Trends we can’t ignore: 1) Americans’ religious illiteracy

In recent years, numerous polls and reports have illustrated Americans’ ignorance about the basics of minority religions.  But the media’s coverage of the terrorist attack at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. showed us just how religiously illiterate Americans are.

During their breaking news coverage of the attack, CNN anchors, clueless about the Sikh faith and lacking sufficient sources, were relegated to fumbling through the Wikipedia page in describing the religion’s basic tenets.  According to a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary on the attack,

One Fox anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of “anti-Semitism.” A Fox local report claimed Sikhs are “based in northern Italy.” And the host of CNN Newsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the “murky detail” of whether Sikhs are Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer “could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs.”

Heck, I don’t know details about the Sikh faith either—something I’m not proud of.  Before the attack, I knew the religion originated in India and I could identify turban-wearing men as Sikh believers, but I couldn’t confidently claim to know anything more about it.  I remember seeing a portrait of the founder on the mantle of the Sikh family in the movie, Bend It Like Beckham, but I couldn’t tell you his name, when he lived, or how many Sikhs currently practice the faith throughout the world.  I remember being uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Sikh family in the film (it was your stereotypical, Orientalist depiction of overly-strict South Asian parents with thick accents) and yet I was just as ignorant (if not more) than the moviemakers.

Most Americans don’t know Sikhs either.  They make up only .16% of the American population.  I only know one personally—a prominent interfaith leader in Indianapolis.

In order to fill the massive gap in Americans’ illiteracy about the Sikh faith, many news outlets, like The Huffington Post, have attempted to provide resources about the religion to educate American citizens.  Organizations like the NPR-affiliated Story Corp used the attack as an opportunity to share the stories of Sikhs, so other Americans can, in some way, get to know them.

But the media is in even greater need of resources about religion. Both major networks like CNN and small, local papers should have had materials about the Sikh faith—and all religions for that matter—at the ready.  That preparedness should be common sense in an era when everything from Chick-Fil-A to terrorism seems tied to religion.  Reporters and news anchors, who shape our understanding of faith-related issues subtly and over a period of time through their coverage, critically need a better understanding of religion.

When the media—and major politicians like Mitt Romney, who referred to Sikhs as “sheiks”* in his comments about the attack—demonstrate their own ignorance about religion, it legitimizes the American public’s religious illiteracy.

The assertion made in the following comment, which was shared by an anonymous commenter on the CNN website, was recycled throughout the media’s coverage of the attack:

“Sikh people… can be easily mistaken for Muslim or Taliban.”

The key phrase is “can be easily mistaken for.” It’s saying, “it’s ok to confuse Sikhs with Muslims and with the Taliban, because we don’t really know the difference either.  A turban is a turban, right?” Note: Many (maybe, most) Muslim men don’t wear turbans, and the Taliban wear ones distinct from Sikhs.  But do most Americans recognize this? No.  And do many Americans conflate Muslims and the Taliban?  Sadly, yes.

Click here to see different styles of Sikh turban wrapping.

The media coverage of the attack also implicitly argued that Muslims and their religion are more prone to violence.  The common way anchors distinguished between Muslims and Sikhs was by saying something to the effect of, “Sikhs are not Muslims.  The Sikh faith is one of peace.”  This “distinction” implied that Islam is a religion of violence.

The attack and its coverage showed us that ignorance about religion leads us to buy into untruths, and also reaffirms our misguided beliefs about minority religions like Islam.

Religious literacy is lacking in American society, and it is critical that we as a country make an effort to improve it among the young and old, if we hope to end the violence and mistreatment experienced by all people of faith. 

Tomorrow’s post will discuss hate crimes again Sikhs in America.

*Romney used the world “sheik” when referring to the Sikh people. The word “sheik” (pronounced “shake”) does not exist, but it sounds like the English pronunciation of an Arabic word, “sheikh,” which means a learned person and is often used to describe Islamic scholars. Though the Arabic word ends in a hard “h” sound, as denoted by the “kh,” it is commonly pronounced with a “k” sound (“shake.”) Romney’s slip, therefore, points to his ignorance about religion, and also conflates Muslims (whose religious scholars are called “sheikhs”) with Sikhs.

The Oslo Opportunity, Part 3: ‘Counter-jihad’ crusaders

The terror attacks in Norway occurred on foreign soil, but they have a disturbing connection to our own country and those who perpetuate fear of Islam here.

To understand the link, we need to look no further than Anders Behring Breivik’s anti-Muslim 1,500 page manifesto, which cites a number of leaders active in the Islamophobia campaign in America and uses their ideology to shape his.  The New York Times did a great piece about anti-Muslim thought in the U.S. and its role in the attacks.

I’ve written before only briefly about some of the self-defined freedom-fighters in Breivik’s manifesto, so I’d like to provide a bit more information about them here.

55 citations: Robert Spencer

“Well this is the politically correct falsehood that is taught every where that Islam is a religion of peace that’s been hijacked.  Islam is actually unique among the religions of the world in having a developed doctrine, theology, and legal system that mandates

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer

warfare against unbelievers.” 

One of the most influential Islamophobes in America, Spencer was cited 55 times and his blog was referenced 107 times.  Spencer runs the hate blog www.jihadwatch.com, co-founded the hate group Stop Islamization of America, and has authored many books including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam.  He frequently appears FOX News and the 700 Club, and his above quote can be heard here:

 

After it came out that Spencer was cited throughout Breivik’s manifesto, NBC Nightly News did this segment about American Islamophobes, particularly Spencer:

 

1 reference: Pamela Geller

“This mosque is offensive, humiliating, it’s demeaning to the 3,000 innocent victims that lost their lives.  Without Islam, this attack would never have happened.”

In his manifesto, Breivik commented on Geller’s good character, in addition to referencing her blog 11 times.  Geller made a name for herself last summer as she led the campaign against the Park 51 Islamic Center in Manhattan.  Also a leader of Stop Islamization of America (there is also a European sister organization) and a frequent FOX contributor, she is planning an anti-Muslim protest on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  She constantly claims that she is not against Muslims, only against Islam, “the ideology that inspired these jihadist attacks.” See both quotes in this video.

 

Though I hate giving her site more hits, you should also check out her blog Atlas Shrugs.

15 citations: Walid Shoebat

“All Islamist organizations in America should be the number one enemy—all of them.” 

The Department of Justice has hired Walid Shoebat, a self-proclaimed former Muslim terrorist and Christian convert, to educate law enforcement about Islam.  He is also a

Walid Shoebat

frequent speaker at churches, universities, and on cable news shows. Recently, CNN exposed Shoebat as a bigot and fraud—there is no record of the terrorist attack he claims to have committed.

Shoebat’s tactic—claiming to be a former Muslim—is a smart one.  If people ask him how he knows Islam is evil, he can say, ‘Trust me! I know! I was Muslim’ and leave it at that.

As seen in the next video, he encourages law enforcement to consider all major Muslim institutions as enemies, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA, located in Plainfield, Indiana), all Muslim Student Associations (MSA), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

 

1 reference: Brigitte Gabriel

“Believe what the radicals are saying because it’s the radicals that matter.”

“I come from the Middle East, I was born and raised there, I walk into a grocery store in Arlington, Virginia and speak Arabic and hear what they’re saying and understand it. … So when I speak about certain things about the Middle East or the religion itself… I hope

Brigitte Gabriel

that you would give me enough credit to know that what I’m talking about in warning what’s coming to the United States will be at least considered as someone who comes from the Middle East and understands the culture and can read the Qur’an in Arabic … as much as Osama bin Laden can.” (The grammatical errors and run-ons are Gabriel’s quote.)

The leader of a group called ACT! For America, Gabriel claims to have grown up around hostile Muslims in Lebanon, giving her that “trust me” credential as well.  Also considered an ‘expert’ by the cable shows that features her, she claims that Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.  Read a major New York Times article about her here, and watch the CNN interview in which she made the above comments.

 

Other American Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney, David Horowitz, and Daniel Pipes were also cited by Breivik.  All these anti-Muslim activists (most of whom lack any credentials to be speaking authoritatively about Islam) are not simply fringe figures, leading fringe thought groups.  Thanks to FOX News’ willingness to give these people a voice, their ideas have become more mainstream in the past year particularly.

It is frightening to think that the anti-Muslim ideology that drove Breivik to attack in Norway is growing up and being nurtured right here in America.

Only Breivik is responsible for his violent actions.  But people like Spencer, Geller, Shoebat, and Gabriel—those with a loud and powerful voices—cannot disregard their influence, especially when they are spewing hate and targeting a particular group.  These bloggers, writers, and talking-heads want influence, want to be heard.  So they cannot be surprised when someone takes their message and acts on it.  Though these anti-Muslim leaders don’t advocate violence and condemned it after the Norway attacks, they don’t provide an alternative method to combat the problem of Islamic fundamentalism they see.  And while they don’t condone Breivik’s methods, they sympathize with his message and mission.  (Doesn’t this posture sound a lot like the one they accuse Hamas-sympathizing Muslims of?)

As Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and forensic psychiatrist said in the New York Times article I mentioned earlier, “rhetoric is not cost-free.”  We should have learned this after Gabby Giffords was shot last year, during a time in which political partisanship was at its peak in America.  Let’s hope these anti-Muslim leaders change their tone and rethink their words before we find ourselves cleaning up from a similar attack in the U.S.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the conservative media’s hypocritical response to the attacks and Breivik’s claim that he’s Christian.