Emerson's Jihad in America
by Paul Findley
March 1995, pg. 20
The campaign to defame Islam in America is alive and robust. As I watched Steven Emerson's hour-long production, "Jihad in America," broadcast recently over national television, a sage comment by an eminent Jew came to mind.
The late I.F. "Izzy" Stone, author, lecturer, commentator, historian and for many years publisher of a weekly newsletter, once told me, "Jews never had it so good as they've had it in the United States." But, discussing their concern about Israel's position in the Mideast, he cautioned, "They are afraid about the future. They feel they are at war, and many of them feel they have to fight and keep fighting." He added, "When people are at war it is normal for civil liberties to suffer."
When I interviewed him, although in declining health and with failing eyesight, he was still one of America's most respected journalists, a hero to academics.
"Israel," he said, peering through the thick lenses of his eyeglasses, "is on the wrong course. This period is the blackest in the history of the Jewish people. Arabs need to be dealt with as human beings."
If alive today, Stone would have cited Emerson's television production as wartime propaganda. Because many Israelis see Islam as an enemy, Emerson seems constrained to see Islam as his own enemy.
One of Emerson's techniques is casting the word jihad in the worst possible light. Emerson fails to note that in common Arab usage jihad means struggle, not military onslaught. Literally, jihad means to strive, struggle and exert effort. It is a basic Islamic concept that covers, at one extreme, struggles against evil inclinations within oneself and, at the other, stuggling on the battlefield if absolutely necessary for self-defense. Acts of individual, group or state terrorism are alien to Islam.
Jihad can involve military action only when legitimate states use force to defend the weak, protect society or establish justice. But Emerson presents it only as violent, explosive, indiscriminate carnage. This sets it apart from campaigns familiar to Americans that are entirely nonviolent like "wars" on poverty and illiteracy, a usage much like the use of "jihad" by Muslims.
The film is replete with unsupported scare tactics. At one point Emerson declares that Muslims want to establish an "Islamic empire," but offers no proof whatever. At another he warns that the single, isolated bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City is a certain forerunner of terrible acts of destructive violence nationwide.
He puts a false interpretation on a few emotional scenes videotaped at programs to raise funds to finance Muslim struggles in Afghanistan. Without any proof he presents them as sinister, subversive schemes to finance "Islamic terrorism" here "on American soil."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), based in Washington, DC, concludes: "From beginning to end, 'Jihad in America' and its producer, Steven Emerson, offered nothing but distorted snippets of fiery rhetoric, unsupported allegations and spurious juxtapositions to build a case against the Muslim community in America.
Acts of individual, group or state terrorism are alien to Islam. "The film was portrayed as factual and educational, while it contained many factual errors. The most obvious error was defining jihad as 'holy war.' We see this documentary as just one aspect of a recent trend toward anti-Islamic 'McCarthyism' by the media. In terms of potential hate crimes, it is now 'open season' on Muslims in America."
Emerson's recurring theme is that big trouble is brewing here because of the "radicalism of Islam" and the clandestine methods he attributes to it. He warns of "Islamic extremists committed to jihad in America." The only evidence he offers to support this forecast, according to CAIR's word-by-word examination of the transcript, consists of sound bites--brief cuttings from filmed coverage of meetings--in which U.S. Muslims were being urged to help finance Islamic struggles, but, contrary to Emerson's portrayal, the struggles were in other parts of the world, not in America.
Emerson deserts the truth in his zeal to misrepresent Islam as a barbaric, underground movement. For example, he leaves the impression that he was able to gain access to secret video tapes of clandestine meetings. In truth, almost all of the videos from which he clipped have been available routinely to the public. They were taken at public, not secret, meetings attended by locally elected mayors and other public officials, including, on one occasion, a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Emerson tries to give Islam an unjustified ugly, gruesome appearance by quoting an Islamic militant as follows: "Allah's religion, may He be praised, must offer skulls, must offer martyrs. Blood must flow. There must be widows, there must be orphans. Hands and limbs must be cut..." This suggests to viewers a dreadful jihad in America. An examination of the entire video makes clear that the speaker, a recruiter for volunteers to help the Afghans, referred only to Afghanistan and the awful price Muslims there have been paying. Had Emerson explained that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God, viewers would have avoided the false impression that the Muslim God is different from the Christian God.
In two brief interludes of the program, Emerson said only a few Muslims are terrorists, but this caveat was so fleeting it would register only with viewers who watched intently. These gestures to peace-loving U.S. Muslims were quickly obliterated. At one point Emerson declared, "Our investigation has uncovered more than 30 groups that fund radical Islamic activities and operate under tax-exempt status."
By failing to identify the 30 groups, Emerson has put all Muslim charitable organizations under a cloud of suspicion.
No Link to Terrorism
To his credit, a few days after the presentation, Ambassador Philip Wilcox, coordinator of the Office of Counter-Terrrism of the U.S. Department of State, declared: "There is no link between Islam and violence and terrorism. That is a canard which we want to dismiss at the outset. Nor is there a worldwide Islamic network somehow waging jihad against the West. This is a concept that's brooded about sometimes, and there is virtually no intelligence information to suggest that such a network exists."
In a commentary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jack Shaheen, professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, calls the Emerson program "perilous television, pandering to stereotypes that feed collective hatreds. The program's poisonous images encourage Americans to believe that all Muslims in the United States and their charitable and academic organizations are laundering money for a holy war in the Mideast. As a result...some peace-loving Muslims who genuinely respect the United States will likely be victimized by vicious slurs or hate crimes."
Former Congressman Paul Findley (R-IL) is chairman of the Council for the National Interest.