By Zainab Arain
March 30, 2017
It’s barely the end of March. Yet since the year began, Muslims in the United States have been beat up, spit on, harassed, and threatened. Their places of worship have been burnt to the ground and vandalized. In these few months of 2017, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has preliminarily recorded 33 anti-mosque incidents.
The impetus behind these attacks can be attributed to Islamophobia, a closed-minded hatred, fear, or prejudice towards Islam and Muslims which results in discrimination, marginalization, and oppression. It creates a distorted understanding of Islam and Muslims and transforms diversity in name, language, culture, ethnicity, and race into a set of stereotyped characteristics. Thus, Sikhs, Christian Arabs, and Hindu Indians are targeted because they share characteristics which have been racialised as “Muslim” – whether it be language, clothing, or skin colour. As such, Islamophobia is also a system of both religious and racial animosity.
Before discussing four interconnected institutional sources of contemporary Islamophobia in the United States, it is important to recognize that the actions of violent extremists also contribute to Islamophobia. Many Americans were unfortunately introduced to Islam and Muslims through the images of planes crashing into towers on 9/11. Although violent groups like ISIS target and murder more Muslims than others, these groups continue to colour American perceptions of Islam and all Muslims with the dangerous shade of prejudice.
1. The U.S. News Media
MediaTenor, an international media research institute, examined nearly three million news stories and found that the U.S. news media’s coverage of Muslims and Islam is overwhelmingly negative in both content and tone. Coverage has almost exclusively focused on portraying Islam as a national security risk and Muslims as a threat to liberty and life, and this has grown worse over time.
A Washington Post article published last week looked at a study examining the coverage of acts of terrorism in the United States between 2011 and 2015. The research found that of the 89 terrorist attacks, only 12.4 percent were committed by Muslims. And yet, controlling for various factors including fatalities and arrest, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks.
It is indisputable that the U.S. media disproportionately overemphasizes negative coverage and news pertaining to Muslims and Islam. Unsurprisingly, this leads the American public to possess an exaggerated sense of threat, and consequently fear, of Muslims and Islam which plays neatly into Islamophobia.
The media rarely shows talented, exemplary, or even ordinary Muslim life, like that of the foster father Mohamed Bzeek who takes care of terminally ill foster children, or film director and hip hop artist Alia Sharrief. Rather, it paints an image of Muslims and Islam as threats within the frame of national security.
2. America’s Foreign Policy
This Islamophobic categorization of Islam as inherently violent is rooted in European colonization, and has been transplanted and utilized by the U.S. to justify its foreign policy in Muslim-majority regions of the world. In orienting American political antagonism onto the sphere of racialised religion, Islamophobia serves as a convenient ideology to obfuscate and dismiss the U.S. government’s own role in fostering violence against Muslims around the world. This advances a worldview of “us vs. them,” which otherizes Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.
Consider President George W. Bush’s failed War on Terror, which can be summed up by his infamous phrase, “you are either with us or against us.” The government decimated Iraq, an act that in part created the power vacuum from which ISIS emerged. This serves as an excellent example of policies which were presented to the American public as essential for freedom and safety. More recently, President Barack Obama permitted an ongoing drone war that has killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen. The continuation of war in Muslim-majority regions thus perpetuates the ideas and structures of Islamophobia. Effectively dismantling Islamophobia in the American society is countered by this constantly reinforced prejudice.
3. U.S. Political Rhetoric
Interwoven with the media and the government’s foreign policy, the irresponsible rhetoric of elected officials and those in positions of political influence augments Islamophobia in the United States. Politicians play on people’s emotions and exploit their fear to actively instigate Islamophobia when it serves their own political interests.
Then presidential candidate Trump’s dangerous proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States offers a prime example. Far from being a spontaneous proposition, the proposal was crafted on December 2, and then held to be announced on December 7, National Pearl Harbour Remembrance Day, for “symbolic impact.”
A study by a former Gallup researcher has demonstrated that spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment are correlated with election cycles. The statements and actions of leaders shape Islamophobia more so than international events. This can be evidenced by the last year, an election year, in which politicians and those with political influence sought to gain greater power. In an upcoming report, CAIR recorded an alarming 50 percent increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents in 2016 as compared to 2015. Moreover, the increase in the number of incidents has been accompanied by an increase in their severity and violence as well. A larger percentage of cases involve physical violence or property destruction and vandalism.
4. The U.S. Islamophobia Network
Within the U.S. there exists an influential network of groups and individuals who falsely cast Islam and Muslims as a malevolent existential threat, and work actively to promote prejudice, discrimination, and oppression towards the faith and its practitioners. This Islamophobia Network operates on the basis of misinformation, hostility, and lies to sway public opinion and influence policy and law at a local and national level.
CAIR has identified 74 groups in the U.S. that are a part of this network, and divides them into the inner and outer core. Those who are a part of the inner core, which consists of 33 groups and individuals, exist primarily and exclusively to vilify, demonize, and promote hatred and fear towards Islam and Muslims. The outer core, consisting of 41 groups and individuals, while regularly demonstrating Islamophobic themes in their work, does not exist solely for this purpose. An example of a group in the outer core is Fox News Channel. Fox repeatedly hosts individuals who make claims such as, “terrorists are Muslims,” Muslims “hate Jews and Christians,” and Islam “is the worst, most deadliest idea in the history of the world.”
It is the inner core; however, that is the more noxious of the two. It is a source of much of the common Islamophobic rhetoric which is disseminated through the public space, including false ideas such as, Shari’a is a totalitarian political ideology and the Muslim Brotherhood, a loosely connected global movement, is taking over the United States government. CAIR’s 2016 Islamophobia report, Confronting Fear, found that this inner core had access to at least 205 million dollars in total revenue over a five year period.
ACT for America and the Centre for Security Policy are the two most powerful groups in the Islamophobia Network. ACT was founded by Brigitte Gabriel, whom BuzzFeed reporter David Noriega has labelled, “the most influential leader in America’s increasingly influential anti-Islam lobby.” Gabriel has claimed that Arabs “have no soul,” and that “every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim.” On March 21, Gabriel posted a photo of herself in the White House, meeting with a member of Trump’s administration.
Under her, ACT has worked to advance anti-Muslim and anti-Islam policy and legislation at a local and federal level. It simultaneously floods the American public with false accusations and hate speech demonizing Muslims.
Like ACT, the Centre for Security Policy works actively in promoting anti-Muslim policy and legislation. Its founder, Frank Gaffney, has been referred to as “one of the country’s leading anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists.” An example of CSP’s influence can be gleaned from the following example.
In 2016 CSP commissioned the polling company of Kellyanne Conway, who is now Counsellor to the President, to conduct a poll on American Muslims. The resulting statistically flawed poll falsely portrayed American Muslims as increasingly radical, and was cited by then-Presidential candidate Trump in his original proposal for the Muslim ban. That groups within the Islamophobia Network have such direct access to the current White House administration is deeply concerning.
Other individuals who are intimately connected to the Network and are now part of the White House administration include Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist, who has described Islam as “a political ideology,” and Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president, who has said profiling Muslims, is a “synonym for common sense.”
Beyond the executive branch of government, the Network has also had an impact on legislation. As of 2016, ten states have passed anti-Islam legislation in the United States, modelled on framework legislation created by David Yerushalmi through the American Freedom Law Centre, another inner core Islamophobic group. Substantively empty, the anti-Islam legislation simply aims to demonize Islam and promote fear of Muslims.
Countering Institutional Islamophobia
It is critical to support organizations who conduct research, engage in advocacy, and use legal methods to counter institutional Islamophobia. Such organizations include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Center for New Community, the Georgetown Bridge Initiative, the People for the American Way, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Like other systems of discrimination and oppression, Islamophobia is structurally embedded within American society, and like those systems, the fight against Islamophobia requires extensive resources, commitment, and perseverance.
It requires a recommitment from Muslims to advance the fundamental Islamic principle of benefitting humanity and averting harm from humanity. It requires compassionate Muslim engagement with issues affecting other communities and a joint effort to demand equal protection and participation in society. It requires enhanced Muslim involvement in U.S. public and political life, and it requires the empowerment of a diverse range of legitimate Muslim voices to contribute views and perspectives on Islam and Muslims in the public sphere. Most importantly, however, it requires you. Your conscious commitment to build a better America is the most effective tool to counter Islamophobia.
Zainab Arain, MA, is the program coordinator in the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.