By Donald L. Losman
Apr 25, 2017
A radically new media phenomenon emerged almost immediately after President Trump first initiated his 90-day travel ban on residents of seven countries. Both print media and television name each designated country, followed by the expression "Muslim- majority countries" as a descriptor. Mimicking our media, Google has almost endless references to "Muslim-majority" states. In American media, however, labelling countries by religion has been rare. Indeed, it would have been deemed an affront.
Consider first how such practice might have affected past reporting. For example, after some tough exchanges between presidents, our media did not report American tensions with Mexico, "a Catholic-majority country." In 2008, when our ambassador was evicted from Bolivia, no mention was made of that country's religious majority. When President Obama made overtures to Havana, references to the warming relations with Cuba never included a "Catholic-majority" label. And when the U.S. failed to veto a U.N. measure against Israel, it was not reported to be as "a Jewish-majority" state.
Likewise, no descriptors of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) ever characterized Iran as a Muslim-majority country—it was just a deal with Iran. And despite almost unending tensions with Kim Jong-Un, our media have never mentioned North Korea's religion (or lack thereof — it is officially a secular state). In October, 2016, when U.S. sanctions against Myanmar were eased, the media did not label it as a Buddhism-majority country. And what about the tidal wave of coverage on Brexit? Reports on the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the economic union did not include a religious characterization. Indeed, prior to Trump's first travel ban, any such religious references would not only seem silly, but also probably deemed offensive and racist. But today the 'Muslim-majority' label attaches to every media travel ban utterance.
Surprisingly, this anomaly has raised few questions. From a benign perspective, perhaps such characterization has merely been a media effort at further enlightening the public. But if compelled to use this descriptor, how difficult would it have been for NBC's Lester Holt and others to follow with the fact that the world's five largest Muslim-majority states—Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Egypt—were not included on the travel ban list?
And neither were Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco, ranking seventh through ninth in Muslim-majority status. Alternatively, the media could have informed us that there are about 50 Muslim-majority countries, only seven of which were included in the travel ban. It also could have noted that these seven constitute only about 12 percent of the global Muslim population. And a minimal investigation would have uncovered that a non-Muslim-majority country, India, had none of its 176 million Muslims banned, a number which is very close to the combined total population within the new, six-country travel ban.
Surely, if a religious majority label was employed to be enlightening, statements such as these would be quite clarifying. Importantly, any of them would change the flavour of discussion from one of a hateful U.S. religious jihad to the issue of why people from some Muslim countries were banned, but the majority were not.
So why this new practice, apparently reserved for one faith only? In part this is media sensationalism. Some is just copy-cat reporting. But there is also little doubt that in the process, it sweeps away any serious examination of a painful security issue. Purposeful smearing should be restricted to the editorial pages, not portrayed as news. The American public deserves better.
Donald L. Losman, PhD, teaches Political Economy of the Middle East at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.