Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Subtle Bigotry

by John Heit

Misinformation about Islam runs rampid in today’s media—allowing bigotry and prejudice to fester. While the severity of the bias varies from one outlet to another, the media continually depicts Islam as a religion of terror and violence.

The reporting terrorist acts planned or committed in Saudi Arabia is evidemce of newspaper bias. Unequivocally, those committing crimes (the bad guys) were labeled “Islamist” or “Islamic” and the forces that apprehended those responsible (the good guys) were labeled “Saudi”. What is consequential about such word choice? Both the good guys and the bad guys were Islamic and Saudi since Saudi Arabia is a self-avowed Islamic state. Both labels applied equally to both groups—interesting that the good guys got the national title and the bad guys were called “Islamic”.

Dr. Parvez Ahmed, a board member for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the U.S.’s largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy group, recently conducted a study of newspaper articles. In accounts of terrorism, militancy, or extremism, if the perpetrator was a Muslim, the act was 1000 times more likely to be linked to Islam. In other words, if a Muslim and a Christian committed the same crime, it was 1000 times more likely that newspapers drew a connection between the criminal Muslim and Islam rather than the criminal Christian and Christianity. “This lopsided association is troubling given the fact that that all religions, not just Islam, have in the recent past fallen prey to misinterpretation by a radical fringe” (Ahmed, “Attitudes of Ignorance—A Consequence of Media Portrayal of Islam and Muslims”).

Ahmed cites August 5 of this year as an example. He says, “three stories came across AP news wires [that day] - the arrest in a sting operation of two Muslims, the arrest of a man who allegedly had plans to bomb a federal building, and a FBI raid on a home investigating anthrax. Guess which story made your headline news?” That’s right, the story with the Muslim bad guys.

The bias against Islam is not always so subtle; watchdog groups have repeatedly chided the Fox News Network for anti-Muslim content. The program “Hannity and Colmes” caused an uproar with its program on September 18 of last year. Televangelist Pat Robertson made disparaging remarks throughout the program. For example, he suggested that Islam was a religion of terrorism, “a monumental scam”, and “to think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent.” That same week, talk show host Bill O’Reilly compared the Holy Qur’an to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Subtle way to express an opinion of Islam, isn’t it? Can you imagine what the reaction would be if someone made similar statements about the Bible and Christianity on network television?

Not all media outlets are so direct. The cover story of the September 13th edition of Time, “The Struggle for the Soul of Islam,” drew on two prominent scholars in an attempt at fair and balanced coverage. While the piece overall was nicely done, there were subtle suggestions of Islam as an exotic religion of violence. The authors quoted the Holy Qur’an six times—five verses described graphic violence. Only one quote from the Holy Qur’an was not about violence but, rather, about the importance of not harming non-combatants. This five-to-one ratio of violence-to-justice does not match the book’s composition.

One article from that Time, “Shaking Up Islam in America”, was balanced, informed, and well written. Unfortunately, “Shaking Up Islam in America” was only one page long. Oh, and it was written by a well-educated, Muslim journalist


John Heit was an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow in 2004-05. Posted June 2005.

New Materials

Center News