Terrorism. Islamic terrorism. Islamism. Jihadism. ISIS. Al-Qaeda. AQAP. Muhammad. Or just Islam. It is the top story in the news.
In order to fully inform us, CNN, Fox News and the like feed us a long line of “terrorism experts.” Sometimes they even present three or four of them at once, creating an “expert roundtable.” There’s one problem, though. These “experts” are getting it wrong. They’re misstating the facts, they’re wrongly predicting things, and sometimes they are just simply lying. This is not “expert” behavior, if you ask me.
One of these “experts” is Paul Cruickshank. Paul has written numerous books and articles on al-Qaeda, and he has produced a number of “terrorism specials” for cable news outlets. He calls himself “CNN’s Terrorism Analyst.” Paul is obsessed with my people. Well, to be specific, he is obsessed with the crazy lunatics amongst my people. But he doesn’t take too many measures to state that distinction.
Paul has no advanced degree in Islamic Studies, Middle East Studies, or any related field. He was never a terrorist, at least not an Islamic one. Al-Qaeda started out as a hobby for him, parlaying itself into a profession in this world where we seemingly need “experts” like Paul. When my cousin was younger, he loved dinosaurs. He knew all of their names. He read books about them. He even wrote papers about them. When he grew up, however, he didn’t study paleontology. He went to law school. If Paul is a terrorism expert, my cousin is a dinosaur expert. I guess if dinosaurs come back one day, my cousin will be on CNN.
But the main issue with Paul is that he is not that great at being right. When Norway was the site of a bombing and shooting spree that killed 77 people in 2011, Paul took to CNN right away:
“Norway has been in al Qaeda’s crosshairs for quite some time.” “The carnage recalls the scenes in 1998 of the U.S. African embassies that were targeted by al Qaeda.” “It bears all the hallmarks of the al Qaeda terrorist organization at the moment.” “The working assumption right now is that it probably is something al-Qaeda-inspired, some jihadist terrorism against Norway.”
Chilling, right? The only problem is that Paul was totally wrong. The criminal in this case was Anders Brevik, a Christian fundamentalist and white nationalist. This inconvenient fact was discovered when he was arrested at the scene of the crime several hours after the massacre. When it became clear that Paul was wrong, he simply disappeared from our TV screens. He didn’t apologize. He was just gone.
Paul Cruickshank is basically a terrorism meteorologist. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but no one really cares.
And guess what else? Other experts didn’t replace Paul. There was no one explaining to us what it was about Christianity or Christian society that drove Brevik to such action. In other words, no Islam present = no experts necessary. I guess we are more expert-worthy than everyone else.
Another one of these “experts” is Bob Baer. Bob is an author and former CIA officer who was primarily assigned to the Middle East. He was a clandestine officer in many Muslim-majority countries. He helped orchestrate an assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein in the mid-1990s. As a result of all of this, he possesses “expertise” on my people.
He is also, according to himself, “fluent in Arabic.” Except he’s not.
On Tuesday, January 13, 2015, Bob appeared on CNN with Wolf Blitzer. He was alongside James Reese (another “expert”) and our aforementioned friend Paul. A new video of the Paris attackers had been released and Bob had this to say:
“These people have fired weapons before… They are not afraid. And, also, the fact that they were prepared for martyrdom is important. ‘La ilaha illa allah’ is a statement that is ‘I’m ready to die for Allah.’ And this makes these people particularly dangerous.”
Chilling, right? The only problem is that Bob was totally wrong. “La ilaha illa allah” doesn’t mean “I’m ready to die for Allah.” I know this because I speak Arabic as a first language. And I read and write it. And I am an Arab. Oh, and I know how to use Google.
“La ilaha illa allah” means “There is no god but God.” See, “Allah” just means “God,” with a capital “G,” as in “the one God,” as in the Abrahamic monotheistic deity that Christians and Jews worship as well. “La ilaha illa allah” doesn’t contain the words “I will die,” or “I will,” or “I”, or “will,” or, most importantly, “die.”
It is like saying, “Oh my God,” or “All praise be to God,” or “God is great.” Was it used by these French Muslim criminals? Sure. But it is also used in many different contexts.
When you’re praying: “La ilaha illa allah.”
When your daughter is born: “La ilaha illa allah.”
When your mother passes on: “La ilaha illa allah.”
When your kid gets straight A’s: “La ilaha illa allah.”
When the weather on your wedding day is perfect: “La ilaha illa allah.”
When you swerve away from an accident at the last second: “La ilaha illa allah.”
When you see a woman who you wish would be your wife: “La ilaha illa allah.”
“La ilaha illa allah” is very versatile. But that doesn’t concern Bob. Bob said what he said because he knows what he knows. And what he knows contains no context about my culture or my people.
Of course, no one on CNN’s “panel” knew enough to correct him. Despite his obvious misstatement, neither Bob nor CNN has apologized for proclaiming that an often-used Arabic saying means something it so obviously does not. While many apologies are expected from Muslims, it seems that they are due none.
From his spying days, I’m sure Bob learned how to say many things in Arabic, like “Hello,” and “Hello, what is your name?” and “Hello, are you a terrorist?” But he’s about as fluent in Arabic as I am in Spanish, and my knowledge of Spanish comes entirely from my love of Mexican food and the weather presenters on Univision.
And then there’s my favorite “expert,” Brigitte Gabriel. I cannot say that Brigitte is obsessed with my people, because she actually is one of my people. She is Lebanese-born, Christian, and a frequent guest on Fox News. In fact, she is their go-to personality for any and all subjects related to Arabs and Islam.
On a January 13, 2015 episode of something on Fox News, Brigitte told the audience:
“President Obama has systematically, since he came into office, avoided calling anything relating to Islam and terrorism together. President Obama is on a mission to protect the image of Islam, because he believes that protecting the image of Islam is very important to him, because he was born into the Muslim faith, raised by a devout Muslim father, in an Islamic country, whom he idealized, and he feels he does not want to give a bad image to Islam. And he’s more concerned about protecting the image of Islam than he is about protecting the people of the United States.”
Chilling, right? The only problem was that Brigitte was totally wrong. And while Paul and Bob might just be dumb, Brigitte is lying. First of all, President Obama frequently uses the word “terrorism” when describing Islamic groups. In fact, he kind of overdoes it, almost as if some people still think he is a Muslim. And while many of us were optimistically holding out hope that he might be, we are now more than convinced that he is not. In fact, in a press conference today with British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama said “terrorism” so many times that it might have aroused Paul, Bob, and Brigitte. Much to Brigitte’s horror, however, he didn’t equate all of Islam with terrorism, but that might just be because he is rational, and not because he is a secret Muslim.
Oh, and Obama’s father was an atheist, according to the president, but he could be lying. Oh, and he wasn’t raised by his father, according to the president, but he could be lying. Oh, and he only spent four years of his childhood in a Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, where he lived with his mother and stepfather (not his atheist father). The rest of his childhood was spent being raised in America by white Christians from Kansas, according to the president, but he could be lying. Oh, and by the way, Indonesians aren’t the most radical or fundamentalist group of people. They actually elected a female Muslim president. But that’s according to Indonesians, and they could all be lying too.
Brigitte engages in the worst type of prejudice, the type that says, “Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about. I’m an insider.” According to her, she says “what many in America are thinking, but afraid to say out loud, for fear of being labeled a racist, bigot, Islamophobic, or intolerant.” Well, as it turns out, it is not an unfounded fear. What she says is, in fact, racist, bigoted, Islamophobic, and intolerant. And she is paid handsomely for it. Her entire career is based not on any sort of scholarly research or educational background (according to Wikipedia, she is no more than a high school graduate) but rather on marketing sweeping generalizations and lies about 20% of the world’s population. And we live in a country where she in high demand.
Brigitte is the used car salesman of “terrorism experts.” She peddles in lies. Lucky for her, Muslims and Arabs are the last group of people you can still lie about without any professional repercussions.
So, after all of that, I only have one question: Where do I sign up? I think I can outdo this current crop. I have a master’s degree in Middle East Studies and a law degree. I speak Arabic fluently (for real). I understand Arab culture. I have never spied on Arabs, but I have lived with them my whole life. In fact, I live in Dearborn, Michigan, the Arab American Disneyland. Like Barack Obama, I have a Muslim parent. Lucky for me, she has been around my whole life, so I have real hands-on experience with Muslims. I have never been a terrorist, but law enforcement has mistaken me for one a few times. Finally, I can tell a joke every now and then to lighten the whole “terrorism” mood.
I think I have what it takes. CNN, I am available at your leisure. Fox… ok, you too. My people are awaiting your call.
* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."