Does U.S. tolerate anti-Muslim speech?

The latest flap: Radio-show host says Muslims should be deported, sparking a backlash.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Lu Gronseth listens regularly to WWTC, a conservative talk-radio station in Minneapolis, and even advertises his mortgage-loan business on the station. But when he learned that a nationally syndicated radio show host had told WWTC listeners that Muslims should be deported and made rude comments about what they could do with their religion, Mr. Gronseth pulled his ads from the station.

So have at least two other Minnesota businesses, at the urging of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., as have a handful of national companies, including OfficeMax, JCPenney, Wal-Mart, and AT&T. But the comments by host Michael Savage in October – and previous anti-Muslim speech – have not created the furor that knocked radio icon Don Imus off of MSNBC and CBS Radio after he denigrated a black women's basketball team. That leaves many Muslims-Americans – and non-Muslims like Mr. Gronseth – suspicious that Americans have a double standard when it comes to Islam.

"My sense is that you could say anti-Muslim comments that you could never get away with, saying for example, as anti-Jewish comments," said Stephen Wessler of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence in Portland, Maine. "There's a much greater public level of acceptance of denigrating Muslims."

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Indeed, anti-Muslim feeling in the United States, far from cooling since the immediate aftermath of 9/11, has edged higher, polls suggest.

For example: 35 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, up from 29 percent in March 2002, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The same survey shows a rise in the number of people who say Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence: 45 percent in 2007 versus 25 percent in 2002, although that figure has fluctuated over time.

In the current flap over Mr. Savage (whose real name is Michael Weiner), Oregon-based Talk Radio Network did not return phone calls and e-mails requesting comment. The network syndicates his five-day-a-week program to more than 300 stations.

"I think it was every bit as inflammatory as what [Mr.] Imus said," Gronseth says of the October broadcast. "I would have thought there would have been a much stronger reaction."

Imus, meanwhile, returned to the air Monday with a new radio show, seven months after his derogatory comments about the black basketball players got him in hot water. Imus has apologized for those statements.

While anti-Semitism and racism against African-Americans, Latinos, and other groups still exists, Mr. Wessler and other observers say that well-known figures who say offensive and inflammatory things against these groups are almost certain to suffer consequences.

For example, Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson resigned his post as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York after suggesting in October that black people are less intelligent than other races. ABC executives decided this year not to invite actor Isaiah Washington back to the cast of the hit TV show "Grey's Anatomy" after he allegedly used an antigay slur. When presidential candidate Jesse Jackson failed to distance himself from anti-Semitic remarks made by Louis Farrakhan in 1983, his campaign suffered. Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi resigned as majority leader in 2002 after jokingly suggesting that America would be better off today had Strom Thurmond, the late South Carolina senator, won the presidency in 1948, when he campaigned as a segregationist.

On the other hand, presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani has endured little scrutiny for touting an endorsement this month from TV evangelist and onetime presidential candidate Pat Robertson, who has called Islam "Satanic" and the prophet Muhammad "a wild-eyed fanatic."

Several other radio and TV commentators regularly use similar language against Muslims without consequences, while conservative politicians have, in the view of some observers, sought to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment. Last year, US Rep. Virgil Goode (R) of Virginia sent supporters a letter expressing alarm that Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota would take his ceremonial oath of office using a Koran.

Today's anti-Muslim sentiment is similar to American attitudes toward Japanese-Americans during World War II, says Jack Levin, a hate-speech expert at Northeastern University in Boston.

"You see more hostility towards Muslims now than you did the year after 9/11," says Shahed Amanullah, editor of a Muslim web-zine, AltMuslim.com. He and other observers point to America's failure to capture Osama bin Laden, the continuing difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and news of terrorist plots overseas as reasons why many Americans feel hostile towards Muslims.

At least twice, anti-Muslim comments have gotten media personalities fired. The National Review magazine dropped columnist Ann Coulter shortly after 9/11. In 2005, WMAL in Washington, D.C., fired radio host Michael Graham for calling Islam a "terrorist organization."

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