Ilm Summit | Behind the Scenes of the CNN Interview

In my earlier post on Deborah Feyerick’s story partially filmed at Ilm Summit this past August, I mentioned I would blog about some of the behind-the-scenes happenings. After interviewing the various instructors at Ilm Summit, counterterrorism expert and occasional Muslim Matters’ contributor Mohamed Elibiary helped arranged an interview with bloggers from Muslim Matters.

Meanwhile, I was eagerly awaiting the start of that night’s wild card session with Jamaludeen Zarabozo. A respected and self-taught convert to Islam with extensive knowledge of the Islamic sciences, his classes and books are popular in conservative Muslim circles. It was expected that he would share some of the key elements of his story of conversion and how he learned the Islamic sciences with us.

I was all set to learn something new and take notes and just as Zarabozo sat down to begin, someone came up to tell me or passed me a note (should have written this earlier, memory is now a bit hazy) that my presence was requested outside the banquet hall, which had been converted into our classroom. I was pretty disappointed to be leaving the session I had most looked forward to all day especially as I was not at all sure of what was in store for me outside. As it turned out there was a bit of a Muslim Matters huddle, preparing for an interview opportunity with CNN on a story about online efforts within the Muslim community to counter the message of extremism.

Courtesy of MM

So often in the media, Islam is represented through the voices of men so it was seen as desirable to have at least one woman join in the interview and that’s how I ended up there as the token Muslim woman. I was a bit anxious to return to the wild card session, now in progress, but was somewhat resigned to the fact that I would miss it. Perhaps, I could have caught the end of it had there not been some miscommunication. For what seemed like at least 20 minutes or more, both the MM team and the CNN team were sitting near each other at tables in the cavernous lobby. As it turned out, we were both waiting for the other group to signal readiness to commence the interview.

Once it was sorted out that both sides were ready, a few awkward moments soon followed. I didn’t intend to wear my black AlMaghrib hoodie but the videographer wasn’t sure where or how to clip on my microphone due to my hijab. So I quickly put my hoodie back on and he worked out the mic issue in a way that made me acutely uncomfortable threading the mic over my clothes and hijab but under the hoodie. I thought to myself, is this what I’m missing the wild card for? I then made a mental note to always do the microphone myself and most likely could have worked out clipping it to my hijab. Though, I must admit the CNN mics were nice.

Next bit of awkwardness, in order to fit all four of us on camera for a wide angle shot, we had to sit rather close together. Much closer than one might sit naturally in order to maintain a level of personal space. Not much that could be done about that.

As the interview progressed my colleagues made some excellent well-packaged talking points. I don’t think I said anything extraordinary. I rambled through my first response, distracted, I briefly lost my train of thought. A small crowd of students had gathered around us to watch the interview. I just hoped someone was taking good notes inside the hall. By the time we finished, it was pretty late and Deborah Feyerick, her producer, and the videographer had had a long day but were still very cordial and gracious.

After we wrapped up the interview, I headed back into the hall but the wild card had ended. I had missed the whole session despite being prepared for it and staking out my seat in the front row, which at Ilm Summit is no small feat. To get a front row seat, one has to come early, eat quickly, leave off sleep and socializing, and sometimes negotiate with the crew from California who would like to think they own first dibs on those seats.

I asked my trusted note-taking companions about the wild card session to see if any of them had notes but none did. With that inevitable sinking feeling, I asked for a recap of the session but as is often the case, especially without good notes, the recaps can never do justice to what was conveyed by the speaker. In two years of attending Ilm Summit, that was the first and only session I had missed and I was (and still am) rather sad about that.

Do I regret giving up that session of ilm for the interview? I regret missing out on the knowledge and the opportunity to learn firsthand from Zarabozo about his experiences. I regret that wasted time waiting before we started due to the miscommunication. I regret not putting on the microphone myself. However, the interview was definitely a learning experience in other ways. Television media is such a unique medium, which requires strong visuals and well-packaged snippets and sound bites among other things.

We tend to be our own worst critics, neither liking the sound of my voice and reproaching myself about what I could or should have said. That being said, I’m thankful for the opportunity, delighted that many have and continue to reach out to me from Nigeria and elsewhere with words of support and encouragement. Some of my relatives in New York and in Nigeria told me they caught the story when it aired on television. I met a Muslim woman from Nigeria at an AlMaghrib class here in Virginia this past February who told me she also saw the story on CNN while watching from her home in Nigeria. Truly amazing, which really brings home the global reach of a news network like CNN and other large media outlets.

Some people have expressed to me their reservations about speaking to journalists out of simple shyness or due to other careless or intentional misrepresentations of Muslims that they’ve witnessed in other stories. As for the former, count me among those most shy and introverted (yes, really), I just try not to show it but often have to work hard against my natural inclination to withdraw. I might quickly agree to go along with an interview but afterward spend quite a bit of time, asking myself what I just agreed to and thinking of ways I might back out of it due to the anxiety invoked.

As for the latter, this is hard to account for, do your best to find and work with journalists that are highly motivated, intelligent, ethical, professional and care about getting the story right. A good way to get a cursory sense of this is to review their previous work and the criticism of their work. As for being shy, I don’t think this is a good reason to not engage if asked to do so, you just have to push on through your fears, once you’re sure (or as sure as you can be) that you’re working with a solid journalist. Edina Lekovic commented at last December’s MPAC’s Annual Convention, that she was given a good piece of advice that has served her well, “feel the fear and do it anyway.”

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

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