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.

Thoughts on King’s “radicalization” hearings

“I remember doing a number of radio interviews [right after 9/11] saying we can’t do to the Muslims what we did to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.” (New York magazine)

Peter King at today's hearing

These are the words of Peter King, a long-time House representative from Long Island and the head of the House Homeland Security committee.  Before 9/11, he was an active supporter of his Muslim community; he even spoke and cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Islamic Center of Long Island.  As his quote suggests, he was concerned that post-9/11 backlash would lead to unwarranted suspicion of Muslims and unjust government actions taken against the group as a whole.

However, today King seems to be encouraging the climate of mistrust he sought to avoid ten years ago.

This morning, the House committee on Homeland Security—of which King is the head— began a hearing to examine “the Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” King is concerned that Muslims in America are becoming more radicalized and that the Muslim community is doing little to counter that trend.

Are King’s concerns legitimate?

In one respect, yes.  We have seen an increase in the attempted domestic terror plots

Figure 2

committed by American Muslims in the years since 9/11 (Triangle Center on Terror and Homeland Security, Figure 2).  This attempted terrorism is considered a strong indicator of radicalization.  (It is important to note that the number of terror attempts dropped by half, despite the fact that the attempts received more media attention.)

An increase in radicalization, however, cannot only be ascribed to members of the Muslim community.   In 2010, the number of hate groups operating in the US reached its peak, topping 1,000.  Some of these groups include neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, Klansmen, and black separatists (Southern Poverty Law Center).  “Other hate groups on the list target gays or immigrants, and some specialize in producing racist music or propaganda denying the Holocaust,” the center’s report also says.

Individuals, often associated with these organizations, have attempted to carry out terror plots in the US as well.  “In an 11-day period this January, a neo-Nazi was arrested as he headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted when police dismantled a sophisticated bomb; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested in a car filled with explosives outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich.” (Southern Poverty Law Center .) (I am particularly troubled that these instances of terrorism, especially the last one in which Muslims were targeted, were hardly reported in the mainstream media, unlike terror plots undertaken by Muslims.)

Clearly, radicalization is not just a phenomenon we see in a small number of Muslim Americans; it is a phenomenon that has been seen among whites, blacks, Christians and others across America.  As Mississippi representative Bennie Thompson, a ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee said during the hearing, radicalization is a nation-wide problem affecting Americans in all ethnic and religious groups.  Because of this, he called on King to hold a hearing to address the radicalization of anti-government and white supremacist groups as well.

He, many others, and myself believe that pigeonholing one group, as King has done with this hearing, is dangerous.  It not only ignores important security threats (the 1,000 hate groups I just mentioned), but it has the potential to create further radicalization among American Muslim individuals, who may feel that their government does not trust them, simply because of their religious background.

Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, who agreed to testify but didn’t agree with the specificity of the hearings, said, “If you start to make a community feel besieged, they’re just going to feel more reticent. It’s just a natural human reaction to feel like a target.” (New York Magazine)

He also recognizes the need to investigate all forms of radicalism in order to better secure our country.  “If you took every Muslim in America and put them in a jail, it wouldn’t have stopped Gabby Giffords from being shot. It wouldn’t have saved the people in Oklahoma City. It wouldn’t have saved the guard at the Holocaust Museum. It wouldn’t have saved the students at Columbine or Virginia Tech. To me, it’s like he’s saying we’re going to deal with drugs, but we’re only going to deal with black drug dealers.”  (New York Magazine)

Even the title of the hearing itself is problematic, because it places the emphasis on the Muslim “community,” not on individuals.  This title only increases the perception that the US government is at war with Islam, and as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative has expressed, this perception has the potential to increase radicalization of Muslims abroad.

Now I’ll turn to King’s second concern: that the American Muslim community has not done enough to prevent radicalization and stop violence.

This claim, however, has been refuted by the Justice community and specifically by Attorney General Eric Holder, who asserts that the Muslim community has been highly helpful in providing tips that have resulted in the disruption of terror plots. (CBS)

According to the same Triangle Center study, fellow Muslims were most often those who provided initial information to law enforcement about Muslim American terror plots since 9/11 (48 out of 120 cases).

Though King disagrees, he has not produced any sources to support his claim that Muslims are uncooperative. (New York Magazine)

I also take issue with part of King’s list of witnesses.  He was right to ask Muslim representative Ellison to testify, yet he failed to invite the other Muslim representative, Andre Carson (who represents my district in Indiana.) No federal law enforcement officials were present; only a sheriff from Los Angeles was.  Thankfully, John Dingell, who represents Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Muslim population, was invited to speak, and reminded us that we can’t let a neo-McCarthyism—focused this time on Islam instead of Communism—take root.

I was also disappointed to see that mainstream Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (of the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement) and Imam Mohamed Magid (of the Islamic Society of North America—located outside Indianapolis!) were not asked to testify.  Only Zudhi Jasser (of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy), who was unknown to me until the hearings, was present.

Aside from Ellison and Dingell, it seems that the witnesses were brought in to back King’s own misguided positions, not to provide the full range of discourse needed.

It is hard to take King or this hearing seriously, not only because his list of witnesses, but also because of previous statements he’s made about American Muslims and his support of the Irish terrorist group, the IRA.

In 2004, King supported the claim that 80% of mosques in American were run by radical imams, and in 2007, he said that America had “too many mosques.”  The first statement is clearly unsubstantiated, false, and ultimately offensive to American Muslims and their supporters like me.  And his second statement questions Muslims’ First Amendment rights to express their religion by building places of worship.

King is strongly opposed to Islamic terrorism, yet he staunchly supported the IRA, a violent terrorist group that operated in Northern Ireland.  Tom Parker, a counterterrorism expert at Amnesty International, expresses my thoughts well: “My problem is with the hypocrisy.  If you say that terrorist violence is acceptable in one setting because you happen to agree with the cause, then you lose the authority to condemn it in another setting.” (Washington Post)

Why King decided to hold this hearing in unclear to me.  The reasons he cites are, as I hope I’ve shown, incomplete and misinformed.  While I do not have any definite answers, I fear politics may play a part.  As the Park 51 Center made headlines last summer in anticipation of the midterm elections, this hearing is making the news as talk of the 2012 elections begins.  The American Muslim community became a political pawn last summer, and I fear that the same will happen in the future, because of this hearing.  Sadly, the climate of fear of Muslims, created and sustained by politicians and the news media, can be easily exploited for political gain.

Through today’s hearing, King hoped to increase America’s security and protect its values.  However, I’m afraid the hearing chipped away at both, just as anti-Japanese policy did 70 years ago.  We cannot let the Muslim Americans of the 2000s become the Japanese Americans of the 1940s.

I don’t think it is overly dramatic to say that this hearing could be the first step down a dangerous and bigoted path that our country has unfortunately walked before.

Many people might counter me, saying, “That could never happen again. Today is different.  We are more tolerant now.”

Sadly, I’m not so sure.

For more reflections on the hearing, check out:

Religious leaders comment on the significance of the hearing on the Washington Post’s  “On Faith” blog.