Fort Hood Fallout: Cultural Racism & Deteriorating Public Discourse on Islam
One month after the Fort Hood massacre, it is important to reflect upon what the incident teaches us about America’s political culture. Much has been made, rightfully so, of Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s actions - specifically the murder of 13 people and wounding of another 30. These attacks are understood by many as symbolizing an alleged war between Islam and the West. Media reports commonly highlighted Hasan’s claims that he was a “servant” and “soldier” of Allah, and his criticism of the “War on Terror” as a “War on Islam.” The conservative Washington Times editorialized that Fort Hood was a case of “Islamic Jihadist terrorism,” while Christopher Hitchens argued in Slate Magazine that “an alarmingly high proportion of terrorists are Muslim.” Marty Peretz of the New Republic concluded that Hasan’s actions had to be taken into account in light of the U.S. “war on terror,” which is “actually fighting Muslim men and, lest we forget, Muslim ideas.”
Commentary on the Fort Hood incident in cable news relied on racist stereotyping that portrayed Hasan’s actions as representative of Islam’s central beliefs. In interviewing reactionary pundit Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity asked: “are the members of those that buy into radical jihadism that say they are practicing Muslims, do you think that percentage is high? Do you think that it’s astronomically high?” Coulter answered that, while “there are plenty of patriotic macho Muslims fighting for America, but we don’t know who they are because you can’t count on the military to throw out somebody like Hasan. So you find a Muslim in the military and now you just have to assume that this could be another Hasan.” Coulter’s comments should be understood in light of her history of racist anti-Muslim statements. After 9/11, Coulter argued that “Congress could pass a law tomorrow requiring that all aliens from Arabic countries leave,” and that the U.S. “should invade their countries [those responsible for 9/11], kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” In an interview with Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin claimed that “we’re dealing with an [Obama] administration that doesn’t even want to say the words ‘jihad.’ We’ve got an administration that thinks the real threat is so-called right-wing terrorists and right-wing extremists and has never issued a report from the Dept. of Homeland Security about the threat from Islamic jihad.” Racist rhetoric wasn’t limited to right-wing media. On CNN, Howard Kurtz interviewed former Republican National Committee member Cliff May, who concluded that Islam is in a state of defacto war with the U.S.: “one of the lessons of this [attack] ought to be that those Muslims serving honorably in the military, those Muslims who are there to serve their country and be patriotic, they’re taking a great risk because they know they’re going to be accused of turning their back on their religion by putting their country first.”
It’s often useful to provide a point of comparison when examining stories in the U.S. media. In this case it’s worth looking at how an incident like Fort Hood is portrayed as fundamentally tied to the central tenets of Islam, in comparison to how the murder of “abortion doctor” George Tiller is less often tied to Christianity. This point of comparison is very apt, considering the background of the two cases. Both cases involved individuals who were suspected to be mentally ill prior to their respective attacks. Additionally, Hasan’s comments regarding Islam and violence have been well documented, while Scott Roeder (charged with killing Tiller) retained ties with right-wing Christian groups. Most specifically, Roeder had ties with David Leach, the publisher of Prayer & Action News magazine, which publicly declares that the murder of doctors providing abortions is justifiable under the teachings of Christianity.
It is common to find associations in the press between Islam and terror, while Christianity is exonerated as a motivating factor in terrorist acts. This is apparent after analyzing all the stories in American cable news (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox) in the three weeks following the Fort Hood massacre (November 5-25, 2009) and the three weeks after the Tiller murder (May 31-June 20, 2009). First and foremost, the Fort Hood story was three times more newsworthy, being featured in 458 stories, as compared to 139 in the Tiller incident. Some might claim that the Fort Hood story was covered more because of the larger number of deaths (13 in Fort Hood vs. one in the Tiller case). This explanation doesn’t explain, however, why Islam is consistently linked with terror, while Christianity is not in the reports. Cable news reporting on Fort Hood mentioned Hasan’s background as a “Muslim,” and the Muslim faith in general, in 266 stories (or 58 percent of the total stories) as compared to the Tiller case, where there were only 35 stories (or 25 percent of the total stories) that referenced his killer Scott Roeder as a “Christian” or referenced the Christian faith in general. In short, Islam is more than twice as likely to be associated with Hassan than Christianity is to be associated with Roeder.
Closer examination demonstrates that news reports create a strong association between Islam and terror. There are 178 cable stories (or 39 percent of all stories) that mention Fort Hood alongside discussion of the “Muslim” faith and “terror/terrorism.” Compare this to the Tiller case, where just 7 cable stories (or 5 percent of the total) include discussion of the “Christian” faith and “terror/terrorism.” Most incendiary in these stories are references to “Islamic terror” or “Muslim terror,” which were mentioned 20 times in the three weeks following the Fort Hood case, as compared to discussion of “Christian terror,” which was never mentioned once in the three weeks following the Tiller murder. The lesson here is clear: discussion of Islam as a terrorist faith appears literally on a daily basis in cable news, while discussion of Christian terror is considered beyond the pale. Perhaps most abhorrent are the media and political commentary about the dangers of Islamic “jihad” in light of Fort Hood. Media pundits, who have been called upon to provide expertise on the relevance of Islam to Fort Hood, ignorantly attempt to create associations between the Hasan murders and the teachings of the Muslim faith. The comments below reveal much arrogance and incompetence on the part of the U.S. media punditry:
- On CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, Congressional Representative Peter Hoekstra commented that Fort Hood represented “a tragic reminder of the potential deadly consequences of the threat posed by homegrown jihadism and the failure of the government to adequately respond to it.”
- On CNN Newsroom, correspondent Drew Griffin stated that “it is that jihadist version of Islam which allows them to conclude the killing of American soldiers is justified, that the attacks of 9/11, and that an attack on almost any American is justified.”
- Lou Dobbs, the xenophobic former host of CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight interviewed CUNY professor Phyllis Chesler, who lambasted President Barack Obama for failing to mention Islam in a speech he made in reaction to the Fort Hood attacks. Chesler concluded: “No Muslim was mentioned [by Obama], no Islamist was mentioned, no jihad was mentioned.” Chesler explicitly supported linking the Muslim faith with terror, as she argued that “I think it [referencing both jihad and Islam] would have given strength to the troops. Name who you’re fighting.”
It should be pointed out that none of the guests discussed above have any expertise whatsoever in the study of Islam, the Arab world, or the Middle East. Chesler is a psychotherapist and women’s studies scholar, with a history of publishing for conservative publications (such as the National Review). She has attacked those who call for a boycott of Israel (until Israel ends its illegal occupation of Palestinian land) as anti-Semitic. In a recent National Review piece, Chesler condemned activists supporting the Israeli boycott, framing them as affiliates of “the military, terrorist, and propaganda war against the Jews.”
What is most disturbing about the above commentary is its misreading of jihad as a part of the Muslim faith. “Jihad” is defined simply as a spiritual and religious struggle against the evil that is a part of all people. Jihad is considered a duty of all Muslims, commonly referenced in the Qur’an - to “struggle” against evil and “striving” to live according to the laws of God. As International Relations and Islamic Studies professor John Louis Esposito explains in his book, Islam: The Straight Path, “Jihad requires Muslims to ‘struggle in the way of God,’ or to ‘struggle to improve one’s self and/or society.’” Four kinds of Jihad are understood to exist today: struggle against one’s self, struggle of “the hand,” “the tongue,” and “the sword.” While practicing Muslims understand the nuances associated with jihad, American journalists and pundits have stripped away any intellectual understanding of the term in favor of a representation that views jihad as exclusively terrorist. This is deeply problematic, especially for Muslims who openly discuss the concept of jihad as a form of general struggle against evil. These individuals must fear being attacked as fundamentalists by American journalists, politicians, and the general public.
References to “jihad,” “jihadist” efforts, and “jihadism” were rather common following the Fort Hood attacks, as they appeared in 70 features, or 15 percent of all the stories on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox - the vast majority of stories relying on racist stereotypes, rather than a nuanced definition, in their use of the word. Similarly the jihad references appear more than 250 times in the three weeks of reporting on the three cable outlets, 12 times on average per day, or once in every other story on Fort Hood. The conflation of jihad with fundamentalism is dramatically contrasted with discussion of “Christian fundamentalism,” which is not referenced a single time in cable news, and fails to appear in even one story on the Tiller murder.
While warnings about the dangers of Christian fundamentalism are absent from reporting and editorials, active demonization of doctors providing abortion is allowed, and even fairly prominent. Bill O’Reilly made it a personal crusade to demonize George Tiller in the years running up to his murder, as the comments below suggest:
- O’Reilly condemned Tiller for “operating a death mill,” for having “blood on his hands,” for “executing babies about to be born,” for Tiller’s efforts to “destroy fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000,” and for being a “baby killer.” On one program in 2006, O’Reilly even congratulated himself for stating that Americans “can’t be vigilantes” in response to his own claims that “if I could get my hands on Tiller - well, you know.” The lessons from O’Reilly and Fox News are obvious: it’s perfectly acceptable to engage in culture war in the name of Christianity, while peaceful Muslims must fear the belligerent and racist attacks on jihad from those who fail to understand the basic meaning behind the words they use.
There are many contributors to anti-Islamic public sentiment. My statistical analysis of public opinion studies from recent years suggests that negative views of Islam are more likely to be held by the following groups: older Americans, whites, Republicans, conservatives, Protestants, the less educated, and heavy media consumers. A November study by the Pew Research Center finds that 79 percent of Americans are “very” or “somewhat concerned” about the “rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S.” Concern with Islam as an extremist religion is long-standing. Pew data suggests that concern with the danger of “Islamic extremism” was as high in 2007 as in 2009. One Pew study from September 2007 found that nearly half - 45 percent of Americans - thought “Islam encourages violence”; 53 percent had a “favorable” view of Islam, while nearly 30 percent had an unfavorable view. While just 15 percent described Muslims as “devout,” “peaceful,” or “dedicated,” twice as many respondents said Muslims were “fanatics,” “radical” or “terrorists.” Unsurprisingly, my statistical analysis finds that, after controlling for other demographic variables, media consumption plays a significant role in encouraging negative views of Islam. About one third of Americans explained that they got their opinions of Islam primarily from the mass media, while those who relied on the media for their information were consistently more likely to hold negative views. In contrast, those who personally knew someone of the Muslim faith were more likely to have a favorable view of Islam, to support having a Muslim president in the future, to reject claims that Islam encourages violence, and to agree that their own religion has similarities with Islam.
The assault on Islam is unfortunate in light of evidence suggesting that there is little support in the Muslim world for a “clash of civilizations” between the Middle East and the West. While the “clash of civilizations” thesis - as developed by scholars like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington - has received tremendous attention in academia, it appears to hold little weight when looking at the reality of the Muslim world. A recent BBC poll from February of 2007 finds that a majority of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world reject the claim that there is a conflict between Islam and Western countries, and deny the claim that such a conflict is an “inevitable part of life.” Most say that the conflict in the Middle East (by regional actors and outside actors) is the result of a contest over political power.
As the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board concluded in 2004, most throughout the Middle East don’t hate American freedoms. On the contrary, polling data reveals that most resent the fact that the U.S. has denied freedom by supporting repressive regimes and for either supporting illegal occupation (the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands) or for conducting its own occupation in Iraq. Similarly, majorities throughout the Middle East oppose U.S. threats of war against Iran and U.S. plans for permanent military bases in Iraq and in the Gulf region. Finally, the vast majority of people in Muslim countries reject the use of terrorism against U.S. civilians, with support for attacking Americans averaging just 6 percent across countries surveyed by the Program for International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). Contrary to the image of Muslims as bloodthirsty aggressors, a majority of Iranians felt as of 2008 that the development of nuclear weapons is “contrary to the principles of Islam.”
While most Muslims do not support a religious war with the West, they do feel that Islam is under assault from the U.S. A 2007 poll published by PIPA found that 79 percent of people in Muslim countries surveyed felt that “the U.S. goal is to divide and weaken the Muslim world.” The most common reasons given for this conclusion were: the positioning of U.S. bases in holy lands such as Saudi Arabia, support for Israeli Zionism, which excludes Palestinian Israelis from full citizenship rights, and consistent U.S. and allied attacks on Muslim majority countries/nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. While most American critics of U.S. foreign policy (including myself) reject the idea that an attack on Islam is the driving force behind U.S. actions in the Middle East, it’s easy to understand why most Muslims feel this way after abuses like Abu Ghraib and regular U.S. attacks on Muslim countries. The belligerent rhetoric in our press, accompanied by the animosity expressed by many American political leaders against Muslims, suggests that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism are deeply embedded within American elite and mass culture.
Anthony DiMaggio teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University. His new book, “When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent” is due out from Monthly Review Press in February 2010. He is also the author of: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” (2008). He can be reached at: email@example.com