Obama's a 'Powerful New Ally' for Muslim Outreach As 'Myths Abound' in America

June 3rd, 2009 4:27 PM

Eli Saslow, the young Washington Post reporter best known for his giddy promotion of Obama’s "glistening pectorals," touted Obama as a "powerful new ally" against "Islamophobia" on the front of Wednesday’s Style section. The protagonist of Saslow’s story, Aida Mansoor of Hartford, Connecticut, tries to educate an apparently (and painfully) bigoted America about Islam. This is where Obama comes to the rescue:

Her attempts at cross-cultural connection can sometimes feel futile, Mansoor says, but her energy this year has been fortified by a powerful new ally: President Obama, a Christian who has promised unprecedented outreach to the Muslim world. More than 85 percent of Muslims in the United States approve of Obama's performance as president, according to a recent Gallup poll, which is his strongest endorsement from any religious group.

"What he says could go a long way toward dispelling the myths," Mansoor says. "For a long time, Muslims have been the bad guys in this country. There is so much hate and misunderstanding, and he might be able to help the world overcome some of it."

Before Obama hosts his global diversity seminar, Mansoor begins her local equivalent.

The assumption behind the Post story is that America has a long way to go to be properly "educated" that Islam is a peaceful religion. The headline was "As the Myths Abound, So Does Islamic Outreach." Will knowledge defeat ignorance? The Post's headline inside isn't optimistic: "Explaining Islam to  Americans: It's Not Any Easier These Days."

The Post doesn’t ask: is it possible that Muslims can exaggerate the harshness and everyday commonality of "Islamophobia" among Americans? Saslow brings his story right around to how the 2008 election displayed "the worst of Islamophobia" in the United States:

After Abdul-Karim [Mansoor’s imam] finishes his introductory lecture at the library, Mansoor plays a series of media clips compiled during the past year. The 2008 presidential election, Mansoor says, revealed the worst of Islamophobia in the United States. "Anytime you turned on the TV, they were saying, 'You know, maybe Obama is a Muslim,' " she tells the class. "Well, first of all, he's not a Muslim. But more important: So what if he was? What's wrong with that?"

Mansoor turns out the lights and starts the projector, which the class takes as a cue to relax.... One of the census employees closes his eyes as Mansoor plays the first sound bite, from a broadcast of Michael Savage's radio show:

"We have a right to know if [Obama's] a so-called friendly Muslim or one who aspires to more radical teachings," Savage says.

Then comes a clip of Sen. John McCain at one of his campaign rallies, responding to a woman who asked whether Obama was Arab: "No ma'am," McCain says. "He's a decent family man, citizen."

Eventually, Mansoor finishes with a video of an experiment conducted by a television station. The clerk at a bagel shop pretends to refuse service to a Muslim woman, and the camera focuses on other customers' responses. Three customers congratulate the clerk for taking a stand against "un-American terrorists." Several others leave the store in protest. One man, moved to tears, tells the clerk, "Every person deserves to be treated with respect, dignity."

Mansoor stops the tape and turns on the lights. She's crying. The attendees set down their pens and cellphones. They're watching now.

"This always brings tears to my eyes when I see it," Mansoor says. "This is what we face every day. Every day. Maybe it gives you a little bit of an idea what it must feel like. What are your reactions?"

Nobody speaks....

Finally, Lillian Ruiz, the human-relations director, raises her hand.

"I think we need to stand up like we did in the 1950s," Ruiz said. "You watch things like this and it makes you want to just fight back and do something, because it's so sad. Obviously, discrimination is still very alive."

"Yes," Mansoor says. "Yes. Thank you."

That's how the article ends. America's stuck in the 1950s, and Muslims are the new blacks.

Here’s where the whole story turns on fiction: Saslow is writing about a February 26, 2008 episode of ABC’s Primetime: What Would You Do? in which actors playing an obnoxiously bigoted clerk and an offended Muslim woman try to nudge unsuspecting members of the public into action. The "Islamophobia" is exaggerated for ratings and to make a liberal point against discriminatory attitudes. ABC’s John Quinones, the host of these "thought experiments," explained:

QUINONES: The young woman in our experiment is an actor. But for this woman, discrimination is all too real. Nohayia Javed [ph] helped us design our experiment. Although born in Chicago, she says she's constantly characterized by fellow Americans as the enemy.

JAVED: They always start off with, 'You're a terrorist. Osama-lover. Towel-head. Camel jockey." On and on.

Fellow Americans "always start" with terrorist accusations? They’re "constantly" attacking Muslims with harsh ridicule? At what point do ABC and The Washington Post acknowledge this kind of harassment might not be a constant occurrence?

In that 2008 segment, Quinones acknowledged "At the end of the day, 13 people stood up for the Muslim woman, while six sided with the clerk. But the majority of the bystanders, 22, did or said absolutely nothing." Because twice as many expressed offense, Quinones placed all the blame on the bystanders, so that the vast majority looked like they needed an Islamic training seminar.

PS: Here's what gets left out of the sympathetic story: does Islamic outreach always ring true? A newspaper account of another Aida Mansoor event in Connecticut features Muslim convert Ingrid Mattson uncorking this whopper:

The most common misconception about Islam is that it is oppressive to women. Muslim women, like women all over the world have often had to struggle to enjoy their natural rights, but Islam is most often seen by them as a source of strength in advocating for their rights.