The tragedy of the shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, is enormous. Six innocent people were gunned down in a Sikh temple by a white supremacist—but they weren’t innocent because they were Sikh, they were innocent because, well, they were innocent! Had Wade Michael Page walked into a mosque and begun shooting Muslims, the victims of his rampage would have been no more deserving of death.
It’s true that we don’t yet know Page’s precise motivations, but in all likelihood it wasn’t Sikhophobia, a term barely known in the United States. It was Islamophobia. That’s why to say that Page made a “mistake” in targeting Sikhs, as many have reported, or that Sikhs are “unfairly” targeted as Muslims, as CNN stated, is to imply that it would be “correct” to attack Muslims. Well, it’s not, and even if this is an error embedded in the routine carelessness of cable news, we need to be attentive to the implications.
Over the last few days, there has been a lot of media coverage about the Sikh religion and its origins and practices. Knowledge is always welcome over ignorance, but what we really need to educate ourselves about is the way racism operates in this country and its deadly character. The facts are not consoling. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the extreme right wing grew “explosively” in 2011 and for the third year in a row. The SPLC now tracks 1,018 hate groups, up from 602 in 2000, the year that Page is reported to have appeared on the Neo-Nazi scene. The number of hate groups, in other words, has almost doubled in the last twelve years, and that growth has accelerated since the election of Obama. The targets have also expanded. White supremacists have always been obsessed with Jews, blacks and the LGBT community as their objects of hate. And ten years ago, Jews and blacks were Page’s villains, according to Pete Simi, who interviewed him in 2001. But things have changed over this past decade. What continues to be underappreciated is how the hatred of Muslims has become a major motivating and mobilizing force in this putrid scene.
Meanwhile, polemicists like Sam Harris, magazines like Commentary, politicians like Peter King and loony bloggers like Pamela Geller and Debbie Schlussel have been screaming at the top of their lungs for years that there is no such thing as Islamophobia. As Laila Lalami points out, they talk only about “Islamophobia”—the word set off in scare quotes, as if Muslims have devised some sort of plot to exploit the liberal guilt of Americans through political correctness, the fallback term right-wingers constantly throw out for anything they don’t like.
But Islamophobia is real. Not only does it exist but it’s an increasingly toxic part of the political discourse of this country. To think that the compulsive hatred and fear of Muslims is reserved for the extreme right is to wall oneself off from how mainstream conservative discourse participates in this paranoid obsession that the old America is being nefariously and surreptitiously taken away from them. At bottom, this is an anxiety about the loss of privileges and power, quite likely related though not exclusively driven by downward economic mobility. (The New York Times offered the suggestive detail that property Page owned in North Carolina was foreclosed on in January.) Whatever the causes, the form that this hatred takes is cultural, and Muslims, Mexicans, non-white immigrants, really anyone who isn’t “American” by the most conservative definition becomes suspect.