Foreign Reaction to U.S. Anti-Muslim Events, Part IV: Narrative Coherence

by Steven R. Corman, Jeffry R. Halverson, and Chris Lundry

This series has examined the reaction, mostly in mainstream news sources of foreign Muslim societies, to the recent surge in anti-Islam events in the United States. Part I focused on the Park51 (or Cordoba House) project, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” In part II we looked at the controversy surrounding the “International Burn a Qur’an Day,” previously scheduled for tomorrow. Part III examined various other  incidents involving Muslims (actual or imagined) and mosques. In this final installment, we analyze common themes from the incidents discussed in the first three parts, and suggest implications for how these kinds of events could be better handled by the media and government.

Before turning to our analysis, here are updates on some of the events we’ve covered.

Park51 Update

The Siasat Daily, a newspaper in Hyderbad, India, carried a story reporting the condemnation of anti-Muslim sentiment from the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). The story also discusses the other incidents mentioned in this blog series. A representative of the HAF is quoted as saying: “‘If Americans adamantly reject any particular community, what makes them different than Saudi Arabians who don’t allow any other place of worship or the import of any other religious item other than what their Wahhabi leaders allow?”

Qur’an Burning Update

Earlier in the week more high ranking government officials added their voices condemning the event. President Obama said it could “increase the recruitment of individuals who’d be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities,” and that it is contrary to American values. Secretary of State Clinton called the planned event “disgraceful” and said it doesn’t represent who we are. Sarah Palin and David Axelrod have also made statements condemning the plan. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said Clinton had instructed diplomats to reassure foreign leaders that the event does not represent American values.

The proposed Qur’an burning got increasing coverage in Indonesia, in both mainstream and extremist media. An element of the coverage focused on reactions in other predominantly Muslim countries, such as this story in the English-language Jakarta Post. It focused on Bahrain and Pakistan, and included a conspiratorial anti-Zionist rant.  This story from Islamist Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia covered a demonstration in Kabul where an effigy of Terry Jones and the American flag were burned. Much of the coverage also noted the Vatican’s recent condemnation of the event.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to prevent the burning, and several stories question why the U.S. is not stopping Jones: “United States, don’t pretend to be a stupid nation by not banning or taking strong action against Terry (Jones). What will be done by Terry (an insult to Islam) out in the open, he has to be sentenced to death under Islamic law,” said Secretary General Muhammad Al Khaththath of the Muslim Community Forum.

Christian groups, wary of retaliatory violence given Indonesia’s past and recent sectarian violence, continued to release public condemnations of the event. Indonesia’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Suryadharma Ali, issued a statement for Indonesians not to be provoked, but notes that “Whereas only a small group of Muslims committed acts of terror, how could it be that they have given rise to hatred towards millions of Muslims throughout the world?”

Perhaps as a result of this pressure, Terry Jones announced yesterday that he would cancel the event based on assurances that the Park51 project would be moved, and said he would travel to New York to meet with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of the project. This is a bizarre development because to our knowledge Jones never previously linked the Qur’an burning event to the Park51 project, and because Imam Rauf said he didn’t know what Jones was talking about.

Now there is a new report that Jones believes he was lied to by Imam Muhammad Musri of Florida who brokered the erstwhile deal, and that the burning event is only “suspended,” not canceled.

Meanwhile, a report surfaced that another minister, Rev. Bob Old of Springfield, Tennessee, planed to burn a Qur’an at his home on Saturday and post a video of the performance on the Internet. Other Tennessee religious leaders immediately condemned his plans: “The guy is a nut,” said Rev. Larry Herbert of Faith Covenant Church in Springfield.

Assorted Incidents Update

The Ahlul Bayt News Agency out of Iran carried a story on the vandalism of a mosque under construction in Phoenix, Arizona. The article is a standard news report taken from the local CBS affiliate.

Building a Narrative

Beyond opposition in the Muslim world to the events we’ve reviewed, there is reason to be concerned about the larger narrative they create. A narrative is a system of stories that relate to one another and provide a coherent view of the world. Since narratives are collections of stories, the bigger the collection, the more weight the narrative will have.

We find clear evidence that the anti-Islam events that we have described are being linked by foreign sources to form such a system, especially the Qur’an burning and the Park51 project. This Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia story, for example, references the Qur’an burning, the Park51 project, and Qur’an defiling actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This story on Sybab links the Qur’an burning with recent vandalism in mosques in New York and California in the context of “Islamophobia.” Another Hizbut Tahrir story condemns a “wave of Islamophobia” in the U.S., “peaking” with the 9th anniversary of 9/11 and cites the Park51 project, the Qur’an burning, and the stabbing of taxi driver Ahmed Sharif as evidence. Despite the condemnation of some religious groups, it continues:

Anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. continues to grow in recent weeks… the alliance of Zionists, Christian fundamentalists, neo-conservatives and American racist groups continue to revoke the political and social rights of millions of Muslims in the land that “protects” religious freedom.

With yesterday’s developments, we see that some of the players in the U.S. events are now providing linkages too. Terry Jones has implied that his Qur’an burning event was linked to the Park51 project by announcing that his cancellation was due to a decision to move the project. Rev. Old, who has announced a personal Qur’an burning, is located only 60 miles from the site of the construction site vandalism in Murfeesboro, Tennessee.

Linkage to a Master Narrative

A master narrative is an enduring system of stories that is deeply embedded in a culture. In a forthcoming book we describe master narratives that support the causes of Islamist extremists. One of these is the Crusader, which depicts Muslims as under attack by hostile foreign forces bent on subjugating them and destroying their religion. This is not only about the actual Crusades, but later events which many Muslims view as analogous.

There is evidence that recent events are being tied to this larger master narrative. Numerous stories emphasized the idea that Christian political forces in the U.S. were inciting anti-Muslim sentiment for larger ends, perhaps reminiscent of Pope Urban II’s incitement in the 11th century. Many of them used the word “crusade” explicitly.  There is further evidence in reader comments that the analogy to the Crusades was being made.

In Indonesia, several stories have explicitly referred to the Crusades in their coverage of the events that we have chronicled in this series. The English-language extremist blog Prisoner of Joy notes that terrorism is the “counter reaction from (sic) the global colonization carried out by America and Co,” and argues that the Qur’an burning is a sign that the West is at war with Islam and has already been defeated intellectually.

Narratives–either master narratives or the less grand kind–start with a desire rooted in conflict, and create a trajectory of events that promise satisfaction of the desire. The danger is that for Muslims, these recent events will signal a trend of hostility toward Islam in the United States. Extremists will work to relate such perceptions to the larger Crusader historical pattern. If Muslims view this as the conflict they will desire safety, and a logical narrative trajectory will be to defend themselves against the attackers. This is, of course, exactly what the extremists want. We concur with Marc Lynch, who said in a recent post:

By fueling the narrative of a clash of civilizations and an inevitable war between Islam and the West, this unfortunate trend is empowering extremists on all sides and weakening moderates.

Other Notable Patterns

There are some other regularities in the coverage we reviewed. One is attempts to connect the events with Zionist interests. An Iranian government spokesman sought to link the Qur’an burning event to Zionist interests. In the Park51 case, there was an attempt to create a double bind by saying Jewish supporters of the project were part of a conspiracy to inflame U.S. passions against Muslims. In this case the U.S. is in a no-win situation: If the project goes forward it serves Zionist interest, and if it does not, it is evidence of discrimination against Muslims. The Zionism linkage, incidentally, invokes another master narrative, al-Nakba (the catastrophe), which is about the loss of Palestine to the Israelis.

We also found a pattern of selective attention in the reports. There was an effort to identify opponents of the project as Jewish while overlooking the fact that Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken supporter, is also Jewish. Foreign sources failed to mention available evidence that Jewish groups were supporting Muslim interests–for example that the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned the Qur’an burning event. Foreign media neither depicted the opposition of Veterans’ and mainstream Christian groups to this event, nor emphasized that the Dove World Outreach Center is a fringe group consisting of only about 50 followers.

Another clear pattern is that most of the foreign Muslim media sources reported on these events by relaying U.S. mainstream media stories. These were often re-published verbatim, but were sometimes enhanced to sensationalize the incidents. For example, two sources included pictures of a bloodied Ahmed Sharif in their reports on the attack against the taxi driver.

Implications

Official U.S. policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations has been that the United States is not in a conflict with Islam or all Muslims. Yet the events we reviewed form a coherent narrative suggesting the opposite. This is undermining U.S. policy toward the Muslim world, widening its say-do gap, and diminishing its already low credibility with mainstream Muslims.

It is tempting to conclude that some of the players in these incidents want to undermine U.S. policy in this area, and stoke conflict with Muslims. For those of us in the majority who are interested in supporting U.S. policy, there are some implications about how events like this could be better handled in the future.

First, the mainstream media in the U.S. plays a key role in diffusion of these stories abroad. As we noted, most of the foreign reports were straightforward relays of stories in U.S. news outlets. Accordingly, the way U.S. outlets report these stories from the beginning is very important.

Critics (for example, Jackson) believe that the media have an interest in sensationalizing stories, amplifying the controversy they contain and/or emphasizing actions designed to gain attention. This is indeed what seemed to happen in much of the reporting we saw. For example, until recently stories about the Qur’an burning event did not emphasize the obscure nature and small congregation of the Dove World Outreach Center. Nor did they position it within the spectrum of Christianity in the U.S., or feature the negative reaction of other secular and Christian groups to their plans. Early reports on the Park51 project focused on opposition to, rather than support for, the project.

We suspect that most members of the domestic media view their audience as primarily made up of domestic readers and viewers. But in controversies involving Islam or Muslims (if not in other cases) this is a mistake. The domestic media outlets are the primary conduit through which impressions of the U.S. are created abroad. Reporters and editors should bear this in mind. When reporting stories that they know (or should know) will inflame foreign audiences they should take care to put them in context, and seek out commentary from less extreme and/or opposing viewpoints.

A second and related implication has to do with timing. A clear pattern we see is that these controversies arise, are reported, and diffuse in foreign sources, while it takes time for opposing points of view to develop and be reported. Yet it is well known that attitudes are resistant to change once they are established. Accordingly the opposing points of view may have relatively little impact once they are reported (if indeed they are), given the context created by the original reporting. This was the case with the story of the militia group that planned to provide armed protection for the Qur’an burning event (which was reported) but later decided this would be un-Christian (not reported). Those interested in supporting U.S. policy should therefore be more proactive in getting in front of these issues when they emerge, ideally within the same news cycle.

Much the same can be said for U.S. public diplomacy efforts, our third implication. We applaud Secretary Clinton’s recent instructions to diplomatic personnel to fan out and denounce the Qur’an burning event. But had Jones not canceled, it may have been too little, too late. It would have been much better to start this effort when the event was announced earlier this year and was beginning to diffuse in foreign media.

We saw a pattern of willingness to cover U.S. diversity of opinion on these controversies in many cases. The State Department should take advantage of this by playing a more proactive role in detecting the early up-trend of these controversies, encouraging early pro-policy statements by U.S. groups, and drawing the attention of foreign media to these statements.