Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When polled, about a quarter of young American Muslims consider suicide bombing to be acceptable in some circumstances. This finding is contained in the Pew Research Center’s wide-ranging survey of American Muslim opinion, which, with the usual polling caveats, is a mixed bag of positives and negatives overshadowed by this one hugely troubling item. 1.4 million Muslims live in America today. This means that we now count as neighbors hundreds of thousands of people who say that they sometimes approve of a means of warfare which normally involves deliberate attacks on innocent civilians, in the name of religion. That’s news.

Naturally, in an act of egregious perception management, most major newspapers buried it in their coverage of the survey.

“Survey: U.S. Muslims Assimilated, Opposed to Extremism,” says The Washington Post. “American Muslims reject extremes,” says USA Today. The Chicago Tribune: “U.S. Muslims more content, assimilated than those abroad.” (At least the Trib’s subhead reads: “But 1-in-4 youths sympathize with suicide bombers.”) USA Today features this summary prominently: “Muslim Americans are very much like the rest of the country.” Those are the words of Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

These headlines and quotes are not wrong per se, just incomplete, misleading and indicative of the “kid gloves” treatment this issue receives. Sure, the majority of American Muslims are peaceable and well-assimilated. Many are not. No newspaper should try to “manage” away these facts.

For instance, the “good news” of “U.S. Muslims more content, assimilated than those abroad” is born out by some of the data, but it is probably not the case regarding the suicide-bombing question. In a survey released last month, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes asked respondents in Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia whether terrorist attacks on civilians can be justified. The results: 27 percent of Moroccans, 21 percent of Egyptians, 13 percent of Pakistanis and 11 percent of Indonesians replied in the affirmative. If both polls are accurate, this means that American Muslims are twice as likely as Pakistanis to give the wrong answer. That’s a big “if.” But certainly the picture is less clear than the media portray it.

It’s as if the American media expects that the 75 percent of good news can be emphasized with sufficient vigor to make it the full 100 percent. They have made a judgment that too many Americans are disposed to the negative on the subject, and so they shape the coverage accordingly. They expect to be able to downplay the finding that hundreds of thousands of adherents of Islam tell pollsters that they find suicide bombing to be acceptable in some cases. They expect, somehow, to fail to highlight a very highlightable and troubling point of data about people in the United States with ideological and religious sympathies for suicide terrorism.

This is unsustainable in the long run. That’s because at minimum, terrorism’s sympathizers comprise the unwitting background noise in which the real malefactors remain hidden. It is not fear-mongering, and it is not bigoted, to point this out. It is called journalism.

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