On September 17, 2001, President George W. Bush gave his "Islam is peace" speech from the Islamic Center of Washington DC, tucked into a leafy stretch of embassy row. He urged the country to embrace "fellow Americans" who are Muslim as well as Islam itself "with respect," explaining to a country full of "anger and emotion" that the jihadists who'd struck a few days earlier were insane outliers and not representative of the religion.
Since then, there has been a tension in how Islam is discussed in American media, and especially in its most populist and popular form, television. Americans typically follow Bush's advice, but sometimes they struggle, particularly when violent extremist groups are in the news. In recent days, that strain of Islamophobia in the US has risen along with media attention to the attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, reaching crisis levels — particularly on American TV news. While this is often discussed as a problem of Fox News, in fact both left-leaning outlets and CNN participate as well, normalizing and mainstreaming subtler forms of Islamophobia that may well be even more damaging.
Because 38 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is Muslim, most of us rely on the media to shape our opinions of Muslims and of Islam. And the media is badly failing in its responsibilities to portray Muslims carefully and accurately. It has forgotten Bush's entreaty, leaving Americans more ignorant about and more hostile toward the 2.6 million Muslim-Americans living in the United States, to the vast and diverse world of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and to the Muslim populations of the Middle East and South Asia with whom our foreign policy, and often our military, is so heavily engaged.
How Fox News leads the effort to make Americans hate and fear Muslims
Fox News is well known for its hostility toward Muslims and Islam, but in the week since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, it has gone above and beyond even its modest standards for acceptable speech.
The most-discussed incident in this has been the bizarre claim by Steve Emerson, a frequent Fox News guest who is presented as a terrorism expert, that the British city of Birmingham is all-Muslim, one of many "no-go zones" in Europe where Muslim immigrants have imposed extremist sharia law and non-Muslims are forbidden entry.
Emerson was mocked for these obviously absurd claims, but his falsehoods were no joke for Fox News viewers, for whom the idea that Muslim-Europeans would set up mini-caliphates is quite consistent with Fox News' characterization of Muslims.
Fox News viewers have been told again and again that Muslim immigration is a terrifying threat; that the line between ISIS and mainstream Muslims is blurry at best; that Muslims are in fact the vanguard of a secret invasion intended to destroy "our" way of life and impose totalitarian religious extremist on "our" families. In addition to being transparently bigoted, these claims are a disturbing echo of anti-Semitic propaganda in 1930s Europe, which characterizes Jews as a monolithic threat and a fifth-column enemy within.
On the more extreme end is weekend host Jeanine Pirro, who on Saturday issued a breathtaking seven-minute monologue in which she explicitly called for the United States to arm death squads throughout the Muslim world to kill all Islamists and members of Islamist organizations.
"We need to kill them. We need to kill them," she said. "Our job is to arm those [non-Islamist] Muslims to the teeth, give them everything they need to take out these Islamic fanatics, let them do the job, and when they do, we need to simply look the other way."
Pirro, to clarify that she was calling for the murder of not just jihadist extremists but Islamists generally (a term that means anyone who desires Islamic politics or government), specifically named the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a group that renounced violence years ago and whose 100,000 members includes a number of women and children.
Pirro's rant was unusual in its specificity, but still well within, and perhaps the inevitable result of, the narrative that Fox News has presented about the supposed threat of Islam and Muslims. We got a glimpse at where that narrative comes from on Friday, when Rupert Murdoch, the chief of Fox News parent company News Corp, tweeted, "Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible."
The bigotry in this statement is self-evident: the idea that all 1.6 billion Muslims are somehow responsible for the actions of a handful of extremists whom they abhor, and the implicit call to collectively punish all Muslims in retaliation for a few bad apples. What made this tweet so disturbing is Murdoch's influence as the head of a vast and global media empire, which has made fomenting Islamophobia a priority.
Fox News is an important component of American media's Islamophobia, and the hate and fear it is instilling. But if it were truly Fox News alone, the problem would be much milder; it would perhaps even become a partisan issue, which while never a fast route to nuanced discussion, at least creates debate. Rather, this is a project in which Fox News is only the most obvious offender; the channel's supposed rivals on the left and on mainstream CNN are in fact active and crucial partners in the effort to vilify Muslims. In many ways, they are worse.
The American left's voice of bigotry against Muslims
In October, as American attention to ISIS coincided with the previous of many upticks in media Islamophobia, the center of the conversation was Bill Maher, a comedian and HBO talk show host who is well-known for his Islamophobic views. Maher said that month that "vast numbers of Muslims want humans to die for holding a different idea" and share "too much in common with ISIS." This was all part of his ongoing argument conflating the tiny number of violent extremists with the 1.6 billion worldwide Muslims who largely abhor those extremists.
In one famous incident, when Maher called Islam "the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing" (another guest on the panel, author Sam Harris, called Islam "the motherload of bad ideas"), it was left to guest Ben Affleck to call these opinion "gross" and "racist." There were, of course, no Muslims on the panel who might have the chance to speak up.
While Maher isn't just the loudest and most candid voice on the left in his bigotry toward Muslims, he is the ideological counterpart to Fox News that helps make hate bipartisan.
With their help, there is a subtler, more pervasive, and far more dangerous Islamophobia that has crept into mainstream news coverage. This is the Islamophobia that presents itself as a critical and candid study of Islamist extremism, but in the process does just what Maher and Fox News do: conflates extremists with the vast, un-extreme majority, perpetuating the assumption that extremism is the default, that Muslims share inherent traits that make them worse than the rest of us, and that they are guilty of extremism until proven innocent.
How CNN helps set Islamophobia as the default
You saw this crystallize on September 29, when CNN invited on Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, to respond to Maher's earlier comments. To start, the segment was based on the false premise that Maher's bigoted (and factually incorrect) claims versus Aslan's scholarship made for a balanced debate, akin to an "experts disagree on global warming" segment pitting one loony skeptic against thousands of scientists.
CNN's segment went off the rails after only 20 seconds. Aslan was explaining that Maher had been incorrect to blame female genital mutilation on Islam, since it both predates Islam and is common across large Christian and Animist parts of Africa. Those facts are widely established and easily confirmed with a Google search, and yet CNN co-host Alisyn Camerota interrupted to repeat Maher's falsehoods as fact, challenging Aslan to respond.
That a CNN anchor would uncritically repeat a widely debunked Islamophobic trope and would put the respected Muslim scholar on the defensive, while implicitly backing the anti-Muslim bigot, is one of many recent signs that Islamophobia is not only tolerated on American TV news, but it is often the default position.
At one point, Aslan, to make the case that Muslims are not defined only by their extremists, noted that Muslim-majority countries had elected female heads seven times. Co-host Don Lemon interrupted him again. "Reza, be honest though. For the most part it is not a free and open society for women in those states," he said.
Imagine a CNN anchor pointing to Russia and Venezuela and Congo to ask why Christian countries are so backwards. Imagine that anchor telling an expert on Christianity, "Be honest, for the most part Christian countries are not free and open societies for women." His argument would seem ridiculous, his thinking clearly bigoted.
Camerota chimed in to agree that Saudi Arabia, population 29 million, somehow defines all 1.6 billion Muslims. "In Saudi Arabia, when women can't vote and they can't drive, and they need permission from their husbands, that's not extremists," she said. "That's not extremists. That's commonplace." But only Saudi Arabia has such laws, which are widely reviled in the Muslim world.
Aslan went through the paces of denouncing Saudi Arabia's gender restrictions. But he had had enough: "You know, this is the problem, is that these kinds of conversations we're having aren't really being had in a legitimate way. We're not talking about women in the Muslim world. We're using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That's actually the definition of bigotry."
But the CNN hosts were undeterred. After cutting to a video, Lemon asked, with a straight face, "Does Islam promote violence?"
Imagine if Lemon had demanded a prominent American Rabbi answer "Does Judaism promote greed" or asked a member of the Congressional Black Caucus to acknowledge the merits of the KKK's arguments. Then you can start to understand how Lemon's question looks to the 2.6 million Muslim-Americans who have to listen to this every day.
Don Lemon, by the way, is still at it: in early January, during a discussing with Muslim-American human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, Lemon interrupted him mid-sentence to ask, for no obvious reason at all, "Do you support ISIS?"
Praise of Muslims is often couched in destructive stereotypes
Even when attempting to portray some Muslims in a positive light, the message often ends up reinforcing Islamophobia. Take, for example, the praise this fall of United Arab Emirates air force Major Maryam al-Mansouri, a female fighter pilot who flew in the US-led missions against ISIS.
American media coverage portrayed Mansouri as a representative of UAE's progressiveness on gender equality, when in fact the country is objectively quite bad on women's rights. The fact that we allow them such a lowered bar represents a soft bigotry of lowered expectations and bizarrely ignores more progressive Muslim countries, which for some reason do not seem to count.
When MSNBC's Morning Joe held a panel on Mansouri, which the UAE ambassador attended, the hosts repeatedly contrasted the UAE with Saudi Arabia in a way that explicitly framed Saudi gender restrictions as the default and the norm for Arab and Muslim societies. What these misconceptions have in common is to endorse the idea, which originates with ultra-conservative Islamists and Islamophobic racists, that Muslim and Arab countries will naturally set a lower standard for women's rights.
There is also an uncomfortable degree of chest-thumping that typically comes with American praise of Mansouri. It's common to see TV hosts, for example, speak directly into the camera and ask some variation of, "You got bombed by a woman, how do you like that, ISIS?" A large number of Internet memes make this same point.
This treats women's progress in the Middle East as primarily something that matters when it can be used to humiliate Muslim men. It co-opts Mansouri and Muslim women generally into a sort of practical joke that we Americans get to play on our enemies. This may help explain why commentators praising Mansouri are so often ignorant of the actual facts about the status of women in the Middle East: they care about what she represents for jingoistic insults of America's enemies, not for what she represents for female advancement.
The Islamophobia feedback loop
The implicit racism on CNN and MSNBC and elsewhere does more than just normalize Islamophobic stereotypes and assumptions: it helps pave the way for far more explicit racism.
You saw this effect in real time on CNN, just a few days after the Reza Aslan segment. Lemon and Camerota appeared on CNN host Chris Cuomo's show to discuss the fallout. With the set now absent of any actual Muslims, they were free to dismiss Aslan and his concerns and to argue, misleadingly, that they were just following their journalistic responsibility to "ask the question."
Cuomo backed them up and then went much, much further. Cuomo argued that Aslan had proven why Americans should be afraid of Muslims, that the "Muslim world" bore collective responsibility for the rise of extremism, and that Muslims are inherently more violent. His quotes are below:
Also, his tone was angry. He wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it. Look, here's what you guys were exposing yourself to. This is the state of play in journalism today. The Muslim world is responsible for a really big part of religious extremism right now. And they are unusually violent. They're unusually barbaric in the places where it is happening. And it's happening there more there than it is in other places. Do you therefore want to generalize? Of course not. But you do want to call a situation what it is. It's not a coincidence that ISIS begins with an I. I mean, that's what's going on in that part of the world. Doesn't mean other faiths can't be violent and other cultures can't be violent, but you shouldn't be afraid of the question.
If Cuomo had said this about any other major religious or ethnic group in the world, he would be immediately fired and run out of journalism. But when it comes to Muslims, hate is tolerated.
It's not difficult, unfortunately, to find similar examples on Fox News. It's worth revisiting a few examples, if only as a refresher on how Islam is discussed on the network:
They've been doing this for hundreds and hundreds of years. If you study the history of Islam, our ship captains were getting murdered. The French had to tip us off. I mean these were the days of Thomas Jefferson. They've been doing the same thing. This isn't a surprise. You can't solve it with a dialogue. You can't solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It's the only thing these people understand.
We should have been profiling on September 12, 2001. Let's take a trip down memory lane here: The last war this country won, we put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, we dropped nuclear bombs on residential city centers. So, yes, profiling would be at least a good start. It's not on skin color, however, it's on ideology: Muslim, Islamists, jihadist. That's a good start but it's only a start. We need to stop giving Korans to Gitmo prisoners, we need to stop having Ramadan and Iftar celebrations in the White House. We need to stop saying the enemy is not Islamic. They are.
Bill O'Reilly, October 6, in a segment titled "Is Islam a destructive force?":
The truth is many Muslim nations have not confronted Islamic terrorism, have not attacked violence in the name of Allah and have not even condemned the jihad. There are exceptions to the rule but they are few. ... The truth is that the Islamic jihad could not exist if not for Muslim nations turning away.
While it's tempting to dismiss Fox News as different, to treat its more overt Islamophobia as contained to that network, there is a symbiotic relationship between the Islamophobia on Fox News and that of more mainstream outlets such as CNN and MSNBC.
The mainstream outlets create an atmosphere in which a certain baseline of implicit racism is considered normal. That makes the out-in-open racism you might see on Fox News or Bill Maher seem as if they are merely saying out loud the hard truths that no one else is brave enough to express. And those Fox News bits, in turn, allow for more implicitly Islamophobic TV hosts to position themselves as merely mediating the debate.
'They stood up at the end — they cheered'
The ultimate result of this is that it will further normalize bigotry against Muslims in America, making it the default. This has a real effect on how American voters perceive US foreign policy toward Muslim-majority countries, which you may have noticed involves an awful lot of bombing. It also influences how non-Muslim Americans treat the 2.6 million Muslim-Americans living in the United States.
Popular attitudes toward Muslims are becoming more hostile in the US: Americans are more skeptical about Muslims and Islam, express lower favorability toward Muslims, are more likely to support racial profiling of Muslims, and increasingly say that Muslim-Americans cannot be trusted in positions of government authority.
Sometimes the media is so effective at engendering Islamophobia that you can see attitudes hardening right before your eyes. Maher, in defending his comments about Muslims in an interview with Salon, bragged about as much. Here is he describing how, over time, as he has pounded away at Islamophobia, his once-skeptical audiences have grown to accept and even embrace his ideas:
What I think is interesting is that the audience, my studio audience, has really come around on this issue. When I used to talk about it, it was just either stony silence or outright booing and now I notice quite a shift. ...
When I talked about it at the end of last week's show, they stood up at the end — they cheered during it and they stood up at the end. And when I introduced the topic last night, I'd say about half the audience gave a cheer when I said we need to stand up for liberal principles.
That bears repeating: the audiences used to sit quietly or boo when Maher espoused his hateful and factually incorrect views on Islam. Now they stand up and cheer. That is the power of the American media, and it's a power that is increasingly directed toward prejudice, hate, and fear.
Update: This article was originally written in October, in response to commentary on ISIS. It has been updated to reflect more recent events.