What Anderson Cooper Should Have Asked the Organizer of the Anti-Muslim Rally in Phoenix

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Last night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed Jon Ritzheimer, a former Marine and father of two, who is organizing an armed rally outside a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona. As Muslim worshippers gather at the mosque for their weekly communal prayer Friday evening, Ritzheimer, and other supporters who have been recruited on Facebook, will assemble outside, holding up cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, toting military-grade weapons, and wearing shirts that read “F*** Islam.”

During the five-minute interview, Cooper pressed Ritzheimer on his reasons for hosting the event, his views of Islam, and his feelings about his own military service. Cooper deserves praise for asking Ritzheimer tough questions and bringing to light his contradictory views. But he could have done better.

When Ritzheimer made claims about his knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an, Cooper should have pushed him for examples, thus revealing the guest’s likely ignorance about the basics of the religion. Instead, Cooper used a weak argument about Ritzheimer’s supposedly counter-intuitive support of the “Islamic government in Iraq”—one that only appeared successful because of how he beat Ritzheimer over the head with it.

Cooper could have used the interview as an opportunity to educate CNN’s viewers—who, like most Americans still lack basic knowledge about Islam. But he failed to do that.

Here’s what Anderson Cooper should have done to more effectively delegitimize Ritzheimer, while informing his viewers in the process.

Ask him to clarify “the truth in the Qur’an”

At the outset of the conversation, Cooper asked Ritzheimer to describe his goal for the rally.

“I’m really trying to achieve exposing Islam and the truth that’s written in the Qur’an,” he said.

Ritzheimer continued to speak, comparing himself to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Cooper could have asked:

So what is that truth in the Qur’an? Can you give us some examples?

It would have been interesting to see how Ritzheimer would have responded to this probe for specifics. Would he have been able to pull together an answer?

Ask him to describe his education

Later in the interview, after Cooper questioned Ritzheimer’s views of Islam in light of his service in Iraq, the former marine brought up his supposed education on Islam.

“It wasn’t until I came home and utilized by 9/11 G.I. bill that I started studying…”

Cooper kept on with his line of questioning about Ritzheimer’s support of the “Islamic government in Iraq,” but what he should have asked was:

How did you start learning about Islam? What books, websites, or courses contributed to your education about the religion?

Ritzheimer organized his event as a “Round 2” to the cartoon contest and “freedom of speech” rally held by Pamela Geller and her organization, AFDI, both of which he “likes” on Facebook. Geller, and her AFDI colleague and fellow blogger, Robert Spencer, have both written bestselling—yet misguiding—books on Islam. It’d be curious to know if Ritzheimer would have cited their books or blogs as contributing to his knowledge.

Again, ask about what’s actually in the Qur’an

At one point in the interview, Cooper asked blatantly, “You don’t believe that Islam, at its core, is terrorism?”

Ritzheimer responded, “Oh yes, true Islam is terrorism. Yes, the ones that are out committing these atrocities and stuff, they’re following the book as it’s written.”

Perhaps thinking that Ritzheimer’s astounding statement said enough on its own, and that it didn’t need further follow-up, Cooper turned to his other guest, former FBI and CIA counterterrorism official Phillip Mudd, to get his take on the planned rally and the message it sends to ISIS and al-Qaeda and their potential sympathizers. Mudd rightly explained that Ritzheimer’s event and his rhetoric employ the same “clash of civilizations” narrative that ISIS and other groups promote and thrive on. It’s good that Cooper had Mudd highlight this point.

But he shouldn’t have let Ritzheimer’s point about “true Islam” and “following the book” go. He should have asked,

Have you read the Qur’an and the common Islamic interpretations of it? What does it say? Since you’re so confident that you understand “true Islam,” can you tell us about its basic pillars and principles?

Round 2?

In many ways, it’s not surprising that Anderson Cooper didn’t press Ritzheimer on these issues. CNN journalists, like many in the American media, are themselves still painfully unaware of basic Islamic thought and practices. Kate Bolduan, Chris Cuomo, and Alisyn Camerota are two examples of interviewers who, because of their own apparent ignorance about Islam, have let guests generalize about Islam or advance dishonest notions. Perhaps, Cooper didn’t press him on his education because he himself doesn’t know the answers to those questions.

It’s doubtful that Ritzheimer will appear again on cable television, so Cooper won’t likely have the opportunity to re-do this interview. But we can expect that interviews with folks like Ritzheimer—who are taking extreme actions to voice their discontent with Islam—will continue. Perhaps Cooper and his colleagues at CNN can try out these tactics on their next guest.

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