Al Jazeera Incident Shows Xenophobia Alive in America

Prejudice is flourishing in the United States.

A tempest brewing in Maine illustrates this. A decision to invite the Al Jazeera Washington bureau chief, Abderrahim Foukara, to speak at a museum fundraiser in the state has generated such a strong reaction that the public reception has been moved to a private, undisclosed location. The protesters’ beef? According to them, Al Jazeera is nothing more than a front for Islamic radicalism.

“A lot of people are not real happy with extremist Muslims, and Al Jazeera seems to have a tendency to promote terrorist acts,” explains Pete Harring of the Maine tea party, expanding the movement’s agenda beyond its supposed fiscal conservative goals. Another Maine resident, Mackenzie Andersen, is convinced that Al Jazeera is actually a jihadist recruiting front.

It is based on such absurdities that these crusades are launched. Serious media analysts have long disposed of the canard that Al Jazeera is spreading a radical Islamist agenda. “I would challenge anyone who feels that these networks are apparatuses for terrorism to first see if they’ve ever watched it,” says Professor Justin Martin, adding, “There’s not very much agenda pushing. I’m more shocked when I watch Fox News.”

The cheek of professors to unfavorably compare Fox to Al Jazeera, even when the Murdoch media empire is in such trouble!

Seriously, there are deeper undercurrents here. Anti-Islam and anti-Middle East prejudice (the religion and the region are perpetually confused in the mind of bigots) have hampered the free flow of information in the United States. (I have written an entire book to counter the association of Islam and violence.) As a result, Al Jazeera English is available in only four communities in this country.

“The crux of the problem in getting cable and satellite clearance is that providers have seen little upside and a big downside to carrying Al Jazeera English,” writes Lawrence Pintak in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Not much demand—i.e., profit—but a near-certainty of pushback from conservative and pro-Israel camps in the form of letters, bad publicity, and potential boycotts.”

A Time magazine poll last August showed the level of intolerance and misinformation prevalent in the United States.

“Twenty-eight percent of voters do not believe Muslims should be eligible to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court,” the poll discovered. “Nearly one-third of the country thinks adherents of Islam should be barred from running for President—a slightly higher percentage than the 24 percent who mistakenly believe the current occupant of the Oval Office is himself a Muslim.”

The saddest thing is that this sort of bigotry is based on rampant ignorance.

“The Pew Forum’s September 2010 survey of religion literacy found that only about half of Americans know that the Qur’an is the holy book of Islam,” write scholars John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani. “It also found that less than a third know that most people in Indonesia—the world’s most populous Muslim nation—are, in fact, Muslim. What many did know and fear were stereotypes based on misinformation.”

Such an astonishingly inaccurate understanding of Islam is contributing to the spread of hate and fear in this country. As the Al Jazeera ruckus in Maine shows, the United States still has a way to go before it can live up to its ideals of pluralism and openness.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "U.S. and Pakistan: A Most Complicated Alliance."

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