Combating media myths about Muslims


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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