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Media and Muslims

The general climate that Muslims encounter in post-9/11 America is affected by several different types of actors, including the government, the media, and ordinary citizens. For example, government treatment of Muslims after 9/11 arguably legitimizes private violence, such as hate crimes, against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim. See, Muneer Ahmad "A Rage Shared by Law: Post-September 11 Racial Violence as Crimes of Passion," 92 CAL. L. REV. 1259 (Oct. 2004). In this post, I'd like to briefly discuss the effect that the media may have on how Muslim-Americans are viewed in, and on the extent to which Muslim-Americans are regarded as fully belonging to, contemporary American society.

Last month, columnist Ann Coulter argued that, "After the attacks of 9/11, profiling Muslims is more like profiling the Klan." I am no expert on the Klan, but my understanding of that particular group is that every member of the Klan, by definition, believes in white supremacy and thus at least to some degree supports efforts, often violent, to promote that viewpoint. Muslims, on the other hand, are unified only in their adherence to certain religious principles; some, though surely not all, wish harm on the United States or its interests. Coulter, however, appears to contend that each Muslim represents potential danger to the United States and therefore may be justifiably profiled.

Also last month, CNN's Glenn Beck, in interviewing Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, said the following:

I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies....' I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.

In other words, according to Beck, Ellison, because he is Muslim, has the burden of proving that he does not support terrorism against the United States.

In short, these two popular journalists appear to suggest that Muslims are either per se or presumptively terrorists or dangerous. To be sure, both Coulter and Beck, of course, have the right to provoke discussion and to candidly express their opinions. However, we live in a world in which those views can have a serious impact on how a particular segment of our own population is regarded, where this regard can manifest and has manifested itself in the form of murder, assault, harassment, vandalism, etc., here in the United States.

Neither Coulter nor Beck was reprimanded for advancing their sentiments. Other public figures have suffered recently for committing errors in judgment with respect to minorities (e.g., George Allen for his "macaca" remark and Michael Richards for his repeated use of a racial epithet). In these instances, technology was used to capture and then disseminate the incidents; public outrage and material consequences (e.g., Allen lost his reelection bid and Richards won't be invited back at the Laugh Factory, among other venues) soon followed thanks to YouTube and other web sites.

The interesting question is why Coulter and Beck escaped any sort of consequence for advancing the ideas that Muslim-Americans are suspect or have the responsibility to demonstrate that they are loyal Americans - even if they were elected to serve in Congress. What's even more interesting is the failure of the media entities in question, especially CNN, to exercise their own ethical obligation to censure Coulter and Beck -- an obligation that exists independent of any public anger or disapproval. It appears, though, that these media outlets will respond to overwhelming public opinion, rather than its sense of professionalism or journalistic conscience.

While I am addressing only two statements, the broader point is how these statements -- both their utterance and absence of any internal or external check on them -- can contribute to a general sense of how Muslims may feel in terms of whether they are truly part of the American community, particularly during the current state of war and uncertainty.

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