On the last day of 2018, I was spending time with a friend visiting New York City from Florida. He told me he was thinking of heading to Times Square to watch the ball drop. “No way,” I told him, as any tri-state native would. “Avoid at all costs.” I’ve never understood why a person would voluntarily squish themselves between wasted tourists only to walk home through an obstacle course of 50 tons of trash. Not me. I stayed home, counted down to midnight with my wife, then went straight to bed.
As it turns out, across the Atlantic, many of my peers were out for a different reason. A group of more than 1,000 Muslims organized by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association in the U.K. prayed their first prayer in 2019, strapped on high-visibility jackets, and swarmed the streets with brooms and garbage bags to help groom their cities after the boozy celebration. They do it every year as an act of worship, fulfilling one of the five pillars of Islam: charity.
Along with this annual rite invariably comes favorable press coverage, and the story promptly rose to the top of Reddit’s UpliftingNews subreddit. Pieces like these appear all year, whether it’s Muslims rallying to fundraise in the face of tragedy like a deadly mass shooting or giving money to fight hunger on Christmas. The acts of charity are real and commendable, and it warmed my heart to see a story like the one from the U.K. go viral. Yet there was also something else that was nagging at me, as it often does when I see coverage like this: Why is this even a story? On its face, it’s really just Muslims acting as their faith requires. In this case, the AMYA had a photographer on hand to document the young Muslims out in the wee hours on Jan. 1. It clearly courted the coverage. Why? Is this charity or performance?
In a sense, it’s not so hard to understand: A recent study conducted by the University of Alabama found that terror attacks committed by Muslims received 357 percent more press attention than terror attacks committed by non-Muslims. Only half of Pew-polled Americans say they know a Muslim, and research has shown that Americans who do not interact with Muslims directly hold less favorable views toward Islam. Opinions of my family and community are shaped by the overrepresentation of negative coverage of Muslims in the media.
For that reason, it’s hard to fault these stories or the Muslim organizers who proffer them too much. The piece about the Muslims cleaning up after New Year’s Eve only appeared in my feed, and I only clicked on it, because it offers a rare positive view of Islam in the news. It’s one we don’t usually see—an Islam that I recognized. Every time news breaks of a lunatic shouting “Allahu akbar” and news networks invite a non-Muslim “expert” to debate a full-blown bigot over whether or not Islam is what caused the attack, I lose my mind.
So maybe it’s obvious why AMYA would invite their own photographer to document their charity. When cable news anchors still ask unashamedly where the “moderate” Muslims are, I get why Muslim groups around the world want to answer that call. But in a way, these photo-ops also feel like a capitulation to the most extreme views about Islam. They suggest the charity is somehow a surprise, a novelty. Part of me would love if the next time I bought a meal for a person in need, a group of panelists on CNN argued whether Islam was the answer to poverty. But is that really going to happen? And doesn’t touting ordinary service as extraordinary classify these acts of community and altruism, by default, as abnormal for Muslims? The temptation for the photo-op is understandable, but in some ways it seems to work against its own goal.
Besides, even as they document undeniable good, these stories feel a bit patronizing, as if to say, “Hey, look, a good Muslim!” It’s easy to see why they seem necessary in an atmosphere where Islam is only mentioned in the news after tragedies, but I wonder if it cheapens faith-required service to turn it into an opportunity to remind people we’re not evil radicals or exotic foreigners. Muslims like me shouldn’t have to overcompensate for lunatics by putting Islam on display for all to see. I hope more people will see and internalize stories about us fulfilling our faith rather than stories about terrorism, but surely a more effective vessel for change in media is to confront the way they treat Muslims directly, not a futile mission to flood the press with alternative narratives.
My friend from Florida did not make it to Times Square, but maybe next year I will find my own New Year service, inspired by the AMYA. If I do, it’ll be off camera, like the overwhelming duty of Muslims around the world. A famous hadith from the Prophet Mohammed tells Muslims that the better charity is done with the right hand if the left hand doesn’t know. I hope to keep it that way.