The Muslim PR Problem
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.