On Thursday, May 7, 2015, at 7:30 p.m., WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate, hosted “Islamophobia: A Conversation.” WNYC talk-show host Brian Lehrer moderated. The discussion took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, described on its webpage as “the home for adventurous artists, audiences, and ideas.” Both BAM and WNYC are taxpayer funded. The discussion has been broadcast several times – at least twice the weekend of July 25 – and it is available on the WNYC webpage.
WNYC, on its webpage, lists the panelists for “Islamophobia: A Discussion” as follows:
Wajahat Ali—co-host of “The Stream” on Al Jazeera America; author of Fear Inc.: Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America;
Douglas Murray—associate editor of The Spectator magazine; author most recently of Islamophilia;
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar—Iraqi-born writer and human rights activist;
Asra Nomani—author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam;
Linda Sarsour—Brooklyn-born executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and
Bassem Youssef—host of “Al-Bernameg,” the first televised political satire show in the Middle East. Youssef is also a Harvard fellow.
WNYC’s “Islamophobia: A Conversation” typifies many features of liberal discourse on Islam. These features include:
- Selective inclusion of speakers in order to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion. Islam-critical scholars are excluded. Trained apologists for the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western Civilization are excluded. Muslims who express an orthodox Islamic worldview are excluded.
- Selection of Islamophobia, that is hatred and victimization of Muslims, as the topic of note. Jihad, terrorism, and gender apartheid are not worthy of focus.
- Exploitation of America’s psychic vulnerabilities, specifically guilt about white supremacy, to coerce adherence to a pro-Islam worldview, and to silence any analysis of Islam.
- Conflation of Muslims and Islam with African Americans and the African American experience, thus rendering any critique of Islam an expression of white supremacy.
- An insistence on cultural relativism in which Islam is just like every other world religion, with a focus on insisting that Islam is just like Christianity.
- Depiction of America as a deadly hellhole for Muslims. At the same time, insisting on American Dream tropes. Assuming that all people on earth somehow automatically deserve entry into this idyllic American Promised Land, and that any expectation that Muslims renounce jihad or express fealty to their adopted homeland is a gross human rights violation.
- A disregard for, even a demonization of, objective facts.
- Misrepresentation and demonization of any critique of Islam.
- Trivialization and mockery: a Yoda imitation, a comparison of the stars of Duck Dynasty to ISIS or saying, “My mother can’t be a terrorist; she’s too busy cooking biryani.”
- Blame the victim. Americans cause terrorism by saying mean things about Islam.
WNYC created a theatrical façade of inclusivity of speakers and worldviews. Panelists, WNYC’s webpage promises, come “from across the political, religious, and cultural spectrum” and they “address massive issues;” “the conversation covered broad terrain.”
It is significant who was not part of the discussion. The most prominent and productive scholarly critic of Islam in the world today is almost certainly Robert Spencer. Spencer was not present. David Wood, another prominent, active, local, and productive critic of Islam, was not present.
British author Douglas Murray was present, and that’s a good thing. It’s not the best thing, though. Douglas Murray is not a full-time Islam critic; Spencer and Wood are. Further, Murray is an atheist, and an atheist without theological training. Islam, from its founding, has positioned itself as the opponent of Judaism and Christianity in a triumphalist, zero sum game. Indeed, Muslims on the panel at the WNYC event repeatedly invoked Christianity in order to score points for Islam. Osama bin Laden declared that all Muslims everywhere are justified in killing any and all “Jews and Crusaders.”
Robert Spencer and David Wood don’t just know Islam; they don’t just know the Koran and hadith. They know the Bible, Old Testament and New. They know church history. They know that what most conventionally educated people believe to be true about the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch craze – historical episodes frequently cited by Islam’s apologists – has been demonstrated to be false by recent scholarship.
It is notable that not a single person on the panel was an American of non-Muslim descent. It is notable that five of the six panelists were Muslims or former Muslims. Even as one panelist after another accused non-Muslim Americans of being imperialist oppressors, racists and indeed terrorists, WNYC did not allow one non-Muslim American to speak.
Other notable missing persons: there was no one like the pro-Sharia Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary, though Choudary is a media fixture. Choudary’s Koranic worldview probably has more followers than the announced beliefs – moderate Islam, secularism, or reformed Islam – of all the other panelists combined. Choudary doesn’t pay lip service to co-existence. In his beard and Islamic dress, Choudary is not the poster child for moderate Islam that photogenic, beardless and fashionably groomed Wajahat Ali is. Choudary says that Muslims are superior and that eventually they will exercise that superiority over all mankind, as prescribed in Bukhari hadith 4:196. In fact no one on the panel represented this worldview, though it is obviously an influential one among Muslims.
Another significant feature of the discussion: the decision, made before the discussion took place as to what it would address. WNYC titled its program “Islamophobia” and “Fear of a Muslim Planet.” Bill Maher famously denounced the very word “Islamophobia” as one “created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” WNYC chose as focus of its discussion on Islam a purported irrational hatred of Muslims that allegedly grips Americans. In the city where almost three thousand Americans were murdered on September 11, 2001, the city’s premier, taxpayer-funded radio station understands “fairness” to involve smearing all Americans as bigots and not allowing one single American of non-Muslim descent onto a panel to challenge that smear.
The broadcast’s alternate title is “Fear of a Muslim Planet.” This title alludes to “Fear of a Black Planet,” a 1990 Public Enemy hip hop album meant to protest white supremacy. White Americans are oppressive haters, WNYC’s title announced. Muslims are innocent victims. Muslims are just like African Americans. “Fear of a Black Planet” includes the song “911 is a Joke.”
“No one here wants terrorism, and no one here wants bigotry. Let’s have a dialogue about how we can fight the one without enabling the other,” host Brian Lehrer announced at the beginning of the discussion. Any thinking person immediately detects the culturally relativistic false equivalency. Terrorism is destroying the lives of millions of people. Ten million people currently live under the control of ISIS, for just one example. Terrorism is a much more serious matter than alleged “Islamophobia,” yet Lehrer equates the two.
There were many similar false equivalencies. Bassem Youssef brought up the Westboro Baptist Church. The Westboro Baptist Church has not millions, but rather dozens of members. As painful as it is, a sign reading “God hates fags” cannot be compared to a terrorist bombing. Youssef spoke at length about the 2009 assassination of a late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. This murder can’t be compared to 1400 years of jihad – but it was, and that comparison went unchallenged. Youssef’s discourse on the murder of Dr. Tiller was the longest bit of uninterrupted verbiage in a NPR report on Islam in the US.
The WNYC broadcast opens with, and the homepage for the event closes with, a quote from panelist Wajahat Ali. “In America I’m asked, ‘Why does Islam hate the West?’ Abroad I’m asked, ‘Why does the West hate Islam?'” Again, two phenomena that are not equal – jihad and alleged Western Islamophobia – are rendered equivalent in the one quote WNYC chose to feature on its homepage.
Linda Sarsour was the night’s first speaker. She spoke loudly, rapidly and in a street-inflected enunciation that was so pronounced it could have been an affectation. In the tradition of fascist demagogues, Sarsour voiced flamboyant, bathetic grievances, claiming herself and her fellow Muslims to be victims of violent and dangerous, racist Americans. Sarsour claimed that Muslims are bullied in schools and must live with death threats from Americans who want to decapitate them. Sarsour insisted that “Islamophobia is an industry in this country. People making [sic] millions of bucks [sic] on dehumanizing and vilifying Muslims.” She followed grievances with belligerence, telling people what they could and could not say. “You’re free” she said, “to disagree with some tenets of Islam.” Well, thank you for that permission, Ms. Sarsour. Anti-Sharia legislation, though, is Islamophobic and must stop. American zoning boards that resist mosque construction are Islamophobic. They must grant permission for the construction of mosques. Sarsour claimed that the NYPD surveils Muslims for no other reason than racist animus. Douglas Murray called this a lie. Sarsour castigated Murray. Brian Lehrer backed her up, saying, “Let her speak!”
Sarsour repeatedly conflated Muslims with African Americans. Sarsour is attempting to appropriate the African American experience; she is a Muslim Rachel Dolezal. In 2012, Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi woman, was murdered in California. CNN published Sarsour announcing that “My Hijab Is My Hoodie.” The article featured a photo of Trayvon Martin. The implication was that Sarsour risks being murdered by a racist American because she wears hijab, in the same way that Trayvon Martin was allegedly murdered by a racist American for wearing a hoodie. Alawadi’s murder was a staged hate crime; her Muslim husband had beaten her to death.
Currently on her Facebook page, Sarsour insists that her son Tamir is the equivalent of Ramarley Graham, an African American shot to death by a police officer. Sarsour had previously said that her son is just like Tamir Rice, another black boy shot by police. Also on her Facebook page, Sarsour calls Franklin Graham “vehement, racist, disgusting.” She writes “Existing as Black and/or Muslim in America is an act of courage.” And “When Black lives matter all lives will matter, including Muslim lives.” Sarsour repeatedly invokes Rosa Parks in her public statements, and Sarsour has been compared to Rosa Parks.
Sarsour was the most vehement in rejecting rational discussion. “I’m not interested up here to have ideological or theological discussion or pull out quotes from the Koran because every problem that we have could be found in other faiths.” (sic).
Aljazeera’s Wajahat Ali also spoke of Islamophobia as a profit center that is “bankrolled” by nefarious forces vilifying Muslims and Islam. Ali, like Sarsour, jumped on the “America is white supremacist” bandwagon. He self-identified as “brown skinned.” In fact, he is clearly of mostly Caucasian ancestry, as is Sarsour. Ali complained that he is not “popular” in America, that Americans insult him by forcing him to apologize for actions he’s never done, performed by people he’s never met. Ali mourned that those making money off Islamophobia want “you to fear me because I am a Muslim.” I am a “perpetual suspect.” Ali went right for America’s psychic jugular. Racism is in America’s very DNA. Islamophobia “Takes its DNA from hateful fear mongering that was used against Jews, Catholics and Japanese. Same DNA.” This isn’t about free speech, Ali insisted. It’s not about a cartoon. In his insistence that free speech and cartoons are immaterial, Ali joined Sarsour in rejecting discussion of objective realities. All that mattered, really, is that America is fundamentally racist.
Much could be said about the irony of Islamists smearing America as racist. The Arab slave trade of Africans and Europeans dwarfed the Atlantic slave trade in size and duration. The Arab slave trade was supported by the Koran and Mohammed’s exemplary precedent. The Arab slave trade exists today. The legacy of the Arab slave trade is virulent racism among Arabs and many Muslims – as many Muslims have publicly acknowledged.
In a similar ironic display of hypocrisy, Sarsour, Youssef, and Ali deployed a self-contradictory but no less crafty stratagem. They spoke at length about what a devious, imperialist, destructive, racist, and indeed deadly place America is for Muslims. To state the obvious, Sarsour, Youssef, and Ali, who could easily return to their relatives in Palestine, Egypt, and Pakistan, choose to live in the United States. If America were the hellhole they describe, they would not be here. At the same time that they pound the shame-racist-America drum, Sarsour and Ali also insist on an ideal America that Muslims deserve uninhibited and unquestioned access to. I am Catholic. No Catholic has ever enjoyed unquestioned access to the American Dream. We had to prove our worth, and that we posed no threat. We did just that. John F. Kennedy’s September 12, 1960 speech to Protestant ministers was just one proof that American Catholics have offered up to gain full access to the American Dream.
Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian television host and Harvard fellow, misrepresented the Islam critical point of view, and, specifically, Douglas Murray’s point of view, as “All Muslims are out there to either subjugate you or convert you” and Muslims are “out there to get you basically” and “Islam is an infection” and “Why don’t we go to the next level and put them all in concentration camps. Throw us in the gas chambers. It’s much easier this way. No Muslims. No Islamophobia. Let’s get it over with.” “This is hate speech. It should be shut down,” Youssef said of any criticism of Islam. Youssef equated critics of Islam with imams who call for death to Jews and Christians. Of Douglas Murray, Youssef said, “He’s doing the same. He’s doing the same. But on bigger platforms, and he’s affecting a larger number of people.” The moderator made no attempt to address Youssef’s false, inflammatory remarks. The audience applauded enthusiastically. Following Youssef’s comments in the program as it exists now at the WNYC webpage, and as it was broadcast in July, there was no response, including from Douglas Murray, who had been misrepresented to the point of slander. Youssef’s unhinged, masochistic fantasies went unchallenged.
Youssef adopted a mock, singsong voice and trilled, “Yeah, there are violent texts in Islam.” Any discussion of the Koran’s many jihad verses, Mohammed’s career as a warrior, or the history of a thousand years of unbroken Islamic expansion through violent and genocidal jihad was reduced to a joke. Youssef blamed America. “Billions of dollars” funded the spread of jihad. Youssef insisted that the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK are completely equivalent with jihad. If someone gave the Westboro Baptist Church billions of dollars, they, too, would create terrorist groups on every continent that would last for a thousand years. “This is a game that has been used by Christianity and Judaism!” “Buddhists are killing!” Youssef’s angry and grammatically incorrect sputterings were met with enthusiastic applause.
Wajahat Ali was allowed expansive, uninterrupted time to insist that “right-wing white men from the South” are the number one domestic terrorist threat to Americans, and that they should be surveilled and profiled. Ali also argued that Westerners bring terrorism on themselves by criticizing Islam.
In contrast to the generous time allowed Ali and Youssef, Lehrer interrupted Douglas Murray when Murray was making his summary statement, the kind of statement that is conventionally not interrupted by a moderator. “You are by your own words anti-Islam,” Lehrer intoned, using the kind of formulation one would associate with the judge in a Stalinist show trial. Lehrer did not interrupt any other panelist’s summary statement for ideological reasons. He interrupted Wajahat Ali for reasons of time, but allowed him to continue to speak.
Lehrer also interrupted panelist Faisal Saeed Al Mutar. Al Mutar was born in Iraq; he is now an atheist living in the US. He spoke relatively little. He attempted to adduce facts that would demonstrate that Youssef and Ali were incorrect to mock and trivialize the real threat of Islamic terrorism. Al Mutar listed Muslim countries that prescribe capital punishment for atheism; he pointed out that the worst countries to live in for women are Muslim countries. Lehrer interrupted Al Mutar’s recitation of facts. “Is the path to peace to discredit the religion?”
Asra Nomani was born in India and currently teaches at Georgetown. She is the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She said that the first person to RSVP for WNYC’s event was a man who had sent her a death threat. Her voice was lovely and quiet; her speech measured and respectful. She spoke for reform in Islam. The Muslim men on the panel interrupted and made fun of her.
Douglas Murray repeatedly attempted to make an important point. Suppression of the unique challenges Islam presents is not good for Muslims. Most Muslims are decent people who should not face prejudice. The best route to a happy life for Muslims is for Muslims to say, “Yes, we have a problem, and yes, we are open to dealing with it.” Three of the guests on WNYC’s panel not only failed miserably at that task; they engaged in obfuscation, evasion and denial. Of the practicing Muslims on stage, Asra Nomani alone demonstrated the openness to discussion and solutions that will lead to a better tomorrow for everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Danusha V. Goska, PhD. is the author of Save Send Delete.