Addressing the widespread unrest spurred by a Florida pastor's plan to burn copies of the Koran on the nine-year anniversary of Sept. 11, Muslim Chaplain David Coolidge '01 denounced extremist actions and urged the community to honor religious differences at a press conference hosted by the Rhode Island Council of Churches Sept. 10. The cautious remarks reflected the reactions generated by recent anti-Islam media coverage, contrasting the Muslim community's celebrations marking Ramadan's end that occurred the same day.
"There seem to be a fair amount of people these days who consider themselves heroes of an even greater generation," Coolidge said in his statement. "They have capitalized on the suffering of a nation, turning attention from burning issues to burning books."
In his statement, Coolidge expressed concern that the pastor's anti-Islamic actions recalled nationalistic sentiment in Nazi Germany during World War II. Those who want to burn copies of the Koran "consider Muslims a monolithic threat," he said. "Without the slightest awareness of the irony of their actions, they have adopted many of the same tactics that characterized fascism at its height."
The pastor's threat sent a message to Muslims that they were "no longer human in the eyes of the book burners," Coolidge said. But despite his condemnation, Coolidge shared a message of peace. "On this day," he said, "we stand up to declare our humanity, and to affirm the humanity of all of our sisters and our brothers who do not share our faith."
Coolidge's statements provide a backdrop for the Muslim community's reaction to publicized anti-Islam sentiment. "It's been very interesting to see the responses," said Rahil Rojiani '13, who is on the board of the Muslim Students' Association. "It's just interesting to see that there is a wide variety of opinions."
Rojiani said any event that involves the Muslim community increases dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. "We are seeing a lot more positive opinions" toward members of the Muslim community, he said. "I'm responsive more to the issues" than to the media coverage, he said.
Last week's events have called into question the media's role in shaping public perceptions, said Nancy Khalek, assistant professor of religious studies. She said the fact that coverage of the pastor's demonstration snowballed so quickly is a testament to fragmentation of the media. The most recent coverage followed months of controversial reporting sparked by plans to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero.
"There does seem to be a rise in Islamophobia," Khalek said. "It really is generating a lot of instability and social insecurity."
The fragmentation of the media and the increased influence of bloggers has led to a disproportionately large impact on the public's perception of controversial news, Khalek said, adding that the media tends to incite extremism "on either end" of a conflict.
But whether the anti-Islam sentiment is merely reported by news outlets or harnessed by the media to generate ratings is an important distinction, Khalek said. "Our culture has become so oversimplified," she said. "I think the way to get rid of any sort of prejudice is education."