The New York Times recently published an editorial in which they discuss the way the Oklahoma ban of shari’ah is an example of “Islam-bashing for political gain.” We saw attacks on Muslim members of Congress as well, which seems to have paid dividends for the offender; although, as Marc Lynch says, the re-election of both Muslim members speaks of our better natures. The reality is that many of these attacks were shallow and obviously full of ignorance and hate. The result is that coverage of Muslims in America, between September and the midterm elections, has actually been a period of some of the most sophisticated reporting I can remember for some time. Religion as a sole cause was removed from reporting, and actually looking at the politics of political campaigns became relevant.
Perhaps one of the most interesting political backlashes against Islamophobic ads happened in Ohio where the Republican challenger for the State Treasurer, Josh Mandel, launched an attack against the incumbent, Kevin Boyce, claiming that Boyce showed favoritism in his hiring practices. The crux of the argument was that Boyce’s deputy, Amer Ahmad (disclosure: Ahmad and I were college roommates and remain friends), advertised a position only at his mosque to give preferential treatment to the wife of a lobbyist. Although the claim was debunked, Mandel’s ad is considered one of the most vile of the election cycle. Even prior to the debunking, however, Mandel was roundly criticized within Ohio for demeaning himself and his position. Despite a serious intra-state criticism of Mandel’s tactics, he won. However, I am heartened by a sustained, non-partisan critique of the veiled bigotry of the ad in real time. There was no period of reflection and apology after hatred had taken root.
Other local news outlets focused on the “Islamophobia industry.” The Tennessean ran an exposé of the work of Steven Emerson—a noted “expert” who points to shady business practices of Muslim organizations as proof of terrorism—focusing on his own shady business practices. This article prompted a follow-up in Florida. The strength of the local reporting reveals the vested economic interests in perpetuating a conflict narrative with Muslims in America.
Unfortunately, the national media has a harder time wrapping itself around that narrative. NPR’s Intelligence Squared debate asked whether “Islam was a religion of peace?”, as though that couldn’t be asked of any religion. Interestingly, Islam, like most religions, could not answer. It’s not a person or thing, but a description of the actions of a group of people. One of the salient points of the debate is that while ideologues like Ayaan Hirsi Ali offers a compelling narrative, your average Muslim woman, like Zeba Khan, does not. It’s important because most Muslims lead “normal” and “average” lives that are unremarkable. They have the same story as everyone else, rather than a Ludlum novel.
ABC ran two separate shows about Muslims that focused on the fear narrative and distorted the nature of the community. The 20/20 program—on which I made a brief appearance—was so offensive to Congressman Keith Ellison that he responded with a scathing critique. The only thing I would add to Ellison’s critique is that the “special” made it a point to ignore one-third of the Muslim-American population, namely African-Americans, to make Muslims seem new and foreign.
It was interesting that in their call for interviewees they wanted professionals (doctors and lawyers) to talk about the history of Islam in America, not professionals like academics to talk about it. It is akin to having me talk about open heart surgery as a professional. It is dishonest and dangerous. Then there was the Christiane Amanpour special asking whether “Americans should fear Islam,” which my friend Dr. Eboo Patel criticized in his regular “On Faith” column. The structure of these shows helps generate the fear they claim to be addressing. The best response to all of this posturing came, oddly enough, from Fox News, by way of a piece called “Muslims can be Patriots too.”
In contrast to this back and forth about Muslims in America, something interesting happened in Calgary, Canada. I believe CNN was the only national news outlet to recognize that Canada’s most conservative city elected a Muslim mayor, in a campaign where his faith was of little importance. The situation is instructive as to how fear, or lack of understanding, does not have to be the defining characteristic of a group of people. The election was about substance, not vitriol. When the question of Nenshi’s religion was raised, there was no relevance to his ability to serve in the office, and the issue was dropped. For an historic event, it received little recognition this side of the border. I have to wonder if it’s because many national news outlets were afraid it would show how shallow their reporting has become when it comes to politics, and especially religion and politics.
The process of instigating fear against an “other” has been part of politics for a long time. However, it gets even uglier when the “other” is internal, because you’re then fearing your neighbor. Despite the fact that we have ample evidence that Muslims have been instrumental in foiling attacks on the US, we still have national media asking if we should fear the name of a religion. Fortunately, local news is still playing an important role in trying to keep their communities intact and add intelligence and nuance to the debate. I hope the national media catches up soon, so we can move beyond “Islam-bashing for political gain.”