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How falsely accusing an imam of inspiring the Orlando shooter exposed anti-Muslim bias

A Muslim woman protesting against Islamophobia in New York.
A Muslim woman protesting against Islamophobia in New York.
Kena Betancur via Getty Images

While the Orlando shooting revealed America’s gun control problem, the tragedy also highlighted America’s longstanding anti-Muslim bias in reporting.

As news outlets tried to piece together the background of Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, Florida imam Marcus Dwayne Robertson was falsely identified as inspiring Mateen’s radical beliefs.

Robertson runs an online Islamic seminary, and on the day of the Orlando shooting, Fox News reported that anonymous law enforcement officials claimed Mateen was one of Robertson’s students.

Other outlets — including the New York Post and the Daily Beast — followed suit, but as the Intercept reported, the stories were meritless.

Robertson said he and his staff examined the seminary’s financial and administrative records after the accusations came up. Through that, Robertson told the Intercept, they learned Mateen had no known affiliation with the seminary or Robertson.

Nonetheless, Robertson said he received death threats based on his alleged connection to Mateen, which did not in fact exist.

In 2011, Robertson was convicted for federal tax fraud and illegal gun possession. Prosecutors attempted to add that Robertson’s tax refund was used for "terrorism enhancement" last year based on 20 books within his 10,000 e-book collection. Last year, a judge issued a memorandum stating that the charge was "woefully inadequate." And according to the Intercept, Robertson was immediately released from prison on the grounds of time served.

However, he was similarly accused of terrorism in the wake of the Orlando shooting — now based on insufficient evidence admitted to the court of public opinion by news outlets who help shape it.

Anti-Muslim bias has become a major problem in journalism since 9/11

In contemporary America, terrorism has become synonymous with Islam despite the fact that most domestic terrorism attacks are committed by white, right-wing Christian extremists, not Muslims.

According to the New America Foundation, right-wing extremists were responsible for 18 terrorist attacks in the US compared with 10 terrorist attacks by radical jihadists. Radical jihadists only recently accounted for more deaths because of the recent Orlando shooting.

On the other hand, hate crimes based on anti-Muslim bias were five times higher in 2015 than they were prior to the 9/11 attacks.

The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, released a report in 2015 that found eight donors cumulatively spent $57 million fueling anti-Muslim propaganda from 2001 to 2012.

In a 2012 study in the American Sociological Review, Duke University professor Christopher A. Bail scanned 1,084 press releases about Muslims written by 120 civil society organizations in tandem with more than 50,000 newspaper articles and television transcripts from 2001 to 2008. He found that a "fringe effect" dominated post-9/11 media: Although most organizations had pro-Muslim messaging after 9/11, journalists tended to focus on the small group with anti-Muslim stances. As a result, fringe discussions of Muslims became mainstream.

"The danger, I believe, is that many Americans have not been exposed to the positive messages of moderate Muslim organizations because they receive so little media coverage," Bail told Wired in 2012. "Perhaps because of this distorted representation, we have seen a recent increase in anti-Muslim attitudes within the United States — even though anti-Muslim attitudes briefly decreased after the September 11 attacks."

While Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, makes his bid on a campaign promoting Muslim databases and a plan to ban Muslim immigrants, anti-Muslim sentiments have been at work long before Trump’s contemporary rise to political prominence.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric that demonizes Islam does more than feed into harmful stereotypes. It can also needlessly endanger Muslim people like Robertson.

"In an effort to get people all riled up, they’ve put our lives in danger," Robertson said.