A prominent Mideast expert -- whose work combating Islamophobia is supported by News Corporation's second-largest shareholder -- has condemned the inflammatory, anti-Muslim rhetoric frequently featured on News Corp. subsidiary Fox News.
John L. Esposito heads the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, where his involvement dates back to its founding in 1993.
Established to "build stronger bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West as well as between Islam and Christianity," the center was renamed for the Saudi prince -- a major News Corp. shareholder -- in 2005, after he gave a $20 million gift to support and expand its work.
Esposito -- who is the editor of The Oxford History of Islam and is often cited as a Mideast expert by major news publications, including News Corp.'s Wall Street Journal -- didn't mince words when Media Matters sought his comment on anti-Islam activist and frequent Fox News guest Brigitte Gabriel.
In an email, Esposito told Media Matters, "Brigitte Gabriel is basically an entrepreneur, a professional Muslim basher. She, like [Pamela] Geller, [Robert] Spencer and company have no expert credentials in Islam or Muslim history and cultures, the very topics that they speak about. She is a fear monger pure, an Islamophobic culture warrior, and plays fast and loose to get the limelight and a career. What she and others excel at are simplistic generalizations and assertions, often choosing selective texts, individuals or events as if they were representative of the entire community.
"Instead of focusing on extremism in America or Muslim extremists as a dangerous but very small percentage, she chooses to target the Muslim American community, the vast majority of whom, as Gallup and PEW data have demonstrated, are as American as other Americans, educationally, economically and politically integrated. She ignores statements by the heads of the FBI, Homeland Security, Justice Dept. and the deputy national security advisor that also see American Muslims as partners in the fight against extremists."
As Media Matters has documented, earlier this year Fox News repeatedly hosted Gabriel to comment on the uprising in Egypt. Last year, after Gabriel's claim that a mosque and community center planned to be built near Ground Zero would open on the anniversary of 9-11 was proven false, Fox News invited her on to denounce the project.
Gabriel has also taken to Fox News to sow doubts about President Obama's religious convictions. Following polls showing that an increasing number of Americans wrongly believe Obama is a Muslim, Gabriel said on Fox's Hannity: "Finally people are paying attention to things after the fog has been lifted off of their eyes as to who did we really elect as president.
"The signs and the information were all out there. President Obama was born into the Islamic faith. Raised as a Muslim as a child. To a father who was a Muslim. ... He attended Islamic schools. I cannot speak on what god he prays to in his private space. I -- I'm not -- I cannot judge him for who he worships. But all the signs shows that he has a very soft spot... for the Islamic world."
Esposito told Media Matters, "It should come as no surprise that Gabriel and others like her are the darlings of Fox News. In a democratic society all voices and positions should be heard. But Fox has a long track record in its coverage of Islam and Muslims that is blatantly one sided. It is a pioneer in 'advocacy news,' an ideologically driven approach embodied in its commentators like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck and the guests they choose.
"They pander to the likes of Gabriel, who are long on diatribe and fearmongering and short on evidence. But when they invite others, those (credentialed experts or Muslim leaders) who represent alternative positions, they are put in the hot seat and aggressively cross examined."
Esposito added that Glenn Beck's recent nonsensical claim that 10 percent of all Muslims are terrorists was "a stunning display of ignorance if not bigotry." "Beck is too smart to be that stupid," Esposito said, "But, of course, he's smart enough to know he'll get lots of attention from his media and internet following."
Ultimately, Esposito told Media Matters, the anti-Muslim rhetoric promoted by Fox News has a very harmful effect: "Fox commentators and their Islam bashing guests have spun a tale that Islam and therefore practicing Muslims are the potential enemy who may destroy America.
"The cumulative effect of the confrontational rhetoric of Fox commentators like Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity who hammer away at portraying Islam and Muslims as fundamentally different contributes to a popular culture in which seeing 1.5 billion Muslims as potential enemies has become embedded. Too many Americans are developing an intolerant, irrational fears and even hatred not simply of extremists but of Islam and Muslims which has led to discrimination, harassment, and violence."
Indeed, in February, Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service published a survey that found a "significant correlation between trust in Fox News and negative attitudes about Muslims."
In an interview earlier this year with Foreign Policy In Focus, Esposito similarly criticized Fox News hosts for trafficking in Islamophobia:
Islamophobia is very much out there in the popular media: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly. They all have huge audiences. And the statements they've made on TV: if you took out the words "Islam" and "Muslim" and put in "Judaism" and "Jew," the networks simply wouldn't run the stuff.
I'm not saying that everyone criticizing Muslims and Islam is the problem. But there are a fair number of folks out there who conflate mainstream Islam with the actions of extremists, for instance, John Hagge and Rod Parsley, who were both strong Christian minister supporters of presidential candidate John McCain. McCain welcomed their support. They have megachurches and get big media coverage. Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly: they go beyond criticizing simply Muslim extremists. Any terrorism expert will tell you that these extremists are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Muslims. But these figures will make statements about Islam as a violent religion, about the Koran as a violent document.
There are people who raise criticisms out of fear. But many raise criticisms in the same way that people made anti-Semitic or racist comments in the past, as in "I'm not saying that Black people are inferior, just that there is hard empirical data that they are not like us."
Esposito, who is the co-editor of Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century, told Media Matters that Islamophobia is "a social cancer that threatens the very fabric of our democracy, our principles and values, and the civil liberties of mainstream Muslims."