Fear and Loathing of Islam
Something’s gone terribly wrong.
In August 2007 the New York Police Department released a report called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” claiming that the looming danger to the United States was from “unremarkable” Muslim men under 35 who visit “extremist incubators.” The language sounds ominous, conjuring up Clockwork Orange–style laboratories of human reprogramming, twisting average Muslims into instruments of evil. And yet what are these “incubators”? The report states that they are mosques, “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores”—in other words, precisely the places where ordinary life happens.
From Arab bandits to TV terrorists, the history of Islamophobia in US popular culture is long and ugly.
Behind nearly every “foiled terror plot” lurks a government informant sent to entrap hapless young Muslim men.
But the report wasn’t based on any independent social science research, and actual studies clearly refuted the very claims made by the NYPD. The Rand Corporation found that the number of homegrown radicals here is “tiny.” “There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad—about one out of every 30,000—suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence,” Rand’s 2010 report found. “A mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced,” it concluded. This year, an analysis by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security also described the number of American Muslims involved in domestic terrorism since 2001 as “tiny.” “This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion,” it said. And a 2011 Gallup survey found that American Muslims were the least likely of any major US religious group to consider attacks on civilians justified.
Every group has its loonies. And yet the idea that American Muslim communities are foul nests of hatred, where dark-skinned men plot Arabic violence while combing one another’s beards, persists. In fact, it’s worse than that. In the past few years, another narrative about American Muslims has come along, which sows a different kind of paranoia. While the old story revolves around security, portraying American Muslims as potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, the new narrative operates more along the axis of culture. Simple acts of religious or cultural expression and the straightforward activities of Muslim daily life have become suspicious. Building a mosque in Lower Manhattan or in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, or in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, becomes an act of “stealth jihad.” Muslims filing for divorce invokes the bizarre charge of “creeping Sharia.” A dual-language Arabic-English high school in New York is demonized as a “madrassa.” The State Board of Education in Texas determines that reading about Islam is not education but indoctrination. Changing your Muslim-sounding name to one with a more Anglophone tenor triggers an NYPD investigation, according to the Associated Press. Even the fact that some Butterball turkeys are “halal” was enough to fire up the bigotry last Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays.
What happens when ordinary life becomes grounds for suspicion without a hint of wrongdoing; when law enforcement premises its work on spying on the quotidian and policing the unremarkable; and when the everyday affairs of American Muslim life can so easily be transformed into nefarious intent? Something has gone terribly wrong for American Muslims when, more than a decade after the terrorist attacks of September 11, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States continues to grow.
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A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in October 2001 found that 39 percent of Americans held unfavorable opinions of Islam. After dipping for a few years, the number rose to 46 percent in 2006 and reached 49 percent—basically half the population—in 2010, the last year the question was asked. (Other recent polls show similar results.) Such anti-Muslim attitudes are not merely absorbed by law enforcement and the military or reflected on the airwaves and in the words of our politicians. Rather, the idea that American Muslims are to be feared or loathed or excluded from the United States is being actively promoted.
This past September, Wired broke the story that the FBI tells its counterterrorism agents in training that mainstream American Muslims are probably terrorist sympathizers, that the Prophet Muhammad was a “cult leader” and that the religiously mandated practice of giving charity in Islam is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.” The training materials, which stated that FBI agents had the “ability to bend or suspend the law and impinge on freedoms of others,” identify other insidious techniques Muslims use for promoting jihad, including “immigration” and “law suits”—in other words, the ordinary uses of the American political system. The revelations forced the FBI to remove 876 pages from its manuals.
Another egregious example that recently came to light is that the NYPD, as part of its training, screened The Third Jihad, a film that claims “the true agenda of much of Islam in America” is “a strategy to infiltrate and dominate” the country. The film ran on a continuous loop for somewhere between three months and a year of training and was viewed by at least 1,489 officers. Yet another example involved Army Lt. Col. Matthew Dooley, who taught a course at the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Staff College that informed senior officers that the United States would have to fight a “total war” against the world’s Muslims, including abandoning the international laws of war that protect civilians (deemed “no longer relevant”), and possibly applying “the historical precedents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki” to destroy Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Claiming “Islam is an ideology rather than solely a religion,” the class taught that the United States was “culturally vulnerable” to this threat because of its “‘judeo-christian’ [sic] ethic of reason and tolerance.” The Pentagon canceled the course in the wake of the revelations, and Dooley maintains a nonteaching position, pending an investigation.
The consequences of these efforts to promote anti-Muslim beliefs and sentiments influence how American Muslims practice their faith, engage with their neighbors, cooperate with law enforcement, work at their jobs and study at school. Anti-mosque activity, according to the ACLU, has taken place in more than half the states in the country. And American Muslims, who make up 1–2 percent of the population, account for more than 20 percent of religion-based filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
There is legitimate concern about future acts of terrorism in the United States. But there is also plenty of reason to be skeptical of many of the plots that the FBI has disrupted, which are usually scripted by a paid informant, often with a criminal record himself [see Petra Bartosiewicz, “The FBI Stings Muslims,”]. Yet the publicity these “plots” receive feeds the anti-Muslim fervor.
Media coverage plays a major role in ramping up anti-Muslim attitudes, for a very simple reason: 62 percent of Americans, according to a 2010 Time magazine poll, say they have never met a Muslim. (If you do know a Muslim, you’re less likely to harbor anti-Muslim feelings, polls also show.) Absent ordinary personal contact, most Americans will get their views of Islam through television, cable news, talk-radio, the Internet and really bad action movies. Because the counterweight of personal contact is missing, Muslim attitudes are easily ventriloquized and distorted, and Muslims themselves often rendered mute or suspect. The myth that American Muslims haven’t spoken out against terrorism, for example, continues to haunt the community, even though they do so loudly and repeatedly.
Then there’s the myth, promulgated by Representative Peter King in his radicalization hearings last year, of American Muslim noncooperation with law enforcement. In reality, around 40 percent of Muslim domestic terrorism suspects since September 11, 2001, have been turned in by fellow Muslims, who have sometimes discovered later that the FBI was directing the operation.
Republican politicians, meanwhile, have been falling all over themselves to vilify Muslims, especially during the presidential primary. Herman Cain proclaimed that “a majority of Muslims share the extremist views,” initially vowing not to appoint any Muslims to his cabinet. Rick Santorum endorsed religious profiling, saying that “obviously Muslims would be someone [sic] you’d look at.” Newt Gingrich compared Muslims to Nazis in 2010, when he opposed building an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said. And, in 2007, Mitt Romney said, “Based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration.” Whatever happened to the matter of qualifications? But hey, if you’re a Muslim, that’s all you’ll ever be. Romney has hired Walid Phares, part of the active anti-Muslim network, as a foreign policy adviser, and GOP voters continue to consider that President Obama is a Muslim in large numbers (52 percent of Mississippi GOP members thought so in March).
It gets stranger still. When media portrayals of everyday American Muslim life are produced, the very ordinariness is attacked as a lie. TLC’s show All-American Muslim premiered in November to favorable reviews. The show, which focused on five Lebanese-American Shiite Muslim families in the Dearborn, Michigan, area, was a bit of a yawner for racy reality TV, but it was a useful kind of ethnography for Americans unfamiliar with the stuff of daily American Muslim life. Immediately, the organized anti-Muslim network kicked into gear. The Florida Family Association, basically a one-man show run by David Caton, led a boycott of the show via e-mail that was quickly picked up by the extreme right-wing anti-Islamic blogosphere, and led to Lowe’s and Kayak.com pulling their ads. Caton’s e-mail read, “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”
Follow the logic. The only thing accepted as “normal” for a Muslim is to act like an extremist. Ordinary Muslim folk appearing to live ordinary Muslim lives? That’s just plain suspicious.
The same belief drives the NYPD’s surveillance of American Muslim communities. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly informed American Muslim audiences in 2007 that the radicalization report of that year was “never intended to be a policy prescriptive for law enforcement actions,” but we now know he was lying. In its Pulitzer Prize–winning series published beginning in August 2011, the Associated Press has reported on how American Muslims who were not suspected of any wrongdoing were spied on in New York and beyond by the NYPD, with the CIA’s help. The NYPD catalogued the locations of barbershops, cafes and restaurants, noting where the undercover officers—dubbed “rakers”—heard “political and inflammatory rhetoric,” though what that means, and the fact that it’s free speech, is never stated. Undercover officers chatted up bookstore owners, played cricket with Muslims and uncovered such unsavory things as a travel agency on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where an officer “observed a female named ‘Rasha’ working in the travel agency, she recommended the ‘Royal Jordanian Airline.’”
The department also spied on Muslim college students throughout the Tri-State area, including at Brooklyn College, where I teach. Soheeb Amin, president of the college’s Islamic Society, told me that the AP reports were more of a confirmation than a revelation. “We know that there are people who are looking for excuses to get you in trouble for your religion,” he noted, and so he has adjusted. “I don’t talk about politics. I don’t talk about anything controversial. I don’t do anything that can raise suspicion.” Like many American Muslims, he feels his rights to practice his religion and express his ideas have been compromised. He told me he prays the mandatory five daily prayers, “but now I know that there are NYPD reports that mention that people prayed four times a day, and I guess five is worse than that,” he added, only half-jokingly. Muslims from New Jersey, including a decorated soldier, recently filed suit against the NYPD for violating their constitutional rights.
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Does this mean that the United States is an Islamophobic country? Of course not. Large support for American Muslims exists in many quarters [see Laila Al-Arian’s essay in this issue, page 31]. Polls may suggest that about half the population is anti-Muslim, but that leaves half that isn’t. In many quarters of the country, there is genuine, not suspicious, interest in American Muslims and the realities they face, as evidenced by the fact that TLC produced All-American Muslim. Aasif Mandvi’s contributions to The Daily Show routinely deflate the power of this contemporary prejudice, and libraries, museums, classrooms and houses of worship across the country now regularly include Muslims and Islam in their programming in an attempt to further understanding and combat bigotry.
American Muslims have responded to events over the past decade and the expansion of an anti-Muslim network largely by being more, not less, visible. The number of mosques grew 74 percent over the past decade, despite the opposition Muslims sometimes confront in their construction. Even if a 2011 poll found that 48 percent of American Muslims reported experiencing discrimination in the previous twelve months, they also showed more optimism than other Americans in the poll that their lives would be better in five years (perhaps, in part, because of today’s discrimination). The guiding belief in the American Muslim community today is that the country will recognize that Muslims have always been and will continue to be a part of America.
An ordinary life is more meaningful than it sounds. It signifies being able to live your life as you define yourself, not as others define you, and being able to assume a life free of unwarranted government prying. In fact, ordinariness is the foundation of an open society, because it endows citizens with a private life and demands that the government operate openly—not the other way around, which is how closed societies operate.
There is a real danger that the same tools that enable today’s Islamophobia will continue to migrate and expand with little or no public outcry. The FBI deploys a strategy of sting operations against Occupy protesters that is eerily familiar to American Muslims, to little outrage. The president enacts a law that allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens, and after a federal judge strikes it down as unconstitutional, Congress rushes in two days later to try to keep it on the books. American citizens can be assassinated by presidential decree, making a mockery of due process. Forget the Muslims. This mission creep is as good a reason as any to pay attention to Islamophobia today—because when the ordinary affairs of the United States include such actions, the stakes are nothing less than extraordinary.
Also in This Forum
Jack Shaheen, “How the Media Created the Muslim Monster Myth”
Petra Bartosiewicz, “Deploying Informants, the FBI Stings Muslims”
Laila Lalami, “Islamophobia and Its Discontents”
Abed Awad, “The True Story of Sharia in American Courts”
Ramzi Kassem, “The Long Roots of the NYPD Spying Program”
Max Blumenthal, “The Sugar Mama of Anti-Muslim Hate”
Laila Al-Arian, “When Your Father Is Accused of Terrorism”