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Aidan White

911colourbook1Aiden White for the Media Diversity Institute

Ten years after the terrorist attacks the United States of America is still hurting, but the some of the worst pain is being felt by American Muslims.

They have had to answer again and again for the decisions of a cabal of terrorists whose twisted notions of Islam they find abhorrent but whose violence has left a legacy of prejudice.

Each year there are hundreds of complaints from Muslims who are victims of discrimination and acts of violence motivated by anti-Islamic bias across the United States. A recent survey reveals that more than half of Muslim Americans say government anti-terrorism policies single them out for increased surveillance and monitoring, and many report increased harassment at the hands of the police or airport security staff and others.

This reinforces the findings of another major poll last year that found almost half of Americans admit to feeling prejudice toward Muslims -- more than twice the number who say the same about Christians, Jews or Buddhists.

Media must take a share of the blame in helping to frame this malign public mood.

In the years after September 11 media provided almost exclusively negative coverage of Muslim affairs, repeatedly linking Muslim culture to “violent fundamentalism.” In addition, a lack of accurate information and resources on the Islamic faith has nourished dangerous stereotypes in the public mind. Journalists have provided a platform for unscrupulous politicians of the Tea-Party right and beyond as well as bigoted religious figures.

No story better demonstrates the capacity of media to reinforce public prejudice than the extraordinary tale of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Over the past year the question should Muslims be allowed to build a mosque at Ground Zero provoked a controversy that made headlines across America and beyond.

But in fact merely posing the question is an act of deliberate distortion. The plans to build a Community Center at Park51 in Lower Manhattan will occupy not an inch of the massive area on which the Twin Towers stood. It is more than two blocks away. And it is not even a purpose-built mosque, but a community centre housing a swimming pool, a basketball court, a  library, day-care facility, restaurant and cooking school – and, yes, a prayer centre.

However, the banal realities of this story – a private organisation seeking to demolish an911colourbook2old factory on land it legally owns as part of a plan supported by 29 out of 30 lower Manhattan council leaders – were sidelined by journalists whose extensive coverage of small local protests stirred fresh hatred at home and abroad.

In September 2010 the story went global when media pumped up publicity-seeking fundamentalist Pastor Terry Jones, an unknown Christian bigot from the backwoods of Florida, who planned to publicly burn a copy of the Koran in protest over the “ground Zero Mosque”.

Overblown media coverage of this isolated provocation – later blamed on “silly season” sensationalism –resulted in international outrage and pleas from world leaders to cancel the event.  In early September 2010, Jones duly cancelled his plan to burn the Koran but by then the media attention had sparked protests in the Middle East and Asia, in which a total of 20 people were killed.

Jones retreated into obscurity and there was little coverage of his actions in March this year when he belatedly followed through on his threat to burn a Koran. But by then the story had cooled and the damage had been done.

Nor has much been said since about the “ground Zero Mosque,” or to be precise the Centre at Park51, which more accurately describes its geography. The project will finally get off the ground following a decision of the New York State Supreme Court in July which threw out a last legal challenge by opponents.

As the world’s media travel to New York to focus attention on ceremonies to honour the victims of the world’s worst terrorist attack, they might consider how for millions of American Muslims the consequences of that dreadful September day are still being felt.

In this year of extraordinary events, media would do well to recall the first days of the Arab Spring and its many powerful images of Arab unity and none of them more memorable than when Coptic Christians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held hands around Muslims during Friday prayers, to protect them from surprise attack.

In the same spirit all Americans, including journalists and people of faith and non-faith alike, will need to join hands to rekindle commitment to pluralism and First Amendment values to keep Muslim citizens safe and to avoid the devastating consequences of rising prejudice.

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