Muslim bashing seemingly in vogue

Muslim bashing seemingly in vogue
Vitamin flier portraying Sen. Durbin in headwear now a sign of the times

By Adam Jadhav

St Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 January 2006

What in the world do dietary supplements have to do with turbans and terrorism?

That political head-scratcher confronted at least some vitamin buyers around the nation who found a flier with their mail-order nutrients carrying the bold headline, “Get a Turban for Durbin!”

An image shows Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, wearing the headwrap, common in parts of the Middle East and south Asia and sacred religious garb in some faiths, including the entire Sikh religion.

The flier’s kicker: “Keep Congressional Terrorists At Bay.” The flier was distributed last month by a pro-vitamin and supplement group.

Critics say the flier is yet another example of Muslim bashing. The designer of the flier, who has since pulled it, admits that it was over the line but said he put it out to draw attention to what he thinks is improper action by Durbin.

Dietary supplement makers attack Durbin because he wants regulation requiring them to report serious side effects of their products. The proposals are driven in part by deaths related to ephedra, the popular stimulant and diet pill pulled from the market in 2004.

Vitamin and supplement makers oppose the idea, saying that mere coincidence – someone having a heart attack while taking Vitamin C – would scare off consumers and cripple sales. Attacks on Durbin have been led by the Melville, N.Y.-based Nutritional Health Alliance, which published the “Turban” handout.

Durbin decries the flier as offensive and a political cheap shot. The 61-year-old senator says he doesn’t want to harm the industry and admits to taking a daily regimen of pills himself – fish oil, a multivitamin, a B complex, an antioxidant and half an aspirin.

“They’re throwing around this kind of reckless rhetoric,” Durbin said. “The rhyme makes the story here.”

Even Jerry Kessler, director of the Nutritional Health Alliance, chief executive officer of N.Y.-based Natural Organics and designer of the circular, said it was a purely political response to regulations proposed by Durbin. He also agreed the flier was “not fair” and “in bad taste.”

“Desperate times require desperate actions,” Kessler said. “I’m certainly going to do what’s necessary to call attention to our cause. If I sound to you like a hate-monger, then I can’t help it.”

More than a million copies of the flier were sent to vitamin and supplement buyers, and Kessler said he’s responded personally to phone calls and letters from people he has offended. Now, a new flier – a newsletter making specific arguments against Durbin’s proposals – has been substituted in mailings.

Experts and scholars say the flier is a sign of the times: Political vitriol has always pushed the envelope, and it seems anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice today is almost vogue.

“Muslims are an easy target unfortunately in our culture,” said Nancy Snow, adjunct professor of political communication at the University of Southern California. “It’s become sort of a hybrid enemy image, like it or not. We may say we have no issue with Islam, but we do fear terrorists and we do see opponents that are from the Middle East.”

Civic and political groups, including the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have condemned the flier but say they’re not entirely surprised.

“Our friends in the Jewish communities or the black communities or the Latino communities have fought this kind of defamation for years,” said Kareem Shora, director of the legal department of the Washington-based antidiscrimination committee. “Now it’s our turn.”

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and cryptic messages of extremist groups pledging allegiance to a radical version of Islam, there’s at least some perception that the religion and violence go hand in hand.

For example, a magazine ad ran this fall showing the CV-22 Osprey – a product of Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter – and members of the armed forces descending by rope from a plane onto a mosque surrounded by smoke and fire. Boeing officials quickly apologized, saying they never approved the ad.

Last month, a group critical of North Carolina’s licensing of drivers launched a billboard campaign showing a person dressed in a kaffiyeh — the traditional male headdress in some Arab countries – and holding a hand grenade. The signs read: “Don’t License Terrorists, North Carolina.”

That the ads were ever conceived is just one more hint at a subtle trend, scholars say.

“The word ‘ayatollah’ has entered our American lexicon – when you label someone an ayatollah you label someone intolerant or cruel,” said Kenneth Cuno, director of the Program in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois. “The word ‘jihad’ – if you don’t like what I’m doing, you might say I’m waging a jihad against X, Y or Z.

“This association with Islam and terrorism, it’s part of the same phenomenon,” Cuno added.

Though some racist images – the drunk Irishman or the rich Jew – are largely understood to be wrong and hurtful, it appears Muslims and Arabs, in today’s world, aren’t yet off-limits.

“There is this feeling that it’s somewhat of an open season on Muslims,” said Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Washington. “If you replace Islam and drop in any other religion and said, ‘Blank is a terrorist religion,’ it would never be tolerated.”