Broadcasting bigotry

August 13, 2012

The media have spewed a variety of racist ideas and images in the aftermath of the horrifying massacre of Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin, writes Nicole Colson.

IN THE wake of the massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wis., that left seven people dead--neo-Nazi gunman Wade Michael Page among them--Chicago's commuter newspaper RedEye published a helpful chart...for aspiring racists.

The paper's "Turban primer" pictured various Middle Eastern and South Asian men wearing turbans. Credited to "MCT Illustrations," the graphic depicts the headgear of "Sikh men," "Iranian leaders," "Taliban members," "Indian men" (oddly, Turkish men are lumped in with Indian men) and "Muslim religious elders."

The racist subtext couldn't be more clear: this is a guide to help readers distinguish "good" turban wearers, like Sikhs, from "bad" turban wearers, like Taliban members. The RedEye and its syndicated illustrators have next to nothing to say about the wide variation of cultural and religious practices spanning the Middle East and South Asia, and how headgear might play a part in these. Instead, the paper provides help for bigots to choose the targets of their bigotry more carefully.

The Red Eye newspaper published a racist "Turban Primer"

It's a form of racism that the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said called "Orientalism." As Said wrote in a 1980 essay:

As far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.

AS SAMI Kishawi pointed out on the blog Sixteen Minutes to Palestine, the RedEye's "Turban primer" has a corollary: a 1941 article in Time magazine following the attack on Pearl Harbor titled "How to tell your friends from the Japs"--which detailed supposed physical characteristics of Chinese and Japanese men.

"Then and now," wrote Kishawi, "I can't help but gag on the stench of Orientalism and faithful discrimination that has, apparently, found a welcoming home in our daily reads over the years."

The RedEye wasn't alone in its racist insensitivity after the shooting--not by a long shot. On the Liberal Conspiracy blog, journalist Sunny Hundal documented numerous examples of mainstream media ignorance and racism--like the CBS reporter who attempted to explain the difference between Sikhs and Muslims by stating, "The Sikh religion is based around truth and nonviolence, and the Muslim religion is just a completely different religion."

Such portrayals only contribute to a climate of hate in which some bigots feel encouraged to act. Thus, the day following the massacre, a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned to the ground--a suspected arson. It was the second fire at the mosque in just over a month and the third since 2008. And in Morton Grove, Ill., outside Chicago, a 51-year-old man named David Conrad was arrested August 12 after shooting an air rifle at a nearby mosque, nearly hitting a guard.

As Dawud Walid and Hassan Jaber wrote in the Detroit Free Press about the killings in Wisconsin:

As they should in such times of tragedy, our nation's public officials were justifiably eager to decry Sunday's attack. But few were rushing to the microphones to call attention to the Missouri mosque that burned to the ground early Monday--the second fire to hit the Islamic center in little more than a month.

By omitting details about Islam, by failing to defend all those who have been targeted, the media and our political leaders imply that Islam is not a religion of peace and that Muslims are somehow fair game in these attacks.

THE RedEye's coverage of the massacre in Wisconsin is notable for another reason.

In a separate article about the shooting--above its "Turban primer"--the RedEye described Wade Page as an "assailant" who was a "member of two racist bands." That's a pretty gentle way to describe a man who was known to be a committed neo-Nazi.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Page not only played at neo-Nazi music festivals, but had ties to the Hammerskin Nation, which the SPLC describes as "one of the oldest, most violent and most dominant skinhead groups in the United States."

But media outlets that wouldn't hesitate to label a Muslim gunman a "terrorist" seemed squeamish about applying the labels "racist," "neo-Nazi" and "terrorist" to Page--or about linking the violent political ideology he espoused to the massacre he carried out.

Actually, far-right monsters like Page are responsible for much more terrorism in the U.S. than anyone else. According to a Yahoo! News report:

Between 1980 and 2001, non-Islamic American extremists carried out about two-thirds of all terrorism in the United States, according to FBI statistics cited by the Council on Foreign Relations. Between 2002 and 2005, that figure jumped to 95 percent. In the 10 years following 2001, only 6 percent of terrorist acts in America have been the work of Islamic extremists.

So if the RedEye was really concerned about helping its readers identify terrorist threats, it should provide a "primer" on right-wing hatemongers, such as:

Neo-Nazi groups. In the wake of Page's attack on the Sikh temple, the SPLC's Ryan Lenz documented a number of comments from neo-Nazis approving of Page's actions.

For example, Alex Linder, who runs the racist Vanguard News Network, wrote: "Take your dead and go back to India and dump their ashes in the Ganges, Sikhs. You don't belong here in the country my ancestors fought to found, and deeded to me and mine, their posterity. Even if you came here legally, and even if you haven't done anything wrong personally. Go home, Sikhs. Go home to India where you belong. This is not your country, it belongs to white men."

According to the SPLC, there were some 133 racist skinhead groups inside the U.S. last year.

Anti-Muslim bigots. Since the September 11 attacks, an entire Islamophobia industry has been born. Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and other high-profile bigots led the charge against the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" in New York City, and they continue to demonize Muslims as well as Islam.

"In the war between the civilized man and the savage, you side with the civilized man," Geller has stated. That racist quote is currently being featured on pro-Israel bus ads in San Francisco, paid for by Geller's group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

Anti-abortion fanatics. It was only three years ago that Dr. George Tiller was murdered while at church in Wichita, Kansas, by an anti-abortion terrorist. For years, anti-choice activists had targeted Tiller, his clinic, his staff and his patients with threats of violence. Tiller had persevered in providing health care to women, despite the bombing of his clinic in 1986--and being shot by a different anti-abortion fanatic in 1993.

Including Tiller, four abortion providers have been gunned down by anti-abortion extremists since 1993. Abortion clinics in the U.S. continue to face fake anthrax letters, as well as arson and acid threats and attacks.

Border vigilantes. These include groups like the "Minutemen Project," "Ranch Rescue" and other self-style "protectors" of the U.S. border against undocumented immigrants. Although they don't claim as many members today as at their height several years ago, such groups have documented ties to racist hate groups, and their members have carried out brutal attacks on immigrants.

And then there are the racist terrorists who would never be depicted as such by the RedEye--the ones who wear uniforms. According to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, 120 African Americans were killed by police officers, security guards and self-styled racist vigilantes in the first six months of 2012--a rate of one killed every 36 hours.

IT'S NO surprise that many of these right-wing groups and their ideologies overlap and intersect. Since the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, the SPLC has documented dozens of planned right-wing terrorist plots and racist rampages, and several that were carried out.

Yet right-wing violence is almost never mentioned by political leaders in Washington. They prefer to keep the fear ratcheted up about Muslims instead.

In 2009, when a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report documenting the potential threat of right-wing extremist groups was leaked, conservatives went ballistic, claiming that right-wing causes were unfairly targeted, especially opponents of immigrant rights and abortion.

Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson told Fox News' Sean Hannity, "[T]here are no Timothy McVeighs out there right now. They're making a big deal out of something that hasn't happened and may not happen." John Boehner, Newt Gingrich and other prominent Republicans demanded the report be withdrawn--and the Obama administration's DHS bowed to conservative pressure.

Of course, someone like Wade Michael Page--a disaffected veteran and member of a neo-Nazi group with access to weapons--seems like an obvious threat. But the media and the political establishment would rather portray Page's actions as "mindless" violence. That's because the racist hate and terrorism he embraced was directly fueled by the post-September 11 climate of Islamophobia embraced by the media, as well as members of both parties.

In Congress, Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann, Peter King and Joe Walsh have all made a point of demonizing Muslims, with Bachmann even accusing fellow Rep. Keith Ellison--the only Muslim member of Congress--of having ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

For his part, just after the Sikh temple shooting, Joe Walsh told a town hall meeting, "[T]here is a radical strain of Islam in this country...trying to kill Americans every week...I'm looking for some godly men and women in the Senate, in the Congress, who will stand in the face of the danger of Islam in America without political correctness." The mostly white crowd applauded Walsh several times.

Bigotry among Republicans won't come as much of a surprise to anyone reading this article. But the truth is that Islamophobia is being perpetuated under a Democratic president as well. Despite campaign promises to the contrary, Barack Obama has continued the U.S. "war on terror"--and even expanded aspects of it like the drone war. He's continued the war at home, too, with the suppression of civil liberties and the right to dissent, especially for Arabs and Muslims.

Official, institutional discrimination has a direct impact on people's lives. As Laila Lalami recently wrote in The Nation:

Muslims in the United States make up less than 1 percent of the population, but they were nearly 13 percent of victims of religious-based hate crimes in 2010. It is true that this number is down from the historic high of 27 percent in 2001, the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but almost double what it was in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. These crimes include intimidation, burglary, arson, vandalism and aggravated assault. And they target not just Muslims but also people who are mistaken for Muslims--Sikh men, for instance.

The only way to prevent another racist attack is to stand in defense of the rights of Arabs and Muslims--and call out racism wherever it rears its head.

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