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Islam: Fundamental Misunderstandings About a Growing Faith
EXTRA! July/August, 1995
By Sam Husseini There are approximately 5 million Muslims in the
U.S. -- nearly as many as there are Jews, and more than there are
Episcopalians. Early in the next century, Islam will probably be the
largest non-Christian religion in the country (L.A. Times, 12/17/94).
Yet there's rarely a mention of Muslims in the media that doesn't
have to do with violence. In day-to-day coverage, they are largely
absent; Muslim festivals like Ramadan often come and go with little
note. The media is so full of reports on the "Islamic threat"
from "radical Muslim terrorists" plotting "Islamic fundamentalist
violence," one could excuse the average non-Muslim American for
concluding that the "fundamentals" of Islam include a course in
demolitions training. No wonder that 45 percent of Americans,
according to a recent poll (L.A. Times, 5/6/95), agreed that "Muslims
tend to be fanatics." When reporting on "Islamic violence" (New York
Times, 2/5/95), the media often identify Muslims by their religion --
as in the AP headline (3/5/94), "Muslims Convicted in [World Trade
Center] Case." Would a headline read "Jews Convicted"? Would anti-
abortion militants be described as engaging in "Christian violence"?
The fact that the offensiveness of such phrases only becomes apparent
after such substitutions are made shows how deep the biases go.
There's a good deal of confusion as to who Muslims are.
Although "Arab" and "Muslim" are often used interchangeably, only
about 20 percent of the more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide are
Arabs. Most of the attention paid to U.S. Muslims goes to Louis
Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, a sect with a racialist, anti-Jewish
ideology that bears only a remote resemblance to Islam. Farrakhan's
sect has about 10,000 adherents, a tiny fraction of the roughly 2
million African-Americans who follow the orthodox teachings of Islam,
which embraces all races. The term "fundamentalism" is a borrowing
from Christian groups that describe themselves that way; it's not a
Muslim term. It often implies that strict adherents to Islam believe
in using violence to advance their religion, while peaceful Muslims
must be less observant. It's also applied inconsistently: Because it
is a U.S. ally, the government of Saudi Arabia is usually described
as "moderate," not "fundamentalist," even though it adheres strictly
to Islamic law. Towards a New Crusade To many pundits, the "threat"
Islam poses to "the West" is what's fundamental about it. That seems
to be the conclusion of cold warriors like Samuel Huntington, who
describes and seems at points to encourage "The Coming Clash of
Civilizations." (Foreign Affairs, Summer/93; New York Times,
6/6/93) "Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic
civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years," Huntington
wrote. "This centuries-old military interaction is unlikely to
decline." Huntington had plenty of advice for Western leaders about
dealing with Islam and other cultures: "The West must also limit the
expansion of the military strength of potential hostile
civilizations, principally Confucian and Islamic civilizations, and
exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states.
This will require a moderation in the reduction of Western military
capabilities, and, in particular, the maintenance of American
military superiority in East and Southwest Asia." One can hear the
lobbyists for General Dynamics breathing a sigh of relief. The
line "clash of civilizations" gained currency in "The Roots of Muslim
Rage," an essay in The Atlantic (9/90) by Bernard Lewis, which
managed to dismiss any real grievances that Muslims might have toward
the U.S. -- like the 1953 reinstallation of the Shah of Iran, or the
1983 shelling of Lebanon -- while maintaining that the real source
of "Muslim rage" was a "rejection of Western civilization as such,
not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values
that it practices and professes." Even more simplistic
generalizations about Islam are common fare in TV discussion shows.
After the U.S. attacked Iraq -- a relatively secular state -- in
response to dubious allegations of a plot to kill ex-President George
Bush (New Yorker, 10/25/93), George Will asked on This Week with
David Brinkley (6/27/93): "Isn't the root cause [of `Islamic
terrorism'] the existence of the West?" Later in the show, Sam
Donaldson warned of "a Muslim fundamentalism that hates the West, to
a large extent, and spawns a lot of groups now. And we're not going
to be able to do anything but continue to fight it where we find it
and try to safeguard our shores. But we can't stop it in one fell
swoop." David Brinkley chimed in: "All the evidence is they hate us.
We drink. We are licentious and we're all kinds of things they
detest, or say they do." "Well, we also have democracy and human
rights and other things -- totally strange to their region," Will
added. "Which they hate," Brinkley concluded. Sanctioned Bigotry As
Edward Said has noted, anti-Muslim sentiment constitutes "the last
sanctioned racism." (Alternative Radio, 4/25/95) Thus, while Pat
Robertson's coded anti-Jewish conspiracy theories in his book The New
World Order have received some mainstream press scrutiny, his
outright call for Muslims (and Hindus) to be excluded from government
has been ignored (EXTRA! Update, 6/95). And a journalist like Steve
Emerson, the executive producer of the PBS documentary Jihad! in
America, is treated seriously as an expert on Islam, despite comments
like these, delivered as he accepted an award from B'nai B'rith
(Jewish Monthly, 3/95): "The level of vitriol against Jews and
Christianity within contemporary Islam, unfortunately, is something
that we are not totally cognizant of, or that we don't want to
accept. We don't want to accept it because to do so would be to
acknowledge that one of the world's great religions -- which has more
than 1.4 billion adherents -- somehow sanctions genocide, planned
genocide, as part of its religious doctrine." These remarks --
comparable to Farrakhan's references to Judaism as a "gutter
religion" -- provoked no widespread outcry. Fouad Ajami, one of the
few Muslims with regular access to the media, once quipped that the
difference between the two major branches of Islam is that "the
Sunnis are homicidal and the Shiites are suicidal." (New York
Newsday, 3/24/93) Ajami and Emerson were the two experts brought on
CBS's hour-long special the night of the Oklahoma City bombing. Anti-
Muslim bigotry is also common on right-wing talk radio. New York's
Bob Grant insisted after the Oklahoma City bombing (WABC, 4/20/95)
that Islam was "a violent religion." Frank Koughan, the producer for
Emerson's Jihad! in America, said he was "astonished by the anti-
Muslim bias" he heard on Boston's WRKO during a discussion of the PBS
documentary (CounterSpin, 12/24/94). According to Koughan, one
caller's call for the killing of Muslims went unchallenged by the
host. Signs of Hope There are some recent glimmers of hope in the
media's approach to Islam; the rush to blame Muslims for Oklahoma
City seems to have spurred some reexamination of media coverage.
Nightline took a serious look at Islam in America on May 4; although
Ted Koppel started out the program by saying that "they're often the
first we think of when there's a terrorist incident," he went on to
question such usage of "we" and "they." Koppel praised President
Clinton for speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry: "President
Clinton, to his everlasting credit, sounded a voice of reason." It's
noteworthy that Clinton made that statement because he was asked to
do so by UPI's Helen Thomas -- one of the few Arab-Americans in the
press corps. As CNN covered the services for the dead in Oklahoma,
Wolf Blitzer (who had prominently speculated about "Middle Eastern"
responsibility for the blast) noted that no Muslim was invited to
take part in the interfaith service: "I think that would have been a
poignant moment if somebody of Islamic background would have had an
opportunity to deliver a prayer," he said. While it's refreshing for
media figures to recognize that Islam deserves a place in the
nation's religious life, it's a shame that it took a tragedy of the
magnitude of Oklahoma City to drive that lesson home. One timely
piece appeared in the New York Times a month prior to the bombing
(3/26/95), an article by Francis X. Clines that focused on an elder
at a Long Island mosque. The elder, Al-Haaj Y. Khankan, took issue
with some stereotypes and distortions of Muslim life, such as the
constant mistranslation of "jihad." "`Jihad' is known in the West as
waging holy war, which is utter nonsense," Khankan said. "`Jihad'
actually means to struggle to better yourself, to control your anger,
to work hard." He also recounted how anti-Muslim prejudice affects
his community, particularly how the children are taunted at school by
other students. "I don't blame the children, I blame the media,"
Khankan told the Times. "Because the media always put an adjective to
the accused bad guy and the adjective is `Muslim.'" The Oklahoma City
Bombing: The Jihad That Wasn't EXTRA! (7-8/95) By Jim Naureckas
Abstract An in-depth look at coverage of the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Excerpt: "Seldom have so many been so wrong -- so quickly. In the
wake of the explosion that destroyed the Murrah Federal Office
Building, the media rushed -- almost en masse -- to the assumption
that the bombing was the work of Muslim extremists. "The betting here
is on Middle East terrorists," declared CBS News' Jim Stewart just
hours after the blast (4/19/95). "The fact that it was such a
powerful bomb in Oklahoma City immediately drew investigators to
consider deadly parallels that all have roots in the Middle East,"
ABC's John McWethy proclaimed the same day. "`It has every single
earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East,' wrote
syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer (Chicago Tribune,
4/21/95). "Whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the
chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working,"
declared the New York Times' A.M. Rosenthal (4/21/95). The Geyer and
Rosenthal columns were filed after the FBI released sketches of two
suspects who looked more like Midwestern frat boys than mujahideen."
For more information, call the Council on American-Islamic Relations
(CAIR) at 202-638-6340.