We're all familiar with the bogus claim that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. It falls into the "Big Lie" category that, in this time of vicious uncivil discourse, gains traction by repetition. In its untruthfulness, it's on a par with Holocaust denial, though much less serious.
Now, several years after the rumor first circulated, two Baylor University researchers have published an analysis of how it spread. They have concluded -- perhaps not surprisingly -- that the news media in various ways contributed to the impression that this allegation might be true. For the full report, called "Barack Hussein Obama: Campaigning While (Allegedly) Muslim," click here.
Among other charges against the news media leveled by Mia Moody, assistant professor of journalism and media arts at Baylor, and Aisha Tariq of Houston, who earned a master's degree in international journalism from Baylor in May 2010, is that the media left the impression that being an Arab or a Muslim (they are not synonymous) automatically is "a sinister accusation." That is, rarely did the news media ask the "So what?" question, which would be rooted in the understanding that even if Obama were a Muslim it shouldn't make any difference in whether he's qualified to be president.
And the media were not alone in this. Even when Sen. John McCain defended Obama against the idea that Obama was "an Arab," the researchers point out that McCain allowed the idea to remain that being Arab was somehow a terrible sin. Here's how Moody and Tariq put it in their study:
. . .(O)n Oct. 10, 2008, 25 days before the 2008 presidential election,
Republican nominee Sen. McCain fielded a question from an audience member during a
town hall debate. “I can’t trust Obama,” a woman confessed. “I have read about him and
he’s not… he’s an Arab.” McCain quickly recaptured the microphone from her hands.
“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen.” Though his statement served as a
respectful defense of his opponent, McCain’s words unwittingly revealed a significant
undercurrent in the American consciousness—Muslims are bad. To counter the woman’s
claim, McCain did not state that Obama was of Caucasian and African heritage. Nor did
he address the implicit allegation in the comment–that as an Arab, Obama must also be a
Muslim–by informing her that Obama was a Christian and a longtime member of the
United Church of Christ. Instead, he refuted the accusation of “Arab” with the words
“decent family man, citizen,” as though the two labels were mutually exclusive.
The Baylor-led analysis was published online in the American Communication Journal. As a press release about the study notes, "The two did textual analyses of three articles from key sources -- Insight online magazine, The Washington Post and an article posted on Obama's website and also published in the Los Angeles Times -- and also reviewed six broadcast transcripts from Fox News and CNN." They examined coverage between mid-January 2007 and election day 2008.
Moody, one of the researchers, has concluded that Muslims and Arabs sometimes are demonized by the media as inherently evil enemies.
"The rumor mill is more powerful than it has ever been, and it will undoubtedly increase in strength as people continue to use the Web to spread gossip and rumors," she said. "The rumor that Obama is Muslim began with a chain e-mail when he was running for president, and it still persists. Many intelligent people swear by it. This is a trend that will gain momentum in future elections."
In some ways this is one more argument for journalists who cover religion having some serious training in how to do that. In many cases, reporters with the best of intentions are thrown into religious stories for which they are unprepared to understand the nuances. This certainly has been one of those stories, and the continued existence of this ridiculous rumor is due in part to such journalism -- along with malevolent intentions on the part of some Obama opponents.
By the way, Obama messed up the Obama-is-a-Muslim folks again Sunday evening at a White House Christmas gathering when, once again, he let it slip that he's a Christian. Here's the text.
(The illustration here today is taken from a satiric 2008 cover work in The New Yorker -- a cover mentioned in the Baylor study.)
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LET'S NOT DRINK TO THIS
Your parents probably told you not to discuss religion or politics in public. It just leads to trouble. Here's proof -- 200 proof, actually. Four Russians, it's reported, were drinking pure alcohol and started arguing about whether God exists. It led to a fight and two of them wound up dead. Bet God was happy to see them.
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P.S.: Jazz and Christianity -- great combination. And you'll be able to experience that combo platter at a jazz vespers on Jan. 9 at William Jewell College's Gano Chapel. For details and a pdf file you can share with others, click on this link: Download WJC_Jazz_Vespers_Poster
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ALSO: For your holiday giving, may I be so bold as to recommend three books:
* They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, by me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. (All royalties go to Holocaust-related charities.)
*Elmwood Cemetery: Stories of Kansas City, by nearly two dozen authors, including me. This beautiful book reveals lots of KC history by telling stories of people buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
* A Gift of Meaning, by me. This is a collection of Kansas City Star columns in which I look at the world through my theological lenses.