The murder of British soldier Sgt. Lee Rigby on a London street in May received massive U.S. media attention. The brazenness of the attackers—who allegedly struck Rigby with a car in broad daylight before hacking him to death with bladed weapons—guaranteed coverage. That the crime was captured on videotape from multiple sources didn’t hurt either. All told, Lee Rigby’s London murder has been mentioned in nearly 500 U.S. newspaper and wire stories, according to a search of the Nexis news database.
But the story also fit a comfortable media narrative: The attackers were Muslims who declared religious motivations. One of the assailants called the crime revenge for the killing of Muslims by Western military forces (Reuters, 5/22/13).
For many pundits, the Rigby killing provided dramatic “proof” of the violent and dangerous nature of Islam. Fox News liberal Bob Beckel (Five, 5/23/13) told viewers that Muslims are trying to impose a worldwide caliphate, and that Rigby’s killing was “a product of the British allowing Muslims to come into their country.”
Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 6/5/13) invited Tommy Robinson, the leader of British hate group the English Defence League, onto his Fox News show. Robinson faced little challenge as he smeared Muslims, saying politicians are “constantly pandering to Islam and they’re constantly worried about what the Islamic community would do and how they will react to anything.”
The association of Islam with violence is not restricted to right-wing media. “For a self-described ‘religion of peace,’ Islam does claim a lot of lives,” wrote liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (9/22/12) in a piece attempting to explain Muslim violence. On CNN (5/5/10), Anderson Cooper telegraphed a similar message when he asked HBO star Bill Maher: “Why is Islam the one religion that so many in America and in the West censor themselves when talking about or making fun of? Is it just fear?” This was a softball for Maher, a commentator known for anti-Muslim bigotry (FAIR Blog, 3/9/12), who responded that Muslims are “violent” and “threaten us.”
FAIR’s 2008 report, Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation (10/1/08), found violent and dangerous portrayals of Muslims alive and well in centrist and liberal media habitats: The 2006 National Book Critics Circle nominated for an award the flagrantly Islamophobic While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within, while the New York Times gifted new subscribers with the anti-Muslim DVD, Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West in 2006.
The best-known focus of the whirlwind of smears by the corporate media would be the Park51 Islamic community center, inaccurately but pervasively described as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Media portrayed the center as a slap in the face to families of 9/11 victims—and as proof that the Obama administration was failing to protect citizens from Muslim extremists (Extra!, 10/10).
But is Islam, as Kristof, Maher and O’Reilly suggest, really particularly violent? It’s a curious argument to make from the vantage point of the United States, which has in recent years launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and lesser military strikes in at least a half-a-dozen other nations—violence that has cost at least hundreds of thousands of lives over the past decade (Iraq Body Count, 3/19/13; FAIR Blog, 6/7/13).
And looking over the last century, the bloodiest in human history, it’s an equally strange argument to make from a Western, Christian-majority nation. As University of Michigan Islam scholar Juan Cole (Informed Comment, 4/23/13) points out, of the more than 100 million war deaths in the 20th century, something less than 2 percent came at the hands of Muslim-majority nations. Most of those dead came in wars where non-Muslim nations played a significant role—such as the Iran/Iraq War, where the United States aided the aggressor Iraq, and the Afghan Civil War, where the Soviet Union was a major military force.
Cole also explains that “murder rates in most of the Muslim world are very low compared to the United States,” which is especially violent for a wealthy nation.
According to a Gallup poll (8/2/11; FAIR Blog, 5/3/13), Muslim Americans disapprove of violence against civilians at an exceptionally high rate. When asked if it “is justified for an individual or a small group of people to target and kill civilians,” 89 percent of Muslims said that it is never justified, which was the highest disapproval rate of the six religious and nonreligious groups polled. Muslim Americans also rejected military killing of civilians by a wide margin, while a majority of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Mormons approved of such killings.
Glenn Greenwald (5/23/13) makes a strong case that the killing of Rigby, a sergeant in the British Army, though political violence, was not terrorism, which is generally defined as political violence targeting civilians. But U.S. coverage of even strictly defined terrorism gives a distorted impression that most of it is linked to Muslims.
In “More Terror, Less Coverage,” Extra! (5/11) showed how a story about an amateurish bomb that fizzled in Times Square in May 2010, planted by a Muslim American, got far more coverage than a much more lethal bomb planted by a white racist in Spokane, Washington, disarmed just hours before its planned detonation during a 2011 Martin Luther King Day parade.
This is par for a media that has an especially hard time reporting domestic terrorism with context or proportionality. Charles Kurzman (Think Progress, 9/10/11), author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, noted in 2011 that since 9/11, Muslim American terrorists “have killed 33 individuals in the United States.” The University of North Carolina terrorism expert put that number in the larger context of U.S. violence: “Over that same period of time, there have been more than 150,000 murders in the United States.” That’s 0.02 percent of homicides since 2001 attributable to Muslim American terrorism.
A 2010 RAND study found that of the “83 terrorist attacks in the United States between 9/11 and the end of 2009, only three…were clearly connected with the jihadist cause” (Extra!, 5/11). Out of the 3 million Muslims living in the United States, around 100 joined jihadist groups during the study period, which according to RAND suggests that American Muslims overwhelmingly do not agree with radical ideology and the violent actions associated with it.
Cole found similar data on Europe. While the European Union’s population is 4.5 percent Muslim (Pew Research Center, 1/11)—“less than 1 percent of terrorist acts in the continent were committed by people from that community” from 2007 to 2009 (Informed Comment, 4/23/13).
To successfully equate Islam with terrorism requires downplaying terrorism perpetrated by non-Muslims. As conservative Fox News commentator Brian Kilmeade (Fox & Friends, 10/15/10) put it, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.” Kilmeade was defending Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who’d been criticized for stating on ABC’s View (10/14/10) that “Muslims killed us on 9/11!” Kilmeade later retracted the comment (Fox & Friends, 10/18/10; Media Matters, 10/18/10), but Michael Goodwin, a columnist for Fox’s sibling publication, the Murdoch-owned New York Post (4/28/13), used the exact same phrase in a recent column on the Boston Marathon bombing.
But more influential than the overt bigotry of the Kilmeades and O’Reillys is the drumbeat of media attention to Muslim-linked violence compared to violence and terrorism linked to other groups.
In June, two men in upstate New York were arrested and charged with conspiracy to support terrorism after building a weapon that would shoot radiation into “enemies of Israel.” Possible target locations included an Albany Mosque and a Schenectady Islamic center (AP, 6/19/13; CAIR, 6/24/13). According to Nexis, only 24 newspapers and newswires covered the story in the U.S.
Three weeks before the gruesome murder of Lee Rigby in London, Mohammed Saleem, a 75 year-old Muslim man, was stabbed to death while returning from a mosque in Birmingham, 100 miles north of London. The murder is being considered a hate crime by police (Birmingham Mail, 5/25/13). The entire U.S. media coverage of Mohammed Saleem’s murder, according to Nexis, was a single 136-word dispatch (5/1/13) from the UPI wire service.