Having seen the tease for “next week on This Week with Christiane Amanpour”, I was curious what they had in mind for the Town Hall format to discuss Islam. Of course, with the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in the news, and the reaction to it, there is no shortage of discussion opportunity. But what could This Week do to elevate the discussion? The answer is, sadly, nothing. In fact after watching the show, I’m wondering if ABC made decisions solely on what was best at stirring up controversy – the opposite of the purported intent.
The show started with Amanpour narrating the setup as though it was a boxing event. Not only is it tacky to introduce the panelists with “in this cornah!” rhetoric but it was also very meta considering that This Week is ostensibly a news program and it was covering itself. The show was edited heavily with what may have been lulls or perhaps longer individual introductions removed and replaced with Amanpour’s voiceover.
It will be hard to comment further on the show without discussing my own view of Islam in America so let me start there. A central tenet of our American society is freedom of religion and I see no reason to consider Islam an exception. I’m a believer in granting everybody rights to do whatever the hell they want as long as it doesn’t impinge on the rights of others. For example, if you want to smoke, that’s your choice but you can’t force your secondhand smoke on me in an elevator. I see an Islamic Cultural Center in New York City at face value: a place for Muslims to worship as well as work out – the Islamic equivalent of a JCC or a YMCA (maybe they wouldn’t have had trouble if they called it a “YMIA/YWIA”?). And in this light, I don’t see that anybody else’s rights are being impinged in any way. We have exceptional religious diversity in this country and I learned from a young age that different religions are okay. I went to bar mitzvahs for friends and I have relatives that grew up with a different religion than me and I’m better for it. Ethnic diversity + cultural diversity + religious diversity = melting pot. Go USA!
Of course, being attacked by terrorists who kill thousands in one morning in the name of their religion is a good way to get whatever religion that is on the shitlist of Americans who had limited exposure to religious diversity. And for many involved in the current Islamophobia, their limited Muslim education comes from Fox News and other news stories about fringe reactionaries. It’s pretty clear to me that what the country needs most to reduce Islamophobia is better education and more reasoned discussion.
It is with this opinion that I watched the This Week Town Hall and it’s why I was disappointed when the show devolved into Jerry Springer-ish yelling with NPR types on the left and Hannity types on the right (stage position reinforcing their political leanings!?). But unlike Springer where the people yelling at each other go home and get paid for their theatrics, these people were only inciting their bases. And it is these bases that will be even more riled up the next time somebody asks them a question.
Franklin Graham stated that the purpose for mosques and cultural centers is so “they can convert as many Americans as they can to Islam”. Ironic considering that Graham (son of Billy Graham) is president of a humanitarian organization named Samaritan’s Purse who’s mission is, at least partially, to spread Christianity throughout the world. Of course, Graham believes that his is the “right” religion but to deny that others may believe that theirs is “right” is to be intolerant.
Peter Gadiel is clearly still a grieving parent looking for somebody/something to blame for his loss but I don’t think somebody like that deserved a platform to say the things he did. Fortunately, his statements were generally balanced by Donna Marsh O’Connor who also lost a child in the attack but has clearly been able to process through the grief and look at the facts more dispassionately.
There were a few other kooks present including Robert Spencer, and by satellite from London, Anjem Choudary who had the quote of the show: “we believe that one day the flag of Islam will fly over the White House”. File this under “not helping”. Because, omitted from the discussion on the show is the definition of the “we” that begins his sentence. He certainly doesn’t speak for the majority of Muslim-Americans and his inclusion on the show is exactly when I started thinking that This Week may have been merely trying to stir up controversy and not really trying to help the dialogue.
Dear Frightened America: How do I get you to recognize that Reza Aslan is somebody who speaks for Muslim Americans and not people like Choudary? Let’s start with whatever your religion is. Whether Judaism or Christianity or something else, the majority of people who share your faith are moderate, rational people who fit well within the laws and society of the US, right? And there are fringe nutjobs who blow up buildings (Timothy McVeigh) or mistreat children or women all in the name of your religion yet you would immediately say that they don’t speak for you. I recognize that this won’t instantly change your mind about all Muslims, but let’s start here by recognizing that there are nuts everywhere and then keep an open mind about moderate Muslims when they do come along, like with the Islamic Cultural Center in NYC.
Dear Moderate Muslims: Time to go public. I know a lot of you keep your faith private because faith is a private thing. However being more public about it will help those afraid of Islam to recognize that Muslims are their neighbors just like people of other faiths are their neighbors. As Daisy Kahn said on the This Week show, moderate Muslims are trying and building a place like the Cultural Center in NYC was part of the mission of being more public and no, that didn’t go well. But the more visibility there is, the more people will recognize the good. Maybe you need charitable arms to do community service and the like so there’s more exposure of the normalcy. And you certainly need to work on the message of why Sharia Law is not something that mainstream Muslims ever expect in the US – a likening to how Catholicism used to be the law of the land way back when in lands far away and not something of the present time in the US might help.
Dear ABC News: Inciting controversy is one way to get ratings, but they are cheap ratings, like the empty calories you get from a Twinkie. Another way to get ratings is with serious journalism that garners respect and scholars. Sure, ratings veggies may be less appealing initially, but trust me, you’ll be in better health in the long run.