If the answer to this question is "no," a case can still be made that the cable news network is on track to rival Fox News in promoting the worst Islamophobic stereotypes. The latest controversy involving an interview with Reza Aslan raises serious concerns about CNN's willingness to tap into and reinforce widespread prejudices against Islam in order to generate ratings.
The recent Islamophobic episode from CNN was precipitated by an argument on the HBO show Real Time between Bill Maher and Sam Harris on the one hand and Ben Affleck on the other. Maher and Harris accused Islam of being an extremist religion and insisted that the views of groups such as ISIS are not isolated but are reflective of the beliefs held by many Muslims. Affleck responded that Maher's and Harris' views were racist, but that did not stop them from an Islamophobic rant that included claims that Muslims "will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing" and that Islam promotes female genital mutilation (FGM).
When CNN's Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota decided to "explore" the controversy by interviewing Reza Aslan, a religion scholar who is also a Muslim, the conversation quickly turned to the CNN hosts putting Aslan on the defensive. They mindlessly swallowed Maher's arguments as unadulterated facts and challenged Aslan to refute them.
Aslan did a commendable job of trying to restore nuance to the conversation and shed light on the complexity of the Muslim-majority world. For example, he noted that FGM is not a universal practice among Muslims but is found primarily in a certain region of Africa and is practiced by Christians as well. He also pointed out that while some Muslim-majority countries, notably Saudi Arabia, have a horrible track record concerning women's rights, other large Muslim-majority countries have a better track record in this area. He pointed to the fact that several Muslim-majority countries have elected women as heads of state, in contrast to the United States.
Aslan's points were on target, but it didn't matter. Lemon and Camerota weren't interested in an intellectual discussion. They stuck to a lazy script that Maher himself could have written. What they missed was an opportunity to provide viewers with a more balanced conversation about Islam and its 1.6 billion adherents.
Things got worse several days later when Lemon and Camerota spoke with Chris Cuomo, another CNN anchor, who pointed to Aslan's tone as an example of "what people are fearful about when they think of the [Islamic] faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it." In one sentence, Cuomo invoked one of the crudest Islamophobic stereotypes -- the angry Muslim man -- to disregard Aslan's perspective and the argument he was making in the Lemon and Camerota interview. All three CNN anchors seemed completely uninterested in whether Aslan's points were worth investigating or considering. It's almost as if taking Aslan seriously would have endangered the simplistic worldview that these journalists relied on to attract viewers: a world of good Americans vs. bad Muslims.
In all fairness, CNN has run pieces in the past that explore some of the bigotry that Muslims experience in the U.S., which means the network is capable of tackling other perspectives. But this most recent controversy is also not an isolated episode. The first piece I wrote on The Huffington Post, during the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy of 2010, involved a CNN reporter asking the developer of the Islamic Center why the center should be built so close to the former World Trade Center site in light of the fact that it was Muslims who destroyed those buildings on 9/11. It wasn't a question as much as an accusation, one that connected the Muslims who wanted to build the center with al-Qaeda.
CNN seems to be struggling in recent years to find its footing when it comes to fair and accurate representations of Muslims and Islam. This latest episode raises a series of questions that CNN as a network needs to take to heart:
- What responsibility does the network have to tell truths about Muslims and to offer nuanced analyses of stories pertaining to Islam?
- When someone like Maher claims that that 90 percent of Muslims in Egypt support the death penalty for apostates, what responsibility does CNN have to fact check this claim and present accurate data that demonstrate not only that Maher was wrong about the number he cited but that clear majorities in other Muslim-majority countries, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Tunisia, reject the death penalty for apostasy?
- How can CNN's anchors generate a conversation that is fair in its representations of Muslims, one that doesn't avoid the problems in some Muslim communities or Muslim-majority countries but also doesn't depend on the grossest, most heinous and bigoted stereotypes?
- How can CNN do a better job of listening to and taking seriously diverse Muslim voices when covering stories pertaining to Islam or Muslims?
Maher and Harris make a living off bigotry toward religion in general and Islam in particular. We should expect no better from them. But we should expect more from a mainstream media outlet like CNN. The network's anchors aren't professional Islamophobes. The truth, in all its complexity, should matter to them, and we should hold them accountable when their lack of intellectual curiosity and journalistic courage results in the demonizing of more than a billion people.