On September 17th, Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, offered viewers his take on the protests and attacks at the United States diplomatic offices in Egypt and Libya. Scarborough dismissed the notion that the violence was strictly the result of Muslim anger with the release of a trailer for the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” and instead offered the following comments; the entirety of which can be viewed here.
“I talked to intelligence people all weekend. They hate us because of their religion, they hate us because of their culture, and they hate us because of peer pressure.”
Scarborough’s comments are clearly myopic, insensitive, and reductive. Islam is presented as a singular entity absent organizational divisions, ideological variation, ontological nuance, or theological complexity. This homogeneous and static Islam is also conflated as both religion and culture, which serves only to obscure the rich diversity among the 1.5 billion adherents of Islam.
It would be easy to attack Scarborough’s comments as yet another example of the demagoguery pervasive in American politics, media, and entertainment that regularly vilifies Muslims and demonizes Islam. It would be easy to dismiss Scarborough as someone who has read too many books by Raphael Patai, Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Pipes, and Robert Spencer. It would be easy to lump Scarborough in with politicians, like Michelle Bachman, Newt Gingrich or Peter King, who have tried to raise their public profiles by maligning Muslims. It would be easy to put Scarborough in the camp of media personalities like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Pat Robertson who regularly denigrate Islam in the hopes of increasing their ratings.
The problem is that while such tropes would make it easy to pillory Joe Scarborough, there is no evidence that he is a rabid Islamophobe or regularly peddles in anti-Muslim hate speech. In fact, Scarborough previously spoke out forcefully against such demagoguery; a point ignored in many of the current opinion pieces denouncing Scarborough.
Two years ago, on August 17, 2010, Joe Scarborough strongly condemned Newt Gingrich’s assertion that an Islamic cultural center (aka Park 51 Community Center) located a few blocks from Ground Zero was akin to Nazis’ placing a sign next to the Holocaust Museum. Scarborough lambasted Gingrich’s comments as “reckless” and “irresponsible” and stated that such comments “send a horrific message across the globe” and make “millions of law-abiding Muslims-Americans feel as if some leaders want them to be under siege in their own country.” Scarborough then offered Gingrich a bit of unsolicited advice; namely that he read the Constitution and “stop pandering to the lowest base in American politics.”
What we have here are two Joe Scarboroughs – one who finds it terribly offensive to denigrate Muslims for simply exercising their freedom of religious practice and one who cannot fathom why a small number of Muslims reacted violently to a shabby anti-Islam film and retreats to reductionist explanations of religion and culture. In this, Scarborough represents a sort of cognitive dissonance that is far too common in American society. This is a mindset that champions the notion that individuals should not be judged based on their race, color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, but frequently relies upon one-dimensional answers – some would say stereotypes – to complex questions that involve myriad social, political, cultural, religious, and economic factors.
The question “Why do they hate us?” cannot be adequately answered with a one-word response, such as “Religion” or “Culture.” If all Muslim hate us, then how do we explain the more than 6, 0000 Muslims who have served in overseas war deployments between September 11, 2001 and December 2011? What about the 14 Muslim-Americans who were killed while serving their country in Iraq? Are these the people who hate us because of their religion? I certainly don’t think so and suspect that neither does Joe Scarborough or millions of other Americans.
More importantly, the larger problem is that the wrong question is being asked. Rather than asking “Why do they hate us?” we need to consider questions such as “Why did some Egyptians and Libyans resort to violence over the film?” or “Do the small number of protestors represent widely held views within each society or were these protests the work of extreme minorities?” and “Why weren’t there protests or violence over the film in the United States, Bangladesh, or Algeria?” While the answers to these questions will undoubtedly include some elements of religion and culture, reaching such answers will first require an ability to deal with complexity, nuance, and ambiguity. This promises to be an arduous task that probably will not make for great television or good ratings, but in the end are the questions we need to ask and have answered in order to make sense out of the events.