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Mediated Racism: Orientalism, Birtherism and the Muslim Community Center
Anti-Obama conspiracy theories have gone viral in right-wing peer groups and within right-wing media outlets. The opposition to Obama is reaching crisis proportions. Just one third of Americans can correctly identify Obama's religion as Christian. Forty three percent don't know what his religion is

Mediated Racism: Orientalism, Birtherism and the Muslim Community Center

Anti-Obama conspiracy theories have gone viral in right-wing peer groups and within right-wing media outlets. The opposition to Obama is reaching crisis proportions. Just one third of Americans can correctly identify Obama's religion as Christian. Forty three percent don't know what his religion is

Anti-Obama conspiracy theories have gone viral in right-wing peer groups and within right-wing media outlets. The opposition to Obama is reaching crisis proportions. Just one third of Americans can correctly identify Obama’s religion as Christian. Forty three percent don’t know what his religion is, and 18 percent actively believe he is a Muslim, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. [1]

Public opinion on race and religion-related issues has deteriorated significantly in the last two years. While 34 percent think Obama’s a Christian, that number represents a decline of 13 percent since March 2008. Feelings that he is Muslim have increased by six percent in that time as well, while uncertainty about his religion has increased by seven percent. In many ways, uncertainty about Obama’s religion is just as disturbing as the conclusion that he’s a Muslim. It’s a major accomplishment for religious bigots that nearly 61 percent of Americans believe Obama’s either a Muslim or that he may not be Christian. [2]

Much of this opposition is likely based upon a number of factors. One explanation is the stoking of public racism in the “Ground Zero” Muslim “mosque” fiasco, in which the American right has mobilized to try and create public opposition to the creation of an Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. The campaign was always fanatical and racist in orientation, but it has won a number of converts in a country that has long held irrational views of the foreign, dangerous “other.”

Obama likely made himself a target of the racist segments of the populace when he recently defended the Constitutional right of the proponents of the community center to build their facility near Ground Zero (neither he nor any other prominence Democrats have defended the actual choice to build the community center near Ground Zero, by the way). Polling finds that a majority of Americans – 85 percent – have been following the New York community center “controversy.”[3] A majority of Americans disapprove of the community center, with 61 percent opposed to its construction, according to a recent poll reported on by Time magazine. That same poll finds that 70 percent think it would be “an insult” to those who died on 9/11. [4]

Time finds that opposition to the community center is clearly driven to a large extent by open racism against Muslim Americans. Twenty-eight percent of voters don’t think Muslims “should be eligible to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Around one-third believe “adherents to Islam should be barred from running for president.” [5] An ABC/Washington Post poll shows that nearly four in ten Americans admit to having an “unfavorable opinion of Islam.” Much of this is likely related to public ignorance, as 55 percent admit that they “feel [they] do not have a good basic understanding of the teachings and beliefs of Islam.” Nearly six in ten admit they don’t personally know anyone of Muslim descent. [6]

Another major source of opposition likely comes from right-wing media. Reactionary pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage – among many others – have taken to repeatedly attacking Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama.” The attack is obviously intended to emphasize Obama’s “foreign sounding” name. Little else explains the practice of spelling out Obama’s entire name; how many on the left, after all, attacked Bush by repeating “George Walker Bush,” slowly, over and over, in a condescending tone and expecting a negative public reaction to his name?

Prolonged media attention to the “birther” conspiracy and framing of Obama as a Marxist or socialist are also integrally related to construction of Obama as the brown, foreign, religious fanatic other. A Lexis Nexis search of the terms “Obama” and “birth certificate” from January through December 2009 finds nearly three dozen programs on the topic run on Fox News, or an average of nearly three per month. Similarly, a search of “Obama” and “Marxism” finds nearly three dozen Fox stories, while a search of “Obama” and “socialism” finds more than 300 stories.

Reporting of Manhattan’s proposed Muslim community center has also been characterized by blatant misinformation and racism. By now, most should be familiar with the incendiary and hatred-filled attacks of right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Sean Hannity. These figures seek to create analogies between the establishment of the community center and Nazism, KKK southern segregationist violence and lynching, and Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbor, among other ominous comparisons. The “objective” press has not fared all that much better. While news outlets like the New York Times have editorially condemned the racist fear mongering driving opposition to the community center, the outlet (among others) has played into conservative hands by actively misreporting the details of the issue at hand. A Lexis Nexis news database search for August finds that the New York Times and Washington Post reported 56 and 53 stories respectively including discussion of the “Ground Zero” “mosque.” In comparison, just 22 stories at the Times and 11 at the Post discussed the controversy as revolving around the proposal of a “Muslim community center.” In other words, frames that actively misinformed the public were between two to five times more prevalent in the allegedly “liberal” elite press.

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Media-induced misinformation and racism are accompanied by serious consequences when we examine the state of American public opinion. Nearly half of Americans think “Islam encourages violence,” while the public is twice as likely to associate the Islamic religion as comprised of “fanatics,” as “radical,” or as “terrorist” than they are to characterize the religion as including “devout,” “peaceful,” or “dedicated” followers. [7]

What are the major causes of this racism? My own statistical analysis of public opinion polling finds that racist views are most likely to be held by specific demographic groups, including: conservatives, Protestants, Republicans, whites, and older Americans. After controlling for these demographic variables, however, three other vital factors also explain racist views: lower levels of education, the lack of acquaintance or friendship with a Muslim, and increased reliance on the mass media for one’s information about Islam. [8]

As causes of public ignorance and racism, the lack of education and extensive reliance on the mass media for racist cues would not have surprised the late Edward Said, who chastised America’s “Orientalist” media and political culture, which fails to distinguish between Islam as a religion, Arabic as a language, and “brown” as a skin color. [9] All three qualities are often lumped together in the public mind as part of a distinct “other,” which is often seen as representing a monolithic threat to American cultural identity and national security.

Of course, Orientalist stereotypes are the product of individual irrationality, bigotry, and racism, rather than objective reality. Global public opinion polls find that the vast majority of those throughout the Muslim world reject the idea that they are involved in a religiously inspired “clash of the civilizations” with the West and reject the use of terrorism. [10] While Muslims reject the notion of culture war, they perceive U.S. foreign policy and domestic political culture as driven by a hatred of Islam. Nearly eight in ten Muslims in countries surveyed feel that “the U.S. goal is to divide and weaken the Muslim world.” [11] This conclusion is not all that surprising in light of the racist rhetoric driving U.S. domestic politics (a la the Muslim community center “controversy”). That perception should perhaps be expected when reflecting upon the (past) U.S. positioning of military bases in Saudi Arabia (home of Islam’s most sacred city, Mecca), the longstanding U.S. occupation of Muslim countries, the dehumanizing behavior of U.S. troops at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib against Muslim prisoners (often undertaken explicitly in the name of offending the prisoners and their religion), the unconditional U.S. support for Israel and the Zionist declaration that Israel (a state in which one quarter of the population is not Jewish) is a “Jewish state,” the polarizing binary rhetoric of the Bush administration stressing the “War on Terror” between “good and evil,” the initial designation of this war as a crusade, and Bush’s repeated religious references in later years to how God was “on his side” during these wars.

There was much celebration after the election of Obama of how the U.S. had “moved beyond race,” and how this “fact” was allegedly proven by the emergence of our first African American president (no, Bill Clinton wasn’t black, contrary to some silly portrayals). It turns out Americans were not as enlightened as they want to think, as the media-driven Islamic cultural center “controversy” demonstrates, and as the “Obama as a Muslim foreign threat” phenomenon indicates. Many Americans appear to be willingly manipulated in light of right-wing fear mongering and bigotry expressed against those who don’t fit the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant mold. Obama fits the Protestant part of the bill, but one wouldn’t know this from the current uproar. If we learn anything from this chapter of American politics, it is that America still has a long way to go before it purges its reactionary, racist, and religiously inspired beliefs from the public vocabulary.


End Notes

[1] Pew Research Center, “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim,” Pew Research Center, 19 August 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rasmussen Reports, “Many More Now Following the Mosque Controversy, and Don’t Like it,” Rasmussen Reports, 23 August 2010.

[4] Alex Altman, “Majority Oppose Mosque, Many Distrust Muslims,” Time, 19 August 2010.

[5] Ibid.

[6], “Pew Research Center, August 19-22, 2010,”

[7], “Time Poll, August 16-17, 2010), ; Pew Research Center, “Public Expresses Mixed Views of Islam, Mormonism,” Pew Research Center, 26 September 2007,

[8] My data is derived from a multivariate regression analysis of the hard data collected in the 2007 Pew Research poll referenced in endnote 7. The relationships between negative opinions of Islam on the one hand, and reliance on media, lack of education, and lack of acquaintance with a Muslim on the other, are all statistically significant after controlling for the demographic variables discussed within this article.

[9] For more on Orientalism and anti-Arab, anti-Muslim media stereotyping, see: Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1994); Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Vintage, 1997); Brigitte L. Nacos and Oscar Torres-Reyna, Fueling Our Fears: Stereotyping, Media Coverage, and Public Opinion of Muslim Americans (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); Yahya R. Kamalipour, ed. The U.S. Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception (Westport, Ct.: Praeger, 1997); Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Brooklyn, NY: Olive Branch Press, 2001); Karim H. Karim, Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence (New York: Black Rose Books, 2003).

[10] Program on International Policy Attitudes, “Iranians and Americans Believe Islam and the West can Find Common Ground,”, 30 January 2007. ; Program on International Policy Attitudes, “Iranians Overwhelmingly Reject Bin Laden,”, 30 January 2007.; Program on International Policy Attitudes, “Large and Growing Number of Muslims Reject Terrorism, Bin Laden,, 30 June 2006. ; Steven Kull, “Internalizing the Clash of Civilizations,”, 7 June 2010.

[11] Program on International Policy Attitudes, “Muslims Believe U.S. Seeks to Undermine Islam,”, 24 April 2007.