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John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito

Why Do Media Commentators Get It So Wrong on Islam? And What Is the Cost?

Posted: 12/13/10 11:19 AM ET

A few days ago, controversial radio/TV host Glenn Beck, in a stunning display of ignorance (if not bigotry), picked a number out of his imagination and declared, without offering any proof, that ten percent of all Muslims (which means 150 million) are terrorists who want to overthrow the U.S. government. Beck is too smart to be that stupid! But, of course, he's smart enough to know he'll get lots of attention from his media and internet following. Beck's comments earlier this week are not the first time he and other major TV commentators have spun a tale that Muslims, as a group, want to destroy America. The cumulative effect of the confrontational rhetoric of Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and many others who hammer away at portraying Islam and Muslims as fundamentally different contributes to a popular culture in which seeing 1.5 billion Muslims as potential enemies has become embedded. Recent polls that show that as many as 45% of Americans believe that the state of conflict with Muslim societies is identity-based (specifically, rooted in either their religion or culture). But real verifiable data shows that this is dead wrong! A massive amount of polling data by Gallup, PEW, Zogby and others and research demonstrate that the primary drivers of violence and terrorism are political grievances -- not religion and culture. Why is this fact important? Because the recent Gallup study, "Measuring the State of Muslim-West Relations: 'Assessing the New Beginning,'" confirmed those that think the root cause of Muslim-West tensions is political are more likely to see it as avoidable. Those who see it as religious are more likely to believe it as unavoidable. Therefore, if the conflict is framed as "political," people are more likely to work to find a solution.

Based on survey research from 2006 to early 2010 in some 55 countries, the study also found that more than 6 in 10 Muslims said that the Muslim world respects the West, but about one-half said the West does not respect them. And they are right. In the U.S., 53 percent of the American public said the West does not respect the Muslim world. Does this mean an inevitable clash or is a solution? Majorities of Muslims expressed their deep concerns about this lack of respect but they also offered positive solutions: stop desecrating the Quran and religious symbols, treat Muslims fairly in the politics that affect them and portray Muslim characters accurately in popular media.

Although commentators contend that Muslims are driven by irrational hatred of Americans, in fact, majorities in Muslim countries both want better relations and say bad relations result from political -- and therefore solvable -- realities (presence of US forces in Muslim countries, unconditional US support for the Israeli occupation, etc.). Thanks to the persistent efforts of the likes of Beck and O'Reilly, too many Americans are developing an intolerant, irrational fear and hatred of Muslims. We see it most graphically in the Park 51 debate. It creates an identity-based conflict when mainstream politicians like Newt Gingrich equate Muslims with Nazis. Those who participate or support anti-mosque protests, Quran-burning, and violence against innocent Muslim men, women and children justify their hatred by believing in an irresolvable identity-based conflict, a clash of cultures or Christianity and Islam.

Wouldn't it be a tragic irony if we -- Americans -- made violent conflict with Muslim societies and the compromising of Muslim American citizens civil liberties unavoidable all the while seeing ourselves as the innocent victims or irrational hatred? Whether they realize it or not, that's what the likes of Beck and O'Reilly, like some preachers of hate in the Muslim world, are working very hard at making it happen.

John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author with Dalia Mogahed of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and author of the newly released book The Future of Islam (2010). Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.