Asking the tough questions

REFILE - CORRECTING STAGE OF TOUR Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, executive director of the Cordoba Initiative, speaks to worshippers inside the Fanar-Qatar Islamic Cultural Center's mosque in Doha 27 August, 2010. Abdul Rauf is currently on the second leg of his funded tour to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as part of an outreach effort by the U.S. State Department to promote religious tolerance, according to a State Department spokesman. Abdul Rauf's Cordoba Initiative is building a Muslim cultural centre in lower Manhattan, which currently faces an emotional campaign to block it by conservative politicians and families of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, claiming that locating it only two blocks north of the site was a provocation. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad (QATAR - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION PROFILE)

The other night I caught just a portion of Soledad O’Brien’s interview of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. I rarely watch television news shows but I enjoyed the interview. O’Brien had a good “get,” as they say, and made sure to make the most of it.

Ever since the mosque controversy first came to light last December, in a front-page story in the New York Times, the media have been somewhat hostile to general opposition to the project. That doesn’t seem to have affected the 70% of Americans who think the Islamic center should be moved further away from ground zero. The media approach has seemed to be “If we write just one more story accusing Americans of Islamophobia, they’re sure to come around.” Shockingly, this hasn’t convinced many people. But this story took a completely different approach — asking tough but fair questions of Imam Rauf.

It seems reporters could do a better job of asking some basic questions of the people behind the mosque project. There are some leadership struggles there but many people look to Imam Rauf as the spokesperson for the project. He’s been traveling the world and just got back in-country. Like many public figures, he had the answers he wanted to give and the frame he wanted to give the story. This is perfectly understandable. But O’Brien pushed him a bit — and I think that helped make the interview worth watching. Take this section on financing the project:

O’BRIEN: Will you turn down money from people who, say, give money to Hamas?

RAUF: Absolutely.

O’BRIEN: No question about it? Anyone who supports Hamas cannot give money to you?

RAUF: We will do whatever is absolutely correct and legal and the safe thing to do.

O’BRIEN: Which means what exactly? I mean, because that’s — that’s an extra condition.

RAUF: You see, I’m the visionary behind it. I’m not the actual builder. I’m not the financial expert. I’m not the legal expert on these things. But I have a vision here of establishing something which I know in my heart of hearts will be a powerful instrument of peace.

O’BRIEN: Who would you not take money from? Who would you say no, take it back? Who would you turn it away from me?

RAUF: We would turn away from anybody who is deemed to be a danger to this process.

O’BRIEN: There have been a lot of questions, and I think a fair amount of controversy and criticism about questions that people have had about your take on Hamas. You were asked in an interview in the radio; the interviewer said, is the State Department correct in designating Hamas as a terror group? And you dodged the question. You went on a long time. But there was really sort of no answer to it.

So — and I guess people sense that whatever that answer is, if you — if you don’t condemn Hamas, then in a way maybe you’re supporting Hamas as a terror organization. So I guess I’d ask that question again. Do you — you know, is the State Department right in saying that Hamas is a terrorist organization?

RAUF: I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism.

Fascinating! She also got him to say “had I known this would happen, we certainly would never have done this,” and “If I knew this would happen, this would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn’t have done it,” regarding the project. That got a lot of media attention, and rightly so.

But one of the most interesting parts of the interview, I though, got the least amount of notice. Repeatedly during the hour, Imam Rauf says that if the Islamic center isn’t built at the current spot, that Muslim extremists will explode in a manner even worse than they did following the Danish cartoon crisis, when over 100 people were killed and embassies throughout the Middle East were set ablaze.

Whether or not that’s true, this seems like the unreported angle of many of this past month’s stories. At what point will we see good stories explaining why it’s more dangerous to burn a Koran or move an Islamic center than it is to burn a Bible or desecrate the sacrament or lampoon Mormons?

As important as discussions of the First Amendment are, shouldn’t we see some more stories about this issue of threats of violence among Muslim extremists?

I’d like to know more about why the high-profile burning of a Koran becomes a national security threat when a similar burning of the Torah wouldn’t. This just seems to be a huge part of the story that is begging for additional coverage.

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  • Jeffrey

    I’d like to know more about why the high-profile burning of a Koran becomes a national security threat when a similar burning of the Torah wouldn’t. This just seems to be a huge part of the story that is begging for additional coverage.

    Well, the core of the question is a constant drumbeat in the conservative press and opinion class so it’s not as though the question doesn’t get play. How many times in the last week, for instance, has GR raised the issue of the Mohammed cartoons/violence to make some point about Islam?

    But is it a question that’s dying for lack of exposure in the mainstream press? On 9/11, of all days, I don’t think Americans are confused that extremists within Islam can be violent and that violence is a concern.

    Now, if we are willing to have a broader discussion: the U.S. invasion of Muslim countries, the war on Terrorism that was seen as a war on Islam, our protectorate role of Israel, all of which fuels anti-American animosity of Muslims outside of the U.S., then I think it’s a worthy question to explore for the media.

    But if the question is asked just there can be another round of “look at those savages” talk that is flavored by Islamophobia (which does exist, despite conventional wisdom in certain circles), then I wonder what’s the point and whether it is a good media exercise.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    I’d like to know more about why the high-profile burning of a Koran becomes a national security threat when a similar burning of the Torah wouldn’t. This just seems to be a huge part of the story that is begging for additional coverage.

    Yes!

    And why Muslim extremists will explode in a manner even worse than they did following the Danish cartoon crisis, when over 100 people were killed and embassies throughout the Middle East were set ablaze, if the Islamic center isn’t built at the current spot.

    And what “Islam is a religion of peace” means given the above. I saw on one website that the passage from the Quran about peace that Imam Rauf quoted at the end of interview was from a larger passage that meant that only good Muslims would have peace and others would burn in hell. It said Rauf was conflating submission and peace.

    In Islam, isn’t the house of peace only where Muslims rule and non-Muslims are submitted to Muslim rule?

    Over and over I see selections from the Quran that advocate killing infidels and reference to abrogation of the peaceful passages. And passages from the Quran that Muslims can’t be friendly to Christians and Jews. Also, discussions of Takiyah, the Quranic advice to Muslims to lie and act friendly but holding hate in their heart when they are subordinate to non-Muslims. I’ve never seen any of this discussed or refuted. It seems like the anti-Islam websites have read the Quran and know something of its application while the Pro-Ismlam MSM is writing from ignorance.

  • Jeffrey

    Over and over I see selections from the Quran that advocate killing infidels and reference to abrogation of the peaceful passages. And passages from the Quran that Muslims can’t be friendly to Christians and Jews

    Perpetua, have you read the Quran or are you relying on anti-Islam websites for all your information? It’s a little like relying on Athiest websites to explain Christianity. The Quran, like the Bible and the Torah, is a complex document that is read (and “interpreted”) differently by adherents. I tend not to trust any non-Muslim who tries to tell me what the Quran says, what Sharia is, etc. etc. because they are almost always wrong.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Hi Jeffrey,

    I’m saying journalists should be researching this and reporting on it.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Hi Jeffrey,

    Reading the Quran on one’s own can create a false impression of Islam because of the way the Quran is organized (shortest to longest rather than chronologically) and the abbrogation issue.

    The Quran, like the Bible and the Torah, is a complex document that is read (and “interpreted”) differently by adherents.

    What we need to know is how these passages about war and peace and relationships between Muslims and those of other religions are understood by the vast majority in countries like Iran and Pakistan and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example.

    It is important for public discussions of our national security that we are not misled (e.g., by American scholars whose reading of the Quran are not widely shared) as we try to understand the deeply held religious beliefs of those in Islamic states.

    We are being told there is a potential for violence to erupt, and we need to give up our 1st amendment rights when it comes to Islam in order to avoid the violence, but we are not being given a good understanding of why, the roots of this in the Quran itself.

    It is the question in many minds: If Islam is a “religion of peace”, why are we experiencing this oppressive threat of violence?

  • Jeffrey

    We are being told there is a potential for violence to erupt, and we need to give up our 1st amendment rights when it comes to Islam in order to avoid the violence, but we are not being given a good understanding of why, the roots of this in the Quran itself.

    Oh my. I didn’t realize my First Amendment rights were under siege by Islam. That is a news story that needs to be written if (a) you believe it is true and (b) it is true.

    There’s a lot we need to know about Islam, I’ll acknowledge that. I’m just not sure Mollie’s formulation for the media is the best approach because it comes from a set of assumptions that seem flawed (and ideologically loaded) and not good for media treatment.

  • Jerry

    The uproar amongst conservatives about funding for the Park51 facility reminds me of the lack of uproar when people funded other terrorist groups such as the IRA not so long ago. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1563119.stm should sound very familiar if one substitutes Hamas for the IRA.

    And even earlier, when the US government funded terrorists, some thought that was just peachy-keen – see, for example Iran-Contra as well as our funding of those who today threaten us, the Taliban, because back then we were more afraid of Communism.

    And, as I pointed out, a member of a terrorist group became Prime Minister of Israel but that was OK because it was an Israeli terrorist group and they’re the good guys.

    I’m not of course saying Hamas are good guys, they commit evil acts. But I am saying that sometimes bias in the media shows up by how often someone harps on one group’s actions while ignoring the same thing done by others, even by the US government.

    And I was heartened to see that some are trying to combat the “the other side is evil” meme as shown by this week’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/september-10-2010/the-limits-of-religious-tolerance/6992/ specifically:

    ABERNETHY: Do you think that there is some justification, however, for thinking that there is something about Islam itself that condones or perhaps even encourages violence?

    PROFESSOR SCOTT APPLEBY (University of Notre Dame): No, there’s nothing about Islam itself that makes Islam stand apart from other religions. All the major world religions have texts and traditions that can be twisted, that can be interpreted to condone violence, including Christianity. Islam is not better or worse in that regard, that is, in what the sources of Islam say about violence. There are verses in the Quran and in the Hadith of the Prophet, the traditions of the Prophet,that can be read in either direction. Islam itself as a religion is in a different context today in the United States than Christianity or Hinduism in India, and so there are a lot of factors that make parts of the Islamic world and parts of the reaction in this country more vehement, more charged, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with the religion itself.

    ABERNETHY: You have called “the biggest lie” what? The imagining that all Islam is—

    APPLEBY: Rights, the assumption that Islam is inherently, that in its very nature Islam is violent, evil, that it’s a religion that produces murderers, liars, thieves, unpatriotic, etc., etc., etc. I’m a Catholic. The same thing was said about Catholics, and there are some parts of Catholic history, by the way, that can be interpreted as being antidemocratic and anti-American. The popes denounced religious freedom in the nineteenth century. So there are parts of a tradition, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, or Judaism that can be lifted up, twisted, and used as a cudgel, as a weapon, against people you don’t like because you are fearing them for a variety of reasons, and that’s what’s happened to Islam today.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Hi Jeffery,

    We saw the Imam Rauf say that if he doesn’t get his Islamic Center where he wants it, the Islamic world will explode with violence. And we saw our own US leaders terrified that the Islamic world would explode with violence if this minor character burned Qurans.

    So, what’s up with that? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Why is the Islamic world so ready to explode with violence over an Islamic Center and burning Qurans?

    I’m seeing violence and Islam here. What’s the relationship and why?

  • Jeffrey

    So, what’s up with that? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Maybe we read and watch different media, but this isn’t exactly some grand secret. Since 9/11, I’ve read or seen hundreds of sotires in the press that talk about the connection between Islam and the violent extremism that exists in some corners of it. I’m surprised this is a new concept for you.

    What I don’t read or see is stories about how Islam in America has been largely immune from this kind of extremism (arguably, extremist Christians are more prevalent then extremist Muslims) and that Islam in America has developed quite differently from the rest of the world. I don’t read much about the growth of anti-Islamic rhetoric and reaction in the U.S.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Hi Jeffery,

    Maybe we read and watch different media

    What media do you read and watch?

    I don’t read much about the growth of anti-Islamic rhetoric and reaction in the U.S.

    What I don’t read or see is stories about how Islam in America has been largely immune from this kind of extremism

    It is probably hard to write convincing articles about how Islam in America is largely immune from extremism when the newspaper has just done a story on Islamic Americans being arrested for planning attacks on us. Americans actually have fairly decent memories. We know Anwar al-Awlaki was presented as a moderate American Muslim role model before he was revealed to be a terrorist instigator. And of course we remember the Ft Hood Massacre. And less than a week ago we saw Imam Faisal Rauf threatening us with violent jihad if he didn’t get to have his Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. So, obviously we are wondering if this is another Anwar al-Awlaki, another wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    Do you mean you chose not to read it or you are unaware of it? Did you miss the Time magazine cover story Is America Islamophobic?

  • Matthew

    A question I have yet to see raised here:
    If I understand correctly the Koran is considered untranslatable, the only “real” Koran is an Arabic Koran. If this is true why are Muslims upset about burning a book that they do not consider to be the Koran – an English translation of it?
    As they say, just askin’.

  • Jeffrey

    Given your vast knowledge, Perpetua, it appears the media is actually doing a pretty good job of describing the phenomenon that you say they aren’t discussing since all of those stories have been discussed in the mainstream press and not just in shady places like Jihadwatch or neocon playgrounds like the National Review.

    We don’t know enough about Islam, but more discussions of Muslim uprisings over cartoons don’t do much to illuminate the debate. It’s a dead horse beating, in some ways, to keep talking about we don’t know why Muslims threaten violence when it has been an almost constant conversation for 9 years.

  • Dave

    At what point will we see good stories explaining why it’s more dangerous to burn a Koran [...] than it is to burn a Bible [...]?

    /snip/

    I’d like to know more about why the high-profile burning of a Koran becomes a national security threat when a similar burning of the Torah wouldn’t.

    In both cases because the potential for violence, including mass violence overseas aimed at American interests, isn’t there. It isn’t there to the point that this isn’t news, hence the lack of reporting.

  • Dave G.

    It’s a little like asking me why I’m more worried about my kids running into the street without looking both ways than I am about them being mauled by a pride of lions in our back yard. It’s because no matter how many people may worry about our close proximity to a zoo, the fact remains more kids die as a result of being hit by cars than they do being mauled by lions in central Ohio. Same here. No matter how desperately we continue to cling to the modern meme of ‘Evil West/Beautiful non-Western Cultures’, the harsh reality of thousands killed, embassies bombed, terrorist attacks planned and executed, nuns shot, Muslim on Muslim violence (I was shocked to hear President Obama point out that Muslims have basically been the main killer of Muslims in recent years), and churches burned keeps intruding on our preferred realities.

  • Passing By

    Pictures like these, and stories like this don’t help the Islamic cause much.

    Listening to the religious left, you would think Muslims were just liberal protestants with some really cool cultural peculiarities. The secular U.S. media, echoed by secularists commenting here, seem bound and determined to present Islam, as “just like us”, except, of course, for that tiny extremist minority.

  • Jerry

    Matthew, there was CNN religion blog posting that said that but I suspect that the same problem with bad religion reporting which keeps this blog active is also present in the Islamic world. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/10/when-is-a-quran-burning-not-a-quran-burning/

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Re: whether the Koran is “really” being burned: how many of those “US flags” burned in overseas protests have 50 stars and 13 stripes? If a political figure is burned in effigy, but the effigy is a poor likeness, does it not really count?

    The idea that the Korans being burned aren’t “really” the Koran might be an interesting bit of trivia, but none of the interested parties are going to care about technicalities.


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