Who fact checks the fact checkers?

Nutrition label

Part of me is hoping we get a good sex scandal next week so we can move off of all-Park51-coverage all the time. On the other hand, now is not a bad time to be on the Godbeat, eh? We have all the excitement right now. There are great opportunities for all sorts of angles. Paul Vitello at the New York Times simply asked a bunch of different New York City Muslims how they feel about the controversy. The result was very well-executed and really fascinating. It’s not heavy on religion so much as accommodation and compromise, but I actually think that’s a better way to handle those very important issues.

Unfortunately, the heated nature topic means we also have more condescending media coverage than most people can stomach. A couple of days ago the Associated Press put out a fact check that had me laughing in the very first paragraph:

A New York imam and his proposed mosque near ground zero are being demonized by political candidates — mostly Republicans — despite the fact that Islam is already very much a part of the World Trade Center neighborhood. And that Muslims pray inside the Pentagon, too, less than 80 feet from where terrorists attacked.

Just a word to the wise, folks. When composing something that you’re trying to pass off as an independent judgment of “facts,” lay off the non sequitirs, politicking, loaded phrases, red herrings and unsubstantiated statements. Or move them lower than the first paragraph, at least! I’m still shaking my head over the use of the term “demonized” in a so-called fact check.

Or there’s this Time article by Bobby Ghosh, which attempts to help out the cause of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero by asserting that, well, “many of Park51′s opponents are motivated by deep-seated Islamophobia.”

In the first paragraph, this piece accuses opponents of being motivated not just by normal, everyday, irrational hatred of Islam but a special deep-seated version of Islamophobia. Yeah, isn’t that a nice way to begin an article? I thought so, too. What’s the evidence? Maybe the full version of the article does a better job than the abbreviated version but. Here’s the “proof,” as it were:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME-Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11.

You have to do more than assert that Islamophobia is a big and growing problem. You have to provide support for that. We’re told that we have no evidence of violence but we have “plenty of anecdotal evidence”? Really? The anecdotes aren’t included in the online version. I assume they are in the print version. But if you’re going to say that America has “a Muslim problem,” I think you should use more than anecdotes and report the research as well as possible and put the data in context so that readers can really understand what you’re alleging. Otherwise, it comes off like more of the broad-brush painting that has characterized too much of the discussion.

Let’s not forget that Islamophobia, is defined as the irrational fear of Islam. Belief that Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers could be based on a phobia, I suppose. It could also be developed from reading a newspaper, studying a recent poll, remembering the events of recent years, or having some knowledge of the different status accorded to nonbelievers in various countries. You don’t even have to be non-Muslim to note those differences. It’s neither criminal nor proof of bigotry to note that religions sometimes teach different things. Those differences include what they have to say about treatment of nonbelievers.

I’ve been very discouraged by this debate, and not only or even primarily because I’m on the losing side of the issue. More than anything I can not stand the way people are talking to and about each other. Claire Berlinski, a writer I follow who lives in Turkey, said that people should not be discouraged or think that the discussion is unhealthy:

No, it’s quite healthy, I figure. These questions about Islam–what it is, who’s a moderate, whether there are moderates–have been subterranean for too long. That’s unhealthy. The mosque is forcing a lot of people to subject their firm but privately-held views, whether well-founded or bigoted, to public scrutiny. That’s not necessarily healthy, mind you–I too am balefully watching the nutcases come out of their hidey-holes–but it’s generally a good thing. It was definitely going to happen sooner or later.

There’s been a stifling veil of political correctness drawn over this subject for fear of exciting extremists–on both sides, mind you. But ordinary people sense that for what it is: flimflam and an insult to their intelligence. If the emotion generated by the mosque prompts this kind of debate, and if it happens, no coincidence, before an election, that’s what democracy is about.

In our very first post about coverage of this debate back in December 2009, Mark mentioned a joke that had run on 30 Rock:

Jenna: You’ve got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.

Jack: I get it. Treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.

Are some media outlets writing about bigotry (real and/or perceived) in order to avoid any meaningful coverage of Islam in general or the propriety of Cordoba House in particular? If that’s the case, it’s not too late to focus coverage where it can do the most good — helping Americans have a conversation they clearly want and need to have.

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  • Steven

    “Let’s not forget that Islamophobia, is defined as the irrational fear of Islam…. It’s neither criminal nor proof of bigotry to note that religions sometimes teach different things. Those differences include what they have to say about treatment of nonbelievers.”

    Is racism then an irrational hatred of another race? Distrusting minorities for being statistically more likely to commit acts of violence is okay?

    Is it proof of bigotry to note that looking at races as a whole, some groups are disproportionally criminal?

    The thing that helps us to not get caught up in racist speech is the knowledge that you’re not talking about a defined group, you’re talking about a bunch of people, some good and some bad. There are good and bad people in your own group, too. I’m very uncomfortable with your article. Seems like you can rationalize a bias against a group any way you want to. Racist folk have been doing it for centuries. It just doesn’t mean you’re not Islamophobic

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Steven,

    Islam is not a race. It’s a religion with adherents of all races. It has doctrines that differ from other religions. It is not bigoted, necessarily, to point this out or believe it.

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    Thanks for saying that quote that Steven cited. When I saw CNN play up that piece yesterday, the idea of irrational fear came quickly to mind. Given Islamic radical’s track record, a good bit of it is rather rational.

    Any irrational part is likely a combo of xenophobia and the above rational fear, but that doesn’t describe most of the politicians deriding the mosque decision.

  • Steven

    I never said Islam was a race. I’m trying to get you to understand that rationalizing a bias doesn’t make an opinion unbiased.

  • Steven

    You understand that if you’re pulling out evidence from evil fringe groups, non-Christians could do the same about our own? Remember the Christian fundamentalist militia in Michigan early this year? The KKK? The Catholic sex abuse scandal?

    Keep in mind I’m advocating we don’t judge an entire people by the actions of a few.

    I’m sure you can rationalize those events away as well, but I’m frankly tired of hearing it. I pray that one day you’ll come to a more nuanced understanding of the world.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Steven,

    Let’s keep comments focused on journalistic issues. How well is the media covering the religion angles in this story?

  • Bill R.

    Steven, I think the problem Mollie was pointing out was that the Time article used the poll result (“46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers”) as evidence of Islamophobia. The fact that some people recognize a certain violent strain in the teachings of Islam and/or in the actions of certain Islamic groups/governments does not mean those same people distrust every Muslims they meet.

    Your comment perfectly demonstrates this point. You acknowledge that some minorities are “statistically more likely to commit acts of violence”, and yet you imply that it is wrong to distrust members of those minorities on that basis. I completely agree with you. But by the standards of the Time article, you and I would be racist (or minority-phobic?) for merely assenting to the factual statement that “minorities are statistically more likely to commit acts of violence”.

    Loving Muslims in our communities does not require that we love the teachings and culture of Islam, and what it does to those inside and outside the religion. In fact, like you said, it often means differentiating between individuals/families and the groups to which they belong. As far as I can tell, the Time article fails to make this distinction, and it assumes that Americans can’t either.

  • Steven

    Oh, before I go, I did want to point out that I definitely enjoyed the first bit of the article. I agree that those newspapers had a pro-mosque bias. They deserve a thorough critique.

  • Dave

    More than anything I can not stand the way people are talking to and about each other.

    This is always a test for the person who believes him- or herself to be tolerant. When one encounters what one perceives as open bigotry (deep-seated or shallow) how does one talk about that if one’s job is report the facts?

  • Donna

    Personally, I’m Islamophobic and not afraid to say so. This is a religion whose mainstream would make me a second-class citizen, and whose adherents have a propensity for hanging on to monstrous ‘traditions’ like FGM. Why wouldn’t I be Islamaphobic ? (I’m also Marxistphobic, in the same way – both are ideologies which seem to produce nasty tyrannical regimes rather easily. )

    It is hardly equivalent to ethnic prejudice – not least because Islam encourages the persecution of non-Muslims by Muslims of the same ethnicity. (Ask any Copt. )

    I believe Sufism is considered the most tolerant branch of Islam. Unfortunately, it is also the smallest and least influential in countries with Muslim majorites.

    I’ll stop being Islamophobic when Muslims who leave Islam don’t have to fear for their lives.

  • Donna

    >You understand that if you’re pulling out evidence from >evil fringe groups, non-Christians could do the same about >our own? Remember the Christian fundamentalist militia in >Michigan early this year? The KKK? The Catholic sex abuse >scandal?

    >Keep in mind I’m advocating we don’t judge an entire >people by the actions of a few.

    I don’t recall anyone in the mainstream Christian world rejoicing over these crimes, the way there was public rejoicing in the Muslim world over 9/11 .

    As a Catholic, I’ll use the abuse scandal as an example : It’s horrendous that a small number of priests and religious abused children and youths in their care. It’s much worse that cover-ups were perpetrated to shield the criminals. But I don’t think there is anybody in Catholicism who uses the Church’s teaching to say abuse is justified, the way a lot of imams use the Qu’ran to justify terroristic attacks.

  • Nickolas

    @ Donna

    So every Muslim is pro-terror. I get it now.

  • Jay

    Mollie, thanks for (again) reminding people that “phobia” means (as Dictionary.com puts it) “an abnormal intense and irrational fear” — and that if the press is trying to use the word, it should produce evidence of irrationality.

    Nickolaus, we don’t know what kind of Islam will be practiced or promoted at Ground Zero, but if the money comes from Saudi Arabia, then it will almost certainly be the Wahhabi form. Do you want to argue that Wahhabism and the attitudes of Wahhabis to non-Muslims are examples of Islam as the religion of peace?

  • Jerry

    Part of me is hoping we get a good sex scandal next week so we can move off of all-Park51-coverage all the time.

    Mollie, you have the power to choose where you focus your time and attention.

  • Bill

    Mollie, you’re a model of Christian forbearance.

  • dalea

    Mollie says:

    Belief that Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers could be based on a phobia, I suppose. It could also be developed from reading a newspaper, studying a recent poll, remembering the events of recent years, or having some knowledge of the different status accorded to nonbelievers in various countries.

    And it can come from knowing actual Muslims who are refugees from religious violence in their countries of origin. The Muslims I have met have all had stories about what religious craziness they fled from. Iranian refugees in particular remain faithful Muslims but denounce the version of Islam in place there.

    Then there are Armenians whose families lived for generation s in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and who now are in the US. There’s a lot of information out there.

  • Nickolas

    The Muslims I have met have all had stories about what religious craziness they fled from.

    They’re still muslims?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Please keep comments focused on media coverage of religious issues.

  • http://newmedianewmexico.blogspot.com/ Mustafa Stefan Dill

    interesting discussion…

    the way there was public rejoicing in the Muslim world over 9/11.

    That kind of reaction certainly wasn’t representative of the Muslim world as a whole, but it produced great iconic TV imagery for broadcast news that left a lasting, but inaccurate impression. Challenge for journalists: how do you balance the impact of powerful imagery when it may not accurately represent the larger context?

    I don’t think you saw Muslims rejoicing here in the U.S.

    But I don’t think there is anybody in Catholicism who uses the Church’s teaching to say abuse is justified, the way a lot of imams use the Qu’ran to justify terroristic attacks.

    But there are ultra right wing Christian groups who’ll use the Bible to justify attacking abortion clinics, etc. That doesn’t make me Christianophobic; I understand it’s not representative.

    Iranian refugees in particular remain faithful Muslims but denounce the version of Islam in place there.

    I bring these up in the context of journalism issues because the diversity of Islam, and more importantly, the evolving process of defining and practicing a moderate Islam in America isn’t well defined for, or surfaced to, the public consciousness. That Islam is characterized as more monolithic than it is, has been well pointed out by GR articles and commentors. Dalea’s point is significant and it’s a story that’s not often chronicled: what’s more American than seeking freedom of religious expression?

    As Muslims, we aren’t doing enough to surface our own stories; I’m trying to do my part to help correct that, but I’d be interested in hearing from other journalists as to why the moderate American Muslim experience isn’t well covered. Not sexy enough? not enough access? Not enough angle? No good stories? Help me help the community help you.

    Sorry if this is hijacking the thread, GR — if you know of a better place to move such a discussion, feel free.

  • Donna

    No, not all Muslims are terrorists. What I’m saying is that those who are are acting on what seems to be a mainstream current in their religion, whereas abortion facility bombers and such, who use various varieties of the Christian religion as an excuse for violence, are most definitely on the fringes of the Christian world.

    I’m not an expert on Islam by any means, though. Are there Muslim majority countries where there is true freedom of religion ? Where a Muslim can convert to Judaism, Christianity, or Hinduism without fearing for his life ? Where non-Muslims are not second-class citizens ? If so, where are the news stories about these places ? Just repeating “Islam is peaceful and tolerant” is far less effective than actually showing examples.

  • Cojuanco

    @ Donna: Let’s see: Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Indonesia are majority Muslim or near so. The latter, in fact, is home to the largest proportion of the world’s Muslims, and has significant Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, who seem to do relatively well (remember, the current President attended a Catholic school in-country in his younger days). The post-communist states also are relatively good as far as religious freedom seems to be concerned – of course, they suppress other civil liberties, but that’s not the subject of this discussion.