As Pastor Terry Jones and his 50 or so followers continue to revel in their surreal moment of international fame over whether they should burn the Koran on Saturday, Americans opposed to this act of senseless provocation insist this is the work of one misguided religious leader who is confused about the limits of religious tolerance and the teachings of his own faith. This is indeed a tiny fringe that doesn't reflect American values, but what started as the pastor's disjointed anti-Islam screed in his "Braveheart Show" on YouTube is now stoking real anger among a small minority of misguided Muslims around the world. We could either dismiss Pastor Jones as a lunatic bigot, as CNN's Anderson Cooper did a couple of days ago, or we could ask the tough question of who is misguiding the pastor and people like him who seem so convinced that "Islam is of the Devil."
If you follow the trail of Pastor Jones' statements defending his views about the violence in the Koran, you will find a fiery and well-coordinated anti-Islam narrative lurking unchallenged on the Web. In the first episode of his "Braveheart Show," Pastor Jones warns of the impending world domination of Muslims through high fertility rates. The numbers he uses are heavily borrowed from a 2009 widely-circulated YouTube video called "Muslim Demographics," which calls on Christians in the West "to join the effort to share the Gospel message with the changing world." After dizzying and poorly-sourced demographic forecasts about the West and its Muslim population, the video ends with a resounding, "This is a call to action."
And action based on falsehoods, which there has been plenty of lately. Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a spokeswoman for the group opposing the Tennessee mosque, told the Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi that 30% of Muslims are terrorists "based on the numbers that were done," and that the mosque in the small town of Murfreesboro is the "Mothership" of terrorism. When asked about the source of her claims, Cardoza-Moore said devotedly, "Google. Do you think we are fools?"
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While most people watching the Daily Show would think that both Cardoza-Moore and Terry Jones are capable of resting their anti-Islamic case on Onion headlines, the fact that the source of much of this Islam-is-evil diatribe is Google, AM radio, and Palinesque politicians should be quite unsettling to all of us.
It's not enough to hide behind comforting statements that only few people watching Glenn Beck, listening to Rush Limbaugh, or not knowing how to properly process information on Google can perpetuate this scaremongering. The fact that close to half of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam (Washington Post 2009 Poll) and that the number of Americans who believe President Obama is Muslim has reached 18% (that's about 55 million) speaks volumes about the pervasiveness of misinformation and the viral triumph of rumors over facts.
Let's call it what it is. This anti-Islam paranoia is a preposterous conspiracy theory that is gaining enough traction that more and more Americans feel compelled to get organized against the steady march of Islam. You can feel panic in the words of this Tea Party mother who attends meetings of a local chapter of ACT! for America, an easily-Googleable Florida-based advocacy group whose mission is to protect Western civilization against Islam. This is what she recently told the New York Times about the mosque controversy in Tennessee, "As a mother and a grandmother, I worry. I learned that in 20 years with the rate of the birth population, we will be overtaken by Islam, and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented. My children and grandchildren will have to live under that. I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It's a political government, and it's 100 percent against our Constitution."
Muslims taking over in 20 years, you wonder?! How is that possible given that they only account for 1% of the entire population? Never mind the gaping holes in this logic, a similarly apocalyptic and widely circulated message on the Web had this statement marked in red, "In twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in the U.S. to elect the President by themselves! Rest assured they will do so... You can look at how they have taken over several towns in the USA .. Dearborn Mich. is one... and there are others..." And how on earth have Muslims infiltrated the Supreme Court? Do you remember the "Will She Tolerate Sharia" Web ad against Elena Kagan this summer? In that ad sponsored by the Center for Security Policy, Kagan is accused of abetting the steady march of Sharia law because during her tenure as dean of the Harvard Law School, she allowed courses on Islamic jurisprudence.
Those who dismiss this paranoia as a mere political gambit to make fear a strong propeller for voting this fall should think again. This fear will live beyond the election campaign as it threatens to trickle in across mainstream America. The same doom-laden messages found on the Web and heard on radio airwaves become memorable chants and basic texts for angry placards at anti-Islam rallies. Ever wondered where this now popular sign: "Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests and victories" comes from? That's almost the exact language used in an anti-Park51 Web ad sponsored again by the Center for Security Policy, a prominent leader of what has become a systematic campaign of Islam bashing on the Web.
Only delusions, you say! But there are far too many delusions floating on the Web, and that sacred line between radical and peaceful Muslims is no longer drawn. Remember the column Thomas Friedman wrote in the wake of the Fort Hood shooting in which he argued Major Nidal Hasan was spurred to action by a rampant narrative in the Middle East that uncritically blamed everything on the US? "The Narrative," Friedman wrote, "is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11." An equally hazardous anti-Muslim narrative in America today is not only hardening views about Islam but prodding some people into action, as evidenced in the stabbing of a New York Muslim cab driver and the arson at the site of the proposed mosque in Tennessee.
Ignorance is always dangerous, particularly when weaved into a grand narrative of conspiracy to conquer the Christian world. Mr. Friedman has been rather silent about this 'Narrative,' which is constantly fed by elaborate Web sites such as the prolific Creeping Sharia, Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch, Brigitte Gabriel's Act for America, and Stop the Islamization of America, notoriously headed by Pamela Geller, who often links Islam to Hitler. Here is one of her recent statements following an anti-Israel rally in Vienna to protest the Gaza Flotilla incident earlier this summer, "Hitler would be proud of his Muslim armies. It seems fitting that the Muslims would kick off their Jewish genocidal campaign in Austria, land of Hitler's youth and rise to power."
What is narrowly but effectively propagated in this fanatical narrative is not only the inherently bellicose character of Muslims anywhere but also their commitment to souring humanity's progress through their thickly-veiled women, angry bearded men, and especially their deceptively-moderate imams, as in the case of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan. We simply can't afford to have radical narratives dominate this discourse whether it's here in America or in Muslim-majority countries. Pastor Jones should have remained an obscure rabble-rouser with his 650 (pre-media coverage) views on his YouTube videos. And American mainstream media, instead of desperately seeking incendiary soundbites, should marshal all Americans into a frank discussion about the place of Muslims in this country. That's the conversation we're not having.