US media helped anti-Muslim bodies gain influence, distort Islam
By Liat Clark
A study published by a sociologist has revealed that fear-mongering non-governmental anti-Muslim organisations have been heavily influencing US media since 9/11, their messages seeping into news articles and television reporting and drawing their ethos from the fringes, straight into the mainstream.
What's perhaps most troubling about the results is how these minor groups, which would ordinarily receive little or no air time, have gained an element of respect that has led to them receiving more funding and coupling with influential bodies. Their influence is such that they have even been able to paint mainstream Muslim organisations as radical, says the study.
"The vast majority of organisations competing to shape public discourse about Islam after the September 11 attacks delivered pro-Muslim messages, yet my study shows that journalists were so captivated by a small group of fringe organisations that they came to be perceived as mainstream," the paper's author, University of North Carolina assistant professor of sociology Christopher Bail, told Wired.co.uk.
"Anti-Muslim fringe organisations dominated the mass media via displays of fear and anger. Institutional amplification of this emotional energy, I argue, created a gravitational pull or 'fringe effect' that realigned inter-organisational networks and altered the contours of mainstream discourse itself."
Bail and his team used plagiarism detection software to compare 1,084 press releases produced by 120 different organisations with more than 50,000 television transcripts and newspaper articles produced between 2001 and 2008. The software picked up damning similarities between the releases and stories from news outlets including the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Times, CBS News, CNN and Fox News Channel.
"We learned the American media almost completely ignored public condemnations of terrorist events by prominent Muslim organisations in the United States," Bail told Wired.co.uk. "Inattention to these condemnations, combined with the emotional warnings of anti-fringe organisations, has created a very distorted representation of the community of advocacy organisations, think tanks, and religious groups competing to shape the representation of Islam in the American public sphere."
Bail told us that some of the organisations most successful in spreading negative warnings about Islam included the Centre for Security Policy (which, rather worryingly, has a former head of the CIA as an honorary co-chairman), the Middle East Forum (which claims to "protect the constitutional order from Middle Eastern threats" through projects such as its horrifyingly named "Islamist Watch" project) and Stop the Islamisation of America -- which needs no explanation.
"The only major US Muslim organisation that has achieved a high level of media influence is the Council on American Islamic Relations, which is now working to rebuff the recent rise in anti-Muslim messages within the American public sphere," said Bail.
Today, more than a decade since 9/11, evidence of that anti-Muslim influence still seeping into government habits is highly concerning.
"Muslim-American organisations have not been adequately represented within our policy process. For example, only one large Muslim-American organisation was invited to participate in recent Senate and Congressional hearings about the threat of radicalisation within the Muslim-American community."
The Homeland Security Committee event was chaired by US Representative for New York's third congressional district Peter King, who felt the need to refer to those Muslim-Americans present as "courageous" for attending -- perhaps a sign of the level of contention surrounding the issue.
Bail's paper, published in the American Sociological Review, is part of a wider study which will investigate how the influence of these fringe groups has spread beyond media and in to the real world, where doors have been opened to elite conservative social circles and conservative think tanks -- the first steps to influencing public policy and national opinion. Bail touched upon this in the current study after analysing publicly available information on the organisations' membership, which revealed troubling crossovers between fringe and mainstream organisations.
"In the US all not-for-profit or non-governmental organisations are required to file documentation that describes the names of people who are on their board. My research team collected these names and created a social network map that describes overlapping board membership among the organisations. This social network analysis enabled us to determine precisely which groups are connected to each other, and how these relationships evolved over time.
"They are now part of the mainstream… this media attention gave them visibility and enabled them to forge connections with mainstream conservative organisations such as the American Enterprise Institute."
The Institute is a high profile think tank with well-respected political and social scientists on its board. If groups that boast about projects such as Islamist Watch join forces with powerful, mainstream organisations such as the American Enterprise Institute, which may have access to huge funds, it represents an escalation that will be difficult, if not impossible, to counter.
Key moments beyond 9/11 served to speed up this acquired influence, says Bail, including the calls to burn the Qur'an by Pastor Terry Jones after it was announced an Islamic Centre would be built near to Ground Zero (Jones continues to burn the tome, despite pleas from both the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pentagon to stop) and, most recently, the anti-Muslim film which instigated riots across the globe.
"While the people involved in these events were not affiliated with the groups I studied, I believe the steady rise of anti-Muslim discourse within the American public sphere laid the groundwork for these radical groups."
It's perhaps not all that surprising that fringe, anti-Muslim organisations have been getting some extra air time post-9/11. Their buzzwords and quotes can of course generally be ignored as simply one facet of a much larger discource -- however, what's particularly worrying is the total lack of balanced reporting the study has revealed. Not only that, where news outlets heeded anti-Muslim press releases, they were often quoted verbatim in parts.
"I think most Americans are exposed to anti-Muslim messages in the media and elsewhere. The danger, I believe, is that many Americans have not been exposed to the positive messages of moderate Muslim organisations because they receive so little media coverage. Perhaps because of this distorted representation, we have seen a recent increase in anti-Muslim attitudes within the United States -- even though anti-Muslim attitudes briefly decreased after the September 11 attacks."
Despite the dire picture the findings paints, Bail is a believer that tolerance will win out in a country with such religious zeal that atheists are considered the most distrusted minority group (according to a recent University of Minnesota study).
"It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common 'core' of values that make them trustworthy -- and in America, that core has historically been religious," said sociologist Penny Edgell, an author on the Minnesota study. Respondents associated atheism with criminal behaviour, materialism and cultural elitism.
"I do not think it is too late," Bail told Wired.co.uk. "Religious tolerance is deeply embedded within our national character. Muslims have been a positive force in United States history since the 19th century. Before the September 11 attacks, Muslims might have been described as a 'model minority' with above average levels of education and income. They were so inconspicuous that they were routinely confused with Latinos. Needless to say, the September 11 attacks changed everything. Yet although my study shows this event enabled the meteoric rise of anti-Muslim fringe groups, it has also strengthened inter-faith coalitions working to invert the violent stigma attached to Islam."
Despite Bail's light touch of optimism, it is worth noting that he is working on a book which will detail how anti-Muslim fringe organisations have successfully branded mainstream Muslim organisations as radicals, and "achieved considerable influence upon US counter-terrorism policy and public opinion of Muslims more broadly" -- that's more than a little terrifying to consider.