(MintPress) – The Newsweek cover was met with furor. It read “Muslim rage,” over-simplifying and generalizing an entire population of people over the extremist actions of a few. It offended, degraded and belittled the majority who insist on Islam as a predominantly peaceful religion. Perhaps lost in the rhetoric surrounding the events is the idea that […]
(MintPress) – The Newsweek cover was met with furor. It read “Muslim rage,” over-simplifying and generalizing an entire population of people over the extremist actions of a few. It offended, degraded and belittled the majority who insist on Islam as a predominantly peaceful religion. Perhaps lost in the rhetoric surrounding the events is the idea that hostilities toward the West have been simmering for decades, and the introduction of the video caused those tensions to boil over. Living conditions and years of political oppression can be traced back to U.S. involvement in the region, where dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak have dominated their respective countries.
Dominating headlines of mainstream media recently have been reports of violent protests in areas of the Middle East after an anti-Muslim video depicting the prophet Muhammad was created in the United States and posted online. Demonstrations quickly spread through the Muslim world, creating outbursts in countries such as Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt and Yemen. An attack at the United States embassy in Benghazi, Libya also resulted in the death of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Newsweek’s use of the headline “Muslim rage” acted as a confirmation bias for Republicans and tea party supporters, as two-thirds within those groups associate a link between Muslims and violence, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
From there, media coverage in the subsequent days focused on continued violence and property damage in the Middle East. Concern became global, as U.S. embassies around the world, such as France and Austria, issued alerts to Americans in the respective counties of potential protests and violence.
At an address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Barack Obama denounced the highly-publicized violent protests as an irrational reaction to the online video that sparked the demonstrations.
“There is no speech that justifies mindless violence,” Obama said. “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”
Peaceful demonstrations lost in coverage
And that is largely what leaders in the affected region have pleaded for. Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa denounced both the video that incited the pushback, but also the reactions of those in the Middle East and Muslims in other countries of the world. Gomaa pointed to the history of the prophet as a foundation of how to react to things that are offensive and belittle the religion.
“Not only was his [prophet Muhammad’s] message routinely rejected, but he was often chased out of town, cursed and physically assaulted on numerous occasions,” Gamaa said. “But his example was always to endure all personal insults and attacks without retaliation of any sort. There is no doubt that, since the prophet is our greatest example in this life, this should also be the reaction of all Muslims.”
Largely omitted from mainstream media reports of the issue, however, are instance of peaceful demonstrations emanating from the Muslim world and Muslims outside the region. Earlier in the week in Kabul, Afghanistan, over 500 protesters took to the streets to rally against the film in a peaceful manner — a deviating tactic not covered by media in the United States.
In a statement sent to MintPress, executive director of the Minnesota Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Lori Saroya said the organization condemned the violent outburst in the Middle East as a response to the video. Also in the statement, leading Minneapolis Muslim figure Masjid An Nur Imam Makram El-Amin said it goes against the tenets of Islam to react violently.
“Islam is a religion that calls for spiritual, emotional, and religious maturity,” he said. “It is unacceptable to lash out with violence against those whom we disagree with no matter the subject.”
Similar peaceful demonstrations that were seen in Kabul have sprung up in cities outside the Middle East as well, such as Bangkok, where 400 people peacefully conducted a demonstration in front of 700 police officers. Demonstrators walked in the streets with signs that read, “We love Prophet Muhammad” and, “Stop insulting our religion.”
The Lowy Institute for Public Policy (LIPP) noted that decades of involvement by the U.S. in the Middle East have largely been a failure for its citizens, who live in war-torn areas and are currently seeing a rash of drone strikes in the region after over 10 years of lingering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This well of ill-feeling is not new, although it has been filling more rapidly in the past 15 years,” wrote Anthony Bubalo, a contributor to LIPP. “This is not necessarily a criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In the last decade and a half America has done things in the region that have been variously dumb, morally suspect, poorly communicated …”
Aazadi Fateh Muhammad, a mass communications professor at Federal Urdu University in Karachi, Pakistan, summarized the rise of violent and peaceful protests as an overreaction from boths sides of the debate: from the movie’s extremist viewpoint of Muslims to the violent overreaction of some of those in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“People on both sides of this situation simply need to take time to learn about one another,” Muhammad wrote. “That becomes almost impossible when one side is making an over-generalized, demeaning movie, and the other side is violently protesting it in an overgeneralized way. We need to work to promote positive messages and understanding, above all else.”
Media’s damaging portrayal
The exclusivity of mainstream media’s coverage of violent demonstrations is skewing America’s perception of the people and religion while making it more difficult for both sides to coexist with one another, experts say. Leena Saleh, a coordinator with the Chicago branch of CAIR, said mass media plays an enormous and crucial role in the socio-political construct of the American/Muslim relationship.
Saleh argued that after a decade’s worth of war coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with steadfast coverage of isolated pockets of violence, perceptions of Muslims as a dangerous people are unfair to those living peacefully stateside and the vast majority of Muslims overseas.
“What we fail to see in mainstream media and popular culture is a portrayal of the average American-Muslim and instead are offered only polarized extremes,” Saleh said.
According to CAIR board member Parvez Ahmed, terrorism, militancy or extremism by a Muslim is more often than not linked to their faith.
“The association is 1,000 to 1 times more likely for Muslims than any other faith group,” Ahmed said. “This lopsided association is troubling given the fact that that all religions, not just Islam, have in the recent past fallen prey to misinterpretation by a radical fringe. Certainly the ills of a misguided minority do not justify the victimization of the peaceful majority.”
Ahmed pointed to the 9/11 Commission once reporting that “Islamic terrorism” was the greatest threat posed to the U.S. And in a speech given years before his attempted run at the White House, Rick Santorum said Islam must be “eradicated” to create peace in the world.
“Such repetitive slant in media coverage builds an environment in which bigotry fosters,” Ahmed wrote. “It is thus not surprising that radio and television talk shows are resplendent with both caller and host assertions that Muslims have either not condemned terrorism or have only six degrees of separation from it.”