ABC News Hidden Camera Shows 'How Muslims Are Treated in America'

A video report from 2008 sheds light on today's debate

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Bloggers are circulating a video from 2008, produced by an ABC News hidden camera team, called "How Muslims Are Treated in America." The segment shows the reactions of bystanders as two actors stage a racially charged scene, with one actor portraying a deli owner who refuses service to a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, also played by an actor. The video is making the rounds as a means of shedding light on the ongoing and increasingly ugly battle over the Cordoba center, called the "Ground Zero Mosque" by critics, which has since spread to a handful of nationwide protests against Muslim-American centers. Setting aside concerns about the morality of such "hidden camera" journalism, which some critics say tricks and emotionally manipulates innocent people, it provides a brief window into American attitudes towards Islam.

Asked to explain why some observers ignored or even praised the deli owner as he refused to serve the Muslim woman, Yale social psychology Jack Dovidio tells ABC News, "When we as Americans feel threatened from the outside, we're gonna define ourselves in very rigid fashions. Either you're with me, and if you're not really one of me, then you must be somebody else who's against me."

One touching moment comes toward the end when a young woman comes to the aid of the Muslim woman, defending Islamic culture and arguing with the deli owner to try and force him to change his mind. When the producer confronts her to explain it was a set-up, she bursts into tears, saying that she had long been frustrated by the treatment of a Muslim friend she was with at the time. "I've seen how people treat them different, and it really hurts me."

Somewhat revealing is that the ABC News producer obviously felt very comfortable taking the side of those who defended the Muslim woman. He called the young woman who had defended her a "heroine." Dovidio responded to the girls' behavior, saying, "In a way they defended America, and I was impressed by that." As the Daily Show and Fox News wage a broadcast war over how to handle the Cordoba controversy, news coverage has become somewhat more reticent to take sides.

Whether the bystanders applaud the deli owner's theatrics or condemn them, they are uniformly and intensely angry. Clearly, the emotion dredged up by the recent Cordoba controversy is not a new phenomenon in America.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.