By Reuven Firestone
Lurking behind suspicion about the new Islamic Center planned to be built near Ground Zero is something much more ominous than would appear. Skepticism about funding sources and concern for the sensibilities of those traumatized by the horror of 9/11—while legitimate concerns—are heightened by a deep-seated bigotry against Muslims and their religion. We come by it naturally because Islamophobia is deeply imbedded in the very culture of Western civilization. But most of us don’t recognize it.
The word “Islamophobia” began to appear only in the 1980s. While it is a recently coined term, it refers to a history of fear and hatred of Muslims in the West that has had a long time to become implanted in our collective psyche. Its roots can be traced to the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. After suffering centuries of bloody persecution under pagan Roman authority, Christians suddenly became privileged citizens of the empire. Many leaders of the Church considered the sea-change a divine sign of the absolute truth of their religion, that historical success proves theological truth. It was a zero-sum view of the world: “Truth is with us. All else is falsehood.”
That conclusion would haunt Christian believers some generations later with the extraordinary success of Islam. Within twenty years of the death of the prophet Muhammad, Muslim armies controlled the Middle East and much of North Africa. After only two more generations the Muslim empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to India while the Christian Byzantine Empire was forced into a rump state confined to Anatolia and a few provinces west of the Bosporus. The conquest was followed by extraordinary Muslim contributions to philosophy, economics, literature, and all the sciences.
The success of Islam was an existential shock to the Christian world. Suddenly, the accepted notion that history proves theology seemed to prove the demise of Christianity with the rise of Islam.
Apologists quickly attempted to make sense of the crisis. One eighth-century Byzantine monk explained that Muhammad was a fraud; a poor but clever epileptic who rationalized his convulsive fits as periods in which the angel Gabriel would visit him and give him divine wisdom. The polemic intensified over the generations. Peter of Toledo in twelfth-century Spain wrote that Islam was the result of a Satanic plot. Riccoldo da Monte di Croce wrote in thirteenth century Tuscany that Muhammad was chosen not by God but by the devil. According to most medieval thinkers, the so-called prophet who inspired his warriors to overwhelm the forces of Christ was a satanic force working for the demons of hell.
Such reactions to the great success of Islam institutionalized a deep fear and resentment that became imbedded in the very core of Western identity. This is Islamophobia, even if no special word had yet been coined to describe the sentiment, and it reflects a zero-sum view of the world. Christianity is truth. There can be no other. First articulated in theological treatises, this perspective soon became infused into the very core of Western civilization through folklore, art, music, and literature. Hollywood, which is at its best when graphically depicting deep cultural assumptions, has maintained and boosted Islamophobic views in films from Laurel and Hardy in the 1930s (Beau Hunks, among others) to Disney’s more recent Aladdin and the Indiana Jones franchise. It is so natural, so expected, that most of us have no idea how it affects us. I’ve asked my college students what they think of when they see a scene from a movie in which they hear the call to prayer and see a minaret or dome. The answer? “Something bad is about to happen.”
Islamophobia can remain in latent form until it is triggered by economic, political, or social stress. In the last decades it has been activated by economic and social problems and the increased numbers and visibility of Western Muslims. But the biggest boost to Islamophobia without question has been the appalling deadly attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the lethal bombings in London and Madrid, and the nature of reaction by key Western leaders to these events. Given the deep suspicion of Islam so deeply imbedded in our culture and the horrendous nature of these attacks, the activation of Islamophobic bigotry is not surprising.
Discussions on the Web about the proposed Islamic Center planned to be built near Ground Zero repeat patterns of thinking established centuries ago by medieval polemicists. Just this week I read these comments: “Muhammad admittedly received a message from Satan and delivered it to the people as if it were from God.” “Any mosque built anywhere is a shrine to Satan.” It is unlikely the writers of these postings ever heard of Peter of Toledo or Riccoldo da Monte di Croce. For most Americans, negative expectations are instinctively twinned with the words Islam, Muslim, and Muhammad.
No wonder such a fuss has been made over the proposed Muslim-sponsored cultural center. Its purpose is to promote an atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that most of us long for—but cannot believe Muslims could really want. Let’s not regress to the naive medieval equation by making this a Ground Zero-sum game.
Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and Co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.