The Media, Islam, and Political Correctness

Is it a right-wing scare tactic to use the phrase Islamic extremism?


Last week's arrest of four men in the Bronx, New York on charges of plotting to bomb two synagogues and shoot down a military aircraft with a missile has revived an ongoing debate about the connection between Islam and terrorism and the twin pitfalls of religious bigotry and willfully blind political correctness.

The New York Times has been assailed by conservative critics such as Dallas Morning News columnist and blogger Rod Dreher for downplaying a troubling aspect of the case: all the suspects are Muslims. (They had converted to Islam while in prison for drug offenses, theft, and other crimes.) The first Times report on May 20 mentioned this fact only in passing—despite a statement by New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly at a press conference that the four had talked frankly about wanting to "commit jihad."

The next day, the Times ran a story on the secret FBI recordings in which the men discussed their hatred of Jews and their intent to kill U.S. soldiers in retaliation for killings of "Muslim brothers and sisters in Muslim countries." The article's lead paragraph focused on the men's criminal backgrounds; not until the fourth paragraph was there a reference to their jihadist motivation (they shouted "Allah Akbar!" as they brought their newly acquired stash of weapons to their warehouse).

In a particularly odd passage, the article noted that "law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but their religious backgrounds remained uncertain Thursday" and that three had previously identified as Christian in prison records. This, despite ample evidence in the same article that the plot, set in motion with the help of an FBI informant, was motivated by Islamic fanaticism.

By contrast, the opening line of the New York Post story on the arrests referred to "four homegrown Muslim terrorists on a mission from hell"—inflammatory, to be sure, but arguably far more accurate.

Is the suspects' religion relevant? Given that they were driven by religion-based extremism and hate, common sense certainly suggests that it is.

To some on the left, any mention of Islamic extremism is a bigoted right-wing scare tactic. On his blog, Nation magazine columnist Robert Dreyfuss dismisses the New York terror plot as "bogus" and asserts that every alleged plot by Muslim terrorists on U.S. soil after the World Trade Center attack has been "nonsense" cooked up by the FBI: "Since 9/11 not a single American has even been punched in the nose by an angry Muslim, as far as I can tell." (Tell that to the victims of Mohammed Taheri-azar, who plowed a Jeep into a crowd of students at the University of North Carolina in 2006 and later told authorities that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and "avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world.") And while most of the plots uncovered by the authorities seem to have been the work of inept losers, one does not have to be a genius to inflict a lot of damage. If the September 11 hijackers had been caught, how many people would have scoffed at the plot to fly hijacked planes into buildings as absurdly improbable?

Yet anti-Muslim hysteria on the right is no myth, either. In February 2007, when a teenager named Sulejmen Talovic went on a shooting rampage at a Salt Lake City, Utah shopping mall, killing five people, some right-wing websites excoriated the media for ignoring the "Muslim connection"—the shooter's background as a Bosnian Muslim immigrant. Never mind that there was nothing to suggest that Talovic was a Muslim zealot or that religion had anything to do with his actions. (Shooting sprees by troubled young men of other religious backgrounds are not exactly unknown.)

And in 2005, a posse of conservative bloggers led by columnist Michelle Malkin relentlessly flogged the notion that the suicide of a disturbed young man who blew himself up with a homemade bomb on the Oklahoma University campus was actually a botched terrorist act by a Muslim convert. Their "evidence" included the fact that he had a Pakistani roommate and lived close to a mosque.

The "Muslims under the bed" rhetoric promotes hatred and paranoia. The vast majority of American Muslims are not radicals. But, leaving aside debates about whether there is something in the Muslim religion that inherently and uniquely lends itself to a violent, extremist interpretation, the reality is that an extremist and violent strain is present in modern-day Islam to a far greater extent than in other major religions.

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center two years ago found that about 13% of American Muslims—and a quarter of those under 30—felt that suicide bombings in defense of Islam were justified in at least some cases. The poll also found that in some ways, native-born African-American Muslims are more radicalized than immigrants. Radical Islamism may be an attractive ideology for those who feel disenfranchised.

To ignore or downplay these alarming facts is myopic. If the mainstream media continue to do so out of misguided sensitivity, it will only undermine their credibility when it comes to battling real bigotry.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.com.