Thursday, September 30, 2010

Why Americans distrust Islam so much

At a recent gathering I challenged a few friends to name the most popular Muslim comedian in the last ten years.

No one had an answer, but they all agreed with me when I said "Dave Chappelle." Most said they never knew he was a Muslim.

Now what can we learn from this story? It's obvious, really: Well-behaved Muslims rarely make the news.

Americans usually encounter Muslims who wear their star and crescent on their sleeve when they are harming people. America laughed alongside Dave Chappelle for years without knowing his religion. This isn't some plot by the media to shuffle the good Muslims in with the rest of society and let the bad ones represent Islam. Instead, its a failing of Muslims to announce their religion and motivations as loudly when they do good things as when they do bad.

This is a blindness to public relation tactics, as I've written before. If your group has an undeserved bad reputation, it is your responsibility to improve that reputation. Unfortunately, most of the work I've seen in this direction is in attempts to shame critics of Islam, instead of showcasing positive Islamic accomplishments.

A Steve Chapman piece this week demolished some of the myths about the scope of anti-Muslim hatred in America:

For the most part, Muslims have achieved integration and acceptance. Only a quarter of them say they have ever suffered discrimination. Most have many non-Muslim friends.

Could that be because non-Muslims do not regard them with fear and loathing? Hate crimes against Muslims do not support the charge that Americans are frothing Islamophobes. In 2008, there were only 105 anti-Muslim incidents, compared with 1,013 against Jews.

Chapman made a lot of other great points, such as the hate crimes that do happen get a lot of attention the same way airplane crashes get more attention that car accidents. When asked if Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, 35 percent of Americans said yes. However, 42 percent said no.

Still, 35 percent is not zero. That's a significant portion of our nation. Are these people blinded by some irrational hatred of a foreign religion?

If they are, you have to include President Obama in that list, as he and a number of military officials warned that a small Florida church's aborted stunt to burn a Quaran would encourage terrorism.

"You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan," Obama told ABC television in an interview.
He went on to say that this would turn more Muslims into terrorists and possibly cause suicide bombings in American and European cities. Anti-Christian stunts, like purposely-blasphemous art and Bible burnings, do not carry the same dire warnings of violent retribution.

The red herring here is terrorism. I agree with the defenders of Islam that its foolish to mix up the phrase "most terrorists are Muslim" with the incorrect "most Muslims are terrorists." I'm used to this fallacy, often in the form "most whites are bigots" or "most conservatives are racist." Those are false statements and people who say them are not thinking.

But terrorism isn't the only time Muslim violence and human rights violations dramatically splash across the television screen like a vial of acid on the uncovered face of a young woman. Look at the culture in Islamic states. Gay men are publicly decapitated in Saudi Arabia not by bloodthirsty mobs, but as a formal part of the legal system. Thieves there are luckier; they only have their hands cut off. Don't forget "honor killings," where typically a father kills his own daughter for crimes such as being a rape victim, trying to get out of an arranged marriage or not following the local dress code.

It wasn't terrorism when Ayatollah Khomeini commanded all Muslims to murder Salman Rushdie for writing a novel that insulted Islam. He didn't even have to write the book to deserve death; the Quaran clearly demands the execution of all apostates. Theo van Gogh was murdered for making a film highlighting the abuse of women in Islamic societies, but his assassin was merely a religious extremist, not a terrorist. What about the three-digit body count following the Dutch cartoons that criticized Islamic terrorism, wasn't that really the work of angry mobs? When two Spanish nuns were murdered after the Pope insulted Islam, was that really a terrorist act, or a hot-blooded reaction? Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, wasn't a terrorist. He just decided that there is only one response to repeated insults to Islam.

So yes, most of our Muslim citizens are better than that. An Iranian immigrant I interviewed when I was a reporter told me about how much better it is here in America where he has such wild freedoms as the right to wear short-sleeve shirts in public. The Chapman article I posted earlier revealed most Muslims in America think women are better off here - a far cry from burqa promoters of the Middle East who say the American society forces women to dress like whores.

But Christopher Hitchens showed how peaceful Western Muslims will sometimes use the terrorists and their capacity for violence to get what they want:

We are wrong to talk as if the only subject was that of terrorism. As Western Europe has already found to its cost, local Muslim leaders have a habit, once they feel strong enough, of making demands of the most intolerant kind. Sometimes it will be calls for censorship of anything "offensive" to Islam. Sometimes it will be demands for sexual segregation in schools and swimming pools. The script is becoming a very familiar one. And those who make such demands are of course usually quite careful to avoid any association with violence. They merely hint that, if their demands are not taken seriously, there just might be a teeny smidgeon of violence from some other unnamed quarter …
The reason so many Americans distrust Islam is based on what they observe. Yes, those anecdotal observations are flawed, but only to a point. The bad is louder than the good because the bad is so very, very loud.


  1. It does seem likely that our distrust of islam is based on the fact that we see more examples of Islamic-inspired violence than we do examples of peaceful or good muslims because of the bias that the news has for violence. On the other hand, if only 35 percent of Americans say they think islam is more likely to inspire violence than other religions, which is a minority percentage of the total of Americans, this seems to say that we actually don’t have a bias towards them, despite the negative media image portrayed of them. I’m a little confused as to whether you feel muslims are actually being unfairly discriminated against, though, as you seem to also imply, (and I agree), that it is actually legitimate to accuse the Islamic religion of being violent, as all the examples you give demonstrate (such as the cartoon killings, salmon rushdie, van gogh, killing gays, etc.).

  2. It's not an issue of media bias. The problem is how much people allow the media to shape their world view.

    There are real hate crimes against Muslims in America. That is unjust and wrong. However, the religion as a whole deserves some criticism for the actions of its extremists, and the large amount of power given to those same extremists.