Paris and Rosie

On Sunday, I was at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue, participating in a panel discussion on the “The Image of Muslims in the Media.”

I didn’t have to do much preparation – I just had to take the notes I use when I speak to Jewish audiences on the “The Image of Israel in the Media” and do a search-and-replace, Israel for Muslim.

Each side’s complaints are mirror images of the other. Jews bemoan the lack of context, the one-sidedness, the over-simplification and the focus on blood and gore that marks quite a bit of the media coverage of Israel. And the Muslims? To them, the media paints all Muslims as terrorists, offers superficial understanding of Islam and focuses on violence over culture and accomplishment.

“To try to get better stories told on a daily basis,” Edina Lekovic said, “is … frustrating.” Lekovic, media relations director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, or MPAC, struck the same note I hear from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

As an example, a video produced by her organization cites Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich” as a media product that negatively portrays Muslims. How many Jewish panels have I sat on that have picked apart the same movie for its “bias” against Israelis?

Los Angeles Times Opinion and Sunday Currents page editor Nick Goldberg, also a panelist on Sunday, made clear he hears from disgruntled Muslims and Jews whenever he runs an op-ed perceived to be harmful to either side.

I’m sure “the media” – whatever that is – would be proud to know that it has managed to get Jews and Muslims to agree on something. That something being, of course, the incompetence and unfairness of the media.

On a week when the evening news has told us more about who visited Paris Hilton in jail than which Americans died in Iraq, it is hard not to join the chorus.

Phil Shuman, the conscientious Fox 11 News reporter, told the audience that his station preempted an hour of news last week to broadcast live a police car chase.

But I don’t place all the blame on the media. I blame Jews and Muslims, too.
We expect the media to be balanced, judicious and open-minded though we feel perfectly justified exhibiting none of those qualities.

Case in point: The Muslims I spoke with were especially upset about the media’s handling of the recent Pew Research Center poll of Muslim Americans. The poll found that the majority of American Muslims see themselves as American first and that two-thirds are strong believers in the American way of life. “When we looked at the Pew poll we thought ‘finally they’ll see what we see,'” Lekovic said.

Instead, the media focused on a finding that 26 percent of American Muslims aged 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing against civilian targets is justified “in order to defend Islam from its enemies.”

Once again, the Muslims felt that instead of showing off their achievements and pride as Americans, they had to defend themselves against the idea that all Muslims are terrorists.

“Why is the image of Islam so negative today?” asked Salam al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC.

Well, I said to this audience of some 100 Muslims, as a Jew, I could ask the same question.

I said why, despite all evidence to the contrary, the same poll found that 40 percent of Muslim Americans don’t believe that Arabs were behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

I said why, despite all evidence to the contrary, a majority of Europeans believe that Israel is the root of all the evil in the world.

In other words, I said, you can present people with all the information they need, in context, with background, and they’ll still choose to live in cloud or cuckoo land. Perhaps the deeper problem is why people cling to ignorance in the face of knowledge, fantasy in the face of facts.

Believe it or not, that was not an applause line.

After the discussion, a Muslim man approached me and argued that talk show host Rosie O’Donnell also questioned who was behind Sept. 11. “Is Rosie O’Donnell crazy?” he asked.

“Probably not,” I said, “but she’s not my No. 1 news source.”

But I don’t mean to let Jews off the hook here, either.

We also tend to cling to our orthodoxies without challenging them. And one of those orthodoxies is that the West is facing imminent destruction at the hands of extremist Islam. Too easily this idea, which is in itself arguable, poisons our understanding of all Islam and our relations to all Muslims.

“We are very nervous about being taken for a ride,” Rabbi David Rosen said. “But we have an existential interest in speaking out to the Muslim world.”

Rosen is international director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee. He is an Orthodox rabbi, based in Jerusalem, who was ordained at the charedi Mir yeshiva and also graduated from Oxford. I spoke with him Monday in my office.

Out of their justifiable concern over Muslim extremism, Jews have closed themselves off from Muslims and rejected overtures and cooperation from even moderate Muslims, like W.D. Muhammed, who heads the largest black Muslim organization in the United States.

Jews, Rosen said, are missing an opportunity to engage Muslims in America and even to help them establish the kind of American religious institutions that have helped moderate and modernize Judaism itself.

Yes, extremist Islam is a threat. But it has also presented us with an opportunity to reach out to our Muslim neighbors, even the ones who believe Rosie O’Donnell over their own good sense.

This so-called clash of civilizations will be a fast ride to hell if we close ourselves off, choosing fear over hope.

I’ll leave the last word to the rabbi: “What do you want to do?” Rosen said.

“Curse the darkness or light a candle?”