was about the criminal justice system. It was not a comparative question and yet that’s where Shaykh Hamza took the conversation. He could have cited the work of the Latino Muslim Association and Islah LA, organizations in his home state. These two organizations had worked with other faith-based organizations to help pass Proposition 47, which reduced non-violent felonies to misdemeanors in California. He did say that every criminal justice system has major flaws including that of America. He could have cited the recent Human Rights Watch report – “The Illusion of Justice”. It has been stated that of the 500 people prosecuted in federal courts for terror-related offenses 50 percent were informant based cases and 30 percent were sting operations. In the case of the “Newburgh Four,” (upstate NY) for example, a judge said the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” and had in the process, made a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” I know Shaykh Hamza knows this material because we had talked about it.

Lesson 9. Don’t be afraid to call out a journalist if you don’t agree with an assertion s/he makes. When Hasan said that “a lot of Muslims in North America haven’t been involved in ‘other’ anti-racist struggles” and “you don’t hear many Muslim imams or leaders talking about Black Lives Matter, or about standing in solidarity with Latinos” and then asked Shaykh Hamza whether it had “been a mistake that Muslims were AWOL during some of these anti-racist problems?” It was a good question looking for a slap down. Which Muslims was Hasan talking about? Was he talking about “Muslims for Ferguson” which emerged after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown? What about the work of a friend of Shaykh Hamza, Rami Nashibishi, who runs IMAN or the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago’s south-side? How about the important work of MuslimARC – an Anti-Racism Collaborative in the U.S. that works with faith-based human rights education organizations focused on racial justice? Imam Zaid Shakir, Imam Siraj Wahaj, Dr. Sherman Jackson and countless others are important Muslim voices in the struggle of the oppressed. To disprove Hasan’s premise, all Shaykh Hamza had to do was offer up one example. “Muslims for Ferguson” would have sufficed.

Instead his answer opened the door for Hasan to press him. No quarter for his tired guest. Hasan got the sense that there was a faultline there and by God he was going to expose it. Any good journalist would do the same. Shaykh Hamza fought back with statistics of “black on black crime”. Hasan pushed him. “You’re not defending the treatment of unarmed black people by police?” Shaykh Hamza found himself on the defensive. “Of course not,” said Shaykh Hamza. Yes, of course not. But a faultline had been exposed.

Lesson 10. Do not dig another hole to cover over the one you just helped dig. “All cops are not racist,” Shaykh Hamza argued. “No one is saying that,” Hasan retorted. Then Hasan reminded Shaykh Hamza what the original question was: “shouldn’t Muslim communities be a part of the wider struggle against racism and Islamophobia?” The audience agreed with him when he said that many in the Muslim community harbor racist views.How could Muslims support a struggle against racial injustices when they themselves act in racially divisive ways? Fair enough. Applause.  

Lesson 11. Just answer the question, or don’t. Hasan asked: “Specifically on the sectarian conflict, how worried are you about it becoming a reality in Western Muslim communities?” Based on an earlier question I assumed Hasan was referring to Sunni-Shia, Sufi-Salafi, Deobandi-Brewelwi or other similar sectarian conflict? But Shaykh Hamza’s answer focused instead on the African-American family and greater chances of incarceration because most of their families are single-parent. That was not the question. Hasan tried to steer him back to the question.  It didn’t work. Hasan moved on.  

Lesson 12. Don’t let yourself be baited. When Hasan asked the question about Yasir Qadhi, Shaykh Hamza should have said, “no comment.” Qadhi hasn’t attended a RIS conference in years. His name is well-known in Toronto, but his ideas are not. The question had absolutely no relevance to the audience. It was meant to get a reaction and Hasan got it. Point scored. 

Some people might say the same about what Shaykh Hamza said in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. In my estimation, if he were to apologize for what he said, he would have to take back everything he has ever said about the failure of political Islam from the time I first met more than 20 years ago.

Lesson 13. Know your audience. Shaykh Hamza was speaking to a Muslim audience and while the world would eventually see what transpired on stage that evening, it doesn’t change the fact that he was speaking to those who were there that evening. One of the problems that could arise is that when the larger audiences watch the interview they might falsely come to believe he is speaking to them as well. The interview was in Canada, before a live audience in downtown Toronto over Christmas weekend. There is nothing anyone in America, the Middle East, Africa or the Far East can do to alter that simple fact.  

I sincerely hope that this experience will not be another excuse for Muslim leaders and activists to flee at the first sight of journalists. At the same time we as a community have to stop demonizing mainstream media and begin to recognize the need for a greater level of positive engagement with journalists. This should be coupled with some form of rigorous training for an identifiable group of imams and community leaders.

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