Jul 1 1995

Islam: Fundamental Misunderstandings About a Growing Faith

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 “fundamentalist” 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 (Alternative Radio, 4/25/95), anti-Muslim sentiment constitutes “the last sanctioned racism.” 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.'”