U.S. coverage of Islam and Muslim-majority nations is such a carnival of distortion, double standards and bigotry that it’s sometimes hard to believe that journalists inhabit the same planet as the rest of us. This has been especially true as anti-American violence and demonstrations in Libya and other countries have put media fantasies of the U.S. as a benign force for democracy and peace in the Muslim world on full display.
Immediately after the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, which left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead, U.S. media came alive with stories of “Muslim rage” and thin-skinned religious fanatics rampaging over a hateful video clip on the Internet.
“ The Agents of Outrage,” blared Time ’s September 24 cover: “An Embassy Attacked. Diplomats Murdered. The New Calculus of Violence Against America.”
The Time didn’t match up with the story inside, a reasonable report by Bobby Ghosh, but it fit well with Newsweek’s cover that week: “Muslim Rage: How I Survived It, How We Can End it.” Inside was an opinion piece by professional former-Muslim-turned-Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali, repurposing her standard take on the depravity of Islam with a few new details from current events:
The Muslim men and women (and yes, there are plenty of women) who support―whether actively or passively―the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam.
Mainstream? Hardly. Just a tiny fraction of the planet’s 1.6 billion Muslims took to the streets in the alleged explosion of anger. According to the Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy (“Is the Islamopocalypse Really Upon Us?,” 9/17/12):
While sensational headlines have played up the story, the cumulative total of protesters so far in about 30 countries appears well under 100,000. At Tahrir Square on Friday, wide angle overhead shots (rather than the tight, ground shots favored by TV news producers) showed a sparse group...not the hundreds of thousands that have routinely come out to protest against their own government in the past year-and-a-half.
In addition to exaggerations of scale were the usual expressions of frustration that the West’s efforts to lend a helping hand are met with such ingratitude, as in the Economist (9/22/12):
The wave of violence directed at Americans and Europeans in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world...has made many Westerners, especially Americans, wonder why they and their governments should seek to play a constructive role in those parts of the world where people apparently harbour such visceral feelings of hatred towards them.
Those feelings are clearly “visceral” rather than rational, since the West is only trying to spread rights and freedoms. When Barack Obama addressed the UN about these issues on September 25, Helene Cooper’s news report in the New York Times (9/26/12) explained that he mounted “a strong defense of America’s belief in freedom of speech,” challenging “fledgling Arab and North African democracies to ensure that right even in the face of violence.”
Obama, wrote Cooper, “asserted that the flare-up of violence over a video that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad would not set off a retreat from his support of the Arab democracy movement.” She quoted Obama saying that Americans “have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their view.”
A New York Times (9/26/12) likewise praised Obama, explaining that “anti-American violence in the Muslim world demanded a firm pushback from President Obama, who finally delivered it on Tuesday in the last United Nations General Assembly speech of his term.” The editors were pleased that Obama
gave a full-throated defense of the First Amendment right that, in this country, protects even hateful writings, films and speech.... We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.
The editors proclaimed Obama “right to deliver that message”―before inserting the derisive barb, “however foreign it is in much of the Muslim world.” (According to Gallup Center for Muslim Studies director Dalia Mogahed―NPR, 9/21/12―Middle Easterners support constitutional free speech rights “in percentages above 90 percent.”)
When considering “anti-American violence in the Muslim world,” it would have been helpful to mention as context that such violence amounts to a tiny fraction of the mayhem visited on Muslims by the U.S. and NATO over the past decade. With at least hundreds of thousands dead in the wars the U.S. started in Iraq and Afghanistan, and increased use of drones, missiles and air strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, it’s not surprising that many people don’t see the U.S. as an agent for peace in the region.
The Times report and editorial could have also pointed out that Obama is a champion of free speech, given his ’s record number of prosecutions of government whistleblowers (Extra!, 9/11), as well as the horrible U.S. record when it comes to supporting free speech and democracy in the Muslim world.
Washington currently supports and arms autocratic, anti–free speech regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Until recently, Tunisia and Egypt were also repressive U.S.-backed dictatorships. While the U.S. may no longer overtly help stifle free speech in Tunisia, the U.S. has continued to fund the Egyptian military through decades of torture, detention and disappearances.
Neither the military crackdowns after the 2011 Tahrir Square uprisings, nor the June dissolution of Egypt’s democratically elected parliament by its military-allied supreme court resulted in an interruption of the money flowing from Washington to the Egyptian generals. Indeed, following the Cairo demon, the White House and State Department were pushing former dictatorship “vice president” Omar Suleiman, otherwise known as “the CIA’s man in ” and Egypt’s “torturer-in-chief” (Democracy Now!, 2/11/11), to preside over Egypt’s transition to democracy (Guardian, 2/5/11).
Inside Egypt, U.S. support for anti-democratic forces is well-known, symbolized by Tahrir Square demonstrators holding up tear gas cannisters to show reporters their “Made in the USA” stamps. But U.S. media continue to suggest that Egyptians aren’t sufficiently grateful for the democratic support showered on them by the U.S. (New York Times, 9/13/12):
What makes Egypt’s uncertain course so vexing for the White House is that Mr. Obama, more than any other foreign leader, has sided again and again with the Arab street in Cairo, even when it meant going expressly against the wishes of traditional allies, including the Egyptian military, the Persian Gulf states and Israel.
USA Today and NBC News stories expressing similar befuddlement at the lack of Muslim gratitude toward the U.S., as Glenn Greenwald noted (Guardian, 9/14/12). The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the non-lethal attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, explained a USA Today report (9/12/12), had “left many to wonder: How can people the USA helped free from murderous dictators treat it in such a way?” Meanwhile, NBC Richard Engel (Rock Center, 9/14/12) said of the Cairo protests:
It is somewhat ironic with American diplomats inside the embassy who helped to give these demonstrators, these protesters, a voice, and allowed them to actually carry out these anti-American clashes that we’re seeing right now.
The Muslim rage theme is reminiscent of the “why do they hate us?” theme prominent in U.S. media following the September 2001 attacks. At the time, the most popular and self-flattering answer was that they hated us because of our freedoms (Extra! Update, 10/01).
The Benghazi attack and demonstrations against the anti-Muslim video have given journalists another opportunity to reduce Muslim resentment to the peculiarities of a vengeful religion―having little to do with political grievances over wars, torture, human rights violations and support for regional dictators.