Combating media myths about Muslims

Combating media myths about Muslims September 14, 2012


There are so many stories being written about the tragic assassination of our ambassador in Libya and the sieges of our buildings there, in Egypt and elsewhere (and the so-called “movie” that many media placed at the center of the controversy) that it’s hard to keep up.

And many of the individual stories are fine or difficult to find too much fault with. But there have certainly been problems with the overall direction or message of the coverage, which I hit on a bit yesterday in “Missing the forest for the YouTube video.”

Over at The Atlantic, Robert Wright tackles some of the myths that have dominated the coverage. I thought he put it well:

Here is the narrative that pretty much everyone was buying into 36 hours ago: Crude anti-Islam film made by Israeli-American and funded by Jews leads to Muslim protests that boil over, causing four American deaths in Libya.

Here is what now seems to be the case: the anti-Islam film wasn’t made by an Israeli-American, wasn’t funded by Jews, and probably had nothing to do with the American deaths, which seem to have resulted from a long-planned attack by a specific terrorist group, not spontaneous mob violence.

In retrospect, the original narrative should have aroused immediate suspicion. If, for example, this lethal attack on an American consulate in a Muslim country was really spontaneous, isn’t it quite a coincidence that it happened on 9/11?

Yes, the date alone should have given everyone a big clue. Come on, people. And it’s worth noting now that the way the filmmaker’s claims were reported about Jewish funding and Israeli background should have been couched, perhaps, with more skepticism. It’s difficult to do that when your only source is telling you differently, but given the incendiary nature of the charge, it seems wise.

Anyway, Wright talks about why the themes above were advanced:

Maybe one reason these questions weren’t asked is because the original narrative fit so nicely into some common stereotypes–about crazy Muslims who get whipped into a death frenzy at the drop of a hat, about the backstage machinations of Jews, and about the natural tension between Muslims and Jews. (How many Americans had ever heard about intra-Egyptian tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, which may well have been the impetus for this film? How many had even heard of Coptic Christians?)

Probably the most annoying thing I personally feel about all of the unbelievably focused outrage directed at the “movie” as the “spark,” “catalyst” or “trigger” for the riots is the way it makes Muslim rioters seem less than human, as if they’re unable to control themselves and are so sensitive that they can’t understand how the rest of the world works. Wright hits this head on:

For example, it looks from afar as if ongoing demonstrations and disturbances are all about this film, and as if they’re therefore a reminder of how touchy those darn Muslims are. Well, it’s true that many Muslims in not-very-cosmopolitan, not-very-diverse, and historically authoritarian countries don’t yet share our commitment to free speech and pluralism, and react accordingly to offensive films. But it’s also true that these disturbances are about a lot more than this film. A number of grievances are at work, including, as Issandr El Amrani notes, various aspects of American foreign policy.

Yes, this is a much more difficult story to report out than the “Muslims can’t handle even the mere mention of offending images” one that gets pressed by many in the media and used to present criticisms of, of all things, our First Amendment freedoms of religion and speech. On that note, while I’m sure we all found the descriptions of the “movie” in question to be offensive, I’m very surprised at how little criticism or questioning of any kind we’re seeing in many mainstream accounts of federal and regional crackdown on the “filmmaker” as it relates to the First Amendment.

Wright goes on to discuss some of additional myths to be wary of — such as theories as to why Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t terribly concerned about the security of the American Embassy in Cairo. He says the Brotherhood may be Islamists but they’re no Salafis, the more radical group they’re trying to fend off.

He adds:

And there may be one more misconception: the idea that the Egyptian protests were originally spontaneous. El Amrani reports that “the initial Egyptian protests were in good part due to a call by a small Salafi group… and timed for the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.”

The “crazy, touchy Muslims” meme has the virtue of convenience–it saves you the trouble of having to think about this carefully, because it seems to be a grand unifying theory, satisfyingly simple and powerful. But as Einstein, who like any good scientist loved theoretical simplicity, said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Wise words. It would be simple if we could just hand over the film, the filmmaker and Terry Jones to the mobs and be done with this whole mess. But it’s not that simple, for many reasons. Journalists can and should do a great service of reporting out the facts, and casting aside the myths.

Myth image via Shutterstock.

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20 responses to “Combating media myths about Muslims”

  1. So I assume you would also dispute geoconger’s view, which blames the violence on State Department officials in Cairo?

    • A bit off -topic but could you quote the portion of George’s post you’re referring to? I just re-read it an am unclear what you’re getting at.

      • “My sense of things (albeit made half a world away from the scene) is that it was not the film that prompted the attacks 9/11, but the craven statements from the embassy about the film that emboldened the rent a mob to act. The salafists have been seeking a provocation in order to confront the U.S. — bringing the tool of the Great Satan into their domestic political battles. This staffer made their job easier.”

        And I agree that it’s off topic. Conger’s rants against the State Department were off topic on both of his posts about this topic, since they had nothing to do with the journalism coverage.

        • Ah, got it. While I agree that the statements emboldened the mob and our general conciliatory statements have emboldened mobs all over (it’s one thing to scale an embassy wall when a gun is pointed at you, another when a friendly public relations note claiming to understand your hurt religious feelings helps you over), I think these protests are much more complex and well organized than many (albeit not all) in the media have yet to get a handle on.

          For what it’s worth, I hear that there is a big dividing line in State about whether conciliatory statements or strong defenses of our way of life (emphasizing our religion/speech protections) are the way to go on these things. That is also a much longer and more complex story — literally going back five decades — than the slightly easier to report bit about one guy saying the wrong thing.

          I hope we get a good report on that division at State, too. It’s not like everyone there agrees about the way to handle these things — even if one side currently has an upper hand of sorts.

          • Very perceptive on the dividing line at State. Might be playing out a bit as well in the Obama “ally” comment. But I have to ask you and geoconger: How many of the people who ended up protesting in Cairo on Sept. 11 do you think were aware at all of that English-language tweet from the US embassy? I haven’t lived in Egypt, so I really don’t know. Journalists I know who have seem doubtful on this latest critique.

  2. this is a much more difficult story to report out than the “Muslims can’t handle even the mere mention of offending images”

    You are the only one saying anything remotely like what’s in those quotes. Here’s where I think your media analysis is breaking down. You are arguing that by media reports saying the film served as a “spark,” “catalyst,” or “trigger” that these other things are being said:
    1) That it was irrelevant what some Muslim leaders and street mobs decided to do next
    2) That the movie was culpable for violence that ensued.
    I don’t think that’s what writers of the reports mean implicitly, it’s certainly not what’s being written explicitly in news reports, nor is it likely how most readers are understanding to the terminology. Please provide some evidence.

    Protesters in Egypt and now many other places have been quoted very explicitly saying this is in reaction to defaming the prophet. Are there other motivations for these people? Yes, of course! Does that mean that somehow many of the protesters were not motivated in any way by word of the film? No. To push that too hard is to introduce religious ghosts into coverage.
    As to what happened in Libya — pfffft, who knows at this point. The latest from the WSJ seems to be that officials *don’t* think the attack was pre-meditated:

    As U.S. officials struggled to gain a clear picture of who was behind the mob attack in Benghazi late Tuesday, U.S. intelligence agencies were increasingly skeptical it was planned in advance, a shift from an initial assessment by some.

    The report rightly notes that such an explanation might be politically expedient. That said, most reporting I’ve seen from on the ground indicates there was a protest tied to the film and it at least contributed to a chaotic situation.

    • Ben,
      Yes, many American reporters seem to be willing to accept the idea that a two-pronged attack with 400 well-armed fighters that assassinated an ambassador and stole sensitive documents was spontaneous.
      And while some foreign press is reporting that Americans had 48-hour notice of these attacks — and, indeed, one of the victims’ online friends in a game he played have shown that they were aware of the threat of attacks — American press is favoring the idea that this was a surprise to the unprotected. I find it odd to think that one of our personnel was telling his online gamer friends he was expecting an assault but didn’t tell his bosses at State, but I’m not one of the reporters working this story.

  3. Mollie,

    Thanks for this. I’m home this week, and keep hearing that the Libyans are positive toward the U.S., but they keep showing us the screaming mobs. Forgive me repeating this link, but these pictures illustrate the article you cite.

    Look at the faces of those people. A bit different from the images on TV, aren’t they.

    And since I ran across it this morning, here’s the data behind the claims about Libyan attitudes toward us.

  4. Mollie,

    Don’t underestimate the power of the honor/shame matrix in motivating Muslims to act. We as Americans scratch our heads at tribal blood feuds, fathers murdering their daughters and riots over stupid cartoons or amateurish movies. But these actions are entirely sensible when viewed through the honor/shame matrix.

    And I disagree that calling the film a spark or a trigger for the violence makes Muslims in general or these crowds in particular into mindless automata, any more than calling the 9/11/2001 attacks the spark or trigger for the Afghan war makes Americans in general or the Bush administration in particular into mindless automata. It just points out the basic fact that actions lead to other actions.

    And I agree that we need better journalism on what the exact role of this film was on these attacks.


  5. “It would be simple if we could just hand over the film, the filmmaker and Terry Jones to the mobs and be done with this whole mess.”


    Simple, maybe, but hardly advisable!

    • Agreed, Gina, feeding shipmates to sharks only attracts more sharks.

      I heard a good definition of diplomacy years ago: “Diplomacy is the art of saying, ‘Nice doggie,’ while looking for a large stick.” We’ll have to watch whether State comes up with a stick or a doggie bone.

      The WH is sticking with the spontaneous response to the film story: it’s not directed at the US or our policies. I agree; I think it was really aimed at Andorra, but the spontaneous crowds in different countries on 9/11 just got lost.

      I also remember a definition of a reporter: “It’s someone who stands outside a closed door waiting someone to come out and lie to him.”

  6. I saw Wolf Blitzer and a number of other people on all the news networks piously brag about how they wouldn’t even show a snippet of the trailer or movie. This is good-especially since the decisions were not made by government order or diktat. But it took violent demonstrations and murders to convince them to reluctantly “revere and respect” Islam on their airwaves. Quite a difference from their reaction to peaceful demonstrations against things like obscene anti-Catholic, anti-Christian tax funded art (such as Christ in urine, etc. )
    The mass media, in general, considers the people behind the grossly insulting anti-Mohammed movie as “Kooks,” and “Nuts,” worthy only of ostracism and shunning (although some of the most protested stuff in it has appeared in reputable history books.) But some of the most objectionable scenes in the trailer or movie I have read about are virtually carbon copies of artistic or media garbage thrown at Christ (or His Blessed Mother) and which we are still tax funding in various ways –even though the courts have repeatedly ruled that such funding is not protected by “artistic freedom.”

  7. It would be simple if we could just hand over the film, the filmmaker and Terry Jones to the mobs and be done with this whole mess. But it’s not that simple, for many reasons.”

    Offensive and tasteless, even if subjunctive.

  8. There are two words the media should be giving us in depth information and tutorials about:
    1. DHIMMITUDE: (Because that is the second-class citizenship condition Christians and others suffer under in most countries that are Moslem majority.) According to experts it creates a mentality of servility wherein one tailors ones beliefs or actions or statements to avoid potential Islamic violence. It affects non-Moslems (including even world leaders) who think appeasing language and sweet talk will protect them from Islamic spawned violence.
    2.COPTS: (They are the descendants of Egypt’s original inhabitants going back to the time of the pharoahs–Virtually all are Christian and like Christians all across the Moslem Middle East live in constant fear of violence directed at them by Moslems (and actual events show not just so-called “fanatic” Islamists).
    It is rare to see either of these two words explained in the mainstream media even when it would seem almost madatory based on events being reported on. Is that because education on these words goes against the media’s determined narrative (spin, bias) that the Islamic religion always has been and everywhere is “THE religion of peace?” If only a few reporters would read some genuine scholarly HISTORIES of Islam they might not be so easily complacent about Islamic violence toward non-believers,” apostates”, or minorities virtually every place in the world where Moslems are in the majority and rule the culture.
    Sitting on my desk right now is a book” Witnesses For Christ” a thick book of mini biographies of hundreds of Orthodox Christians who, over the centuries, were martyred for either not abjuring their Christian faith or for not joining Islam The Christians profiled in this book had to choose between conversion to Islam and painful torture and death . It is written by a professional historian. Yet how often have I seen in the media ignorant, comments by reporters that noone has ever been forced to become a Moslem.(The book is “Witnesses For Christ” and is by Dr. Nomikos Michael Vaporis)

  9. I heard a reporter yesterday speak of the Coptic Church as part of the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches. I smiled.

  10. Mollie, your analysis is one that I found very well informed.

    David Brooks offered a political judgement of Romney’s statement but this should apply to everyone especially the media. Then he had a point about our tactics that some here have drawn attention to. Any given statement from the government should be based on a theory of human nature especially as influenced by religion. There is a fight for the soul of the Islamic world between fanatics and those that hold a more uplifting view of Islam and Islam’s role in the world.

    First, the first news out of any international crisis is always — the first news is always kind of misleading, so wait a beat…

    Say you had a theory of — as George Bush did. It was based on a theory of human nature, that people hunger toward freedom. It was based on a theory of history that the Middle East is becoming democratic.

    So you orient your policies around that theory, topple the existing order. Try to create democratic revolutions in the Arab world. That is a political theory.

    Don’t apologize — well, it depends on the circumstance whether that — you are using apologies or not to — depending on what you do. It’s not a philosophy.

  11. Two points:
    1) I think that the whole issue of giving offense is seen differently in the Muslim world. As I understand it, slander in Islam is about offending the other and it doesn’t matter if the material is true or not. I write this because, although the movie trailer material I saw was crude, it seemed to be based on well known Hadiths.
    2) So, I would like to see someone in the MSM go through the movie trailer available to us and do a fact check. We hear comments on the poor quality of the production but not on the veracity of its contents. The trailer starts with Egyptian police or military standing idly by as militants trash Coptic buildings and terrorize the Copts. TRUE, right? Then it shows scenes from the life of Muhammed, many of which I recognized as well known hadiths. So, much of that was TRUE, right?

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