Notes From Babel

The Muslim PR Problem

with 7 comments

Here are some of my take-away thoughts from the Federalist Society discussion today on the big three current issues concerning America’s tense relationship with Islam:  Koran burning, the Oklahoma Sharia law, and the Ground Zero Mosque.

First, the idea that the Muslim community center planned for development at Park51 might be the result of pure intentions is simply not credible for many Americans.  As a colleague observed, either Abdul Rauf & co. are akin to the nuns at Auschwitz, or they are truly trying to extend the olive branch and advance the cause of Muslim goodwill.  It is hard to believe the latter given the divisiveness of the project.

Professor Larry Rosenthal, under whom I studied First Amendment law and criminal procedure at Chapman, makes a strong case for permitting the Park51 project.  There is little question the Constitution protects the right to develop the mosque.  The more perplexing problem, however, is how we deal with prevailing American attitudes about Muslims and Islam.  Rosenthal emphasized that there is no shortage of examples in our history of Americans “overreacting” to perceived problems with other religious and racial groups.  We were once confident that Jews—“Christ-killers”—could not be assimilated into our predominately Christian culture.  And yet today we proudly proclaim our “Judeo-Christian values.”  We overreacted to Japanese-Americans during WWII and, on the basis of security concerns, indiscriminately interned them without a shred of evidence of any Japanese-Americans abetting the Japanese war effort.  From these sorts of examples, Rosenthal argues that we have every reason to distrust our intuitions about races, cultures, and religions that may seem strange and foreign to us today.  It is within our power to “choose” not to be offended at the Park51 project and, Rosenthal urged, we ought to so choose.

There is something to this argument.  Certainly, we have to be cautious not to repeat mistakes we’ve already made.  And the Park51 project seems innocuous enough—it’s just a community center, after all.  And it’s not even physically at “Ground Zero.”  It’s at an old Burlington Coat Factory two blocks away, near two strip clubs and a lingerie store, among other things.

In fact, the whole thing seems like such a non-issue that this itself becomes an issue:  Why are Americans so apoplectic about what seems like such an innocuous project?

My theory is that Muslims are simply bad at PR.  Consider two other religions with rocky starts in American culture, Mormons and Jews.  Mormons gave up polygamy long ago as a condition for gaining statehood in Utah.  Jews spun off the Reformed Judaism movement in large part to advance their ability to assimilate and gain acceptance among Americans.  In so doing, both groups have gained wide acceptance in American culture.  Muslims, on the other hand, still tend to be somewhat monolithic.  While American Muslims are probably much more moderate than Muslims in other parts of the world.  And Americans certainly want to believe this.  Yet, few seem to grasp whether or what formal or doctrinal differences exist between “our” Muslims and the Sharia-embracing chauvinistic Muslims of Saudi Arabia, for instance.

And still, it is not American Muslims who seem to be leading the charge in advancing a new nomenclature that would readily distinguish themselves from their crazy counterparts.  Instead, it is good-hearted Americans who want so badly to believe that true Muslims, American Muslims, their Muslims, are actually more a part of American culture than some mysterious “Muslim culture.”  So we come up with words like “Islamofascism” and “radical Islam” in order to conceptually distinguish the loony Muslims from the real Muslims.  This need to make sense of the difference between the true Islam and the hijacked Islam is so strong that it played itself out on live television a couple weeks ago.  The poor ladies on The View were so overcome with their own overinflated political correctness that they walked off their own stage when Bill O’Reilly stated that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”  The implication is obvious:  anyone describing that kind of Muslim must not fail to so designate, e.g., by using one of our neologisms like “radical Muslim.”  But why is it that Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar are leading this charge?  This, in my view, should be a bit of an embarrassment for American Muslims.

There is also the sense that American Muslims are much too measured in their condemnation of terrorism.  I grant the issue of terrorism is not often enough addressed in the broader historical, sociological, and political context that it warrants.  So when a Muslim is asked “do you condemn Hamas,” I think the reluctance to give an unequivocal “yes” owes to the fact that while terrorism is indeed awful and unforgiveable, Muslims more than ordinary Americans want to urge a level of understanding as to why it exists.  In this sense, the implication seems to be that if we strive to understand why Hamas employs terrorism, we might understand that, while it goes astray from time to time, it does not deserve to be condemned wholesale.

This is a fine academic exercise.  As an undergraduate, I studied some of the psychological and sociological causes for the rise of Nazism and the German people’s acceptance of the persecution and attempted genocide of the Jews.  But the vast majority of the time, it suffices merely to condemn Nazism and genocide as unequivocally evil and move along.  There is a causal explanation for everything if we care to look for it hard enough.  But it strikes ordinary Americans as conspicuous when their Muslim counterparts try so hard to “understand” terrorists.  It might even strike Americans as something of a duty to condemn terrorists.  The time for critical analysis and sociological inquiry can occur in another forum; when plainly asked whether one condemns an organization that employs terrorism, the answer should be, simply, “yes.”

So these were some of my take-aways from the riveting discussion today.  I think Americans would be willing to let things like the Park51 project remain the non-issues they should be, if only they had greater assurance and understanding from the American Muslim community what they are all about.  What are American Muslims thoughts on sharia?  On theocracy?  On women’s rights?  This information is available to those who seek it, but those who would seek it don’t tend to be the cranks banging on pots and pans.

All that said, here’s a pretty uplifting music video by Lena Khan, a female Muslim filmmaker.  The song is by a Muslim country singer named Kareem Salama.


Written by Tim Kowal

December 1, 2010 at 12:30 am

7 Responses

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  1. several interesting points to mull over … but I have a question for you (or anyone else) based on my initial reaction:

    you imply that the animosity towards Park 51 is due more to optics than substance. this closely parallels Obama’s go-to explanation for intense public dissatisfaction with his policies. while I think the points you raise about bad PR are generally true of overall American thinking about American Muslims, I think the rejection of Park 51 is more specific and based on more than bad PR, as is America’s rejection of Obama’s policies.

    I have always felt – strongly – that the problematic variable with Park 51 is the people, not the religion. both Imam Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, struck me as disingenuous and duplicitous when I first saw them, and neither has done anything to make me reconsider that gut reaction. And the money guy (name escapes me at the moment) seems shady at best. And this is not some conditioned perception I have inre Muslim Americans; in fact, in 10 years of teaching college, I have developed favorable assumptions about Muslims as they are more often than not very good students (thoughtful, appreciative, respectful, hard-working).

    So my feeling has been, since this controversy began, that if the public side of Park 51 was totally sincere and forthright, there would have been little, if any controversy. Thus my question: do you think the intensity of the public animosity would be roughly the same toward ANY Muslims who would attempt such a project?


    December 1, 2010 at 11:14 pm

  2. I realize I didn’t really flesh out my colleague’s question, which I only alluded to at the beginning of the post. His question was right along these lines. Would it matter, he asked, if instead of a nice, peaceful mosque, the plans for the Park51 project called for large displays of the burning towers and honorific photographs of the glorious martyrs who struck the historic blow to the Great Satan? I agree this is quite relevant.

    My point is, if a Christian church planned to do something like this, they’d be promptly labeled a cult and sapped of all legitimacy. But if a Muslim group does this, well, we don’t have any official or customary way of understanding it other than some Muslims want to kill us, and some Muslims want to drink Coke and root for the Yankees. It’s just one baffling continuum.

    But again, short answer, religion is a powerful force, and like any powerful force, can be used for good or evil purposes. History does not make us look hard for examples of Christians behaving badly. At present, we don’t have to look at all for instances of Muslims behaving badly—that reality is in our faces and feeling us up in airports.

    Tim Kowal

    December 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm

  3. to clarify my thinking:

    There have been stories about public rejection of a mosque down south somewhere – Tennessee, I believe. My gut reaction when I first heard that story, and every time I’ve heard it since, is that such a reaction is sad and wrongheaded. I suspect the story has been blown out of proportion as per media SOP, but to whatever extent that nasty attitude is true, I chalk it up to the foolish intolerance that exists at the margins of every society.

    so sure, there are numerous stories of intolerance, but Park 51 is unique in that it is the only example of widespread, persistent “anti-Muslim” animosity.

    every single incident of anti-Muslim anything is grabbed and amplified in the media, which contributes to a perception of widespread and rising anti-Muslim American sentiment, but all one needs to do is look at FBI hate crime statistics to put this into perspective. Only a tiny fraction of reported hate crimes every year are committed against Muslim Americans. The vast majority of hate crimes committed every year are towards a different specific minority, and I bet most Americans would be surprised at who that actually is…


    December 1, 2010 at 11:30 pm

  4. “a nice, peaceful mosque”

    I’m challenging this premise. I do not perceive Park 51 this way, nor do many, many Americans who otherwise do not harbor anti-Muslim American sentiment.


    December 1, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    • I see I badly miscommunicated my thought. I meant this in a hypothetical sense, and not to suggest that the Park51 project is, in fact, designed to be a “nice, peaceful mosque.”

      Tim Kowal

      December 2, 2010 at 12:19 am

  5. […] a comment » Having recently blogged about what I called the “Muslim PR Problem,” I think this article about the DREAM Act also indicates sort of PR problem with respect to […]

  6. […] McCarthy to talk about the King Hearings on the question of radical Islam.  A few months ago, we hosted a panel discussion on the Park 51 mosque (a/k/a the “Ground Zero Mosque”) and the Oklahoma […]

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