President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations justifiably led to much outcry from activists, politicians and foreign leaders. The list—currently struck down by a federal judge in Seattle—was arbitrary, motivated by disjointed racist panic and was reportedly causing deaths worldwide. But while it’s important to lay primary blame for the ban at the feet of the man who signed it, years of Islamophobic coverage in corporate media—right-wing, centrist and “liberal”—laid the propaganda groundwork to get us here.
Surveys have found support for Trump’s Muslim ban ranging from 42 to 47 percent. This in line with the 43 percent of Americans willing to admit to having at least some prejudice against Muslims. Trump’s order exploits an irrational fear that media have spent at least 15 years conditioning.
Attention has rightly been paid to the Islamophobia industry—a loose consortium of professional far-right trolls such as Pam Geller, Frank Gaffney, Steve Emerson, Breitbart, Infowars, etc. And while these forces certainly were major factor in creating the Trump-friendly Muslim-fearing climate, it’s important not to lose sight of at least three other media phenomena that also had a major role: 1) the presentation of “terrorism” as a unique, existential threat, arbitrarily defined as applying almost exclusively to Muslim violence, 2) New Atheist liberal bigots and 3) disproportionate news coverage of the ISIS spectacle.
‘Terrorism’ as Muslim political violence
As FAIR has shown time and again (5/1/11, 4/15/14, 6/22/15, 6/14/16) over the years, media unjustifiably reserve the word “terrorism”—and the corollary breathless coverage it entails—overwhelmingly for political violence leveled by Muslims. Indeed, this past week provided one of the starkest examples of this asymmetry: White supremacist Alexandre Bissonnette’s January 30 attack on a Quebec mosque was not generally described as “terrorism” by the press, and despite killing six times more people than the October 2014 attack on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill by Muslim Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, it received only one-sixth as much coverage by US media (FAIR.org, 2/4/17).
As the “War on Terror” drags on into its 16th year, liberal and mainstream media have largely accepted the premise that “terrorism” is a separate and urgent manifestation of violence worthy of a global, generational struggle. This elevation to a separate moral order a particular kind of crime—whose definition, in practice, is arbitrarily restricted to perpetrators from a specific religious background—justifies throwing all sense of proportionality out the window. The very concept of a never-ending “global war on terror” laid essential groundwork for our current fever pitch of anti-Muslim sentiment.
‘New Atheist’ Islamophobia
Bill Maher is a fan of Bernie Sanders, a huge Obama booster and a frequent subject of write-ups on liberal websites for his latest dig aimed at Republicans. Maher is also a pro-war ideologue with a long history of bigoted statements about Muslims.
On his popular HBO show Real Time, Maher has repeatedly railed against Muslim immigration into Europe and the United States. He once declared that “civilization begins with civilizing the men; talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good.” Maher has repeatedly downplayed the killing of Palestinians in Gaza, even once comparing Hamas to a “crazy woman” whose wrists you could only hold “so long before you have to slap her.” Some other gems:
- “Islam is the only religion that acts like the Mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing.”
- “The Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS.”
- “People who want to gloss over the difference between Western culture and Islamic culture and forget about the fact that the Islamic culture is 600 years younger and that they are going through the equivalent of what the West went through with our Middle Ages, our Dark Ages”
Bill Maher is a so-called “New Atheist”—those who use the pretense of reason and liberal enlightenment to advance otherwise banal conventional wisdom about American and Israeli aggression in the Middle East.
Other New Atheists, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, routinely provide faux-liberal cover to the most vulgar aspects of anti-Muslim sentiment. Dawkins tweets things like “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge,” and had a much-mocked weeks-long feud with a 14-year-old Muslim kid over a clock he built for school, often times devolving into embarrassing conspiracy-mongering.
Sam Harris has turned anti-Muslim sophistry into a high art, focusing heavily on the pernicious influence of Muslim immigrants and the dangers they pose. Here’s Harris in 2006:
Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birth rates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow. Throughout Western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost—demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their antisemitism and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques. Political correctness and fears of racism have rendered many secular Europeans incapable of opposing the terrifying religious commitments of the extremists in their midst.
Harris’ screeds Europe find an echo in the manifesto of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015:
From this point I researched deeper and found out what was happening in Europe. I saw that the same things were happening in England and France, and in all the other Western European countries. Again I found myself in disbelief. As an American we are taught to accept living in the melting pot, and black and other minorities have just as much right to be here as we do, since we are all immigrants. But Europe is the homeland of white people, and in many ways the situation is even worse there.
That the “demographic” threat is demographically groundless is no surprise; a 2016 Pew Research poll showed that people often wildly overestimate how many of their compatriots are Muslims. In France, for example, respondents said they believed 31 percent of the population was Muslim, when the number is actually 7.5 percent. In the United States, people put the number at 17 percent, when the actual figure is less than 1 percent. This distortion of reality is promoted by the “demographic threat” fear that Harris sows.
It’s difficult to measure exactly how much the New Atheists contribute to today’s anti-Muslim trend, but their cable TV shows, public intellectual status, large followings and nominally liberal appeal certainly help normalize what would otherwise be considered rank bigotry. Indeed, Harris has spent the past week boosting voices defending the underlying logic of Trump’s Muslim ban, while pouting at those calling it “Islamophobic.”
Manufactured ISIS plots and the problem of meta-terror
Americans’ perception of terrorism is, for the most part, not informed by actual terrorist activity, but rather what we call “meta-terror,” or the fear caused by the coverage of terrorism, unconnected from any actual threat. Meta-terror has five manifestations: 1) the media disseminating ISIS threats in the form of video of audio; 2) reports about speculative terror attacks (e.g., LA Times, “A Freeway Terror Attack Is the ‘Nightmare We Worry About,’ Law Enforcers Say,” 12/21/15); 3) media treating “ISIS plots” manufactured by the FBI as actual ISIS plots, despite the fact that no one in ISIS was actually involved; 4) FBI and DHS “terror alerts” that never precede any actual attacks; and 5) the whole-cloth creation of fake ISIS stories.
In all five of these categories, it bears repeating, there is no actual act of terrorism. There is simply the specter of a threat, or a Potemkin plot. Taken together, meta-terror inflates the perception of Islamic terrorism, inflaming anti-Muslim prejudice.
There is no doubt the so-called Islamic State has killed tens of thousands under its brutal rule. In the lead-up to the war in fall 2014, however, this legitimate threat was consistently magnified wildly out of proportion by US media, especially as it related to the group’s direct threat to the US “homeland.”
As FAIR (2/15/15) noted at the time, in the second half of 2014, there was basically no story involving ISIS media wouldn’t publish. Fox News told us ISIS was building training camps in Mexico, ABC News published a scary-as-hell “ISIS caliphate map” that was lifted from a neo-Nazi website, a fake story about ISIS imposing female genital mutilation, an even faker story about a $425 bank robbery in Mosul, a church burning that never took place—none true, but all reported as such by mainstream outlets. Again, while ISIS’s crimes are not in doubt, the rush to exaggerate and fabricate the scope of its horrors inflated the threat to an apocalyptic fervor.
One of the key elements to selling the expansion of the war to Syria in the summer and fall of 2014 also fed greatly into the broader fear of Islamic terrorism—that ISIS’s social media sophistication was recruiting dozens and dozens of Americans. “More than 100 Americans” are fighting for ISIS, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress in fall 2014, which media dutifully repeated without question.
“More than 100 young home-grown Muslims, including some from Gotham, are being trained to become an enemy within by Al Qaeda–inspired groups like ISIS,” declared the New York Daily News (6/19/14). “More Than 100 Americans With Syrian Rebels,” a CNN headline (8/27/14) insisted. Americans, we were told again and again, were being seduced to fight in Syria en masse.
But wait. Two days after the US began airstrikes on Syria, this number was quietly reduced by 88 percent by FBI Director James Comey. “Around 12 Americans Are Fighting in Syria, Not 100,” the AP (9/26/14) reported.
The inflated terror threat didn’t stop there. As FAIR has documented repeatedly (4/1/15), FBI-contrived terror plots (ones where the FBI is the primary mover—buying materials, making plans, etc.) are frequently reported by the media simply as “ISIS plots.” For example, when former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell went on CBS This Morning in June 2015, referencing this map as evidence of recently unraveled ISIS plots, he omitted that every single one of these was created with the assistance of the FBI, and none ever posed any actual threat:
Another notable such case was an “ISIS nuclear plot” in 2015 that never actually involved either ISIS or nuclear weapons (FAIR.org, 10/9/15)—but one would hardly know this, reading or watching US media:
As FAIR wrote at the time:
What takes place, before our very eyes, is a kind of War on Terror transubstantiation. Representational terror plots become real ones, fake enemies become Russo-Jihadi crime syndicates, and an American public, once again, is presented with a cartoonish, wildly inflated threat profile that’s increasingly divorced from reality.
Then there’s the images. ISIS trades on violent and extreme images that our corporate media dutifully disseminate. For months and months, the average American was inundated with the most vile and over-the-top ISIS propaganda (FAIR.org, 5/26/15):
It’s no wonder, after years and years of FBI- and media-created “ISIS plots,” the playing of ISIS agitprop on loop, and endless terror warnings that never bear fruit—and a definition of “terror” that includes any Muslim who follows the wrong Twitter feed but excludes white supremacists who want to start a race war—that many Americans’ perception of Muslims would grow negative at a corollary rate. So-called centrist or liberal media cannot spend the better part of the past three years running non-stop Islamo-panic, then turn around and act shocked when Trump exploits the fallout.
It’s important to document the way the right stokes hatred of Muslims. But it’s also essential to note how that hatred seeps into mainstream and liberal circles as well. The rise of Trump did not happen in a vacuum, nor do the intellectual threads that led to many Americans supporting his arbitrary, hate-motivated Muslim ban.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.