Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Good for What Ails Us

Falwell and Robertson Stumble

Pacifism on the Record

When Our Allies Persecute

No Bad Sects in France

The Stem Cell Conundrum

Gain, No Pain

On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times

Letter to the Editor and Reply


Religion After 9-11: 
Islam is Everywhere

by Mark Silk

Never before have the American news media concentrated as much attention on a religion as has been devoted to Islam and its adherents since the September 11 attacks.

"American Muslims joined a stunned nation Tuesday in denouncing the attacks in New York and Washington—and then braced themselves for an anti-Islamic backlash," wrote Los Angeles Times religion reporters Larry Stammer and Teresa Watanabe September 12. Across the country, similar stories were produced by newspapers of all sizes. Here’s a small collection of September 12 headlines:

"Local Islamic leader disavows acts" (Poughkeepsie Journal); "Island’s Arabs fear backlash" (Staten Island Advance); "Muslims on Defensive" (Newark Star-Ledger); "Muslims fear attacks may cause backlash" (Hagerstown, Maryland Herald-Mail); "Bloomington Muslim community ‘in shock’" (Bloomington, Indiana Herald Times); "Area Arab Americans express outrage over attacks, fear backlash" (Grand Rapids Press); "Alabama Muslims angered, concerned by attacks in New York, D.C." (Birmingham News); "Islamic residents voice their horror of Tuesday’s attacks" (Plano [Tex.] Star Courier); "Arab, Muslim communities fear backlash" (Portland Oregonian); "[Muslim] Groups express sorrow and fear" (Boston Globe); "Muslims in the U.S. Are Scared of Backlash" (Wall Street Journal).

The dominant impulse was to show American Muslims as loyal, law-abiding people who should not be blamed for terrorist acts apparently committed by a few of their co-religionists.

In the September 13 Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, columnist Brad Flory told of his German-American forebears, who bought German war bonds up to the point the United States entered World War I on the other side. "Dirty Hun" is what they called his grandfather during the war.

"The grandfather I knew was a rock-ribbed Republican farmer who could have held the pitchfork in ‘American Gothic,’" wrote Flory. "He sang beautifully in church, was director of the country school and served on the board of the grain elevator. He sent two sons and one daughter, an Army nurse, in the service during the second big war against Germany.
"All this is my roundabout way of saying that Americans of Arab descent are not our enemy today."

There was, however, an additional consideration when it came to this latest suspect alien group. Flory’s mellifluous grandfather had, like most other Americans, been a Christian. Americans of Arab descent—at least the ones now in question—belonged to a religion that was unknown and possibly ominous to their fellow citizens.

So it was also important to show that Islam was a religion that did not condone such attacks—that it in fact opposed suicide and the killing of innocents.

"Terrorist plot contradicts faith," ran the headline on a Bakersfield Californian story September 12 quoting the imam of the local Islamic Center. "Tuesday’s attacks were not the result of fundamental teachings, but the work of mentally deranged people, according to local Muslim leaders," wrote Juanita Westaby and Andrew Debraber in the Grand Rapids Press September 13.

"Leading American scholars and practitioners of Islam said yesterday that Osama bin Laden had twisted and debased Muslim theology in a videotaped statement in which he called on 'every Muslim' to 'rush to make his religion victorious' by emulating those who attacked the United States on Sept. 11," began Jacques Steinberg’s October 8 story in the New York Times.

Even the supermarket tabloids were with the program. The October 9 issue of the Globe featured bin Laden on the cover amid such revelations as "How he tortures women," "His secret addiction," and "How he shames his faith." Inside, a 200-word "Quick Guide to Islam" began, "Osama Bin Laden may say he practices Islam, but the terrorist leader is in fact a traitor to his faith—which is a religion of peace."

This pattern of coverage was more than two decades in the making. After the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Iranian radicals in 1979, the news media were filled with supercharged accounts of "Islamic fundamentalism" and the "arc of crisis" in the Middle East. Criticism from both ordinary Muslims and scholars of Islam persuaded journalists to be more careful in their treatment of the religion, particularly when it came to local Muslim communities.

In the 1980s, newspapers began to include Islam in their regular religion coverage—for example, by adding an annual Ramadan story to the round of annual Christmas and Easter and Hanukah and Passover stories. And when something bad was done in the name of Islam at home or abroad, a reporter would hasten to solicit reactions from the local imam, affording him the opportunity to condemn whatever had occurred. Anti-Muslim backlash—actual or anticipated—became an important element of the story.

Encouragement for such coverage also began to come from Muslim umbrella groups, which, like other religious lobbies, learned the importance of media relations. After September 11, the Islamic Circle of America posted on its web site a "sample letter to Media" stressing the anguish and sorrow of American Muslims, their fear of backlash, and the unIslamic nature of the attacks. Along with the letter was a contact list of national media organizations.

Not that there wasn’t reason for concern. In one of many articles filed from the heavily Muslim city of Dearborn, Michigan, the New Yorker’s Mark Singer wrote sympathetically of Mohammed Esa, a Yemeni immigrant who after September 11 was fired from his job at the small welding company where he had worked for 15 years. The attacks on the World Trade Center, said Esa’s erstwhile boss, made "their religion—you might as well write it as I say it—the scum of the earth."

The efforts of the media to counter such sentiments were of a piece with the scores of post-September 11 interfaith services that made sure to include Muslim religious leaders among the presiding clergy. Meanwhile, politicians from President Bush on down emphasized that Islam was not the enemy. (President Clinton had done the same in 1998, when announcing U.S. air strikes against supposed terrorist targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan after the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.)

It was open to question how long this period of good feelings would last. Sixty years earlier the attack on Pearl Harbor initially elicited similar expressions of support for Japanese-Americans. In California, where most of the Nisei lived, the press all but unanimously proclaimed their loyalty and good citizenship. For example, the Contra Costa Gazette editorialized a week after Pearl Harbor that Japanese Americans "are as indignant as their fairer brothers over the cowardly assault of the Japanese warlords on American possessions."

But fears of Japanese sabotage and espionage soon began to take hold. Western congressmen started beating the drums for removing the Nisei from the West coast and citizens berated U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle for opposing it. And newspaper editorials shifted 180 degrees. "Occasionally some misguided but well-intentioned individual will make the statement there are some loyal Japanese," opined the aforementioned Gazette after President Roosevelt’s February 1942 evacuation order. "But there are none such."

Two months after the September 11 attacks, no such turnaround had come close to occurring. Vigilante assaults on Muslims and people mistaken for Muslims (Sikhs in particular) seemed to be on the wane, as if Americans had taken to heart the kind of condemnation leveled by the Denver Post September 18: "As Americans bristle with patriotism in the wake of terrorist assaults, we also must shoulder some shame over ignorant, vengeful attacks on Muslims and others who simply appear to be Muslims."

Timothy’s Egan’s October 18 New York Times report on the handful of Muslim families living in Laramie, Wyoming (emblem of anti-gay violence), featured more evidence of supportive neighbors than hostile ones. Ditto the Hartford Courant’s story about non-Muslim women at the University of Connecticut wearing headscarfs as an act of solidarity with Muslim women. "Benevolence Prevails Over Backlash" and "Neighbors rally behind Muslim school" ran headlines in the October 6 Washington Post and October 14 New Orleans Times-Picayune respectively.

Yet the news from abroad about Islam was not so positive, especially after the bombing of Afghanistan commenced. "[F]rom Iran to Jordan, Afghanistan to Egypt, a unifying thread within much of the Arab world is anti-American sentiment," wrote the Buffalo News’ Nikki Cervantes October 7.

By mid-October, newspapers from San Francisco (Chronicle, October 14) to Boston (Herald, October 15) were paying critical attention to America’s longtime ally Saudi Arabia as the home of Wahhabism, a form of Islam both puritanical and xenophobic. From Riyadh, the New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar reported that 10th graders in Saudi public high schools are taught to be loyal to fellow Muslims and "to consider the infidels their enemy." The Saudis, wrote MacFarquhar, had tirelessly sought to export Wahhabism around the globe.

The primary export market for Wahhabism seemed to be Pakistan, where the Saudis had over the years help set up many madrasas—Islamic schools whose curriculum blended traditional Koranic study with radical Islamic politics. First-hand reports on the madrasas (whose numbers were variously estimated at between 7,500 and 39,000) could be found from October 4 to October 22 in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, USA Today, the Baltimore Sun, and on ABC’s Nightline.

Reporting for the New Yorker from Cairo, Jeffrey Goldberg portrayed a flood tide of anti-American and anti-Israeli feelings among Egyptian clerics and intellectuals. An article by Mark Baxler of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also datelined Cairo, designated Egypt as a "seedbed of terror." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Brian O’Neill devoted his October 21 column to an e-mail from his cousin, an English teacher in the United Arab Emirates, lamenting the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

In the introduction to Newsweek’s October 15 cover story, "Why They Hate Us," lead author Fareed Zakaria waved away the image of the Koran as manifesto of peace. "Quotations from it usually tell us more about the person who selected the passages than about Islam," Zakaria wrote. "Every religion is compatible with the best and worst of humankind."

"Fundamentalist Islam is flexing its muscle in traditionally moderate Southeast Asia," began Paul Wiseman’s October 30 USA Today dispatch from Kota Bharu, Malaysia. On November 1 the New York Times published a lengthy report from correspondent Norimitsu Onishi headlined, "Rising Muslim Power in Africa Causes Unrest in Nigeria and Elsewhere."

The arc of crisis was back, with a vengeance.

At the same time, the comfortable contrast between the good patriotic Muslims at home and the bad ones over there was becoming less black and white. Closer scrutiny of American Muslims disclosed more ambivalence about the United States and its policies than wartime patriotism might seem to require.

"They are Americans who feel duty-bound by Islam to obey American laws," began an October 7 New York Times story by Susan Sachs on high school students at a private Islamic school in Brooklyn. "But some of them say that if their country called them to war against a Muslim army, they might refuse to fight. They cannot be shaken from the conviction that America is intrinsically anti-Muslim. Yet they see it as the one place where Muslims are free to be themselves."

After a visit to the Muslim Community School in Potomac, the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher reported, "Almost no matter what they were asked, the students’ answers often included something about how the United States should focus not just on bin Laden’s terror network but on ‘the real terrorists,’ which is their code name for Israel, which they refer to as ‘the illegitimate Zionist regime.’" At the same time, Fisher noted that, according to a Zogby International poll, 69 percent of Arab Americans favor an all out war against countries which harbor or aid terrorists," as compared with 61 percent of all Americans.

A few reporters took note of The Mosque in America, a comprehensive survey of the American Muslim community undertaken by the Council on American-Islamic Relations as part of a larger congregational study project of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research. It showed (among many other things) that while 77 percent of mosque spokespersons "strongly" or "somewhat" agreed that America was "an example of freedom and democracy we can learn from," 67 percent "strongly" or "somewhat" agreed that America was "an immoral, corrupt society."

"With American Muslims, there is this feeling of being torn between our nation and our solidarity with Muslims around the world," the imam of a large mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, told Jean Marbella in the October 28 Baltimore Sun.

Ambivalence was one thing. Speaking out of both sides of your mouth was another. At the end of September, Cleveland was roiled by the discovery that Fawaz Damra, an imam prominent in local interfaith efforts, had previously helped found a militant group linked to bin Laden’s network. A 1991 videotape of Damra calling Jews "the sons of monkeys and pigs" was aired on Cleveland television, and Damra’s subsequent apology was widely deemed inadequate.
Similar discoveries were made about several other leading Muslim clerics—including two among a group invited to the White House to meet with President Bush. "Publicly, mosque leaders stay on message: Islam is peace, and we are Americans," wrote the Washington Post’s Hannah Rosin October 29. "But contradictory statements have leaked out….What if peaceful and radical co-exist within the same community? Or within the same mosque? Or within the same person?"

Lamenting that the crypto-radicals had been protected from FBI scrutiny by their religious status, the conservative syndicated columnist Linda Chavez declared, "Nothing requires us to tolerate those who would kill in the name of religion, or encourage or assist others to do so."

To be sure, there was no shortage of moderate Muslim voices. "It is time for Muslim scholars and intellectuals throughout the world to participate actively in the campaign against religious extremism," wrote physician Izaj A. Jatala in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed October 23. American Muslims "need to realize there are really extremist elements that need to be countered openly," Harvard graduate student Aisha Y. Musa told the New York Times in an October 29 story headlined "Moderates Start Speaking Out."

"We have let a vocal minority hijack Islam," Chicago Muslim leader Umar Faruq Abdallah told Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle October 7. In an October 30 story, Newsday’s Carol Eisenberg described Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at Adrian College in Michigan, as "one of a growing number of young, moderate Muslim thinkers who believe themselves engaged in a battle for the soul of Islam."

Needless to say, such moderation hardly lessened concerns about Islamic extremism. Meeting in Boston in late September, the Religion Newswriters Association issued a warning against using the phrase "Islamic terrorist" and similar terms—on the grounds that they "seem to associate an entire religion with the actions of a few." But by the middle of October a number of commentators had began to suggest that Islam itself was the problem.

"The problem is that Islam has a quarrel with us, and the antagonists are not simply a few extremists trained in the use of a box cutter," sometime Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Michael Skube contended in the Washington Post Outlook section October 21. "By now, the elephant—or camel, if you will—in the room can no longer be ignored: Islam not only exhibits a frightful intolerant streak at times, but its very nature seems to be one of intolerance."

Similar opinions were expressed in the New York Times by Andrew Sullivan ("This Is a Religion War") and Salman Rushdie ("Yes, This Is About Islam"), by Paris-based Iranian journalist Amir Taheri in the Wall Street Journal ("Islam Can’t Escape Blame for Sept. 11), and by UCLA Law School acting professor Khaled Abou El Fadl in the Los Angeles Times ("What Became of Tolerance in Islam?").

"The politically incorrect view of Islam seems to be gaining momentum," Robert Wright noted in the online magazine Slate October 24. Indeed, although there were prominent dissenters (notably Cleveland State University law professor David Forte, the president’s informal adviser on things Islamic), a slightly hysterical feeling of Western Civilization Under Assault began to take hold.

Daniel Pipes, an independent scholar of Islam who became the media’s go-to assailant of Islamic militancy, insisted that the enemy was not Islam but "Islamism"—the current academic term of choice for the political ideology of those eager to bring about the rule of Islamic law. For Pipes, it didn’t matter that most Islamists were not terrorists. Islamism was the equivalent of fascism.

Writing in the New York Post November 13, Pipes contended that many American Muslims are Islamists who would like to turn the United States into an Islamic state. "It means that the existing order—religious freedom, secularism, women’s rights—can no longer be taken for granted. It now needs to be fought for." That harked back to 19th-century fears that Roman Catholic immigrants were hell bent on turning America over to the pope.

The enthusiasm with which ordinary Afghans greeted the collapse of the Taliban regime in mid-November helped chill out some of the anxiety about the Islamist Menace. Yet there was little prospect of a quick end to the campaign against terrorists acting in the name of Islam or to the anti-Americanism of many Muslims around the world.

On November 13, a visit to Peshawar’s foremost madrasa inspired New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman to urge Pakistan to get down to work melding "modernity, Islam and pluralism." As for the United States, it should get its military operation over quickly and return at a later date with up-to-date books and schools. "Until then," wrote Friedman, "nothing pro-American will grow here."

After September 11, making America safe for Islam was one side of the coin. Making Islam safe for America was the other.

Hit Counter