Come on now, what's so bad about Shannon Burke? Yes, his radio show (5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays, WFLA-AM, 540) is lowbrow cud for way-right-wingers who want to reassure themselves that they're not alone in this often non-white, often non-Christian world. And sure, he's a down-market version of Rush, Dr. Laura, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage and the rest of the GOP's empty-headed foot soldiers who take their marching orders directly from party HQ. And OK, he screams a lot, almost always failing to take his own advice to raise his level of discourse instead of his voice.
But this is America, dammit, and doesn't everyone have the right to shout at the top of their lungs? Doubly so if you are owned by Clear Channel, dear friend of the Bushes, and just happen to own virtually every station up and down the dial? Of course. That's what our troops are fighting for over there.
So why the anti-Shannonism in Orlando? He's been doing his shtick for better than a year and suddenly someone's paying attention.
That someone is Omar Dajani, a local software developer who has lived in Orlando for 20 years and happens to be Muslim. Dajani thinks Burke is an ignorant Islam basher, and he's started a website (www.stopshannon.com) to make his case. "I actually think he has a hatred against people who are Muslims," he says. And he has a web page full of quotes from Burke's show to back him up.
Like this one, from March 19: "The ideals and tenets of Islam are pretty damn dirty." Or this one, from March 18: "The Palestinian people are apes." Or this one from March Feb. 27: "The Quran is incredibly violent and incredibly evil."
Burke, as Dajani notes, also likes to invite conservatives of questionable integrity (corporate scammer/millionaire Craig Winn) and/or sanity (doomsday author Hal Lindsey) on the show to do his slurring for him. Lindsey, for example, advocates detention camps for Muslims just like those used during World War II for the Japanese. Or you may remember him as the guy who wrote "The Late, Great Planet Earth," a best seller in the '70s that predicted the world would end in the '80s. People still listen to this guy? Burke does.
So what's wrong with a little free speech, even if it's hateful and more than a little kooky? Nothing, says Dajani. Opinions are like, well, you know. "Even if he said that Islam was a bad religion, I don't have a problem with that."
The problem, he says, comes when Burke calls Islam evil. "When something is evil, it falls in a special category," says Dajani. "Then you have the right to annihilate." Especially when we are at war with an evil Muslim dictator, two out of the three axis of evil countries are Islamic, and the evildoers of Sept. 11 were Islamic.
When I called Burke to talk about Dajani, he urged me to make sure the quotes are accurate. They are. Dajani records virtually every one of Burke's shows. I listened to the tapes.
Then Burke explained how careful he is to distinguish between "terrorists" and run-of-the-mill Muslims. The former are "pigs," "monkeys" and "apes." But the latter are his friends. If listeners don't make the distinction, hey, he's not going to spoon-feed them.
"I'm trying to mend some fences in the Muslim community," he tells me.
How? By inviting Muslims on the show, touring area mosques and immersing himself in the Quran. "I am working closely with the Islamic Society of Central Florida," he says.
Ah, semantics. Muhammed Musri, Imam of the Masjid Al-Rahman mosque on Goldenrod Road, has in fact been on Burke's show three or four times since Sept. 11. But he hardly considers the shock jock a friend.
"If he was attacking another religious group it wouldn't be tolerated," says Musri. "I haven't heard anything like this against Jews or Baptists or anybody. Muslims are bashed every day. America is going through the growing pains of understanding this faith."
For a guy on the receiving end of a lot of bile, broadcast and otherwise, Musri is surprisingly stoic. These are trying times, he says, and in due course people will come to understand that Islam is every bit as peaceful a religion as Judaism and Christianity.
And, media savvy guy that he is, Musri suspects there might be another motive for Burke's sudden interest in Islam. "I don't think `Burke` is a bigot or a racist or an Islamophobe. He is a talk-show host. He goes for the ratings."
Cynical as that may be, Musri is uncomfortably close to the truth. There are ratings to be won and money to be made by feeding the ignorance and fear we swim in these days, and Burke knows it. In fact he says he's flattered by Dajani's attention and thinks that maybe this is the road to something bigger. After all, Rush, Dr. Laura, Howard Stern and other radio biggies have all survived campaigns against them.
"`Dajani's` seething hatred for me is having positive effect on me somehow," says Burke, referring to ratings. (I'll assume he's not referring to Dajani's call for an advertising boycott of Burke's show, which he claims has already produced results.)
Good talkers know that what you don't say is as important as what you do. Burke is a good talker. And he's either a true hater of Islam, as Dajani believes, or he's a finger-in-the-wind opportunist cashing in on an odious impulse for some to blame what they don't understand, as Musri believes.
Either way, when you listen, Burke wins.