Pundits Blame the Victims on Obama Muslim Myth

Rather than faulting the public for the weaknesses of human psychology, we should identify the media elites who deceive citizens with false information and hold them accountable for their role in fostering absurd myths.
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Last week, a Pew Research Center poll was released that showed an increase in the proportion of Americans who falsely believe President Obama is a Muslim.

The conversation since then has largely focused on the failings of the public. Slate's Jack Shafer, for instance, said adherents of the Muslim myth are "imagining things" and pointed to a poll finding that "18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth":

Don't these people read newspapers or watch TV? As a matter of fact, many do. According to the poll, 60 percent (PDF) of those who believe Obama is a Muslim also told the pollsters that they learned it from the media. Seeing as I can recall no major or minor media report that presented proof that would convince any sentient creature over the age of 10 that Obama is a Muslim, I'm starting to feel better. The 18 percenters are imagining things...

I'd be more upset about the Pew poll if a Gallup Poll hadn't also reported that 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth or that only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what is published in the New York Times. We can count on stupidity, willful ignorance, and intellectual sloth to plague us 100 percent of the time. All we can do is fight the darkness with light.

Similarly, Matthew Yglesias described the misperception as one of the "odd American beliefs about politics" and noted that "lots of Americans believe lots of weird stuff" such as ESP, haunted houses, astrology, and ghosts.

Other commentators have blamed Obama himself for failing to refute the myth. The Washington Examiner's Byron York, for instance, claimed (absurdly) that "Obama and his aides might also blame themselves for the way they've handled the Muslim issue over the years" such as saying that his father was a Muslim in 1985 and speaking about his family background during a speech in Cairo. Similarly, CNN's Candy Crowley and Time's Amy Sullivan both faulted Obama for not making more public visits to church. However, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush regularly attended church services (see here and here), and no one accused them of being Muslims.*

But while pundits have been quick to blame Obama and the public, very few commentators have noted the role played by the media and political elites in misleading the public about Obama's religious beliefs. Slate's Dave Weigel came the closest, writing that "At some point it became acceptable to question Obama's American-ness, which naturally begged the question of whether he was a secret Muslim... and the WorldNetDailys, tabloids, and Drudge Reports of the world were ready to keep begging that question."

It's worth examining the scope of this effort, which has been ongoing since Obama's presidential campaign. Here's a sample from a 2009 post:

Frank Gaffney, the right-wing apparatchik last seen suggesting that President Obama's apparent bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was "code" telling "our Muslim enemies that you are willing to submit to them," has written an entire column for the Washington Times arguing that "there is mounting evidence that the president not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself" (via MM). He bases this false conclusion upon a bizarre and elaborate exegesis of Obama's Cairo speech that would embarrass even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist.

We've repeatedly seen members of the press and political figures promoting this myth (or claims that reinforce it) over the last few years. Just in the last week, Media Matters has documented Fox Nation falsely claiming "Obama Says U.S. Is a 'Muslim Country,'" Fox News running a graphic about Obama titled "Islam or Isn't He?", former Washington Times editor Wes Pruden writing that Obama found "his 'inner Muslim'" in Cairo, and Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb asking "if the president hasn't been concealing some greater fluency with the language of the Koran."

Gaffney later made the bizarre claim that the alleged resemblance of the Missile Defense Agency's new logo to the Islamic crescent and star proved that Obama was trying to submit the United States to sharia law (he subsequently retracted the claim).

More recently, the Washington Times -- led by columnist Jeffrey Kuhner -- has engaged in a months-long propaganda campaign to suggest Obama is a Muslim complete with misleading graphics:

One of the media outlets pushing
this misconception is the Washington Times, whose Jeffrey Kuhner famously published
the false claim that Obama attended a madrassa as a child. The Times has even utilized images to deliver the
message to readers at a glance. For instance:

In a July 8 Washington Times column, Jeffrey Kuhner
wrote that "Culturally, [Obama] is America's first Muslim president." The following
illustration accompanies the piece:

In an August 16 Washington Times analysis, Wesley
Pruden speculated that Obama publicly addressed the controversy surrounding the Islamic community
center in New York because "he just can't resist throwing (non-alcoholic) wine and roses at
Muslims and rotten eggs at Americans who cling to the Judeo-Christian God and
guns." The following photo of Obama dressed in clothing worn by nomadic people in Somalia accompanies the piece:

(The photo was reportedly taken during Obama's 2006 trip to Africa and pushed by the Drudge Report during the presidential primary. According to the head of the BBC's Somali service, the clothing has "no religious significance to it whatsoever.")

In an August 17 Washington Times column, Frank Gaffney
wrote: "As he hosted the Ramadan fast-breaking dinner at the White House on Friday, Mr. Obama showed his true colors on
Shariah. ... Shariah is about power, not faith, and no amount of Obama subsidies, solidarity or spin on
behalf of that agenda will persuade the American people to allow the so-called
"tradition of Islam" to supplant our civil liberties, form of
government and way of life." The following illustration accompanies the piece:

In an August 19 Washington Times column, Kuhner wrote
that Obama is "a cultural Muslim who is promoting an anti-American, pro-Islamic
agenda." The following illustration accompanies the piece:

In an August 19 Washington Times column,
Robert Knight wrote: "The proposed Manhattan
mosque is a keg o' dynamite. It has blown up apathetic Americans' benign
illusions about Mr. Obama: 'They're going to build what? Where? And he's OK
with that?'" Knight also quoted and criticized Obama's statement that "Ramadan
is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America." The following illustration accompanies the piece:

The caption under the
illustration states: "Obama's Crescent House"

The Washington Times
this tack against Obama's second Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, who
Gaffney accused of "Courting Shariah."

Finally, the Washington Times published an editorial last Friday full of innuendo about Obama's religion:

Rumors of Mr. Obama's purported Muslim identity spread in January of 2007 and were tied to Hillary Rodham Clinton operatives, who denied responsibility. The Obama camp responded that "Barack Obama is not and has never been a Muslim. Obama never prayed in a mosque. He has never been a Muslim, was not raised a Muslim and is a committed Christian who attends [The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's] United Church of Christ." That seemed definitive.

But in a February 2008 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Obama said the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, is "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset." He then recited it, "with a first-class [Arabic] accent." The opening of the Adhan contains the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, proclaiming, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God." Stating this before two Muslims is the traditional requirement for joining the Islamic faith.

Adding fuel to the fire is Mr. Obama's family heritage: born of a Muslim father and raised by a Muslim stepfather. Under Shariah law, having a Muslim father makes one a Muslim, though this custom has no legal standing in the United States.

In a September 2008 interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Obama said, "John McCain has not discussed my Muslim faith," a comment which Mr. Obama's partisans say was taken out of context. In July 2008, he admitted to People Magazine he and his wife don't give Christmas presents to their children. There is also the president's full name, Barack Hussein Obama, which as the Associated Press gently put it, "sounds Muslim to many." In fact, the name "Barack" derives from the Arabic word for "blessing" and is not necessarily Islamic, but when paired with "Hussein," which refers to Muhammad's grandson, acts as an adjective.

Suspicions were raised by Obama presidential policies, such as taking a harder line on Israel, ordering that radical Islamic terrorists be referred to only as "violent extremists" and engaging in an unprecedented and obsequious outreach to Muslim countries. Mr. Obama's bowing to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, in April 2009, didn't help matters much.

These and other reasons are why perceptions that Mr. Obama is Muslim keep growing...

None of this confirms the president is a Muslim, but it keeps speculation running wild.

Given this history, there's simply no question that elites have played a role in fostering the misperception that Obama is Muslim. It's also worth noting that describing the myth as an "odd" belief like ESP or the sun revolving around the earth trivializes its political consequences. In reality, conservative and Republican elites have repeatedly leveraged the myth to suggest that Obama is a traitor or disloyal to the United States:

December 2006: Columnist Debbie Schlussel notes that Obama's father was a Muslim and asks "Where will his loyalties be?"

February 2008: Radio talk show host Bill Cunningham calls Obama "this Manchurian candidate" but says "I do not believe Barack Hussein Obama is a terrorist or a Manchurian candidate."

April 2008: During an apperance on Glenn Beck's show on CNN Headline News, Ann Coulter asks "Is Obama a Manchurian candidate to normal Americans who love their country? ... Or is he being the Manchurian candidate to the traitor wing of the Democratic Party?"

June 2008: Fox News host E.D. Hill asked whether a fist bump between Obama and his wife was "A terrorist fist jab?"

April 2009: Frank Gaffney claims on MSNBC that Obama's apparent bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was "code" telling "our Muslim enemies that you are willing to submit to them."

May 2009: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich alleges on "Fox News Sunday" that there is a "weird pattern" in which Obama administration officials were "prepared to take huge risks with Americans in order to defend terrorists" and suggests that the Obama administration was proposing "welfare" for terrorists. He then claims on "Meet the Press" that the Obama administration's "highest priority" is to "find some way to defend terrorists."

June 2009: Senator James Inhofe calls Obama's Cairo speech "un-American" and says "I just don't know whose side he's on."

August 2009: On the Lou Dobbs radio show, substitute host Tom Marr says "I have to believe that there is still an inner Muslim within this man that has some sense of sympathy towards the number one enemy of freedom and democracy in the world today, and that is Islamic terrorism."

September 2009: Gaffney says Obama is "pursuing [an agenda] that is indistinguishable in important respects from that of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose mission ladies and gentlemen, we know from a trial in Dallas last year, is to quote to destroy Western civilization from within by its own miserable hand." Conservative pundit Tammy Bruce says on Fox News that Obama has "some malevolence toward this country."

November 2009: Fox's Sean Hannity suggests that President Obama was somehow responsible for the Fort Hood shooting, stating that "our government apparently knew and did nothing" about "a terrorist act" and then asking "What does it say about Barack Obama and our government?"

January 2010: The New York Post publishes an editorial asking "Whose side is the Justice Department on: America's or the terrorists'? ... [T]he president and his administration also owe the American people an answer: Is the government's prosecutorial deck stacked in favor of the terrorists?" Former senator Fred Thompson also jokes that the US could win the war in Afghanistan if we "[j]ust send Obama over there to campaign for the Taliban."

February 2010: During a conference call with conservative bloggers, Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.) accuses the Obama administration of having a "a terrorist protection policy" and conducting a "jihad to close Guantanamo."

August 2010: National Review's Andrew McCarthy publishes an entire book claiming that Obama is pursuing an agenda that will aid Islamic radicals. The dust jacket states that "the global Islamist movement's jihad ... has found the ideal partner in President Barack Obama, whose Islamist sympathies run deep." Commentary's Jennifer Rubin writes that Obama's "sympathies for the Muslim World take precedence over those, such as they are, for his fellow citizens" in a post criticizing Obama's statement on the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero.

Rather than faulting the public for the weaknesses of human psychology, we should identify the elites who deceive citizens with false information and hold them accountable for their role in fostering this myth. It's time to stop blaming the victims.

Update 8/24 9:09 PM: This Newsweek slideshow again takes the wrong approach. Titled "America the Ignorant: Silly Things We Believe About Witches, Obama and More," the magazine gently mocks the public for "oddball opinions" like misperceptions about Obama's religion while ignoring the role of elites in fostering the myth (though they do call out Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney for promoting false claims about "death panels" and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, respectively).

Update 8/26 9:13 AM: Via Bob Somerby, this Fox News Sunday roundtable below is a classic example of pundits blaming Obama and the public for the myth while failing to identify the elites who have promoted it. Only the last speaker, Juan Williams, even mentions the fact that these misconceptions were fostered by many of Obama's critics:

WALLACE: And it's time now for our Sunday group, Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard; Nina Easton from Fortune magazine; Kevin Madden, a first-timer on the panel -- he's a Republican strategist who was Mitt Romney's spokesman during his run for president -- and Juan Williams from National Public Radio.

So, Bill Burton says Americans know the president is a committed Christian. But according to a couple of new polls, Steve Hayes, that's not so. And let's put them up on the screen.

A Pew poll taken before the president's comments about the mosque -- and this is before the president's comments about the mosque -- near Ground Zero shows 18 percent of Americans now believe he's Muslim. That's up from 12 percent when he ran for president.

And in a Time Magazine poll taken after his comments about the mosque, 24 percent believe he's Muslim. Only 47 percent think he's Christian. Steve, how do you explain this growing misperception of a sitting president?

HAYES: Well, I think we spend -- he spends a lot less time talking about his faith in public than George W. Bush, for instance. And he spends a lot of time -- an inordinate amount of time, I would say -- talking about extolling the virtues of Islam.

It's part of his strategy. It's his outreach to the Muslim world. He's focused on it. He's given major speeches about it. We haven't seen him give similar speeches extolling the virtues of Christianity or Judaism or something else. So I think people are making...

WALLACE: Well, in fairness... HAYES: ... a leap -- and it is a leap...

WALLACE: I mean, for instance, at one of the prayer services he talked about Jesus and about the resurrection. He hasn't been seen publicly going to church that often. But he has spoken about his faith.

HAYES: That's part of it. It's not that he hasn't spoken about it. It's that he hasn't given the high profile speeches like the one he gave in Cairo.

And he's spent a lot of time talking about conducting outreach to what he calls the Muslim world. I think people are reasoning from that, leaping from that, to a conclusion that's not warranted by the evidence, obviously.


EASTON: Well, I think it predates his current outreach to the Muslim community. Nearly half of the people -- in September of '08, before the election, nearly half of Americans couldn't identify him as Christian.

He's got this odd background, this childhood where he was -- his father was Muslim -- his father who he didn't know, by the way, only spent a month with him. His father, who was Muslim, turned atheist. He's got a mother who was secular. He went to school in Indonesia. He has these ties to Kenya. So it's kind of a blur for people anyway.

During the campaign he spent a lot of time pushing back on that. He gave an interview to Newsweek and he talked about Jesus and he talked about prayer. And he -- they spent a lot of time talking about this.

They've made the decision now as a sitting president -- because of the Reverend Wright controversy, I think, he doesn't want to publicly go to church every Sunday somewhere. He doesn't want to disrupt services, is what he says.

But as a -- I think the effect of that is it leaves this confusion in people's minds, and they're able to -- see, the people who think he's Muslim are the people who tend to oppose him, so...

WALLACE: Well, I was going to get to that, Kevin.

How much of this has nothing to do with his background and -- or his father, and more to do with the fact that as opposition to his policies grows, that negative feelings about him personally also grow?

MADDEN: Well, I think that's one of the ways that you explain the trend line going in the wrong direction for the White House. But I do think that this is a lot more attributable to the way people get and retain information than it is sort of malevolent intentions by a lot of voters out there.

You know, we live in this world where there's a wealth of information. And where there's a wealth of information, there's a poverty of attention. So you have a lot of people out there...

WALLACE: Also a wealth of misinformation.

MADDEN: Correct. No, that's absolutely correct. And I think you have a lot of people who witness this debate and this discussion. And as they witness this debate and this discussion, it is the ideal breeding ground for a lot of misinformation.

So when you have folks out there -- and the interesting thing I found about the Pew poll was that 60 percent of the people said that they got their information from the media. And as we watch the media today, as we watched it this week, there is this very robust debate -- is why people thought he was a Muslim, was it true that he was, was it not true.

And because of that, people witnessed that debate and then they formed their own conclusions. And a lot of it are wrong conclusions that have to do on incorrect information.

WALLACE: Juan, I want you to weigh in on this, but also I want you to answer another question. How important is it for the president politically to set the record straight that he's a Christian?

WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think it's going to help him with people who are his critics, and I think that's largely where this is coming from.

I disagree. I think that this is an malevolent effort by people who are his critics to make him out to be the other in American life, that he's not really an American, he's some sort of Manchurian candidate. I mean, this...

WALLACE: But wait a minute. The Time Magazine poll shows that only 40 percent of all Americans -- this isn't Republicans. Forty- seven percent of all Americans think he's Christian. So there's a pretty widespread feeling.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It's mostly Republicans. I'm telling you...

(UNKNOWN): There are a lot of Democrats in there as well.

EASTON: Yeah, there's a lot of Democrats...

(UNKNOWN): There are a lot of Democrats.

WILLIAMS: To me, it's overwhelmingly coming from the critics. I think it's the same people who say, you know, this guy's a socialist. I think it's now about a third of Americans who -- and overwhelmingly Republicans, who say he wasn't born in the country, people who want to say that he favors whites over blacks in terms of what the Justice Department is doing with the New Black Panther Party. It's about reparations for slavery.

I think these are people who are uncomfortable with a black president or uncomfortable with his policies. They don't like Barack Obama.

WALLACE: But why would it be growing -- why would it be growing? I mean, he's been in office a year and a half. Would you think that people would have more of a sense...

WILLIAMS: I don't know if you noticed, but his approval ratings have been sinking. And as his approval ratings have been sinking, I think more people feel, you know, absolutely unleashed in terms of their criticism.

And I think the stuff that's coming from the right wing, from Rush Limbaugh and the like -- you know, Imam Obama and all that -- that has become...


WILLIAMS: ... more (inaudible).

HAYES: Look, his approval ratings aren't sinking because people have the misunderstanding that he's a Muslim. His approval ratings are sinking because the economy is in the tank. That's, I think, the fundamental problem.

This is not because there's some concerted campaign to make him out to be the other, to make him out to be a Muslim. I think it has to do with people of -- generally of good faith who are misunderstanding the campaign that the White House has launched and run on a sustained way for 19 months of a presidency in outreach to the Muslim world.

* Contrary to Crowley and Sullivan's suggestion, more aggressive promotion of Obama's Christian faith may not be effective in reducing misperceptions about his religion. In research with Jason Reifler and undergraduate students at Duke (PDF), I found that the strategy of Obama presenting himself as a Christian appeared to make Republicans more likely to endorse the Muslim myth -- a finding that is consistent with the backfire effect Reifler and I found in previous research on correcting misperceptions (PDF).

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com and Pollster.com]

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