In the fifteen years since 9/11, the American media landscape has been rife with misconceptions and fear surrounding Islam, commonly depicting Muslims as violent, foreign intruders in America. Meanwhile, extremists use Islam to justify violent acts, while a vast majority of American Muslims decry them. With help from journalist Haroon Moghul, social activist Linda Sarsour, and religious scholar Reza Aslan, we've put together a guide for navigating the stream of Islamophobic coverage that, unfortunately, isn't showing signs of abating any time soon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines recently for a profoundly American gesture of free expression that many saw as perversely un-American. As a protest against racism and police brutality, he refused to stand for the National Anthem. This created the predictable talk radio furor and, inevitably, this week, led to the ultimate question of someone suspected of hating our freedoms.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Rumors began to swirl after Colin Kaepernick’s first national anthem protest on August 26th that the 49ers QB had converted to Islam. On Wednesday, Kaepernick addressed the religious conversion rumors.
BOB GARFIELD: Hmm, he does have a strange last name and he is, suspiciously, olive of complexion. But no, he isn't Muslim. Alas, the question is for more revealing than the answer. And the fact that the media entertained it is dispiriting in a Zeitgeist sort of way.
On this 15th anniversary of 9/11, the stereotyping and very often vilifying of Muslims and Islam, in the media and in the public mind, adds to the grim roster of victims every single day.
DONALD TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE/END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And so, for the anniversary, we offer the “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook, Islamophobia Edition,” 10 tips for processing the week’s media output with limited damage to the innocent, to understanding and to truth itself.
We begin with a really solid first step when you encounter the words “Muslim” or “Islam” in the media – find and replace!
HAROON MOGHUL: So Glenn Beck has – I think it’s his latest book – it’s called It IS About Islam, not a very clever title but fine.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalist Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and a member of the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
HAROON MOGHUL: If you replace “Islam” with “Judaism,” he sounds like a Nazi. If you replace “Muslims” with “black people,” he sounds like a Klan member. And if the reasoning is wrong when applied to one group, then it should be wrong when applied to any other group. No group of human beings can be reduced to a single thing, period, not one.
BOB GARFIELD: Beware, especially, of dog whistles. Is “Muslim” being used as an epithet?
BILL O’REILLY: Barack Obama’s father, who abandoned his family, was a Muslim who eventually turned atheist. Then his mother married another Muslim, moving young Barry to Indonesia, where he was exposed to the Islamic world…
BOB GARFIELD: The terms like “radicalized” or “fanatical” or “war on terror” get invoked about domestic abortion clinic bombers and white separatists.
LINDA SARSOUR: So, for example, recently in Massachusetts, a man was arrested for stockpiling weapons to kill police, Muslims and President Obama and we call him a Massachusetts man or we call him by his name.
BOB GARFIELD: Linda Sarsour is executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and cofounder of the Muslim online organizing platform, MPOWER Change.
LINDA SARSOUR: When Muslims are the accused or alleged perpetrators of violence, immediately we understand their faith, who their religious mentor was, whether or not they went to mosque. We only choose to tell the faith of a perpetrator when we know that they are Muslim. If they are of any other faith, that doesn't seem to be a piece of identity that we want to share with the rest of the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Whatever that identity might be, Muslims are not a homogenous group with a single shared culture. Arab Saudi Arabia is not Arab Syria, is not Indonesia, is not Turkey, is not Somalia, is not Canada, any more than Catholic France is the same as Catholic Croatia or Catholic Colombia.
Religion scholar Reza Aslan is a professor at the University of California Riverside and author of multiple books on the history and politics of Christianity and Islam.
REZA ASLAN: Nobody refers to Colombia as a Christian country and so, therefore, the problems with drugs and with gang violence have to do with Christian culture. That’s a ridiculous statement, and yet, one would, without flinching, say that Nigeria is a Muslim country and so, therefore, the problems of violence and instability have to do with Muslim culture.
BOB GARFIELD: Furthermore, Aslan says, national or regional culture is not the same as religion. Stoning adulterers and female genital circumcision are actually regional cultural practices, not Islamic.
REZA ASLAN: Neither of them exist in the Koran, and yet, there are Muslim majority countries that practice both of those but do so because it is embedded within the culture of those countries. And, indeed, there are Christian majority countries that also, for instance, practice female genital mutilation.
BOB GARFIELD: Confusion for news consumers is understandable. In broadcast coverage, you could easily be thrown by exotic imagery like the call to prayer –
[COUND OF CALL TO PRAYER]
- women in hijabs, and so on. It’s so, you know, “foreign”
Here’s another opportunity to find and replace. Are Catholics routinely covered taking communion, kneeling in prayer, being sprinkled with holy water? Or, when the subject is terrorism, think of the Oklahoma City bombing coverage. Was it filled with crosses and American flags, that is, once they determined it wasn't committed by Muslims?
No, media outlets assume a perpetrator’s Christian faith is irrelevant, which is why in the first reports of the slaying of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by a white American, the murders were attributed immediately to - a neighborhood disagreement.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A developing story in the shadow of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina University. This afternoon, police say a dispute over parking is behind the murders of three people there. The victims are Muslim.
BOB GARFIELD: Not a radical parking dispute, mind you. Only days later did the religion or a religion of the atheist white suspect find its way into the coverage. So after a violent crime involving a Muslim suspect, ask yourself if speculation is too reflexive and if that process endangers the innocent, or simply tars them.
LINDA SARSOUR: And people are gonna start being even more suspicious of their Muslim neighbors, so ordinary people, doctors, teachers, cabdrivers, the guy who delivers your mail in the morning, if he happens to be Muslim.
BOB GARFIELD: Millions of Americans living under an accusatory glare because, if they aren't actually wearing explosive vests, don't they maybe sympathize with terror?
ERIC BOLLING: Can I just point out that it would help greatly if, if moderate Muslims, people who are looking down on all of this, say something. If you know something, just tell someone!
DANA PERINO: Especially, if your neighbors –
DONALD TRUMP: Muslims are the ones that see what’s going on. The Muslims are the ones that have to report ‘em. And if they don’t report ‘em, then there have to be consequences to them.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, if you’re looking for Muslim outrage about terror acts, just Google it, and set aside some time. It is a vast trove. Secondly, says Haroon Moghul –
HAROON MOGHUL: “Moderate Muslims” suggest that Islam is itself a problem and the majority of Muslims are not moderate.
BOB GARFIELD: Which he says is not only a slur but a ridiculous accounting.
HAROON MOGHUL: If you look at a group like ISIS, ISIS is 30 to 50,000 members probably, right. Even the maximum estimates I’ve seen are 100,000, out of 1.5 to 2 billion people.
BOB GARFIELD: But most telling, says Moghul, is the chauvinism implied by the term “moderate.”
HAROON MOGHUL: Moderate Muslims are the few we can talk to and approve of because they have the right ideas, and they’re the right ideas because their ideas are basically our ideas.
BOB GARFIELD: Our ideas, notably excluding the dreaded Sharia law.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Those who hold firm to all of Sharia’s precepts believe stoning women for adultery, cutting off limbs of thieves and killing those who abandon the faith are still acceptable forms of punishment.
RAHEEL RAZA: To have sharia as institutionalized law, as governance, is very dangerous.
BOB GARFIELD: Eh. Sharia law is a sort of operating manual for the Koran, in much the way the Talmud and its halacha law are an operating manual for the Jewish Old Testament. Oddly, nobody quakes about Jews sending us all back to the Middle Ages. And, by the way, physician, heal thyself.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We have an imam here who wants to impose sharia law on the United States. This is an imam who has no regard at all for the doctrine of separation of church and state.
BOB GARFIELD: Predominantly Muslim countries are suspect for being theocratic, but large swaths of our electorate and a big chunk of the US Congress support a biblical influence on our laws, from same-sex marriage, to teaching of creationism, to prayer in schools. Do not let the shrillest voices dictate your level of fear. Even when the subject is jihadi violence, take a breath. You’re more likely to be killed by a white Christian or your spouse or your bathtub than you are by a Muslim stranger.
As in so many aspects of understanding the world, take in the big picture. Whether in the stock market, sports or geopolitics, single-factor analysis is reductive and misleading. In political Islam, the political – authoritarianism, human rights abuses, economic instability and remnants of Cold War real politic - is at least as significant as the Islam.
And then, finally, there’s this.
HAROON MOGHUL: Whenever we’re talking about Muslims as a political issue, for whatever reason, we don’t seem to talk to Muslims themselves.
BOB GARFIELD: Golf coverage turns to golfers for expertise, medical coverage turns to doctors. Where are the Muslims? When, at the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan stepped forward to denounce Donald Trump, Moghul says it was –
HAROON MOGHUL: The exception proving the rule. Generally speaking though, when Trump makes comments about Muslims, when he makes comments about immigrants, we hardly ever hear from the people who are going to be affected by the proposal. When Trump talks about Syrian refugees, for example, how often do you actually hear Muslim people talk about the issue?
BOB GARFIELD: For the sad answer, watch cable this week. Or, better yet, don't bother.