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Dr Jack Shaheen: "More leadership needed on Park 51 conversation."

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The national conversation on the Park 51 Islamic Community Center has taken a turn for the worst. Opponents claim it's too close to the Ground Zero and is offensive to families who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Others call it a breeding ground for Al Qaida terrorist networks and have protested at the proposed site. The controversy has brought out the worst in people. Fear, ignorance, prejudice, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism have reared their ugly heads and meaningful conversation is no where to be found. Where do people turn to put the Park 51 controversy into context?

Jack Shaheen is the author of the groundbreaking work "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People" and "Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs after 9/11," the winner of the 2009 Forward Magazine social sciences book of the year. He is a professor emeritus of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University and a winner of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's "Lifetime Achievement Award."

Shaheen has been following the recent developments on Park 51 and I caught up with him to see what he had to say.

Many in the mainstream media referring to Park 51 as the Ground Zero mosque. Why is this misleading and why is it offensive or inappropriate to characterize it as such?

Jack Shaheen: One reason is the buzzword "Ground Zero." It's not a Ground Zero mosque. Many media commentators keep repeating the lie that the mosque will be built at Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site. But the mosque/community center is not being built there. That's major. It's not a minor thing. Every journalist and copywriter that uses the term "Ground Zero" in regards to the building site of the mosque advances misinformation.

What has been the most misunderstood aspects of Park 51? What has been buried in the media or the misinformation coming from Park 51's opponents?

First of all, anti-Islam and anti-Muslim feelings in our country existed long before September 11, 2001. It's escalated after 9-11 and there are several reasons why it has escalated. One is the fact that we fail to distinguish between the 19 non-American Arab Muslim terrorists, and the seven-plus million American Muslims that had nothing to do with 9-11. Nobody talks about that and nobody talks about this not being an act of domestic terrorism. The destruction that took place in New York City, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania were not committed by American Muslims. So why are we condemning and attacking them?

This reminds me of what happened in 1942 following the attack of Pearl Harbor. More than 100,000 Japanese Americans had nothing to do with the attack. It was an act committed by another country. Yet they were condemned and incarcerated because our media systems and politicians advanced the "seen one, seen 'em all" myth. One of the similarities is that the Japanese Americans were never referred to as Americans. They were tagged "Japs." Today, American Muslims are also not referred to as Americans. Our media keep saying "Muslims." The way the term has been used over the years implies that America's Muslims are not American and so it makes it easier to attack them.

What saddens me is that the Museum of Tolerance and the Anti-Defamation League are not supporting the rights of other Americans.They and others need to get together and stand and support American Muslims. Refreshingly, there have been some prominent religious leaders who have come forth, but what I would like to see is media systems being more responsible, and for more prominent Rabbis, Christian, and Muslim leaders to get together and debunk all this hate rhetoric and misinformation.

We've not seen that. We have not seen former presidents unite in condemning this. Why aren't George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter speaking out?

Democratic Party leaders like Harry Reid and Howard Dean have not rallied behind Park 51 efforts. Instead, they suggest Park 51 be relocated. Why did Democratic leaders do this?

Some cowardly [Democrats] are remaining silent for fear of losing an election. As for Reid and Dean, what can I say? They are as opportunistic as many of their Republican colleagues. It's about as un-American as you can get. What we are experiencing with this anti-Muslim movement reminds me of the Ku Klux Klan. Only today you can't see the white cloaks and the white hats. Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Pamela Geller, Glenn Beck, and Franklin Graham and others -- instead of targeting America's blacks, they're hurting American Muslims. That analogy needs to be made.

In 2008, there were 28 million copies of one of the most racist documentaries ever made. It was called "Obsession" and it essentially vilified all things Islam. The major newspaper chains such as the New York Times inserted into their newspapers this hateful DVD, giving the impression to some readers that the newspapers supported the theme of this documentary. Would any of these newspapers have distributed a hate documentary targeting Christianity, Judaism, or any other faith? Only a few newspapers, such as the St Louis Post-Dispatch, the Detroit Free Press, the News & Record of Greensboro, NC, and The Cleveland Plain-Dealer had the courage not to distribute the DVD.

Many people who saw this film are good friends of mine. They are devout, bright and consider themselves to be humanitarians but they went out and ordered dozens of copies to give to their friends, because they did exactly what the DVD promoters wanted them to do, believed the message conveyed in the film. This DVD was probably the only contact they have ever had with Islam. My friends do not know any Muslims, they know nothing about their faith, then one day get this free DVD in the morning paper and play it, thinking "Oh my God! The Muslims are coming." Then they turn on television and listen to Rush Limbaugh or Peter King. So you can't really blame them. When it comes to John Q Public, you can't really blame many Americans because they are basing all of their feelings about Islam due to the fear that's been put out via these media messages.

It seems like there might have been instances where a meaningful discussion over the controversy. What opportunities are we missing in terms of putting Islam, racism, Islamophobia, or even xenophobia into perspective?

We have to call the people who are advancing this hate to task. People with a political agenda are saying "Islam is this and Islam is that" but how many Americans know there is a whole chapter in the Holy Koran that praises the Virgin Mary? Look at how many times she is mentioned. There are so many similarities between the three major faiths. How can anyone demonize a religion that advocates peace?

Our leaders should go out there and accentuate and show these commonalities, and then they should go after the people who are advocating this bigotry. Their silence continues to give the bigots a free pass.

There are several shining stars in this controversy; the biggest ones are New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg [regrettably, former mayor Rudy Guliani took the other path], and MSNBC journalist Keith Olbermann. If politicians and religious leaders were to follow their lead, we might see a change. But if silence and apathy continue to prevail, then racism and bigotry will continue.

How should we as citizens or activists handle or discuss the Park 51 controversy? What are the most important aspects they need address?

I always say "Why are you opposed to it?" That leads to all kinds to things because they say "Those %^$^ people." Then I ask them "Have you ever been to a mosque? Do you know any Muslims? Do you know anything about the Koran? If this were a church or synagogue, would you object to its construction?" I think what's difficult is when there's fear and misinformation and when the rhetoric and loud voices continue to prevail, it's difficult to reason with people. People have to be open to dialog and I think the problem is many people have been infected with the virus of hate and are not open to any type of dialog.

Only strong political and religious leadership as well as more responsible journalism can bring about a much needed corrective.


Jack Shaheen