“Moderate Muslims don't speak out enough against the hijacking of their religion” Fox News primetime host Sean Hannity claimed in his first radio appearance after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
In a year bookended by three major terror attacks against the West, blaming “moderate Muslims” for failing to condemn acts of terrorism has become a hallmark of conservative media coverage. The constant demand for penance -- from Muslims who have nothing to do with the acts of violence -- is a rigged game, aimed at convincing audiences that Islam is dominated by violent extremists.
January's Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris set the stage for a year of anti-Muslim coverage. Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox News' parent company, tweeted that Muslims “must be held responsible” for terrorist attacks “until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer.” Fox contributor Monica Crowley echoed his statements, claiming “I haven't heard any condemnation” of the attack from Muslim groups, while right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham claimed that similar attacks wouldn't occur if “most Muslims were against what was happening.” When Paris was struck by terror again in November, Fox primetime figurehead Bill O'Reilly called for a “Million Muslim March,” adding that people want to “see a mobilization of the good Muslims.” Capping off the year of Islamophobic coverage, Fox daytime host Andrea Tantaros used December's terrorist attack by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino, California as an opportunity to peddle the myth that Muslims “don't come out and denounce [terrorism].”
But conservative media's calls for “moderate Muslims” to condemn terrorism are disingenuous. Muslim groups and leaders have repeatedly and roundly condemned terrorism. After November's attacks in Paris, leaders from numerous Arab states and Muslim-majority countries called them “heinous crimes” that are “repugnant,” and “against all human and moral values.” Eleven months earlier, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, religious scholar Reza Aslan said “anyone who keeps saying that we need to hear the moderate voice of Islam, why aren't Muslims denouncing these violent attacks, doesn't own Google.” Nevertheless right-wing media routinely ignored these condemnations, choosing instead to criticize Muslims for supposedly not speaking up. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the spokesman from Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA condemned the attack on FoxNews.com, yet on the same day Fox News personalities claimed Muslims had not. Sean Hannity doubled down in his attacks against “silent” Muslims days after leaders of predominately Muslim countries, some of the largest Islamic groups in America, and Muslims across the world denounced the November Paris attacks.
And when conservative commentators do acknowledge statements from mainstream Muslim groups, it's often only to ridicule those groups for speaking out. After the December 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the largest Islamic organizations in America, quickly denounced the attack in a press conference after the shooters were revealed to be Muslim. Executive Director Hussam Ayloush reassured the country on CNN that “all American Muslims share with the rest of the country our sorrow today, our shock, and our agony for what happened.”
But rather than silencing criticisms, CAIR's response only drew outrage from conservative commentators who labeled the group a “terrorist organization” and “that Muslim group that ain't the best in the world.” One Fox guest even went so far as to compare the press conference to “a pedophile sending NAMBLA out to speak for them,” while others dismissed the statements as “damage control” and a “media crisis management plan.” Frequent Fox guest Dr. Zuhdi Jasser somehow gathered from CAIR's statements that they “inculcate those first steps of radicalization” and see it as “sort of normal behavior.”
CAIR's condemnations also did little to curb conservative media claims that Muslims weren't speaking out against terrorism. Even while acknowledging CAIR's press conference, a segment on Fox's Outnumbered still claimed that Muslims weren't sending the message that terrorists “are much different than the rest of us.”
Many of the same conservative media figures who demanded penance from “moderate Muslims” for acts of terror also repeatedly suggested that Islam and Western society are fundamentally incompatible. Monica Crowley reasoned that Muslims weren't denouncing terror because “in Islam, the good Muslims are the jihadis, so the ones not carrying out violence are looked at as sort of crummy Muslims.” Laura Ingraham stoked anti-Muslim fears by citing a faulty poll to falsely claim that Muslims “have a 5,000 percent greater chance of being connected with some type of jihadi group in the United States.” Sean Hannity asked if “we have a clash of cultures we've got to consider?” in reference to resettling Syrian civil war refugees in the U.S., adding, “How do we know if they want to assimilate?” Bill O'Reilly called the European refugee crisis “the dramatic Muslim invasion.” Fox News figures capitalized on the crisis to stoke fears that Muslim refugees may be terrorists, from Andrea Tantaros claiming “taking Islamic refugees would be suicide” to The Five co-host Eric Bolling saying male Muslim refugees are “going to be easily radicalized by ISIS.”
This tactic -- assigning collective guilt and then falsely accusing “moderate Muslims” of being complicit with violent terrorism -- has become a powerful weapon in conservative media's campaign to fearmonger about Islam.
After the Charlie Hebdo attack, Caner Dagli, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, pointed out that these demands are “really about political statements and maintaining a certain social hierarchy” and “an act by the powerful assigning collective guilt against the powerless” :
This is really about political statements and maintaining a certain social hierarchy. Demanding that innocent Muslims always make new statements about crimes they could not have stopped, from which they do not benefit, and have always condemned anyway, is an act by the powerful assigning collective guilt against the powerless. The critics who want Muslims to “speak out” only grow more demanding when Muslims actually do speak out, because by doing so Muslims have publicly affirmed the right of others to blame them collectively, regardless of whether they are accountable or not.
Such political maneuvers -- and that is what they really are -- increase the leverage that can be exerted over Muslims in public life. Muslim voices are thus uniquely kept out of view unless they are apologizing for some atrocity they had nothing to do with.
Endlessly accusing Muslims of being insufficiently outraged by terrorism helps prime conservative media audiences for a wildly distorted view of Islam. Vox's Max Fisher shed light on the mindset that these tactics breed: “the implication is that every Muslim is under suspicion of being sympathetic to terrorism unless he or she explicitly says otherwise.”
That implication has consequences. While right-wing media figures heightened suspicions of the Muslim community, anti-Muslim backlash in America has been on the rise. The FBI reported that in 2014, hate crimes across the board decreased -- that is, except for anti-Muslim crimes, which rose about 14 percent. And according to a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, that trend may be “destined to accelerate.”
Just days after the attacks in Paris, a Muslim engineer attended a community forum to present an application for a zoning permit to replace his city's aging Islamic center. A crowd poured into the meeting to harass him. “Nobody wants your evil cult in this town,” someone in the hall shouted, “because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists ... Every Muslim is a terrorist, period. Shut your mouth.” Vandalism at mosques reached a record high this year with anecdotal evidence suggesting that 2015 “has been one of the most intensely anti-Muslim periods in American history,” as nearly twenty anti-Muslim incidents took place over the course of just one week in December.
When conservative media commentators demand that Muslims condemn acts of terrorism and subsequently ignore their voices when they do, they are insidiously suggesting that Muslims condone terrorism. These demands are meant to make audiences suspicious of the idea of “moderate Muslims” and inflate the perception of extremists within the religion. Muslims are then left with seemingly no way to win, no matter how loud or how hard they try.