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Muslims in the West >
What is Islamophobia?

We live in a world in which two great world religions with Semitic origins are often under siege: objects of discrimination, hate crimes, and acts of violence and terror. For one, the 14–18 million Jews of the world, we have a powerful term, anti-emitism, and a global awareness and sensitivity that can be mobilized against anti-Semitic attitudes and acts. As history and recent experiences confirm, the term anti-Semitism is a potent antidote for this disease that continues to infect our societies. However, for the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, until relatively recently we have had no comparable effective way to brand and counter the hostility, prejudice, and discrimination directed toward Islam and Muslims.

Islamophobia did not suddenly come into being after the events of 9/11. In November 1997, Britain's Runnymede Report, Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, defined Islamophobia as “the dread, hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims perpetrated by a series of closed views that imply and attribute negative and derogatory stereotypes and beliefs to Muslims.” It results in exclusion from economic, social, and public life, and discrimination based on the perception that the religion of Islam has no values in common with and is inferior to the West, and that it really is a violent political ideology rather than, like the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, a source of faith and spirituality.

Like anti-Semitism and xenophobia, Islamophobia has long and deep historical roots. Its contemporary resurgence has been triggered by the significant influx of Muslims in the West in the late twentieth century, as well as the Iranian revolution, hijackings, hostage taking, and acts of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe. The victims of discrimination and hate crimes are not the extremists responsible for violence and terror but the mainstream moderate majority of Muslims in Europe and America. In recent years, far right anti-immigrant political parties and political commentators in Europe and America have demonized the religion of Islam and all Muslims. The net result has been a virulent form of cultural racism.

Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United Nations, convened a 2004 UN conference, “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding” and addressed the international scope of the problem:

When the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry—that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with “Islamophobia” … There is a need to unlearn the stereotypes that have become so entrenched in so many minds and so much of the media. Islam is often seen as a monolith … [and] Muslims as opposed to the West … The pressures of living together with people of different cultures and different beliefs from one's own are real … But that cannot justify demonization or the deliberate use of fear for political purposes. That only deepens the spiral of suspicion and alienation.

Due to the lack of a collective consciousness able to identify the signs of Islamophobia in the United States, political and religious leaders and media commentators have been free to engage in a form of hate speech, asserting with impunity what would never appear in mainstream broadcast or print media about Jews, Christians, or established ethnic and racial groups in America. While the term Islamophobia has been used in Europe for many years, in America it has only recently gained general recognition, through the widely publicized controversy about a new Islamic cultural center (Park51) to be located two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. This project, which was approved by all relevant government and local agencies, sparked intense opposition not only from some families of 9/11 victims but also from politicians, media, right-wing bloggers, and political pundits whose Islamophobic comments spiraled out of control. No wonder that a June 22, 2010, New York Post editorial attacked plans to construct new mosques in the state of New York, claiming:

There's no denying the elephant in the room. Neither is there any rejoicing over the mosques proposed for Sheepshead Bay, Staten Island and Ground Zero because where there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems. Before New York becomes New Yorkistan, it is worth noting that the capital of Great Britain was London until it became known as “Londonstan,” degenerated by a Muslim community predominantly from South Asia and Africa, whose first generation of “British Asians” has made the United Kingdom into a launching pad for terrorists.

Violent protests against construction of new mosques erupted across the country, as did multiple cases of hate crimes, violence, and vandalism. Protesters, taking a cue from those at the Park51 site, charged that mosques were “monuments to terrorism.”

What fuels the fires of discrimination against Muslims in America and Europe? There is no lack of examples that empower Islamophobia's deep suspicion and lack of trust. Here is a sampling of comments by right-wing political pundits, preachers, and politicians, from 9/11 to Park51 and the lead-up to congressional elections in 2010: Rush Limbaugh, reacting to criticism of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, commented, “They're the ones who are sick … They're the ones who are perverted. They are the ones who are dangerous. They are the ones who are subhuman. They are the ones who are human debris, not the United States of America and not our soldiers and not our prison guards.” Ann Coulter in the National Review urged, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war.” Christian Right leader Pat Robertson, in an interview on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, charged, “This man [Muhammad] was an absolute wild-eyed fanatic. He was a robber and a brigand. And to say that these terrorists distort Islam, they're carrying out Islam … I mean, this man was a killer. And to think that this is a peaceful religion is fraudulent.” Robertson also called Islam “a monumental scam” and claimed the Quran, Islam's revealed text, “is strictly a theft of Jewish theology.” Jerry Falwell referred to the Prophet Muhammad as a “terrorist” on the CBS news program 60 Minutes. Benny Hinn declared, “This is not a war between Arabs and Jews. It's between God and the devil.”

Politicians in 2010 such as Newt Gingrich likened Muslims who wanted to build Park51 to Nazis planting a sign outside the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and also warned of the danger of Shariah taking over American courts. Republican state senator Rex Duncan of Oklahoma declared there is a “war for the survival of America,” to keep the Shariah from creeping into the American court system. Congresswoman Sue Myrick from North Carolina and Congressman Paul Broun from Georgia charged that Muslim student interns were part of a secret infiltration of Muslim spies into key national security committees on Capitol Hill. Tennessee Republican congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik wrote to oppose a new mosque, “Until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy our civilization and will fight against them, we are not obligated to open our society to any of them.”

Major polls revealed the extent to which public speeches and media coverage about Islam and Muslims in the United States had deeply affected Americans' attitudes, often blurring the mainstream majority of Muslims and the acts of a small but dangerous minority of terrorists. A 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admitted to having negative feelings or prejudices against people of the Muslim faith and favored using heightened security measures against Muslims as a way to help prevent terrorism. Fewer than half the respondents believed U.S. 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 neighbor; 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 the flight. About four in ten Americans favored more rigorous security measures for Muslims than those used for other U.S. citizens: requiring Muslims who are U.S. citizens to carry a special ID and undergo special, more intensive, security checks before boarding airplanes in the United States.

Four years later, no improvement can be seen. A 2010 Gallup Center for Muslim Studies report found that more than four in ten 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 toward Muslims, while 20 percent admitted feeling “some” prejudice. The result of Islamophobia, as noted by Dr. Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, chairman of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR), amounts to

clichés which stigmatise the whole of Islam as fundamentalist, ideological, monolithic, static, unidimensional, implacably opposed to modernity, incapable of integration or assimilation, impervious to new ideas, retrogressive, retrograde, backward, archaic, primaeval, medieval, uncivilised, hostile, violent, terrorist, alien, fanatical, barbaric, militant, oppressive, harsh, threatening, confrontational, extremist, authoritarian, totalitarian, patriarchal, misogynist, negatively exotic, and bent on imposing on the whole world a rigid theocratic system of government which would radically overturn every principle of freedom and liberal democracy cherished by the Western world.

“I have to say,” continues Henzell-Thomas, “that I don't know a single Muslim who embodies even one of these characteristics, and I have Muslim friends and colleagues in all walks of life and from many cultures all over the globe.”

After 9/11 Muslims shared fears that Islamophobia among their communities, neighbors, and co-workers would grow, along with hate crimes, discrimination, and more erosion of civil liberties. Their fears have been realized as all Western Muslims have been forced to live in increasingly suspicious and hostile American and European environments. Yet this experience did compel Western Muslims to both reassess their identity and reexamine their understanding of Islam. Among the positive outcomes has been acceleration of Muslim internal discussion and debate over what it means to be a Muslim in America or Europe, greater outreach on the part of Muslims to their non-Muslim communities, and more Muslim involvement in electoral politics and public affairs.

The history of our great country has been plagued from colonial days by religious and racial prejudice and exploitation: slavery and centuries of racial discrimination, the demonization and marginalization of Native Americans, the denial of the right to build synagogues in New York and anti-Semitism in America, discrimination against ethnic Catholic immigrants, and the collective punishment of Japanese Americans during World War II. We have weathered these storms as a nation, though many lives were shattered and problems remain.

The interconnectedness of Islamophobia, multiculturalism, and pluralism is critical to the future of Muslim-West relations. Attitudes toward Muslim communities in America and Europe are part of a complex set of issues. There is no easy way to discuss pluralism, multiculturalism, and the future of Western societies without discussing the precarious place of Islam and Muslims in the debate over civic engagement and integration.

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