Larry King and ISIS | WHAT! Muslim Free Zone in AMERICA?
When we recognize something as being Islamophobic, it typically looks like overt, angry hatred of Muslims. And there is a lot of that to recognize, especially on cable TV: CNN host Chris Cuomo declaring Muslims “unusually violent” and “unusually barbaric,” or HBO host Bill Maher saying the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are “like the Mafia” and share “too much in common with ISIS,” or Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly calling Islam “a destructive force,” and so on. Those kinds of openly hateful statements — or, for example, comparing Islam to Nazi Germany — are what we generally think of when we think of Islamophobia.
Focusing on that kind of overt hate is comforting, because it allows us to tell ourselves that the world divides neatly into two categories: that there are the bad people who say the wrong thing and hate Muslims, and then there are the rest of us, and we’re doing fine, so we have nothing to worry about.
But this narrow way of thinking about Islamophobia is a lie, even if it’s a comforting one. In fact, there is another way that Islamophobia often manifests, one that is less overt and less hostile, but no less destructive — and one that is not limited to people who openly spout hatred on cable TV.
This other kind of Islamophobia shows up in the subtle expression of stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims and their way of life: the presumption that simply because of their religion or ethnicity, Muslims and Arabs are violent, backward, misogynist, and anti-Semitic. That unlike “us” they are less than “normal,” or even less than human.
This Islamophobia is a kind of soft bigotry of low expectations, and it’s everywhere. Former CNN host Larry King illustrated it perfectly, in this stunning anecdote captured by the New York Times’s Mark Leibovich:
A dark-skinned man approached and asked King if he would pose for a photo.
“Where are you from?” King asked.
“Saudi Arabia,” the man said.
“I’m a Jew!” King informed him. “You sure it’s O.K. to get your picture taken with a Jew back in Saudi Arabia?”
The man assured him that indeed Larry King had many fans in Saudi Arabia. They smiled for the picture. “Thank you, Mr. King,” the man said. They shook hands, and King looked him in the eye. “Now,” he said, “please, go fight ISIS!”
What makes this offensive is pretty readily apparent (which is, presumably, why it is included in the excellent Times story): King’s assumption that a person from Saudi Arabia must therefore hate Jews, as well as his patronizing and bizarre admonishment to “go fight ISIS,” which seems to assume that all Muslims everywhere are, by virtue of their religion, accountable for taking on the group.
But offensive as it was, King’s message was largely within the bounds of mainstream US media discourse about Muslims. He was being unusually immodest with his words, and the anecdote is drawing outsize attention because of his fame. But the basic pattern of his exchange with the Saudi gentleman was unfortunately all too familiar: Start by assuming that the Muslim or Arab people in question are probably backward and primitive, shower them with condescending praise if they turn out to behave normally, and tell them that they are personally responsible for stopping violent Muslim extremism — never mind that Muslims themselves are by far the most common victims of this extremism.