clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This cringe-inducing Larry King story shows what polite Islamophobia looks like

Larry King on a 2014 media panel in California.
Larry King on a 2014 media panel in California.
Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images

When we recognize something as being Islamophobic, it typically looks like overt, angry hatred of Muslims. And there is a lot of that to recognize, especially on cable TV: CNN host Chris Cuomo declaring Muslims "unusually violent" and "unusually barbaric," or HBO host Bill Maher saying the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are "like the Mafia" and share "too much in common with ISIS," or Fox News's Bill O'Reilly calling Islam "a destructive force," and so on. Those kinds of openly hateful statements — or, for example, comparing Islam to Nazi Germany — are what we generally think of when we think of Islamophobia.

Focusing on that kind of overt hate is comforting, because it allows us to tell ourselves that the world divides neatly into two categories: that there are the bad people who say the wrong thing and hate Muslims, and then there are the rest of us, and we're doing fine, so we have nothing to worry about.

But this narrow way of thinking about Islamophobia is a lie, even if it's a comforting one. In fact, there is another way that Islamophobia often manifests, one that is less overt and less hostile, but no less destructive — and one that is not limited to people who openly spout hatred on cable TV. This other kind of Islamophobia shows up in the subtle expression of stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims and their way of life: the presumption that simply because of their religion or ethnicity, Muslims and Arabs are violent, backward, misogynist, and anti-Semitic. That unlike "us" they are less than "normal," or even less than human.

This Islamophobia is a kind of soft bigotry of low expectations, and it's everywhere. Former CNN host Larry King illustrated it perfectly, in this stunning anecdote captured by the New York Times's Mark Leibovich:

A dark-skinned man approached and asked King if he would pose for a photo.

"Where are you from?" King asked.

"Saudi Arabia," the man said.

"I’m a Jew!" King informed him. "You sure it’s O.K. to get your picture taken with a Jew back in Saudi Arabia?"

The man assured him that indeed Larry King had many fans in Saudi Arabia. They smiled for the picture. "Thank you, Mr. King," the man said. They shook hands, and King looked him in the eye. "Now," he said, "please, go fight ISIS!"

What makes this offensive is pretty readily apparent (which is, presumably, why it is included in the excellent Times story): King's assumption that a person from Saudi Arabia must therefore hate Jews, as well as his patronizing and bizarre admonishment to "go fight ISIS," which seems to assume that all Muslims everywhere are, by virtue of their religion, accountable for taking on the group.

But offensive as it was, King's message was largely within the bounds of mainstream US media discourse about Muslims. He was being unusually immodest with his words, and the anecdote is drawing outsize attention because of his fame. But the basic pattern of his exchange with the Saudi gentleman was unfortunately all too familiar: Start by assuming that the Muslim or Arab people in question are probably backward and primitive, shower them with condescending praise if they turn out to behave normally, and tell them that they are personally responsible for stopping violent Muslim extremism — never mind that Muslims themselves are by far the most common victims of this extremism.

You could see that familiar pattern in, for example, the media's condescending praise of female United Arab Emirates fighter pilot Mariam al-Mansouri, which typically began with a baseline assumption that all Arab societies are inherently and uniformly backward, and which treated even the UAE's modest advancement as somehow unheard of, when in fact many other Arab states have also made considerable achievements in gender equality — not that these TV outlets would ever report on, say, Tunisia surpassing the US in the proportion of women in government.

You could also see it in the media's coverage of Michelle Obama's decision not to wear a headscarf while visiting Saudi Arabia, which somehow managed to overstate even Saudi gender restrictions, and to imply or outright state that male Saudi officials would be shocked and offended to see an unveiled American woman — which is just as ridiculous and offensive as Larry King assuming a random Saudi fan would be appalled to learn he was Jewish.

These individual acts of subtle Islamophobia add up. Publicly praising Muslims for meeting basic norms of behavior sends the message that it's right and correct to view Muslims as lesser human beings, and that those who do manage to achieve full humanity are outliers. These subtle assumptions are the fuel that feeds the fire of out-in-the-open hatred of Muslims, a fire that is raging bright enough in America that many of our 2.6 million Muslim fellow citizens now fear not just discrimination but deadly violence.

There's no question in my mind that King, like the many others in the media who have perhaps unknowingly repeated these subtler Islamophobic stereotypes, abhors this violence and earnestly wants Muslims to be free from its threat. But his actions, however well-intentioned, play into it nonetheless.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.