For well over a month now, CNN has pushed a conversation about whether there is something inherently violent about Islam or whether the religion promotes violence. Conversation has been presented by anchors, particularly Don Lemon, as just hosts asking questions for the sake of some innocent and potentially educational discussion. The problem is CNN is not simply asking questions and no one is learning anything. And the network is framing segments around questions that are driven by uninformed and bigoted attitudes toward Muslims.
On September 29, writer and scholar on religions, Reza Aslan, appeared as a guest to talk about what CNN referred to as "a complicated question that many people are asking. Are Muslim countries more violent than others?"
Earlier in the month, on September 8, Aslan and Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, who is Muslim, appeared. Lemon asked:
And neither of you — you know this. Both of you know that — you’re both not strangers to the argument that Islam is a violent religion.
I want you to listen to what Bill Maher tweeted in his response to the recent ISIS beheading videos. Here’s what he says. He says: "ISIS, one of thousands of Islamic militant groups" — and that’s — he was addressing "The New York Times" — he says "beheads another? But why — by all means, let’s keep pretending all religions are alike."
What’s your response to that?
Lemon later asked, "Is the burden on other Muslim nations, you think, and moderate Muslims to reject ISIS and to join the fight against ISIS? Is that what’s happening?"
A few days before, on September 3, CNN had Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of Islamic Monthly magazine and Thomas Fuentes, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former FBI assistant director and Dr. Tawkfik Hamid, author of "Inside Jihad" and a conservative darling who is committed to arguing Islam needs to prove it is a religion of peace.
Lemon started the segment, "So let’s talk about this, and let’s be very honest about it. This is a discussion that’s happening really across the world. I want to ask you, starting with Arsalan, let’s begin with the simple question, as some are asking. Is Islam a more violent religion than other faiths?"
Even during an interview with Protestant megachurch televangelist Joel Osteen on September 10, Lemon could not help but ask, "Religion has been in the news a lot lately. Radicalism, really. When we talk about ISIS, many have questioned whether Islam is a religion of peace, or is one of war or is it one of violence. Do you have — where do you stand on that?"
A Debate Happening in Tandem with Coverage of ISIS
A search through CNN transcripts indicates that this question started to be posed in late August or early September, just as the United States was becoming more involved militarily in combating ISIS. And that is the biggest issue—that this discussion CNN wants to perpetuate is happening within the context of battling an extreme Islamist enemy that the government claims poses a threat to Americans.
Within that context, this answer to the question of whether Islam is inherently violent becomes inevitable:
TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Yes, it must be. Otherwise, how could all these groups take the name of Islam to become violent and do what they do? They’re the ones that call themselves Islamists. They’re the ones that, you know, ISIS calling themselves the Islamic State. We didn’t pin that name on them. We didn’t say, "You’re the non-Christian. You’re the non-Jewish, the non-Buddhist, the non-Hindu, the non-Sikh." They said, "We’re the Islamic State." So they’re interpreting the teachings of the prophet, the teachings of the Koran, and they’re twisting it. They’re putting it on it.
But the fundamental basis is that they’re calling themselves Islam and then cutting people’s heads off.
Fuentes’ answer not only implies that Muslims should take responsibility for the violence being committed by the Islamic State, but it reinforces a negative attitude toward Muslims, which numerous Americans happen to have. And CNN recognizes that many Americans hold this view and that becomes cover to continue to have this ignorant debate, not an opportunity to appropriately challenge people’s prejudices with facts that show what Fuentes stated is plainly insulting.
Conversations Rarely Had in "Legitimate Way"
Aslan embarrassed Lemon and fellow anchor Alisyn Camerota when he appeared in late September. The anchors confronted him with Maher’s talking points about Islam and female genital mutilation, that women are horribly mistreated in all Muslim countries, that the justice system in all Muslim countries is more "primitive" and "subjugates women more than other countries," etc. Aslan demolished all these facile arguments.
"This is the problem, is that these kinds of conversations that we’re having aren’t really being had in any kind of legitimate way. We’re not talking about women in the Muslim world. We’re using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That’s actually the definition of bigotry," Aslan eventually declared.
How Aslan challenged CNN’s framing of the conversation and the criticism CNN received should have prompted the network to retire this debate question. Instead, days later, CNN aired a segment defending asking questions. Host Chris Cuomo even went full Bill Maher:
His tone was very angry. So he wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.
Look, here’s what you guys are exposing yourselves to. This is the state of play in journalism today. The Muslim world is responsible for a really big part of religious extremism right now. And they are unusually violent. They’re unusually barbaric in the places where it’s happening. And it’s happening there more than it is in other places. Do you therefore want to generalize? Of course not. But you do want to call a situation what it is.
It’s not a coincidence that ISIS begins with an "I". I mean, that’s what’s going on in that part of the world. Doesn’t mean that other faiths can’t be violent and other cultures can’t be violent. But you shouldn’t be afraid of the question.
Aslan displayed only a fraction of the hostility that Jewish people show when confronted with people who condemn Israel for bombing Gaza. He was far less hot-headed than many Christians are when asked to tolerate science and let women choose abortion and maintain control over their reproductive systems.
Yet, to Cuomo and others at CNN, it is somehow courageous to be having this conversation because the response they got, including from Muslims, was an accusation that they were being bigots. They translate that into a sign that they need to keep this discussion going.
On October 6, the network had the debate again. Lemon said in the opening of "CNN Tonight," "Are there some things you just can’t say when it comes to Islam? And who decides? Ben Affleck and Bill Maher did battle on Islam over the weekend." He also asked later, "Do you think that most people paint Islam or even here with too broad a brush when we ask about violence and oppression committed in the name of religion?" (Note: If you have not noticed by now, CNN relies on Maher for most of their discussions of this "hot-button" topic they have committed their network to highlighting.)
Reinforcing Animosity Toward Muslims
Nobody is arguing that anchors or pundits cannot be edgy, however, the anchors fail to grasp that these questions they want to ask during their debate club segment reinforce animosity toward Muslims. They have no problem with the questions because they lead to sounds, which harmonize with their coverage of the hyped threat that ISIS poses to America. It helps promote and legitimize America’s warfare in Iraq and Syria. Whether they intend to do so or not, that is the effect.
Lana Ashfour, a journalist based in London and Beirut, recently wrote in a column for Al Jazeera English:
Trashing Islam is about disseminating simplistic ideas that lend support to precise political goals, and it allows supporters of certain aspects of US foreign policy to justify past, present, and future mistakes. If American voters can be given the impression that most Muslims are sexist, homophobic, intolerant fanatics who murder and behead at the drop of a hat, then they may just believe that it is necessary to invade countries in which Muslims are the majority – it hardly matters which country, as long as wrecking its political, economic, and social fabric serves the primary goals of controlling oil resources, profiting from the arms trade, and allowing Israel to feel safe (irrespective of whether its feelings of insecurity correspond to reality).
What About the Stories of the Vast Majority of Muslims Throughout the World?
The questions pushed by CNN about Islam "promoting" violence make it more difficult to generate understanding and sympathy for what Muslims experience daily, particular as victims of extremist violence and victims in the "War on Terrorism."
As Waleed Shahid wrote for Colorlines, what Maher and anchors at CNN say is a direct attack on him, as a Muslim. "They rationalize their own fear-mongering by pushing a narrative about the dangerous person they perceive me to be. With their attempts at writing and disseminating their own version of me, Maher, Harris, the anchors at CNN, and countless others take away the ability of Muslims to share their own stories. These are stories that must be told, but are of little interest to the mainstream media."
It reinforces a climate where Muslims think they must feel guilty and apologize for the crimes of other extremist Muslims whenever atrocities are committed.
Khaled Beydoun wrote for Al Jazeera English:
…The quintessential hallmark of being Muslim in America is neither faith nor citizenship. Rather, the essence of Muslim-American identity right now is the collective fear which arises during national security crises. It is increasingly these "interim moments, between catastrophe and discovering the real culprits [of terrorism]," which most aptly defines so much of the experience of being Muslim and American today…
Beydoun noted in recent days the hashtag #MuslimApologies had been created by frustrated Muslims to humorously deal with this and force others to recognize this ugliness is part of their lives.
Why should any Muslim have to apologize for anything? And why should any person have to apologize when no other religious group is held to this standard and when no other demographic in the world is either?
Finally, Mehreen Kasana, an American Pakistani Muslim who lives in New York City, eloquently explained why she won’t be joining other Muslims to apologize for the existence and rise of ISIS:
I will apologize for ISIS when every single American apologizes for the production of the War on Terror that, like the brilliant Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon says, is the production of more terror and thus, endless war. I will apologize for ISIS when every single white American apologizes for the mass incarceration of black and brown people in the United States. I will apologize for ISIS when I see American men and women post lengthy and introspective apologies for what the US Empire has done to the world, including my native country, since its very advent. I will post an 8,000 word apology when English people email me individual apologies for what the British Empire did to the subcontinent. I will carry a banner around Union Square that reads "I condemn ISIS as a Muslim and everything else you think I’m responsible for because I share an identity with someone else" when I start seeing white Americans wearing shirts that read "I condemn the KKK, slavery, plantations, gentrification, the genocide of Native Americans, the internment camps for East Asians, the multiple coup d’etats my country facilitated abroad, the other 9/11 that Chileans suffered and yet everyone and their mother forgot, Christian fundamentalists who can’t pronounce Mohammad but think all Muslims need to be racially profiled and segregated from the rest of America and a lot more as a white person." I won’t limit this to whiteness only; I will apologize when every single ethnic, religious group apologizes for whatever someone did simply because, under this debauched logic, they owe the world an apology for sharing an identity. When I start seeing these apologies, I will apologize too.
Kasana would never be allowed to articulate this point on CNN, however, it gets to the core of the issue.
Don Lemon and others at CNN need to recognize there is nothing to apologize for and nothing to explain about Islam. In fact, they should spend less time having narrow-minded debate club sessions about this religion and more time talking about how America’s actions inspire and fuel the rise of violent groups.