The Islamophobia first espoused by conservative bloggers, right-wing talk show hosts, rampant racists on Twitter and evangelical religious leaders has found a home in the White House. The decision of thousands of people to stand up to racism and protest this week is encouraging, but as intolerance becomes government policy uncovering the scare tactics, revealing the motives and exposing the ideologies that drive this Islamophobia machine becomes increasingly important.
This essay, written by John L. Esposito, is taken from Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, which seeks to challenge the narrative of fear that has for too long dominated discussions about Muslims and Islam, Esposito offers a historical perspective on this ever-rising tide. The second edition, scheduled for publication in September 2017, will include new material on the Trump victory, exploring the new government that is currently coming to shape in the US, emphasising that this book is now more relevant than other.
Islamophobia did not suddenly come into being after the events of 9/11. Like anti-Semitism and xenophobia, it has long and deep historical roots. Its contemporary resurgence has been triggered by the significant influx of Muslims to the West in the late twentieth century, the Iranian revolution, hijackings, hostage taking, and other acts of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe.
What are the roots of Modern Islamophobia?
Most Americans’ first encounter with an unknown Islam occurred with the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and the taking of hostages in the American embassy, which resulted in an explosion of interest and coverage of the religion of Islam as well as of the Middle East and the Muslim world that has increased exponentially over the years. Today, Islam and the Middle East often dominate the negative headlines. Despite the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the third largest religion in the United States—as well as the fact that American Muslims are an integral part of the American mosaic in the twenty-first century—the acts of terrorists over the last three decades have fed the growth of Islamophobia in this country.
The Post-9/11 Climate:
The catastrophic events of 9/11 and continued attacks in Muslim countries, as well as in Germany, France and London, have obscured many positive developments and have exacerbated the growth of Islamophobia almost exponentially. Islam and Muslims have become guilty until proven innocent, a reversal of the classic American legal maxim. Islam is often viewed as the cause rather than the context for radicalism, extremism, and terrorism. Islam as the culprit is a simple answer, easier than considering the core political issues and grievances that resonate in much of the Muslim world (that is, the failures of many Muslim governments and societies, American foreign policy of intervention and dominance, Western support for authoritarian regimes, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or support for Israel’s wars in Gaza and Lebanon). It is not difficult to find material that emphasizes selective analyses of Islam and events in the Muslim world, material which is crisis-oriented and headline-driven, fuelling stereotypes, fears, and discrimination. Islam’s portrayal as a triple threat (political, civilizational, and demographic) has been magnified by a number of journalists and scholars who trivialize the complexity of political, social, and religious dynamics in the Muslim world.
The result has been to downplay the negative consequences of Western support for authoritarian regimes, and the blowback from American and European foreign policies in the Middle East, from the Palestinian–Israeli conflict to the invasion of Iraq. Anti-Americanism or anti-westernization (which has increased significantly among the mainstream in the Muslim world and globally as a result of these policies) is often equated simply with Muslim hatred of our western way of life.
Today, Islamophobia distorts the prism through which Muslims are viewed domestically. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes proliferate. Legitimate concerns in the United States and Europe for domestic security have been offset by the abuse of anti-terrorism legislation, indiscriminate arrests, and imprisonments that compromise Muslims’ civil liberties. Mainstream Islamic institutions (civil rights groups, political action committees, charities) are indiscriminately accused of raising money for extremism by individuals and sometimes governments without the hard evidence that would lead to successful prosecution.
Significant minorities of non-Muslim Americans show a great tolerance for policies that would profile Muslims, require special identity cards, and question the loyalty of all Muslim citizens. A 2006 USA Today-Gallup Poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admit to having negative feelings or prejudices against people of the Muslim faith, and favour using heightened security measures with Muslims as a way to help prevent terrorism. Fewer than half the respondents believed that US Muslims are loyal to the United States. Nearly one-quarter of Americans—22 percent—said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbour; 31 percent said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim man on their flight, and 18 percent said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim woman on their flight. About 4 in 10 Americans favour more rigorous security measures for Muslims than those used for other US citizens: requiring Muslims who are US citizens to carry a special ID and undergo special, more intensive, security checks before boarding airplanes in the United States. When US respondents were asked, in the Gallup World Poll, what they admire about the Muslim world, the most common response was “nothing” (33 percent); the second most common was “I don’t know” (22 percent). Despite major polling by Gallup and PEW that show that American Muslims are well integrated economically and politically, a January 2010 Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies report found that more than 4 in 10 Americans (43 percent) admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims—more than twice the number who say the same about Christians (18 percent), Jews (15 percent) and Buddhists (14 percent). Nine percent of Americans admitted feeling “a great deal” of prejudice towards Muslims, while 20 percent admitted feeling “some” prejudice. Surprisingly, Gallup data revealed a link between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, that contempt for Jews makes a person “about 32 times as likely to report the same level of prejudice toward Muslims.”
The extent to which the religion of Islam and the mainstream Muslim majority have been conflated with the beliefs and actions of an extremist minority can be seen not only in major polls but also in opposition to mosque construction, in locations from Manhattan and Staten Island to Tennessee and California, which has become not just a local but a national political issue. In the 2008 US presidential elections and the 2010 Congressional elections, anti-mosque and anti-Sharia hysteria have shown that Islamophobia has gone mainstream.
Across the US, a major debate erupted over the building of an Islamic community centre a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre. A June 22, 2010 New York Post editorial said, “There’s no denying the elephant in the room. Neither is there any rejoicing over the mosques … because where there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems… .” The author warns of New York becoming “New Yorkistan,” just as London has become “Londonstan,” “degenerated” by a Muslim community “into a launching pad for terrorists.”
Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, will not be eradicated easily or soon. Islamophobia is not a problem for Muslims alone; it is our problem. Governments, policymakers, the media, educational institutions, and religious and corporate leaders have a critical role to play in transforming our societies and influencing our citizens and policies to contain the voices of hate and the exclusivist theologies (of militant religious and secular fundamentalists alike) if we are to promote global understanding and peace. As we know from the history of anti-Semitism and of racism in America, bigots and racists aren’t born. As the lyrics from the musical South Pacific remind us: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
John Louis Esposito is an American professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is also the director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown.
The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims by Nathan Lean is available from Pluto Press.