By Zaid Jilani
[Ed. Note: PPJC will be holding a forum on Jan. 5 on related topics: Muslim Communities Confront Fear Mongering, Hate Speech, Suspicion]
When a CBS News segment featuring a focus group of American Muslims aired Friday, it highlighted their relationship to terrorism, with a particular fixation on how much responsibility they felt to condemn terrorist attacks.
But in interviews with The Intercept, two Muslim Americans who took part in the group complained that CBS edited out parts of the discussion where they raised their own concerns — including critiques of U.S. militarism, surveillance, and entrapment.
They also said that Frank Luntz, the right-wing pollster who led the focus group, silenced members of the group when they criticized discriminatory U.S. government policies.
When Luntz asked the group how they respond to attacks such as the recent one in San Bernardino, New York City activist Amelia Noor-Oshiro told The Intercept she asked Luntz, “Why don’t you ask that to people who actually commit acts of terror? Why don’t you ask that to White America who are responsible for a majority of domestic terror attacks?”
That didn’t make it into the on-air segment.
Sarah Harvard, a New York City journalist who was in the group, wrote alengthy Facebook post after the airing of the CBS segment where she noted that the total time spent filming was around an hour — and that the most telling exchanges were cut out.
For example, Harvard wrote that after Luntz asked the group whether they were Americans or Muslims first, she chose to demonstrate the offensive nature of the question by asking, “Well, are you an American or Jewish first?”
That didn’t make it on the air either.
Harvard wrote that several participants expressed criticisms of U.S. government policy toward Muslims, such as “entrapment cases and surveillance programs” as well as institutional racism. None of that made it into the segment.
Luntz “also decided to stop letting me speak when I started talking about how Muslims should start focusing on combating government policies rather than rushing to condemn terrorism or Islamophobia exclusively,” Harvard wrote. “They also cut out portions of where participants talked about media accountability when discussing Islam.”
“He kept saying how he felt bad that no one listens to Muslims and how he wanted to give us an opportunity to talk to the general population. But how can that happen when we’re manipulatively edited to have us fit their own narrative and agenda?”
When the focus group segment was aired, it was pitched as a response to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigrants.
In an interview with The Intercept, Harvard said that at one point during the interview, she flatly told Luntz that she was “sick and tired of [talking about Trump] when we have other issues besides Trump.”
Another question Harvard says Luntz asked that was not included on air was whether they recognized Israel as a Jewish state — as if that were relevant to the American Muslim experience.
Harvard said Luntz clearly had an agenda. “He just wanted to create this narrative of how Muslim Americans are condemning terrorism.” That is true, of course, but it’s not the whole story.
“He’s trying to put us in a positive light but in a way that makes us feel like second-class citizens,” she said — only giving American Muslims voice to react to terrorism, not to express their own policy views.
Noor-Oshiro said that prior to being picked for the group, she was asked to fill out a survey that included one question about “approximately what percentage of the Muslim population would you think could be radicalized or are already radicalized? … It literally said, ‘Write down a percentage!’” Noor-Oshiro also said Luntz baited her by asking her what “percent of white people” are racist. When she refrained from answering the question, he told her, “This is your chance!”
“I think a lot of people were very appreciative of the fact we even got a voice,” she said. “But I don’t think they understood this voice came with conditions.”
The group’s experience is not unusual for Muslim Americans trying to engage in the public sphere. Muslims are often recruited to combat radicalism, such as with the White House’s Countering Violent Extremisminitiative, but are rarely asked about U.S. policy they may object to, such as crackdowns on civil liberties, political marginalization, and overly aggressive foreign policy.
Luntz told CBS news anchors after the segment aired that the focus group had expressed “very deep frustration that nobody’s listening to them … that they are the focus of all sorts of conversations, many of them negative, and that they don’t have a voice. That they’re being attacked by the leading presidential candidate [sic] and no one is hearing a response. They were so grateful to be gathered in that room, to have a chance to speak out.”
As for his own conduct, Luntz said he was actually “trying to be diplomatic. I did not push as much as I normally do in these sessions, and the reason why is because I wanted the voice to be unedited.”
In a statement that raises questions about his normal style, he explained, “I did not want to ever push them to say things that they did not believe.”
A somewhat longer segment about the focus group appeared on the CBS News website.