Katie Couric Leads SXSW Discussion on What It ‘Means to Be a Muslim Today’

Katie Couric Olympics
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Katie Couric framed her SXSW conversation, “The Muslim Next Door,” with a Dickensian twist on Sunday.

“These are the best of times, these are the worst of times — for Muslims in America,” she said.

As part of her upcoming six-part National Geographic series “America Inside Out with Katie Couric,” the journalist taped a live podcast from the Austin, Tex. event. Alongside guests Wajahat Ali from the New York Times, Brian Goldsmith from Stitcher and Syrian-American rapper and activist Mona Haydar, Couric delved into the current political climate for Muslims living in America, the double standards they face, Trump’s role in their plight and even Louis Farrakhan. (Farrakhan was back in the news again with his Feb. 25 anti-Semitic speech at a Nation of Islam gathering, which inspired the question on how Muslim moderates should respond to him.)

“You should have consistency standards, not double standards,” Ali said. “If you are deeply and morally offended by anti-Semitism, you should be deeply morally offended by black racism, and you should be deeply morally offended by islamophobia.”

Both Couric and her podcast co-host Goldsmith, returned repeatedly to the 2017 Pew research, which found that more than half of Americans say they don’t know any Muslims. This led Couric to ask, “What does it mean to be a Muslim in America today?”

For Haydar, it depended on your social and economic location as well as where you lived.

“For a lot of Muslims in middle America, islamophobia can be lethal,” she said.

Citing how right wing extremist groups have been responsible for nearly three times the number of violent incidents as Muslim extremists since 9/11 led to discussions on how the media frames each violent incident in the United States.

Ali spoke of the tragic shooting in Las Vegas, Nev., noting that the media framed Stephen Paddock as a “lone wolf,” a “quiet man” and “someone with mental problems. If a Muslim had been the one to commit the crime, Ali said, “immediately the framing is what? Terrorist.”

“There is a double standard when it comes to language. Language, much like ideology, much like identity, much like history also gets hijacked. And so ‘lone wolf’ versus ‘terrorist,'” Ali said.

Goldsmith specifically asked how the group through Trump has played a part in the misunderstanding or the hatred.

“I don’t know what to say, he’s an a–hole,” Haydar said.

“President Trump has essentially weaponized what was already there for several decades — this deep fear and mistrust. It was primarily racial anxiety that motivated a lot of Trump’s base. Now it’s mainstream. It’s the double standard that seeps into our media framing — which shapes our perceptions, which shapes the narratives, which shapes domestic and foreign policy, and weaponizes ‘Muslim’ for politicians to gain votes and get elected into office,” Ali said. “When Trump says, ‘I think Islam hates us’ or ‘I’m open to a Muslim registry’ or ‘We need a complete and total ban on Muslims’…these are the mainstream talking points, so, is it terrifying? Yes.”

But Ali added that the mere fact that SXSW was hosting such a discussion was proof that islamophobia was being acknowledged as a real thing, which can hopefully lead to further discourse and acceptance.

“A crisis can represent an opportunity,” Ali said.