Call it Katie Couric’s “Sarah Palin Moment.”
As pretty much everyone knows by now, during a wrap-up of the events of 2010, CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric expressed concern about what she felt was “seething hatred” she claims faces Muslims in America.“ Her solution? “Maybe we need a Muslim version of ’The Cosby Show,’” Couric suggested. “I know that sounds crazy. But ‘The Cosby Show’ did so much to change attitudes about African Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand.” That will change, proposed Couric, “if they [Muslims] became part of the popular culture.”
Popular culture? Like Kareem Abdul-Jabaar? Like Mohammed Ali? Like Ahmad Rashad? Memet Oz, perhaps, named among both Esquire’s and Time’s “Most Influential” lists? How about Ice Cube, perhaps, or Mike Tyson, or Jermaine Jackson, or Snoop Dogg – all Muslims?
I also wonder what, exactly, “The Cosby Show” did to “change attitudes” in America. Were blacks not part of the popular culture before the “Cosby Show”? Was “The Jeffersons” meaningless? Were Diana Ross and the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder white? For that matter – wasn’t Bill Cosby part of the popular culture long before the show that bore his name?
The irony, of course, is that the so-called “Muslim hate” in America is itself a fiction. FBI reports show that while there are twice as many Jews as Muslims in the US, nearly ten times as many Jews as Muslims were the targets of hate crimes in 2009. Ten times. Where is Ms. Couric on this? Why isn’t she suggesting a Jewish Cosby show?
Moreover, the idea that the Cosby Show itself made a real difference is questionable, at best. While New Yorkers have embraced blacks, America has not – and as a journalist, she should know that. Or has she forgotten the thousands of people who revolted against the idea of a black president? Has she forgotten the cries of those who outwardly stated they “will never vote for a black man”?
But okay. Let’s say that there’s a relationship here: create a fictional sit-com about a fictitious Muslim family living in America, and presumably it will change the way people think about Muslims – even as, in reality, Muslims like the American Faisal Shahzad attempt to bomb Times Square; or like the Pakistani-American Farooque Ahmed, plan mass bombings of Washington Metrorail stations; or like Nidal Malik Hasan, massacre their colleagues and friends in a mass jihadist shootout.
But okay: let’s just say that fiction can override these facts. How do you put such a show together?
It’s one thing, of course, when you’re dealing with race. Blacks have continually attacked Cosby – and his eponymous TV show – contending that he is really a white man in a black man’s skin. But suppose you create a show about a Muslim American family in which the 15-year-old daughter dates a non-Muslim boy, and the family has no complaints. There are indeed many such Muslim families in the USA. But how would Muslim extremists – in America and abroad – approach that? Answer: they would say “these aren’t Muslims.” (And then threaten to kill the show’s producers. Remember “South Park”?)
And there the American people would have to decide: are they, or aren’t they? It’s one thing for someone to say Bill Cosby isn’t black. Look at him, and you can decide that for yourself. But if a Muslim says another Muslim isn’t Muslim, how can a non-Muslim decide that? When a fictional Muslim family says this behavior is acceptable in Islam, but a real Muslim family slaughters their daughter for the same behavior, does Couric think the American public is going to believe the fictional one is real? Does she think that it will override America’s horror at the honor killings that in fact are taking place – the real, live, murders of young girls by their mothers and fathers and siblings simply because they choose to live a normal, free life? Does she think that it will make those killings disappear? Does she think we should ignore them? Why, in fact, does she – as a woman and a reporter – not concern herself with exposing, rather than denying and excusing, such honor killings, and using her enormous influence to put an end to them?
What American Muslims need, in fact, is not a “Bill Cosby” show. What they need is their own Bill Cosby: someone of their own community who will stand up to what is wrong within it, who will point to the failings and demand progress and change. Here, for those who need reminding, are some passages from Cosby’s own famous so-called “Pound Cake speech,” delivered on the 5oth anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education:
“Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, ‘The cops shouldn't have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”
“Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn't that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn't it a sign of something when she's got her dress all the way up to the crack...and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body? What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans, they don't know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail.”
“We've got to hit the streets, ladies and gentlemen…. I'm saying, look at the Black Muslims. There are Black Muslims standing on the street corners and they say so forth and so on, and we're laughing at them because they have bean pies and all that, but you don't read ‘Black Muslim gunned down while chastising drug dealer.’ You don't read that. They don't shoot down Black Muslims. You understand me. Muslims tell you to get out of the neighborhood. When you want to clear your neighborhood out, first thing you do is go get the Black Muslims, bean pies and all (laughter). And your neighborhood is then clear. The police can't do it.”
Unsurprisingly, the speech elicited a slew of criticism from all corners of the country, from various political interests across America. In response, the comedian issued the following statement: “"I feel that I can no longer remain silent,” he asserted. “If I have to make a choice between keeping quiet so that conservative media does not speak negatively, or ringing the bell to galvanize those who want change in the lower economic community, then I choose to be a bell ringer."
This, Ms. Couric -- this, most of all -- is why it isn’t a Muslim version of Cosby’s make-believe Americans need now. What America needs most is a Muslim version of his courage and his truth.