Islam and Muslim related issues have taken central stage as leading news stories in America with a frequency of coverage that might make other faiths green with envy. Does all this (un)wanted attention serve to bolster the perception of Muslims (as the saying goes, “any publicity is good publicity”) or does it present a scenario of helplessness in which ones faith is gawked and bawked at willy nilly by political opportunists and an overwhelmingly complicit uncritical media? Or both?
The answer to the first question is that it is not always true that “any publicity is good publicity,” if you believe that then there is a New York City Cab driver with whom I would like you to speak. The attention that has been levied on Islam and Muslims has taken stories that were really “tempests-in-a-tea-pot” and made them into hurricanes that only highlight the helplessness American Muslims face when it comes to their relationship with the media and society.
Take the example of the NYC Mosque and Cultural Center. This story was whipped up into a frenzy by a pair of bigoted anti-Muslim bloggers, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, two individuals who should be summarily dismissed as loons that have zero influence in the mainstream media or amongst any of our politicians.
Yet, we are reaping the fruits of their persistent and belligerent disinformation campaign about a “mosque at Ground Zero,” smears against an Imam who has been sponsored by the State Department as a diplomat, and a Muslim community that is being indicted as collectively guilty for the crimes perpetuated by a fringe extremist organization. Muslims are told to be sensitive to the those who are insensitive, to quietly take the bigotry and move elsewhere. For some, the heavily accented Dutch neo-fascist politician Geert Wilders’ cry of “no mosque here” resonates and is far more familiar than appeals to the Constitution and the rights of their neighbors.
More egregiously however has been the silencing of Muslim voices in the face of the perpetuation of stereotypes resulting in the witting and unwitting explosion of prejudice directed at Muslims. Muslims are only brought on TV to respond to crises, sometimes these crises are wholly manufactured by an uncritical media. A case study on this is needed but let us take the example of the threat against the South Park creators by Revolution Muslim and the International Burn the Koran Day by Pastor Terry Jones and his Dove Outreach Church.
The controversy that swelled around South Park was initiated by Revolution Muslim, a fringe group even amongst extremists, composed of about 4 morons with below zero credibility in the Muslim community. In fact, they were kicked out of the mosque they attended and were relegated to being scraggly street side loons with a bull horn. Most people with common sense who passed them by on the street viewed these people for who they were, a bunch of nuts.
However, for whatever reason the media took it upon itself to give them a voice. These nobodies became the spokesmen for Muslims, and in an even worse move Comedy Central lent credence to the threat by canceling the South Park episodes that included the Prophet Muhammad. No one asked Muslims for their opinion, Comedy Central didn’t bother to consult Muslims, instead they chose the path of self-censorship (or what some cynically term a PR stunt) at the expense of Muslims. The result was a perception that Islam not only can’t take criticism, not only do they react violently to such criticism but they can’t even handle their Prophet being depicted by people who don’t hold the same opinion as they do about pictorial representations of holy figures.
This perception metastasized into a phenomenon that pitted false paradigms against one another, leading to the willful deafness of one group so consumed by its perceptions that it ultimately resulted in the wrongheaded and thoroughly Islamophobic “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”
What did the media do to correct the ignorance it helped to perpetuate? Nothing. The damage was done, the story that was headline news for a while faded into the abyss of old news but the residue of perception remained.
Fast forward to the past few weeks and the debate over whack job Pastor Terry Jones’ call for an International Burn the Koran Day on 9/11. He based his action on Acts 19:19 in which the early Christians burned the books of witches. He believed he was doing the Godly, righteous thing since Islam was “of the Devil” and leading people to the doom of Hellfire.
But notice the difference in the coverage of the Revolutionary Muslim crackpots and this Terry Jones character. Even though both are fringe groups/individuals with unbelievably small followings, only one group, Revolutionary Muslim, was allowed to define a whole religion.
The distinction was made consistently and repeatedly from the top echelon of our government all the way down to our media that Terry Jones and his followers were a minority who don’t speak for Christianity or America, but the same point was given scant time or attention when it came to the South Park Controversy.
This double standard has to end because it is intellectually and morally dishonest and only perpetuates a perception of Muslims as backward primitives defined and represented by their least common denominator, a myth that can, as we have seen in the past, have dire consequences.