by Steven R. Corman, Jeffry R. Halverson, and Chris Lundry
Recent weeks have seen an uptick in anti-Muslim events and associated rhetoric in the U.S. Controversies include:
- The Park51 project in New York, popularly known as the “Ground Zero Mosque”
- The International Burn a Quran Day being planned for 9/11 by the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida
- Various other incidents, such as the stabbing of cab driver Ahmed Sharif in New York, a man urinating in the prayer room of a New York mosque, the punching of a man wearing a turban in Seattle, and arson of construction equipment being used to build a new Islamic community center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Analysts have warned of the negative consequences that these controversies could have as they played out in foreign Muslim audiences. Jeff Halverson, writing in this blog, concluded that they would widen the say-do gap of the United States. Other analysts warn that the rhetoric surrounding these controversies is a boon to extremist groups like al Qaeda. Evan Kohlmann, quoted in a Wall Street Journal piece, warned: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”
In a Daily Show bit on August 25, John Stewart poked fun at such warnings, comparing extremists to a crazy ex-girlfriend. Referring to the Park51 project he said:
Apparently the jihadists are the only ones in this whole [expletive] thing that can’t lose. It doesn’t matter what we do… See one side says our weakness emboldens jihadis. The other side says our strength embitters jihadis. How about we try a new system where we don’t give a [expletive] about what they think?
While it’s true that there is little profit in worrying about what the extremists think, the same is not true of mainstream Muslims.
Estimates are that about one-quarter of the world’s population is Muslim. The vast majority of these people are peaceful. Were that not true the world would have been a smoking ruin long ago. These average Muslims, both in the U.S. and abroad, are the “territory” in the much talked about “battle for hearts and minds,” and it matters–a lot–whether or not they think the U.S. is in a clash of civilizations with the Muslim world.
This is a fact that we think has received too little attention in the current controversies. It’s not so much about how extremists view them; that is predicable. But how are they playing with mainstream Muslims?
We decided to have a look. In this, the first of a four-part series, we see how the Park51 project is playing in the media of the Muslim world. In part two, we do the same for the Qur’an burning controversy. In part three we look at various other recent anti-Muslim incidents, including those mentioned above. We conclude in part four by looking at some generalities across the cases, and drawing some conclusions about how we could communicate about such issues in ways that better serve our national interests.
As it has in the American media, the Park51 Project (formerly Cordoba House) has received significant attention from media outlets aimed at predominantly Muslim audiences. The media sources examined below range from online message boards and blogs to major news outlets, such as al-Jazeera. In many cases, an interaction between these different media sources is also evident. Three themes we discovered include the notion that the controversy stems from hatred of Muslims, that it is somehow linked to Zionist interests, and that not all Americans agree with the anti-Mosque/Muslim sentiments.
Hatred of Muslims
A significant theme in the stories and posts we reviewed is that the controversy over the Park51 project reflects negative attitudes toward Muslims, ranging from distrust to hate. A thread on an Arabic message board from the website Muslim.net criticizes the “Swine director” of al-Arabiya news organization, Abdel-Rahman al-Rashed (a photo of him smiling with George W. Bush is shown), for his opposition to the Park51 project and his criticism of Obama’s tacit support for the project. The post is a response to materials carried by mainstream media sources, likely Western in origin. The e-signature in the message board post emphasizes the extremist orientation of the user, it includes a statement declaring that America will meet its end between 2011-2012, “God willing.”
On another Arabic language message board, this one focused on Salafi Islam, a post quotes the “leader of the Tea Party movement (Hizb al-Shay)” Mark Williams, as saying that Muslims are “animals of Allah” and “the [Park51] mosque is for the terrorists to worship a monkey god.” The same post further explains that the Tea Party is a conservative right-wing movement, mostly of white religious people, associated with the Republican Party, and that it has also been involved in racism scandals. The post also notes that some believe the group is a reaction to America’s first black president. The source for this information is not given, but it appears that it is largely derived from a mainstream news source.
In a panel discussion aired on al-Jazeera on August 24, As’ad Abu-Khalil, Professor of Political Science at the California State University, said the controversy is part of a widespread hatred of Muslims in the U.S.: “We must admit that there is a hate ideology against Islam in this country, which is no different from other hate campaigns such as the anti-Jewish Nazi hostility.”
Writing in Dawn Online, Tariq Fatemi argues that the Park51 controversy is a worrying sign of larger anti-Muslims sentiment in the U.S.:
These efforts cannot be dismissed as the actions of a fringe group, as confirmed by a recent Time magazine poll which found that 61 per cent of Americans oppose the project. The poll also found that 43 per cent of Americans hold unfavourable views of Muslims, while 21 per cent were convinced that most Muslims in the US are not patriotic Americans. Further confirmation of this alarming tendency has come in the growing opposition to mosque construction in other American cities, notably Nashville.
Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia posted a story noting plans by the FBI to monitor mosques in America, and linked it to the Park51 project. The story notes that 51 percent of Americans “still view Muslims in a negative light.” In a subsequent post, HTI links the attack of taxi driver Ahmed Sharif to the project: “After all of the anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding the debate about Park51… it’s not surprising that many people, the opponents, act in other ways: attacking a taxi driver.” The story notes other recent acts against Islam as well, including a man urinating in a mosque in Queens and the vandalism of a mosque in Fresno (these events will be covered in parts 2 and 3 of this blog post).
Links to Zionism
Some outlets linked the controversy to Jewish or Zionist interests. One large outlet, the Arabic language al-Jazeera, had a news story that appears to be a standard mainstream news report. However, it explicitly identifies a Democratic state legislator who opposes the Park51 project as Jewish. The story does not mention the fact that Mayor Bloomberg, a leading supporter of the project, is also Jewish. Bloomberg’s religion is not identified in the article, even though his position on the project is mentioned.
An additional article from the major Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masri Al-Yom, relates that a group of ulama (religious scholars) from al-Azhar in Cairo responded to endorsements of the Park51 project from the New York Times and columnist Thomas Friedman (both perceived as pro-Israel) by stating that the mosque project is actually a sinister plot to forever link the 9-11 terrorist attacks to Islam. Another scholar quoted in the article adds that Islam is innocent of the 9-11 attacks and the Park51 matter is part of a Zionist conspiracy.
Similarly, in Indonesia the Gencar Alhulbait Nusantara posted a blog with the title “The Tragedy of 911 a Failure of the Zionists.” Although the title is inflammatory, and there is an image of a monkey with a star of David on its face, the post itself notes the interfaith coalition of Jews, Muslims and Christians who have come together to support the project.
Finally, an editorial from Karachi, Pakistan, similarly notes: “It is truly unfortunate that the Cordoba project [i.e. Park51] has provided an opportunity to the neo-con media abetted by the Anti-Defamation League and the cowardly Democrats to uncork national hysteria to gain short-term advantage by pandering to fears.” The editorial continues by noting recent poll numbers from Time magazine to claim that “these [anti-Islam] efforts cannot be dismissed as the actions of a fringe group” and cites the growing opposition to mosque projects throughout the U.S., not simply near Ground Zero.
Diversity in U.S. Opinion
Other media outlets have been far less negative about the controversy, however, and seemingly at pains to acknowledge the diversity of opinion about the matter in the United states. A Saudi Arabian news site, Jedda Arab News Online, carries an editorial that states:
It is not in the Middle East or Afghanistan that the struggle for hearts and minds needs to be won, it is in the US and Europe. There is a real danger of Islamophobia becoming mainstream in the US, as is happening in Europe. Islam is being used by the right in the US as the midterm elections approach to frighten voters into line.
But the editorial does conclude on a positive note, stating: “We must remember, too, that there are many Americans who are not ignorant or bigoted, with them we need to work.” The same source sent a similar message in an August 27 editorial:
If ever there was a need for interfaith and intercultural dialogue, it is now. While the furor over plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York continues, there comes yet another poll about Islam in the US. The latest suggests that Americans do not believe Islam encourages violence and that they think Muslims should have the right to build mosques wherever they want.
That the proposed site has become a campaign issue is echoed in Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia’s coverage. It notes that Democrats, including Harry Reid, have spoken out against the project, and that President Obama has backtracked on his statement of support.
The leftist-nationalist Cumhuriyet in Turkey also reported diversity of U.S. opinion about the project, saying:
Despite growing opposition to the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero, the New York Neighbors for American Values, a coalition of the families of 9/11 victims, voiced support for a Muslim community center and mosque near the site of the Sept 11 attacks in Manhattan.
Overall, the Park51 controversy has generated a good deal of negative coverage in Muslim foreign media. Most of the opinions we found suggest that the controversy indexes distrust or hatred of Muslims, and worries that the controversy may only be the tip of a looming iceberg. Other discussion links the controversy in one way or another to Jewish or Zionist interests. Taken together, these opinions suggest a double bind: If the project is allowed to continue it will be because it serves Jewish interests in aggravating tensions between Muslims and Christians. If it does not proceed, it will be an indication of U.S. hostility to Muslims.
At the same time, the coverage has not been uniformly bad. Many outlets emphasize that the opponents of the project are not representative of the U.S. as a whole, and/or attribute the controversy to conservative election-year politics.
Overall it is safe to say that the controversy has not created a firestorm in the Muslim world, as some worried it might. Speaking in an interview on National Public Radio last Thursday, Ramez Maluf, professor of journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said of the controversy:
Surprisingly, there hasn’t been the amount of coverage that one would expect. There has been quite a few opinion pieces written in newspapers and so forth, but not really to the extent that I think most of us would have expected.
Tomorrow, in Part II of this series, we’ll examine foreign reaction to the “International Burn a Qur’an Day.”