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.
Still, it is Muslims who are now some of the biggest villains in this story of decline, as the well-funded Islamophobic network pushes the paranoid fantasy that Sharia law is about to usurp the constitution or, even more simply, that Islam is not a religion at all but a “cult.” It has yet to be determined if there is any connection, but a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground the day after the Oak Creek shooting. In this climate, anyway, mosques are not seen as American places of worship but as temporary hotels for perpetual foreigners and fiery incubators for terrorism. But the statistics show another story. As reported by Liz Goodwin at Yahoo! News, “Between 1980 and 2001, non-Islamic American extremists carried out about two-thirds of all terrorism in the United States, according to FBI statistics cited by the Council on Foreign Relations. Between 2002 and 2005, that figure jumped to 95 percent. In the ten years following 2001, only 6 percent of terrorist acts in America have been the work of Islamic extremists.”
Yet Islamophobia is not solely the domain of the extreme right wing. It’s part of the Republican campaign for president. One of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisers is Walid Phares, part of the active anti-Muslim network. Michele Bachmann sent a letter urging the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton’s adviser Huma Abedin, among others, for “the deep penetration in the halls of our United States government” by the Muslim Brotherhood. Peter King held show trials falsely accusing Muslim Americans of radicalization and sedition. And one in three Republicans still believes Obama is a Muslim. Oh, brother!
Meanwhile, the current Democratic establishment shouldn’t be absolved of its sins. The Pentagon and the FBI have all promoted the most extreme, pernicious and twisted views about civilizational conflict with Muslims, and the FBI actively sends spies and informants into the community, often ensnaring vulnerable idiots in bogus plots. Authorities then announce the scripted arrests in ominous tones, further ramping up fear about Muslim Americans.
Or here’s another example. Last September, Bruce Norum, the top federal immigration official in Montana, forwarded a virulently racist chain e-mail to immigration attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath that read, “I want you to leave. I want you to go back to your desert sandpit where women are treated like rats and dogs. I want you to take your religion, your friends, and your family back to your Islamic extremists, and STAY THERE!” This is the man who holds the power to arrest, detain, and deport immigrants in Montana. One would think this would be evidence that Norum’s not quite capable of performing his duties without bias and therefore must have lost his job. Instead, he was simply suspended from his duties for eight months.
And then there’s Michael Bloomberg. Under his watch, the NYPD has been engaged in a massive spying campaign against New York’s Muslim American community that included compiling huge amounts of information on ordinary Muslims going about their regular activities at school, on the streets, while shopping, eating and praying. As the Associated Press series on the campaign made abundantly clear, probable cause didn’t drive this surveillance. Ethnicity and religion did. By not repudiating the program, the mayor and the NYPD send a clear message to the country that mosques and Muslims are not to be trusted. And yet, while properly paying a condolence visit on Monday to the city’s biggest Gurdwara, the mayor proclaimed, “No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, no matter what religion you profess, you have a right to be safe in your homes, in your places of worship, on the streets of New York City.” He offered no hint of recognition that his NYPD surveillance programs chips away at the security of Muslim New Yorkers.
What we need to recognize is the way that the hatred, fear and suspicion of Muslims has seeped so effortlessly into our culture. Under the guise of common sense, the vilification of Muslims is normalized and naturalized by a broad swath of the population, including leading politicians, law enforcement officials, petty bureaucrats and the media. Wade Michael Page was a racist, bigoted extremist. But the Islamophobia that drives people like Page is not exceptional. It’s part of our mainstream.