by Sophia Rose Arjana
Scholars, among them Deepa Kumar, Todd Green, Nathan Lean, and myself, have written on Islamophobia – its origins, history, role in politics, and dissemination in American culture. Our work has sought to uncover the history of anti-Muslim discourse, display its symbols, and illustrate its roles in politics and economics. As Green has written, “Islamophobia constitutes one of the most acceptable forms of bigotry in the West today.”
The concern surrounding Islamophobia is well founded, but the phenomenon is not new. Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been the modus operandi of Western discourse since the beginning of Christian-Muslim relations. It began with fantasies about the Saracens (the medieval name for Arabs), the Prophet Muhammad, and monstrous races, which at times included creatures who were part African and Jewish as well, such as the Black Saracen or the Jews who prayed to “Mahomet.” In the Renaissance, Muslims, usually cast as Turks, were portrayed as the killers of Christ, or placed in scenes illustrating the execution of a saint. In one example, Turkish figures with turbans were shown looking on as St. Lucy is killed; in another painting, they participate in the torture of Christ alongside Jews, further perpetuating the fantasy of a grand Jewish-Muslim conspiracy. Monstrous depictions carry forth into the modern period in Gothic fiction, and later, in science fiction and horror. Islamophobia differs from these images in important ways. In particular, Islamophobia uses the language and machinery of modernity to vilify Muslims as “medieval” and “uncivilized,” presenting us as unacceptable for citizenship, friendship, or equality in the West.
Islamophobia has become popularized in recent years thanks to far-right politicians, news organizations like Fox, and popular media like the Showtime series Homeland, all of which use political conflagrations in their presentations of Muslims as villains, or worse. In news programs, political platforms, and television dramas, Muslims are denigrated, demonized, and dehumanized in ways that would be unthinkable for another religious group. The extent of this abuse is so great that members of the LDS (The Church of Jesus and Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons) have seen in Muslims reminders of their own persecution, which included harassment, exile, and murder. Jewish groups have also raised deep concern over the treatment of Muslims, seeing echoes of a deeply painful and tragic past.
Over the past year, Islamophobia has garnered even more attention because of the U.S. election cycle. The rise of Donald Trump has contributed to increased hostility toward Muslims. Trump’s hateful rhetoric – and that of his supporters – is focused on minorities, including Muslims. Trump has promised to ban Muslims from entering the country, carpet-bomb Muslim-majority countries, and kill non-combatant relatives of foreign terrorists. His statement, “I think Islam hates us” suggests that Islam is a singular identity, rather than a wide set of beliefs and traditions followed by 1.6 billion people around the world.
The current political climate leaves American Muslims (who account for roughly 1 percent of the American population) in a vulnerable position as individuals targeted, harassed, and profiled, concerned about their relatives abroad, and questioning their safety at home. Over the past several years, efforts to control the dress, speech, and movement of Muslims has risen precipitously. Earlier this year a Muslim student was handcuffed and detained when he built a clock, intended to impress his teachers, which was mistaken for something more nefarious. Muslims have been targeted for attempting to pray. Attacks on Muslim women wearing the hijab are becoming more common. Recently, a number of Muslims have been removed from flights because they were speaking Arabic or wearing Muslim clothing. At the same time that Muslims are suffering due to Islamophobia, others are making huge profits from it.
Islamophobia is big business. As documented in a 2011 study titled Fear, Inc., demonizing Muslims is lucrative, with over $40 million funneled to Islamophobia think-tanks between 2001 and 2009. These funds have been used to create hateful campaigns such as those run by Stop Islamization of America. They have also been used to try to curb free speech. Campus Watch, an arm of Middle East Forum, keeps tabs on university professors in an effort to fire anyone who does not subscribe to a neoconservative political ideology.
Numerous individuals have careers focused solely on the demonization of Muslims, including Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Pamela Geller, and Tawfiq Hamid. These are people whose “expertise” is denigrating Islam and Muslims. As one example, Hirsi Ali makes her living by vilifying Islam and Muslims. Her book titles feature words and phrases like “nomad,” “infidel,” “caged virgin,” and “heretic,” suggesting Islam is uncivilized, exotic, and violent with no diversity or variance in interpretation or practice. She frequently appears on news programs as an “expert” on Islam despite not being a scholar, and is a favorite of Bill Maher, who has lauded her as his “hero.”
Among the many problems with these faux public intellectuals is that their critiques of Islam are often motivated by career ambition, not scholarship. The desire to make money trumps (pardon the pun) the ethics surrounding the vilification of 1.6 billion people. This results in a kind of pandering to the least common denominator through using sweeping generalizations, falsehoods, and lies about Muslims that exotify and exaggerate what is truth. Public discourse on Islam is like the MTV Video Music Awards. Each year, the show is more outrageous, but people can’t help but watch.