“Islamophobia” literally means “fear of Islam.” Some say that fear is nothing new in the West and dates back as far as the European Crusades against the Seljuk Turks. As a recently-coined term, “Islamophobia” has been applied to a growing number of voices speaking out against a perceived threat by radical Islam to the United States, its people, culture and values, as well as its political and legal systems. Middle East Voices will regularly examine both sides of the phenomenon in an ongoing web series.
In a recent episode of the American cable television reality series All-American Muslim, siblings Bilal and Shadia Amen travel from their home in Dearborn, Michigan, to New York City. As part of their journey, they visit the new controversial community center and mosque near “Ground Zero,” the site of the September 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
Proposed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, “Cordoba House” was conceived as a $100 million 13-floor cultural center featuring a 500-seat auditorium, sports facilities, theater, restaurant and mosque. However, the proposed center was dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” by critics and segments of the American media. The project generated so much heat on both sides of the political spectrum that it was debated for months in the American media and exploited by many politicians for political gain.
Today, however, a year and a half after the controversy peaked, the center, now renamed Park51 after its street address, consists of a 4,000 square-foot space that basically resembles an art gallery. The All-American Muslim video crew captured the Park51 space in a recent episode.
“Is this what everybody is complaining about?” Shadia asks her brother.
This particular episode of All-American Muslim highlights one perspective of the debate over fear of Islam in the United States – how a seemingly innocuous community center became a lightning rod for people concerned about what prior to 9/11 would have been perceived as a normal manifestation of religious freedom.
In fact, recently, All-American Muslim, which follows the lives of five Dearborn, Michigan, Muslim American families, itself became the target of controversy. Billed by the show’s creator, The Learning Channel (TLC), as “a powerful series that goes inside the rarely seen world of American Muslims to uncover a unique community struggling to balance faith and nationality in a post 9/11 world,” its intent seems to be to demonstrate to audiences the similarities in religion and culture between Muslim Americans and Americans of other faiths.
When the series debuted in mid-November 2011, it was hailed by some as groundbreaking. But, a number of critics called it propaganda. They argue that All-American Muslim, by ignoring any mention of jihadism and terrorism, paints a deceptive picture of the religion.
Among the critics was David Caton, the director of an obscure ultra-conservative Christian group called the Florida Family Association, who urged his followers to join in a mass e-mail campaign calling on corporate sponsors of All-American Muslim to pull their advertising from the show.
“Clearly,” he wrote in an e-mail that targeted dozens of corporations, “this program is attempting to manipulate Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad and to influence them to believe that being concerned about the jihad threat would somehow victimize these nice people in this show.”
The quote, it appears, was taken almost verbatim from a blog by Pamela Geller, publisher of AtlasShrugs.com and author of Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance.
Author and blogger Robert Spencer called All-American Muslim an example of “bait and switch” (referring to a deceptive sales technique that involves advertising a low-priced item to attract customers to a store and then persuading them to buy something more expensive):
Such a show would be far more honest in its depiction of the causes of the trumped-up malady of “Islamophobia” – and of its remedies, for the best outcome would be a show in which the nascent jihadi was turned [over to] the FBI by his patriotic and moderate co-religionists.
Geller and Spencer regularly appear on American media when controversies over Muslims in America appear.
In the end, Caton’s campaign worked. Several dozen companies caved into pressure and canceled their advertising on the network that airs the show – most notably among them, the Lowe’s hardware store chain.
Roots of Modern Islamophobia
The term “Islamophobia” was used in America as early as the 1990s, but has become more widespread since the 9/11 attacks. In the intervening decade, America has made significant gains in the war against terror. Al-Qaida’s capabilities have, by many accounts, been significantly diminished, and Osama bin Laden, the man who came to personify the 9/11 attacks, has been captured and killed.
Yet an August 2011 Gallup survey found that nearly half of polled American Muslims report having experienced religious or racial discrimination in the past year. This follows a Zogby International poll released in September 2010 that shows 41% of Americans having an unfavorable opinion about Arabs and 55% having an unfavorable view of Muslims. Other data seems to show fear of Islam or Islamophobia is a rising trend and even more so within select segments of the U.S. population.
Faiz Shakir is a Vice President at the Center for American Progress and serves as Editor-in-Chief of ThinkProgress.org. He defines Islamophobia as “an exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political and civic life.”
Shakir attributes the continued prevalence of Islamophobia to what he calls a “concerted campaign” by certain political forces in the United States. Their mission, he believes, is to persuade the American mainstream that the Muslim community is “at odds with American values.”
Hussein Ibish is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and author of Ibishblog. For him, the roots of Islamophobia are broader in scope. He says that while fear and mistrust of Muslims dates back centuries, it wasn’t until the past decade that an “organized” Islamophobia began to emerge in the United States. It is politically driven, in part, Ibish says, however, politics represents only one strand of fear. “There are a number of different strands of Islamophobia,” he said. “There’s an Evangelical Christian strand. There’s a nativist, sort of racist one.”
Evangelicalism is a traditional Protestant Christian movement that, according to the Pew Forum, represents more than 26% of the overall U.S. adult population. That makes Evangelicals the single largest religious group in America. Evangelicalism is not a homogenous religious group; rather, its adherents can be found across Christian denominations. Most share a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible.
A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published in March 2006 showed that of all American Christians, white Evangelicals Protestants had the most negative views of Islam and Muslims. A separate ABC News/Washington Post poll published the same month showed that 45% of white Evangelicals believed Islam encourages violence and that 64% believed that Islam has more extremists than other faiths.
Nativists – a group favoring the interests of established inhabitants, on the other hand, have been found to represent just a small number on the spectrum. Opposed mainly to immigration, they draw little distinction between Muslims and foreigners in general. They believe that the growing influx of people from other countries has not only diluted America’s national cultural identity, but robbed Americans of jobs, now particularly scarce. According to Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group committed to the fight against hate and bigotry, nativism has been steadily rising since the 1990s, fueled by an increase in the number of Hispanic immigrants to America and U.S. Census Bureau projections that “whites will make up less than half of the U.S. population by 2042.”
Hussein Ibish says that Evangelicals, together with nativists and some other elements of American society have created “a kind of a coherent Islamophobic narrative that is basically indistinguishable from the anti-Semitism in the United States that was quite widespread between World War I and World War II.”
What is the fear?
Brigitte Gabriel is an activist and author of They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It. She is also the CEO founder of ACT! For America, a nonprofit organization created to fight the rise of radical Islam in America.
On its welcome pages, ACT! Issues an ominous warning:
The warriors of radical Islam are not only “over there.” Tens of thousands of Islamic militants now reside in America, operating in sleeper cells, attending our colleges and universities, engaging in influence operations aimed at the media and government. They are here – today. Many have been here for years. Waiting. Preparing.
Gabriel, a Christian from Lebanon, immigrated to the United States in 1989. She says after the attacks of 9/11 she began to recognize that Islamic radicalism had begun to “take root” in America. She began touring and lecturing about the threat of radical Islam and eventually founded ACT!, which urges citizens at the community level to keep a “watchful eye” out for signs of growing radicalism—“basically,” she said, “being the eyes and ears of our government on the ground after the terrorist attacks.”
Gabriel says radical Islam has infiltrated all levels in the United States – from the mosque to the U.S. government. So, who are these radicals?
“Well, as we have seen in the last two years alone, we have arrested over 75 homegrown terrorists – unfortunately, all Muslims, either born into the Islamic faith or have converted to Islam – trying to kill Americans or perpetrate attacks against America,” Gabriel said. “Whether it’s the shooters of the Arkansas Recruiting Center, whether it’s the guy who wanted to blow up the lighting of the Christmas tree in Oregon this Christmas, we can go down the list.”
And she does, in quick succession: Khalid Aldawsari, the student arrested in Texas for attempting to build a bomb and targeting multiple sites, allegedly including the home of former President George W. Bush; Faisal Shahzad, who tried to blow up Times Square in New York City; and others.
“And even though we know that the majority of the Muslim people in the world are moderate people just like you and me,” Gabriel said, “…it is the radicals who are causing mayhem.” And they’re on the rise. Why?
“You are seeing now more imams preaching inside the United States who are brought from Saudi Arabia, from Pakistan, from Egypt, who are not American-born Muslims but are Muslims coming purely from Saudi Arabia, teaching a doctrine that is very extreme in some of the mosques in the United States,” Gabriel said. She cites a 2005 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Religious Freedom, Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques. The Center reported that it had spent twelve months collecting publications from mosques across the United States. It said that it had amassed 200 books and pamphlets that demonstrated “the ongoing indoctrination of Muslims in the United States in the hostility and belligerence of Saudi Arabia’s hardline Wahhabi sect of Islam.”
Gabriel calls it a very troubling study:
“We found out that they are being taught to rise against democracy, that democracy is the cause of the wars all over the world, that it is a religious duty for Muslims to impose a functionally Islamic government on every country in the world.”
Gabriel is advocating that the moderate Muslim community be supported in its efforts at reform. She also calls on citizens to lobby state legislatures to introduce and pass anti-Sharia laws, a reference to the strict Islamic code considered by many Americans to be incompatible with any secular legal system.
Is media spreading fear?
James Zogby, founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute, has written extensively about fear of Islam.
“What has evolved over the last twenty years has been a particularly targeted media,” he said, “largely beginning with radio… and then coming live on television…but also now, a number of websites have become quite popular. And all of them become a kind of an echo chamber for each other.”
Zogby points back to the controversy over Park51, “where people who wanted to block the building of an Islamic center near the site of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were able to create an enormous national uproar by being able to get a message out on talk radio, [television] news, feeding information through their various and assorted…websites.”
The Center for American Progress report, Fear, Inc., The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, states that in his 1,500-page manifesto, Anders Breivik, the man who last July blew up an Oslo government building, then shot and killed 68 at a Norwegian youth camp, offered “numerous…citations to American bloggers and pundits, quoting them as experts on Islam’s ‘war against the west.’”
Fear, Inc. claims American Islamophobia is an “infrastructure,” comprising a number of American analysts and bloggers who deliberately push an anti-Muslim agenda in repeated appearances on select internet, radio and television networks. The report also claims that private foundations have supported their work, to the tune of more than $40 million over the past ten years:
These efforts recall some of the darkest episodes in American history, in which religious, ethnic, and racial minorities were discriminated against and persecuted…unfortunately, American Muslims and Islam are the latest chapter in a long American struggle against scapegoating based on religion, race or creed.
Taking Zogby’s example of Park51, Middle East Voices traced the controversy from the time it was first announced in December 2009. At that time, the space at 51 Park Place, a former department store, was already being used as a mosque. Imam Rauf proposed turning it into an Islamic cultural center, to be named “Cordoba House.” In the first months of 2010, little attention was paid to matter outside of the local press. It had the support of local civic groups, as well as the Manhattan Borough president. In May, after the local community board approved the project, the controversy began to pick up steam, creating a divide first among New Yorkers, then across the country.
In early May 2010, outspoken blogger Pam Geller wrote:
“What could be more insulting and humiliating than a monster mosque in the shadow of the World Trade Center buildings brought down by Islamic attack? …This best demonstrates the territorial nature of Islam. This is Islamic domination and expansionism.
“Taking into consideration the history surrounding Cordoba where it relates to Islam, the significance of the initial intention to name the Park51 project ‘The Cordoba House’ cannot be ignored. Cordoba infers conquest. In Abdul Rauf’s quest to erect an Islamic center and mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero we can only be led to the conclusion that its existence would signify conquest as well.
Concurrently, talk about the spread of Sharia law picked up. The same month, Frank Gaffney, appearing on the national Fox News network, spoke to host Glenn Beck about the controversial Islamic code:
Shariah is a political program that the authorities of Islam have long believed, a millennium or so, must be imposed over the entire world, to be ruled by a theocracy, a caliph and to impose Shariah as the rules.
The “Ground Zero Mosque” was now the talk of blogs and radio and television news reports across the nation. A CNN poll conducted subsequently and released on August 11, 2010, found that 68% of Americans opposed the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Eight months earlier, few Americans had ever heard of it.
It is impossible to identify with any measure of precision to what extent individuals, the media, native religions or cultural idiosyncrasies account for the root causes of the fear of Islam in the United States. Fear is nothing new in America. And that is something that this Fear of Islam series on Middle East Voices aims to explore.
In our upcoming reports, Middle East Voices examine other aspects of Islamophobia, including its impact on American Muslims. We will also speak to Reverend Terry Jones, a Florida pastor who made international headlines and drew international condemnation by deliberately burning a copy of the Quran.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.