CNN's Soledad O'Brien's Sunday documentary about the controversial mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee predictably leaned towards the local Muslims who want it built. O'Brien brushed aside an opponent's concerns over Sharia law in the U.S.: "In New York City, we have a big Muslim community. There is no Sharia law [there]." She also omitted how a featured Muslim woman is related to one of the mosque's planners (audio available here).
Forty-five minutes into her hour-long documentary, which aired at 8 pm Eastern, the journalist noted the fall 2010 trial which asked for an injunction to halt the construction of the mosque, but instead of reporting that the trial focused on concerns that the approval of the mosque "did not provide adequate public comment and that its members will impose Sharia Law on Murfreesboro residents," as a local newspaper reported, O'Brien spun this by playing up how, apparently, "in a small courtroom in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Islam was on trial." She then explained that "opponents claim the facility would increase traffic, damage water quality, and provide a foothold for radical Muslims and Islamic law."
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The CNN host continued by introducing Lema Sbenaty (pictured at right, with her sister Dima and O'Brien), "a Muslim born and raised in Murfreesboro, [who] attended the hearing." Earlier in the program, O'Brien labeled Sbenaty a "mosque supporter" and a "member of the Muslim community." She also noted that Ms. Sbenaty's father, Saleh Sbenaty, "has lived in Murfreesboro for 20 years. It's where he and his wife Fatun raised their two daughters, Lema and Dima, and their son Salim."
Though the journalist hinted at Mr. Sbenaty's involvement in the mosque project when she asked him, "When you first walked the land [where the mosque will be located], describe that feeling for me," she never explicitly mentioned that he is a member of its planning committee. Thus, O'Brien follows in the footsteps of CBS's Seth Doane, who also omitted this detail when he interviewed the entire family on the March 10, 2011 Evening News. As you might expect, she tossed a softball question at Saleh Sbenaty:
O'BRIEN (on-camera): When the opposition talks about Sharia law, they talk about it coming here to America-
LEMA SBENATY: Yes.
O'BRIEN: Oppressing women, torture, beating- do they have it wrong?
SBENATY: Yes, they do. A lot of things that are culture have been mistaken for religion. The Koran that I have read has never said torture was okay for anyone or beating women, you know, it was okay. None of this is okay.
O'Brien reenforced this understanding of Sharia law in her following two sound bites, one coming from Mr. Sbenaty himself, and the other from Noah Feldman of Harvard University:
SALEH SBENATY: What Sharia is, is a way of life. You know, I am mandated, as a Muslim, to pray five times, I am mandated to fast during the month of Ramadan, and I'm mandated, if I am able to, to go and to pilgrimage. That's Sharia law for me.
NOAH FELDMAN, HARVARD INTERNATIONAL LAW (on-camera): Sharia, according to Muslims, is God's word on how you're supposed to live your life-
O'BRIEN (voice-over): Noah Feldman is a professor of International Law at Harvard. He's written several books on Islam and Sharia law.
FELDMAN: If you look across the Muslim world, you can see a lot of difference in how customs and practices operate among people, all of whom believe that they are following the Sharia.
FELDMAN (voice-over) As a general matter, the Sharia is what you make of it, and there are plenty of Muslims who interpret the Sharia in a progressive way, so that it's equal towards women and progressive towards women.
Later, the CNN host aired a clip from an interview of "prominent Murfreesboro resident Sally Wall," who was involved in the lawsuit against the planned mosque. O'Brien did her best to cast doubt on her concerns:
O'BRIEN (voice-over): During our conversation, she [Wall] showed me a photo of a woman punished under Taliban rule.
O'BRIEN (on-camera): And this is the cover of Time magazine-
SALLY WALL: Exactly, exactly-
O'BRIEN: Horribly disfigured.
WALL: Right, and she didn't have any ears either.
O'BRIEN: You're realistically worried that this could happen here?
WALL: Oh, certainly, I am. It happened to her.
O'BRIEN: In Afghanistan.
WALL: I understand.
O'BRIEN: There are large Muslim populations in the United States already.
WALL: I know that.
O'BRIEN: I mean, in New York City, we have a big Muslim community.
WALL: I know that.
O'BRIEN: There is no Sharia law in New York City.
WALL: It is creeping in, though, I believe, and I think it will creep in as there are more Muslims coming here, because that's what they're taught. I think they should try to come into the 21st century.
O'BRIEN: Meaning, do what?
WALL: To assimilate-
WALL (voice-over): If you would quit covering, you would find this a much easier place to live.
O'Brien immediately followed her excerpt from the interview with Ms. Wall with a clip from the wife of the imam of the local Muslim community, who touted the apparent benign nature of Sharia law: "Obviously, I'm not oppressed. I'm married to the imam in the mosque. If anyone was going to inflict Sharia law or whatever, obviously, it would be my husband."
The journalist later played one more clip from Professor Feldman, who also cast doubt on the threat from Sharia law, and then tossed slanted questions towards Joe Brandon, the lawyer for those who filed suit against the mosque project:
O'BRIEN: Should Americans be worried about Sharia law?
FELDMAN: Our Constitution prohibits explicitly any religious system becoming the established law of our country. So, such a thing would be completely unimaginable in our country, and rightly so.
JOE BRANDON (from trial): Is Sharia a religion?
O'BRIEN (voice-over): During the nine-day hearing to stop the building of the mosque-
WILL JORDAN, RUTHERFORD COUNTY, TENNESSEE COMMISSIONER: There are people out there that have all kind of beliefs.
O'BRIEN: Twenty-three witnesses were called to testify. Not one was a member of the Murfreesboro mosque.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE WITNESS 1: I do.
BRANDON: If they practiced Sharia law, would it still be your opinion that this is a religion?
JORDAN: I don't know.
O'BRIEN: In October 2010, in the middle of the hearing, attorneys from the federal Department of Justice took the uncommon step of delivering a message to the judge in the case, a reminder that according to the U.S. government, Islam is plainly a religion.
BRANDON: We want to be allowed to ask questions. My position is how do you believe anything if you don't question it, and the issue of whether Islam is a religion has never been decided.
O'BRIEN (on-camera): I thought Islam was considered to be one of the three great religions, right?
BRANDON (on-camera, from interview): Can you tell me what you base that on?
O'BRIEN: Scholars have said that. People who study it have said that.
BRANDON: Well, you can find an expert to testify hell's an ice house, too.
Should we be surprised by Soledad O'Brien's bias when CNN itself has regularly harped on the supposed rise of Islamophobia in the United States?
— Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.