Portraying a Finer Picture of Islam

May 28, 2014
Portraying a Finer Picture of Islam

A day or two after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, journalist Monique Parsons, MTS '91, was glued to her television set, watching the major news organizations' coverage of the events. At some point, one of the anchors asked, "Why do they hate us?"

Parsons's HDS education immediately kicked in.

"I thought, 'Who is 'they?' And who is 'us?' And what does that question imply about who we are as Americans?' " she says. "I realized that I needed to start pitching some stories about American Muslims."

Since then, Parsons's pitches have been caught by some of the leading news organizations in the country, including National Public Radio, Chicago Public Radio, the Religion News Service, and Beliefnet.com.

The Chicago-based freelancer's work has earned her awards, including a 2011 Knight Foundation Fellowship for Reporting on Religion in America. More important, her stories paint an accurate picture of the American Muslim community in a time when ignorance and fear abound.

"Islam is a very diverse tradition with a rich history here in this country and different manifestations in different parts of the world," she says. "It's my mission to tell stories about American Islam that show its diversity and fight negative stereotypes."

Deep-seated interest in religion

Parsons's passion for religion began in her youth. Her grandfather, a Roman Catholic, had a robust interest world religions and in mysticism, which he passed down to his daughter. Parsons fondly remembers Sundays growing up in Carpinteria, California, not for the time she spent at the local Presbyterian church that her family attended, but for the conversations on the car ride home.

"My mother and I used to have discussions about the divinity of Christ and about interfaith relations," she says. "One time, she got in an argument with someone at Sunday school about how people who didn’t believe in Jesus were not going to go to heaven. My mother thought that was ridiculous. To me as a child, it made no sense that you would have to believe in one figure. What if other people hadn't even heard of Jesus?"

When Parsons enrolled at Princeton as an undergraduate in 1984, she brought along her interest in religion—as well as a deep skepticism about religious institutions. At first she planned to study "politics or something practical." Then she took Professor Malcolm Diamond's course, "The Self and World Religion," and had an "a ha moment."

"During the lecture on Hinduism, he ran around the stage and talked about the way that Hindus see time as these great waves of the ocean, and that humans were just these tiny little droplets coming off the spray of one single wave," she says. "It was fascinating and so entertaining to me."

Parsons knew she wanted to study religion, but she didn't know where it would lead. She'd worked for a number of hometown newspapers growing up near Santa Barbara, and thought about a career in journalism. But how would her interest in religion fit into that path? Her answer came in the form of an essay by Ari Goldman, then an HDS student and New York Times religion writer.

"In the spring of 1988, just as I was about to graduate from Princeton, Goldman published an article in the New York Times about his experience at Harvard," she remembers. "It was probably as he was putting together his book, The Search for God at Harvard. I never knew that there was such as thing as journalists who specialized in religion writing. It opened my eyes to whole new possibilities."

It also wanted to make her follow in Goldman's footsteps and come to HDS.

"I thought, 'This place looks absolutely fascinating,' " she says. "The whole idea of a journalist going there to study and deepen their understanding of world religions was so exciting to me. It made what I’d been doing at Princeton feel relevant."

After a year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism to polish her ability as a writer and reporter, Parsons enrolled at HDS and got involved with Professor Diana Eck's Pluralism Project. In 1990-91, the initiative, which investigates and considers the implications of a "more complex religious landscape for American public life," was just getting off the ground. Parsons enrolled in Eck's seminar that studied religious pluralism in New England.

"We met and fanned out to visit religious institutions all around the Boston area," she says. "It was the first time that I was ever in a synagogue, the first time in a Hindu temple. It was fascinating to learn from the other students who visited the Hare Krishnas or the Vedanta temple. It was a great look into the variety of religious expression in America."

Telling complex stories

Parsons's exposure to Islam also had a long lasting impact on her thinking and career. After she graduated from HDS in 1991, she worked all over the country, working as a general assignment reporter and squeezing in stories about religion wherever and whenever she could.

Her first job as a full-time religion writer was at a medium-sized newspaper in New Jersey, where she wrote about a broad array of faiths and covered one of Pope John Paul II's visits to the United States. When the towers fell on September 11, though, she reached back to the coursework she did at HDS with Islam scholars William Graham and Ali Asani. That, plus visits to a mosque as part of Diana Eck's "World Religions in New England" seminar, helped provide a foundation for the kind of journalism she wanted to do.

"After 9/11, everything we heard about Islam was very one-dimensional," she explains. "Everyone seemed ready to paint the community with a broad brush and to stereotype. That's where all the Diana Eck exposure kicked in. One great religion course at HDS is all you need to understand that that’s not how it is."

Parsons began to write and produce pieces that depicted the complexity and diversity of the American Muslim community. She speaks with pride about one piece in particular that she did for National Public Radio in December 2001.

"I knew how diverse the Muslim community in Chicago was," she says. "So I thought of doing a story on how 9/11 has impacted relationships among Muslims in one city. It was a chance to hear from a broad spectrum of people and also let listeners know that American Islam is not a monolithic community."

The piece also showed the complexity of relationships within the Muslim community.

"There are some deep divisions between some of the older African American Muslim communities and some of the immigrant Muslim communities," she says. "An African American imam who was a hospital chaplain told me a story about how he would go into rooms of Muslim immigrants. They wouldn’t recognize that he was an imam. They just weren’t expecting to see a black man."

Parsons encourages HDS graduates who want to follow her into the field of religion journalism to be patient, flexible, and open minded. She notes that there were a lot of low-paying jobs at small newspapers between HDS and NPR.

After graduation, she took an internship at a paper in Palo Alto, and then jobs in Chicago, California, and New Jersey, where her husband, HDS alum David Wecker, MTS '91, was doing graduate work in the study of religion.

"I wanted to be a religion writer, but I covered city council meetings and went to car crashes and murder scenes," she says. "It was frustrating at the time, but now I don't regret any of it. Any day when I was writing something on a deadline was a chance to become a better writer."

After more than 20 years as a journalist, Parsons is still learning. She says that she has to in a media landscape that keeps shifting and changing.

"Today, I produce most of my stories on my laptop in my home," she says. "The technology is becoming easier, but you constantly have to keep up. Rather than focus on the medium you want to write for—newspapers, radio, web, TV—you have to focus on the story you want to tell and then decide how you want to get it out there."

Whatever the story, Parsons says that her HDS experience is still invaluable.

"HDS helps me every day," she says. "I mean it. My bookshelves are still filled with the books from the courses I took. My general understanding of religious diversity and what it means for this country is still shaped by the time I spent at HDS.

"More than that, though, I look back at my time at HDS and remember the people I was there with—Buddhist monks, protestant ministers in training, Jesuit brothers passing through. They were all focused on making the world a better place. It helped me to see that there's so much good that's done in the name of religion. HDS is a little microcosm of that."

—by Paul Massari