Farah Pandith, adjunct senior fellow at CFR, discusses the Israel-Hamas war and its implications for Israeli and Palestinian communities in the United States. Niraj Warikoo, reporter at the Detroit Free Press, discusses his experience reporting on community responses to the Israel-Hamas war and best practices for journalists covering the subject for local audiences. The host for the webinar is Carla Anne Robbins, senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focused on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine and, as always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover and national and international dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices.
We’re delighted to have nearly forty participants from twenty-four states and U.S. territories with us today. Thank you for taking the time to join us for this discussion, which is on the record, and the video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists.
We’re pleased to have a distinguished panel with us today to discuss U.S. community response to the Israeli-Hamas war. I will give you highlights of bios.
Farah Pandith is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR, foreign policy strategist, and former diplomat. She was a political appointee in the George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations, and was appointed as the first special representative to Muslim communities. Ms. Pandith served on the Homeland Security Advisory Council where she chaired a subcommittee on countering violent extremism.
Niraj Warikoo is a reporter for the Detroit Free Press where he writes primarily about immigration and religion. In recent years he has won several first place Society of Professional Journalists of Detroit awards including in 2019 for his work covering immigration, and for the past two decades he’s written about Michigan’s diverse faith communities from evangelicals to Orthodox Christians to Jewish denominations as well as covered Arab-American and Muslim-American issues.
And last but not least, our host Carla Anne Robbins, who is a senior fellow at CFR and co-host of CFR podcast The World Next Week. She also serves as a faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, and previously she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal.
So welcome Farah, Niraj, and Carla for being with us and I’m going to turn it now over to Carla to have the opening dialogue and then we are going to look to all of you for your questions and comments.
ROBBINS: Thanks, Irina, and thank you, Farah and Niraj, and thank you to everybody who is here. I know what journalism is like and how hard it is to carve out a little bit of time. But this is such an incredibly important conversation to have and one that we really could have a little bit of light in addition to all the heat of what’s going on right now.
So, Farah, can we start with you and talk about the scale of the problem of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, what was known pre-October 7, and whether and how it has changed since October 7 in this country. You did this very good hosting recently for CFR and you noted that the FBI had cited 2022 as the worst year of hate-fueled violence in the country since it began tracking thirty years before that and over the years, you know, I think it said there were 11,634 hate crime incidents in 2022. What was driving it then? We’ve certainly seen some really remarkably horrible things that have happened since October 7, these three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot in Vermont, one of whom was paralyzed. We saw this terrible murder in Joliet, Illinois, of the six-year-old boy. Saw a Muslim community member in Chapel Hill who was assaulted by an assailant. We’ve seen Jewish students assaulted on campuses. This is a really bad time. Is this just consistent with the general polarization in the country or is there something new happening since October 7?
PANDITH: Carla, the scale of this problem is very severe. I mean, hate has been on the rise since 9/11. We have been really lazy on hate as we’ve looked at what’s been happening to communities as diverse as Sikh communities in America, Muslim communities, Jewish communities. We kind of are shrugging.
These numbers have been escalating ever since 9/11 and that—the reasoning for that is there’s been a sophistication in how people who hate hate, how they display that hate and bias. Not to speak of the violence that comes from hate but also the feeling. The antibodies that have been put into the system aren’t ripe and ready enough to be able to deal with what we have seen.
So it is a very sobering reality that over the course of two decades since 9/11 we are seeing this in America. We’re seeing this in other parts of the world. So that’s one piece of this.
Then you’re asking a separate question which is, you know, in the last few years, and I would say to you that there’s been a distinct change from the time Obama left office to today and that’s both political. There are reasons, from the Trump administration where the escalation of us versus them and the United States has been so important to the conversation we’re having. It’s laid the foundation for what’s acceptable and how people have gone after communities that look different from themselves.
But what you’re—what we’re seeing today in terms of the rise of anti-Semitism and the rise of anti-Muslim hate is unprecedented and the data that you just stated from the FBI in 2022, what you’re seeing in 2023, the data that we have since October 7 in terms of anti-Semitism, in terms of anti-Muslim hate, is really, really serious and we don’t see a de-escalation of that happening.
The reason why is multiple. Not only because basically, you know, we have an ecosystem that is open to this kind of thing. We don’t have enough roadblocks in the system to actually prevent it in the offline space.
In the online space America hasn’t done enough to make sure that social media companies’ platforms have worked on the issue of fighting anti-Semitism, of fighting anti-Muslim hate, other types of hate as well. The algorithms that we know that are moving people in a particular direction and radicalizing them, the way in which they are curating rage and hate, is really important to the conversation we’re having.
And then, finally, there’s also a component here in terms of a community response, which is not just government has to be in this fight. It also has to be local communities that have been given the agency to be able to go out there and do what we know needs to be done to prevent that rise of us versus them.
So you have a whole host of things that have gone on for the last couple of decades but then on the immediate side not enough action to fight hate at the local and national level.
ROBBINS: So and you’ve raised lots of questions, which we will get back to on that. But can we talk just a little bit about where a reporter would find data? I mean, I spent a little bit of time looking at the FBI stats and getting incredibly frustrated because it’s very hard to slice and dice them.
You know, President Biden talked about the rise of attack—you know, anti-Semitic attacks but I couldn’t find comparative attacks on Muslims from ’21 to ’22. Is there a place in which the stats are kept? I know that they’re also quite weak because they’re dependent on reporting from different communities—from states and from local communities.
If you want to do reporting on this either looking at your own state or your own community or you want to do federal—looking at the federal reporting, where would you go if you wanted to research this to find stats that you consider reasonably reliable?
PANDITH: Yeah, and I think it’s important that—what you just said about the self-reporting, which is part of the conditioning that we have to understand in terms of what we hear and what we report.
But there are a couple of places that I go, and I have to say to those journalists who are listening today that I am affiliated with both of these places so I don’t say this as an objective observer.
But the Anti-Defamation League has outstanding statistics on anti-Semitism. In addition to that, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue is also a place that I go to get stats. They have just issued a terrific report on anti-Muslim hate that they’ve seen on Twitter. You know, the percentage was 422 percent increase since October 7. That was only a couple of weeks ago so things are likely to be just slightly different now. But those are two places.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, of course, is another place that that I go as well. But there are places where on the local side that we can look to and I would be—I would urge those who are trying to get a realistic picture to not just look at data that is coming in but also to measure it by the changes in sentiment and emotion that is happening within a community, and we don’t usually talk about that but that actually adds to the way in which these minority communities feel day to day in terms of their safety, in terms of who they are and how they express their identity.
ROBBINS: So, Niraj, let’s talk about what you’re seeing on the ground in Detroit. Michigan, obviously, has a large Arab-American community. There’s a lot of Democrats who are wringing their hands right now about what that’s going to mean for Michigan as what was seen as reliably in Biden—you know, we can talk about the politics of that later.
What are you seeing and where do you go for data, for information? I mean, anecdotally it’s, obviously, incredibly important but how do you do reliable reporting generally beyond the on-the-ground anecdotal reporting?
WARIKOO: Well, yes. The past couple of months have been an emotional and tense time for many in metro Detroit. Michigan has the highest concentration of residents of Middle Eastern descent. In terms of numbers California is number one but, obviously, it’s a much larger state. But if you look at it in terms of percentage Michigan is number one. The largest county here, Wayne County, which includes Detroit and its suburbs, also has the highest concentration of Middle Eastern residents.
The U.S. census now uses the term MENA, which is an acronym for Middle Eastern and North African instead of Arab. So the MENA category in addition to Arabs includes Iranians as well as Israelis and groups such as Chaldeans, Iraqi Catholics.
One thing that’s interesting about Michigan is that its Arab-American and Middle Eastern communities are quite diverse. People oftentimes make assumptions about our state and its Middle Eastern population but if you look at the most recent data, which was released in September, the largest group in the Arab-American and Middle Eastern communities are now Iraqi Americans and out of the Iraqi-American community a majority of those are Chaldean or are Iraqi Catholics and there are other Iraqi Christian groups called Assyrians and Syriacs.
So they’re a big part of the community now and some of them have differing views from what you may hear, say, in Dearborn’s Arab-American community. In addition to that there’s a sizable non-Arab Muslim community. The African-American Muslim community has been part of Detroit for more than a hundred years. The Nation of Islam started in Detroit. Malcolm X grew up in Michigan and his nickname was Detroit Red because he lived in Detroit and he had a reddish tint in his hair.
So that’s also another part, and then there’s other non-Arab Muslims in the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian community. The Bangladeshi community has gotten really big in recent years. Half of the city council in the city of Hamtramck, which is a city that borders Detroit, are immigrants from Bangladesh so three out of six are Bangladeshi-American Muslims. There were five candidates running for city council in Warren, which is a large city north of Detroit. They didn’t win this time but they played a factor in making endorsements.
So it’s a very diverse community with different views. But on the Palestinian issue over the past few months I can say this. I’ve seen more pro-Palestinian protests over these past two months than at any time over the past twenty-five years, and it’s at least twenty-five years.
So it has caused an outpouring of emotion. Just over the past week you’re seeing protests in Detroit, in Dearborn and Hamtramck, even in Ferndale, which is a suburb north of Detroit. Shaun King, who is a BLM activist, came to Dearborn and he spoke at a rally just last week. The mayor of Dearborn also spoke at that event and he gave some strong remarks saying that we’re with the people of Gaza.
We now have three mayors in metro Detroit who are of Arab descent and all Muslim—Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, and Hamtramck. Dearborn is now about 55 percent Arab American, Dearborn Heights is 39 percent, and Hamtramck is also 39 percent. The 39 percent figure in Hamtramck does not include its Bangladeshi-American community.
So it’s been playing out in a number of ways and then politically also it’s been a tense time for many elected officials because they’re struggling to deal with the concerns of the Arab-American community as well as the Jewish communities and also the various Christian communities.
Governor Whitmer had to cancel a speaking event in Dearborn just a few weeks ago because Arab Americans were planning to protest her presence there because of her strong support for Israel. She was due to speak at a health clinic in Detroit that’s run by Muslims called the HUDA clinic and she backed out at the last second because of the protests that were planned.
And a couple of days after Hamas attacked on October 7 there was a big pro-Israel rally in a suburb north of Detroit at an historic synagogue, Congregation Shaarey Zedek. That attracted a number of the leading Democratic politicians in Michigan. Governor Whitmer was there. She spoke strongly in favor of Israel. U.S. Senator Gary Peters, a couple of Congress—members of Congress—Haley Stevens, Shri Thanedar—the state attorney general.
So it was a big showing of support for Israel among Democrats, and so that led to a lot of concern and at times anger in the Arab-American community. They felt that they had been supporting the Democrats and they felt in a sense kind of betrayed and now there’s this what they call abandon Biden movement in metro Detroit.
They just held a press conference on Saturday. This was their second abandon Biden press conference. So we’ll see how that plays out.
One thing I would stress, though, that you’re not seeing in some of the national media outlets the backlash against the Democrats and against the liberal point of view was occurring before October 7.
Some of it had to do with social issues. There was a huge concern about LGBTQ books in Dearborn schools and also the display of the LGBTQ flag on public property in Hamtramck. So earlier this year before October 7 former General Flynn—Michael Flynn—came to Hamtramck to speak with Muslims at a town hall.
He was the former NSA—national security adviser—under Trump. So that movement was already there and I think it may have been accelerated after October 7. But we’ll see how it plays out. You know, the elections are still another year.
But I can say one year ago there was already a marked decrease in heavily Muslim precincts in Dearborn against Democrats. For example, in one area—in one precinct in Dearborn that’s more than 90 percent Muslim Governor Whitmer’s support dropped by forty points. It went from about 90 percent to about 50 percent, so—93 percent, exactly, to 53 percent. So that’s just one example.
But she did win the city of Dearborn overall, so I would—(inaudible)—as well. But we’ll see how it plays out. That’s another issue that’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
ROBBINS: So I’m enough of a political junkie that I ate up absolutely everything you said. If you’re reporting on—and it is a year out and there will be all sorts of people reminding people about the Muslim ban and, you know, are you really going to vote for Trump and all that but that’s a conversation for another day.
How do you—given the challenge of using federal stats that are so reliant on local reporting and given the fact that the definition of hate crime is a pretty rigid definition, and as we’ve seen on this whole debate about who gets charged with a hate crime and all that, how are you tracking what’s actually happening on the ground, whether they are Islamophobic attacks or threats, anti-Semitic attacks or threats?
How are you tracking that? What are your sources and, you know, some of this, obviously, is more rumor than fact and some of it is, you know, very serious. So how are you as a reporter paying attention to this and getting it right?
WARIKOO: Yeah, that’s an important question. I agree with what you’re saying about the FBI’s data. That’s been an issue because a lot of the police agencies are not reporting. Some cases they’re not reporting any data to the FBI and so you can’t rely on them solely for hate crimes.
But it can be helpful in giving you some year to year and trends in that. You know, I did a story a few years ago about the increase in hate crimes in Michigan. But you have to be careful. In terms of the on-the-ground reporting, you know, I’m in touch constantly with Arab-American and Jewish and Muslim groups and they fill me in.
There have been a couple of attacks on synagogues before October 7. There was a Dearborn man who drove up to a synagogue and started yelling at children about Israel. That was one year ago. And then there was another case where a woman with pro-Russia views attacked a synagogue. She also attacked a Scientology center so it’s unclear what was motivating her.
But by and large, though, I will say the situation is largely peaceful in metro Detroit. You know, there have been no, like, very serious incidents or incidents over the years. Part of it may be geographic. The communities are—metro Detroit is a very spread out area so they’re not sitting side by side.
But there are good—they do maintain good relations. For example, the Dearborn Police Department whose new chief happens to be Muslim and of Arab descent held an interfaith forum just a few weeks ago including a Jewish leader. He had Jewish, Christian, and Muslims at the event.
So despite the heated rhetoric at times on different policy views there is an effort to promote dialogue and, you know, there are other interfaith forums that have taken place. So basically to answer your question the data—I try to rely on listening to people what they’re saying.
The ADL—the Michigan chapter—does a good job in documenting the anti-Semitic incidents. There are some Muslim groups also documented. I sometimes rely on CAIR for their data so it kind of—
WARIKOO: Exactly. Council on American-Islamic Relations. And there are some other advocacy groups. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Acronym is ADC. They also are helpful with data. I’ve worked with them for years.
And so, yeah, there are various ways but, yeah, it can be hard to get. Another issue with the FBI, I would say, is this and this is before October 7. There’s a concern in some—in the Jewish community and Muslim communities that the FBI isn’t aggressive enough on dealing with hate crimes, that they kind of dismiss it, and I’ve had those conversations myself with FBI agents where they will tell me—they say, well, it’s a very high bar to charge someone with hate and, you know, we have to fit all these things to classify as a hate crime, and sometimes you would get the sense that they weren’t taking it seriously.
In fact, a synagogue in metro Detroit held a forum on this very topic a few years ago where they were pressing the FBI, you know, how can we make sure that you take these cases seriously. So it’s not only an issue of data. It’s also an issue of will these cases be prosecuted, and the attorney general in the state Dana Nessel has been aggressive on that. She has been outspoken saying that we will take hate crimes seriously. But on the federal level I think some say there needs to be more concern.
ROBBINS: So, Farah, you devoted a considerable amount of your career to trying to quell violent extremism and you raised questions about social media and as well as the responsibility of communities.
Given how polarized the country is and given what we’re seeing post October 7, where does the responsibility lie? Is this a responsibility at a federal level? Is this a responsibility at a state or community level? Is this—and the question probably is all of the above.
But is this a responsibility from civil society and—or maybe the easiest way to answer this is where have you seen some effective efforts to try to promote more light than heat?
PANDITH: Carla, one of the things—if I could just pick up on your last conversation to just poke at one thing. It is really important that when we talk about the impact of hate we aren’t putting categories together that are deliberately exclusionary to those people who might look Muslim, that might look Arab.
So you are seeing a definite change in what it feels like to be an American who is Sikh, for example. So there are people for whom the impact of all of these global events impact the diaspora in this country in ways that we don’t often talk about.
So, you know, people who are wearing turbans, somebody that might have a bindi, somebody might—who does not—who is not either Muslim or Jewish but actually feels the wrath of violence and bigotry and hate because of the way they look, and I think that’s extremely important as we think about reporting and we think about the change that’s happened in our country.
To your question, which is a really vital one, one of the things that we need to address is how do you stop people from finding the appeal of this extremist ideology, the us versus them, whatever that might mean—how do you stop that from happening? How do you stop the radicalization? How do you stop the appeal so that you’re sympathetic towards it even if you aren’t doing something violent?
Because what’s happened as we all are witnessing every single day our country has changed. Yes, the world has changed, too, but our country has really shifted in the way in which we talk about each other, the language that we use, how we set up an us versus them. I think the exposure of societal sinkholes is quite apparent to all of us and it’s something that we are floundering around trying to figure out, well, who is to do this—who has the responsibility.
And so you’re asking the right question but the answer you also said, which is it’s all of us. There is a role for the federal government to play. There is a role for business to play, by the way. There’s a role for philanthropy to play. There’s a role for civil society to play. It takes all of those elements within the ecosystem actually to make cultural change within our country.
And the thing is, you know, we can look at a subject like hate and we can think this is so difficult. It’s like boiling the ocean. There’s no way we can ever get ahead of it. And I want to remind us that the answer here is not, you know, Pollyanna, to eradicate hate from planet Earth as lovely as that might be. It’s to so shrink the pool of those people who find that ideology appealing that it actually is something that we can deal with—we know how to manage—and we’ve let it go.
And so there are examples of micro programs that NGOs have deployed in very specific places online and offline that they have experimented, they’ve piloted—that there is promise in the way in which they can look at a particular generation—Gen Z, Gen Alpha, at one time Millennials—on how to move them away from joining a neo Nazi group or move them away from finding the ideology of ISIS appealing.
But the problem is and the reason why at the end of 2023 we are having this conversation is because we have not scaled the solutions that we know work. So you have one offs here and one offs there. You have a little bit of money that’s gone towards these NGOs. How would you expect change to happen?
So for me as I look at this I don’t wring my hands and think there’s no solution here—how do we do this. We’re not dealing with a cancer that has no remedy. What we have is two decades worth of tested solutions that need to be scaled and consistently scaled over periods of years to change the ecosystem for two specific generations, in my view.
One is Gen Alpha, which is the children of Millennials, and the second is Gen Z. If we can put our effort and time into those two generations we will see a sea change in the way America responds to things that we’re seeing today.
And so I look at this and I would suggest with every, you know, respect that I have for strategies that are coming out and efforts that are happening on an international scale is to take stock of the fact that we’ve spoken a lot about these things. None of this is new.
The thing that is required today is deep leadership in a consistent approach that includes everybody that I’ve just described and putting money where our mouth is, because right now the money that we’re spending on the soft power component of this effort is pennies on the dollar.
I wanted to say just one last thing because you used a term and you gave me permission, I want to say, before we started to push back on certain elements. I don’t use the term Islamophobia. I think it is the wrong term to use.
I think it is very limited in what it actually means and I think what we mean is anti-Muslim hate, and I think we mean it because for many reasons including the fact that there is a bias. There is discrimination. There’s not just a fear of Islam. That’s part of it, too, in some dimensions.
But I think using the right language to describe what it is that we are talking about is really important not just for us today in this conversation but for those people who are journalists who are reporting on this.
ROBBINS: You have raised several questions here which I—and I want to talk to Niraj about how this affects his reporting. What language are you using? Are you using anti-Muslim hate? Are you using Islamophobia? That’s the first thing.
The second thing is are you finding that your editors are requiring for every story that you write about attacks on the Muslim community you have to write a story about attacks on the Jewish community? Are you being required to have, quote, “balance” there or your readers will go nuts?
I say this as the former deputy editorial page editor of the New York Times who—I always thought that my job was well done if everybody screamed at me and said, you’re so anti-Israel—you’re so pro-Israel. I felt if I pissed everybody off I had succeeded in my job.
But, you know, I just was sort of wondering what you’re doing about the—you know, whether you’re feeling any pressure about sort of, quote, “balancing” your coverage of these two communities post-October 7. And so that—those are two questions about how this is affecting your reporting, the language that you’re using and whether you are feeling any constraints on what you can cover.
WARIKOO: You know, those are issues that we wrestle with constantly, being fair and being balanced, and in some stories, you know, you have both sides and you try to give as much—give equal space to both the pro-Israel and the pro-Palestinian side.
But in other cases you may just be covering an event. For example, when I wrote about the pro-Israel rally that was mainly on that but I did include, you know, a couple paragraphs saying that Arab Americans are planning protests. But then when I cover a memorial for Palestinian victims in Gaza, I focused mainly on that. So, but then later on, we did a memorial also in the Jewish community. So we're aware of that—you know, how to be fair. Like, if you do a story on one group later in the week, you should do one on the other.
For example, I'm working on a story this week on Hanukkah. So obviously, that's going to be more focused on the concerns of the Jewish community. But I will put in a graph or two about how there's also anxiety in Arab Americans in terms of their public visibility. This is a big issue. A lot of people are anxious now about being visibly Jewish or Muslim, in terms of religious garb they may have on. So it's affecting both of them. But the story obviously would be more on the Jewish side.
In terms of how we address the issues of—what was your first question, you were saying, Carla?
ROBBINS: The nomenclature, that Farah had said that she doesn't—that we should be talking about anti-Muslim hate rather than a(n) Islamophobia.
ROBBINS: And I understand exactly what you're saying, Farah, and I'm going to change my language. So I'm just wondering what language you use when you write your stories.
WARIKOO: Yeah, Farah raises a very good point. You know, some readers may be confused by the term Islamophobia, right? It's one of those sort of inside baseball terms that, you know, activists or advocates or academics may use, but the regular reader may not know about. So, you know, maybe it is sometimes better to just say anti-Muslim hate to make it more clear for the readers. And then the issue of Islamophobia also gets wrapped into the larger question of religion and theology. And then some people get defensive and say, well, don't I have the right to criticize religion.
So—but we do tend to at the same time, though, I always try to be careful to respect what people are saying. So if I interview someone in the Muslim community and they say Islamophobia, I'm going to use that. If some in the Jewish community says anti-Semitism, I'll use that phrase. At the end of the day, the job of reporters is to listen to people, listen to communities. And you know, how they speak is how I will try to use my language. But it is good at times to mix things up. You know, I think Farah’s suggestion was good. Maybe we just sometimes just say it's anti-Muslim hate.
PANDITH: Can I say one thing just in terms of historic reference? When we began the conversation after 9/11 about how to identify people that live in communities that are Muslim, the terminology Muslim world was used all the time—all the time. In fact, when I was in graduate school, we used that term as well.
But if you think about it for a moment, that's a world in which Muslims live. And Islam—people who are Muslim are extremely diverse, including in our country, which is the most diverse group of Muslims anywhere on planet Earth, right? And we changed—when I was in government, we shifted from going to Muslim world where that's what—that's what everybody was using to Muslim communities around the world. Because we wanted to give dignity to all of those different types of communities. We wanted to push hard on the diversity factor. We didn't want to make an us versus them.
I remember people pushing back on me when I was named special representative to Muslim communities saying that's a lot of words, why are you doing that. And I said, even if there are a lot of words in that title, you're giving dignity to those people who want to hear themselves talked about in a way that doesn't put them on an isolated island in a special world all by themselves.
So while it does take time, you now look at how members of the administration and others do say Muslim communities. It’s consistent. It's used all the time. So to Niraj’s point, you know, if one begins to change for very specific reasons, and you know, it's done in a dignified and respectful way, we can see change in the way people use particular phrases, and the lexicon will then become more inclusive, which is what I think we hope to do.
ROBBINS: So I want to throw it open to our reporters. So please raise your hand and we will call on you, because, of course, I always have an infinite number of questions. But I'm not the one who's actually going to be writing these stories in the coming weeks. So please, ask questions, you guys. If not, I'm going to call on you, something I do to my students all the time.
So while you were considering that, I will ask one more question. But please, jump in here. Can we talk a little bit about political leadership of these communities and how this is affecting what's going on for good and for evil right now? And before we were talking, before we started this, you both were talking about the leadership and the growth of the power of Muslim communities’ leaders. So, Farah, you were talking about with the Obama administration. You want to start that conversation?
And, Niraj, let's then situate it in Michigan.
PANDITH: One of the things that has been interesting for me to observe is how much of the American Muslim involvement in politics has shifted, and certainly the Arab American involvement in politics has shifted as well. And while this—we don't have enough time to get through all of the reasons why this has shifted, the point here is that the millennial generation and Gen Z have been so dramatically new to this game. They're sophisticated, and they're savvy in ways their parents and grandparents were not. They see themselves as Americans very differently in how they activate both voting, working on political campaigns, and importantly, serving in government, which is something that for many traditional families that wasn't something that that was a career path that they were interested in.
Look at the data today. The Biden administration has a hundred appointees that are self-identified as Muslim. You see very sophisticated efforts of different kinds of political activist groups going forward and pushing their agenda, learning how to work the Hill, learning how to think about different pressure points that they can put on the politicians to actually push their points forward. This all makes a difference.
And it makes a difference, too, because for the Democrats, this really began in earnest with the Obama campaign to be president. These are kids who grew up post-9/11 was the trauma of 9/11, with the trauma of being isolated and looked at differently because of their skin color and their names. It felt very different to be in America post-9/11 for them, and so they wanted to see a change. And you saw certainly President Obama who took that forward and talked about mutual interest and mutual respect and the Cairo speech and all of the things that came after it. Obviously, Biden was the vice president at that time.
And so the legacy of all of that work, then the Trump administration with the Muslim ban, promoted this idea for a lot of these generations that when Biden was running for president, we're going to go all in; we're going to do everything that they can. So they were raising money. They were organizing themselves in different ways. They were building trust with the Biden team.
And I think what Niraj was saying earlier about feeling betrayed and the perception that they had a promise by the president that has now been reneged upon, that they aren't being heard, is really important. So without that sophistication, and without that interest in politics, I think that the reaction today would be very, very different. You're looking at two particular generations that know what they're doing politically, millennials and Gen Z, who are digital natives, who understand how to use public relations and comms in a very, you know, effective manner. And the result of that will be seen, not just in this particular Israel-Hamas war context, but you, I believe, will see it going forward in our country in a very different way than you've seen before.
ROBBINS: So, Niraj, you can answer that or whatever the next question is. And I get excited. I've got three questions. So I'm going to throw it open to our participants, and you get to answer anything you want.
So Brandt Williams, who was an editor at—I assume MPR is Minnesota Public Radio. Grant, would you like to voice your question?
Q: I'll jump in first. Hi, yes, I'm Brandt Williams. And I have—actually I'm here with a couple of colleagues of mine, and one of my reporters I work with, Sarah Thamer, would like to ask a question.
Go ahead, Sarah. Thanks.
Q: Yes. Hi. Sarah Thamer here.
It seems as though the conversation is being centered a lot around Muslim versus Jewish, which for many Palestinians specifically is part of the problem. How do you make sure your reporting is highlighting more specifically the anti-Palestinian hate that is currently happening? There are many Palestinian Christians who feel left out of the conversation. And the reason why this topic is so difficult to discuss is because it seems as though it's easier to make this about religion when in reality it's a Palestinian human rights issue for a lot of the Palestinians and communities who I spoke with. So again, just what advice do you have for reporters to focus more on that to educate people on the nuances rather than perpetuating the notion that this is about religion, which unintentionally just ends up pitting people against each other?
ROBBINS: Great question. Niraj.
WARIKOO: Yeah, you make an excellent point. I agree with you. I'm very well aware of the fact that we have a sizable Arab American Christian community and Palestinian Christian community. I have talked to sources in the Palestinian American Christian community over the past couple of months and quoted them even before the conflict. And in fact, a lot of the Arab American civil rights advocates over the decades were from the Christian community. You know, ADC, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a lot of times our leaders happen to be Christian. And so we're very much aware of that fact at the Detroit Free Press. I know sometimes nationally there's a framing I've noticed when they talk about places like Dearborn, they talk about it as a Muslim area. You know, they say it's a Muslim world, or it's an Islamic issue. But in Dearborn, the Arab identity is actually stronger, right? There's still that sort of Pan Arab identity that still exists there. The larger rallies come out of more of that framework, rather than the Islamic framework.
Now, some of that has changed. You know, religion is obviously an important issue, and there's sometimes conflicts there. But yeah, you're right. The Palestinian American Christian viewpoint is not highlighted enough. And there was some concern with the Biden administration, when they held their meetings with the communities that they excluded the Palestinian Christian community. When Biden decided to have a meeting with Muslim Americans, I think there were a couple of Arab Americans, there were some couple of non-Arab Muslims in the African American Muslim community, which is fine. But there were no Palestinian American Christians. And so you're right. I think they're a community that needs to be highlighted more, and we do make sure to include them as much as possible. And we'll be planning to do more stories, hopefully soon.
Leoneda Inge-Barry, who is—I apologize if I'm not pronouncing it correctly—who’s a reporter at North Carolina Public Radio.
Q: Hi there. I was just typing my long question into the box. But I'm a public radio journalist in the southern U.S.
You know, I'm based in Durham, North Carolina. And I tell you, I have been looking and reading and just trying to find a good way to cover this topic in the South. You know, just even trying to find a way, because we know people here know what's going on. But I'm just trying to make something very—to make them want—know that this is important, you know. and we hear about definitely the protests at universities, for example, and demonstrations, like at Columbia, places where they're probably larger populations of students, you know, who are either from that region of the world, you know, are Israeli.
But I—the only thing we've been able to come up with now was we’re bringing in like a chaplain and a therapist just to talk about the emotional toll. You know what I'm saying? I'm like, what? I just want some ideas, if you have any, especially when you have a large Black African American population, too. You know, you want them to be involved in this discussion.
And I did hear that like Spelman College in Atlanta, there's actually been a Palestinian kind of support activist type group on that campus of Black women. And I'm just trying to find a fair way, you know, to cover the topic for our audience that includes, you know, voices of people who were born and live in this part of the country.
WARIKOO: Yeah. Yeah, I don't know if there's like any interfaith networks—or there's some national advocacy groups that can maybe help put you in touch with people on the ground. They can be helpful resources to put you in touch with potential sources. Are you looking for more like a religious story or more just people with ties to the Middle East or—I guess—okay. Yeah, I was going to ask her some more details. But yeah, those are some ways to connect with sources.
I mean, there's a lot of different topics you can pursue it from. You mentioned there was a large Black community. There may be a Black Muslim congregation that might be open to talking about it. They have an interesting perspective on the Middle East that gets ignored a lot. But yeah, it depends on kind of what you're looking for in terms of coverage.
Q: I'm just trying to look for something that is local, that people will understand, want to listen to and embrace that's like not necessarily the New York Times. You know what I’m saying? I'm trying to make sure that even trying to figure out a way to, you know, compare and contrast this point in time in history with some—you know, and I've been looking. But, I mean, we’re going to continue to cover it the best way possible. But as I told you, we're going—we’re talking about the emotional toll now of the local communities here, and that's the best way we've been able to do it so far, but I'm still very interested in—
WARIKOO: Yeah, one thing is with the holidays coming up, this might be a good opportunity to sort of hang out at churches or synagogues or mosques and find out what the mood is there as they approach Christmas. You know, it's kind of a depressing time for some, with the death toll rising in Gaza. And so that may be a way to—and there's also anxiety in the Jewish communities. So that might be a way with Hanukkah starting on December 7 this week. Maybe there's a synagogue that'd be open to talking about how they're celebrating it this year.
PANDITH: Can I suggest one other element that is a more American thing to look at, is the counterterrorism piece of this, which is what is Hamas. And I think there has been very limited conversation outside of a very cerebral conversation in think tank communities in Washington around the in and out of what Hamas actually is. And I think it's interesting to me, because I think you can look back at the way in which al-Qaeda was described and talked about when they attacked the United States on 9/11. There was a lot of conversation about what is their ideology, what do they stand for, how do they recruit, how do they raise money, what is it, and who are they. We did the same thing with ISIS. We put them in the category of a terrorist group. We talked about all of the dimensions of what ISIS said that they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it.
There has not been a sophisticated conversation around what Hamas is. And the U.S. has called Hamas—and it is—a terrorist organization. And we need to understand that the ideology of Hamas is actually affecting the United States as well, because you are seeing neo-Nazi groups who are finding affinity with Hamas, because there's a commonality in the hatred of Jews. So for me, as I look at this, I look at it from a national security perspective, as well. And I think that might be something that might be a new angle that that has not been covered that might be of interest to you.
ROBBINS: I'm going to jump for a minute to a question in the Q&A, and then we'll get back to the questions with the hands raised.
And this is from Aaron Sanchez-Guerra. My multigenerational first, second gen, third gen immigrant Palestinian Arab community sources tell me this isn't a war. They allege genocide and ethnic cleansing. They claim that less than one hundred IDF soldiers have been killed in this war, per the AP. How do I fairly frame this conflict? And I'm not sure what you mean by validate what local folks say. Maybe the question is, how do I fairly frame this conflict? I'm not sure our job as reporters is to validate what people are saying as so much to test what people are saying.
WARIKOO: Yeah, I mean, it's a difficult issue. You know, as much as possible, I always say, you know, I'm not a foreign correspondent. I don't cover foreign affairs, or what's happening in the Middle East. I cover what's happening in Metro Detroit. So as much as possible, I just try to focus on what's happening in the communities we report on, especially if we're local newspaper reporters.
So in terms of the issue of, you know, which side is right, I don't try to get at that in, you know, my stories. I just try to be—to listen to people, to hear what they're saying, and try to be balanced in that. So—and I understand that obviously, there is a point of view that says, you know, this is more of Israel's at fault. Of course, the other side says the opposite. So, I do think that there is still a space in journalism for sort of a mainstream local coverage of news. You know, some are saying that may be outdated. I don't know. I still think there is room for that. That's at least what we do at the Detroit Free Press. We do try to cover both communities and be fair as much as possible.
ROBBINS: The word genocide is obviously an incredibly important word from international humanitarian law point of view. And we—certainly, nobody was debating in the United States when Putin—not accused of genocide but accused of war crimes in front of the ICC, people celebrated it in the United States. Very limited number of Putin supporters in the United States.
If I'm a local reporter and I'm covering a demonstration in which large numbers of people are accusing the Israelis of genocide, do I just say many placards accuse the Israelis of genocide? Do I have a responsibility to define what genocide is under international humanitarian law? Does it meet the standard? Do I even want to wade into the standard issue here? You know, I feel that, you know, granted, I spent twenty-four years of my life as a reporter before I became an editorial writer, so I do understand the burdens here. But it's a very value term, but I also think it's an incredibly important term. And I think people are raising some pretty—the same way when people talk about collective punishment. There's a definition of this under international humanitarian law. What's our responsibility as reporters for educating people with these highly emotive terms?
PANDITH: Let me be clear that I'm not a reporter and I never had to deal with that kind of delicate balance and the way in which you are trying to do a lot with a few words. So I understand that.
But having said that, I think there is a responsibility for us to be clear adults about using terminology that deserves to be defined. You would never expect everybody that reads a report to understand—you know, you can use terminology like rape or homicide, and you know that the average person who was reading that understands what that is, but there is a legal definition for both of those things. So, too, is the case with the term genocide. And I think it is important that we use the opportunity to define it.
And according to the way the United States defines it, you can talk about how others define it, however you want to do it, I think it is the right thing to do to be able to use terminology that isn't normally in part of our day-to-day world and define it in a way that helps people build context for what might be on a placard, or why they choose to do that.
I do want to say one other thing and that is earlier in the conversation we were talking about this turning into a Muslim versus Jew, you know, scenario in America. And I do think that there is a responsibility as we report on this horrific, you know, event that is happening in the Middle East, to try to do as much as we can to make sure that we are not falling into the trap of making into a Muslim versus Jew or Jewish versus Muslim framework. And that requires us to take a step back and put historical context on some things. It requires us to define terms. It requires us to use more words to define the diversity of what we're talking about and the communities that are dealing with this.
And so it is far more cumbersome, of course, to do all of these things. But this is such an emotional and challenging moment for many reasons that we know, but one we did not really talk about, and that is the pace of news right now that is available to you with a swish of your finger on your phone. It has changed the way in which we understand what's taking place. And so I think that those people who are reporting what's going on have even more responsibility to be deliberate about terms that are used and why they use them.
ROBBINS: And I would say—you know, as a former editor, I would say that, that there would be an argument to have an explainer for what these terms mean without making the decision ourselves about whether or not it applies for the actions of a particular group. At least people will understand what the terms mean.
Hana Baba, who is a news reporter and host of Crosscurrents on KALW-FM.
Q: Hello. Hi, I host a local news magazine, we call it, in the San Francisco Bay Area at an NPR station.
So we—our show is very Bay Area. It’s a local program, but it is Bay Area news and culture. Nowadays, of course, we're getting a lot of pitches from people around the Bay Area wanting to tell their personal stories, which I think has been a way not to avoid but to contextualize, to give people the right to tell their own stories. Recently, we got an angry listener. We get angry listeners a lot, but recently, we've been getting them more and more after a show we did on the Nakba, the 1948 Nakba in the Palestinian territories, and it was a very personal story told by a reporter about her grandmother and her grandfather and their olive trees and how this moment reminds her of that moment.
So there is a storytelling aspect to our kind of—to our journalism outfit. And you know, listeners wrote in saying, well, yes, her grandparents were run out by the Zionist movement of that time, but also many Palestinians just left and ran, and you didn't say that. And this demanding of, you know, like word bullying and like demanding us, demanding of us, you know, further context, which, for a thirty-minute radio program means a longer lead; it means a longer story. We don't have time. Plus, it was a very particular story about a very particular family.
And so I guess my question to you is, when do you—when do you allow for just a voice, a personal story to be told, without having to quote/unquote, come in, you know, kind of like, as a narrator and say, well, also this happened and then but well, also this thing happened and to be able to, quote-unquote, contextualize it for these for these times when emotions are high?
Also, one more thing, I just want to—
ROBBINS: Hana, we have like three more questions, and you've asked an incredibly important question. So could can we, I'm going—
Q: I’ll write it in the chat. If we can get to it, that's fine, because I also do a lot of training.
ROBBINS: Thank you. That's great. That's great. That's super.
I'm going to just read the other questions really quickly.
Michelle Griffith, who's with the nonprofit Minnesota Reformer, has noticed that some lawmakers here in Minnesota have gotten in trouble for making inflammatory and inaccurate statements about what's happening in the Israel-Hamas conflict. Do you have recommendations for best places to fact check? If we don't have time to get this, I'm going to ask you both to consider this an email as some responses that we can share with people afterwards.
And I think Sophie Carson—has Sophie written in what she wanted to ask? If not, Sophie, can you—Sophie says she's reported with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She's asking for more local angles.
So you can answer any of these questions. And because we basically have two minutes, so you have it. And, Niraj, you get one minute. Farah, you get one minute.
WARIKOO: Sure. I think, you know, the whole issue of how to approach local reporting, you want to be able to tell the narrative in a good manner, you know, write it well and tell the story, but then also be fair. And you're right; it's a very tricky thing to do.
You know, with regards to genocide, I think, Carla, you had mentioned that, you know, the genocide issue is something that both sides say—you know, the pro-Israel side say that Hamas was committing genocide on October 7, or trying to, and but the other side says—so, sometimes I'll do within the paragraph, like if I say, you know, the speaker accused Israel of committing genocide, and then maybe put in a quick sentence saying, well, this advocate for Israel says, well, it's the other way around.
But you're right. Sometimes it gets in the flow of the narrative. Like I was telling a story a few weeks ago about a man who said he lost several family members in Gaza recently. And sometimes you just have to tell the story, like to say—put out what they're saying and leave it at that. Because otherwise, the story gets too muddled with sort of, he said, she said, and the reader kind of loses interest and gets distracted. And then maybe it's best to use that for another story from the pro-Israel perspective. But that's something we are always wrestling with here in our paper.
ROBBINS: In far less word, Hana, I will tell you that—you know this already, we all know this, you write or talk about these topics and you're going to infuriate people. So just try to be as honest and fact-based as you possibly can. And then, you know, this—and it's hard. I think word bullying is really good, a very good description of what your listeners are going to do back to you because you're—nobody's ever going to be happy.
So, Farah, last word to you. And we are going to—we will send out other suggestions, including I'm going to ask Farah to come up with some information on these micro groups that are succeeding against extremism. It’d be really useful for—potentially for local reporting stories.
PANDITH: One thing I would say is that we have lessons from the past and the way in which we were reporting it. And so the one thing I will say is, I think as you look at the current conversation that is happening in America, and the way in which to report it, you now because of the last twenty years, you can point to things that you know you don't want to do. And so I use that as a starting point in how you're approaching this.
I'd also say one last thing, and that is these communities of people who are affected don't necessarily all go to synagogue and temple and mosque and church. It's regular Americans who are being—and including those who are spiritual, nut there are also non spiritually active Americans who are affected by what's happened. And I would urge us to be really clear about the change that's happened in America and to go wider around those issues, not necessarily go more narrow. Although I know that one is reporting on for your local paper, there is a conversation to be had about the larger impact of what this feels like in America today.
ROBBINS: That's great. Thank you both so much. We have many more questions, which just shows you how good a conversation this has been and how challenging.
Hana asked one final question which we haven't had time to answer, but we will try to, which is they do a lot of training with underrepresented communities, but they're struggling with trying to recruit, train more Muslim, MENA, SWANA people. So any suggestions that we can get about how to—where the next generation of good journalists are coming from who can bring more perspective, that would be really useful as well. So we're going to be bugging both of you two so we can send out more information.
Irina, back to you. I've gone over by a minute.
FASKIANOS: That's fine. Thank you for this terrific conversation, and we will collect up all those resources. You can follow Farah on X at @Farah_Pandith, Niraj at @NWarikoo, and Carla at @RobbinsCarla.
And as always, we encourage you to visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and how they are affecting the United States. Again, please email us with any suggestions for future webinars. You can email local [email protected] And again, thank you for today's conversation.