Sabine Volk

“… a complete and total shutdown of Muslim Immigration” (Donald J. Trump, December 7, 2015)

In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed the deeply grounded reservations Europeans had against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. The religion and its followers are challenging American society in many ways: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and sometimes hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, which is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya: “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”

Donald Trump during the 2016 Election. Photo by Marc Nozell

To name just a few examples: In his campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, authors also bring claims forward that Islam, uniquely, does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution.

In contrast to Europe, the US has always claimed secularism and religious freedom to be at the heart of their identity. The hostility towards Islam does not fit in the national narrative. How has Islamophobia evolved in the US? Is it really a new phenomenon?

Pre-9/11: Invisible

New York pre-9/11. Photo by Leo Seta

Prior to the attacks on the New Yorker World Trade Center in 2001, Islam and Muslims were hardly on the political agenda in the US, at least, explicitly. Apparently, no coherent image of ‘the Muslim’ and the religion has been constructed in this period. Also, Americans did not have significant negative sentiments against Muslims. American indifference towards Islam can be explained by the design of American secularism, which declares religion to be a strictly private matter. American identity is therefore, as Zolberg and Woon put it, “no longer anchored in Christianity narrowly defined, but rather in a more diffuse deistic civil religion that easily embraces other faiths.”

Post-9/11: The Muslim as Security Threat

Osama Bin Laden was the violent extremist that planned the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks in New York. He attempted to associate his violent ideology with the Islamic faith. Photo by Hamid Mir

In the context of ideological and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East such as the Palestinian armed actions, the hostage crisis, as well as the Iran-Iraq war, Muslims were increasingly depicted as aggressive individuals that were easily seduced by ruthless religious leaders. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conflation of Muslims and terrorism has been completed. Hence, Muslims are now mainly associated with fundamentalist positions of Islamist terrorist groups and framed as a threat to safety and security of American society. Accordingly, Islam is constructed as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. The image of the Muslim as an extremist criminal and of Islam as a violent ideology is successfully enhanced by mainly right-wing populists, such as Donald Trump, who exploit people’s anxieties in order to gain ground. It moreover has been reinforced by further terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Paris in 2015. In the course of these events, Muslims have become a threat from without (Middle Eastern terrorists attacking the western world) and from within (so-called “homegrown terrorists” planning attacks, as has happened in France in 2015).

The Muslim as Cultural Other

Khizr Khan and his wife, a Muslim American family whose son was lost while working as a US soldier. The Khans spoke at the Democratic National Convention in response to Trump’s allegations that Muslim Americans are not loyal. Photo by Voice of America

At the same time, the Muslim is increasingly constructed as a cultural Other in America, especially by anti-Islam think tanks. Muslims are depicted as an out-group that is essentially “un-American.” This perception was revealed first and foremost in the political debates related to Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency that implicitly questioned if a Muslim could ever become president of the US – even though in Obama’s case only his father identified as Muslim. In addition to this, Islam is constructed as un-American, as has been shown in the controversies on banning Islamic Sharia law as a source of American law.

Muslims are not only constructed as different, but also as a threat to American culture and identity. In the aftermath of 9/11, multiple books have been published that contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories of Muslims planning to dominate the world. These theories, e.g. in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by the Canadian author Mark Steyn (2006), are constructed around the relatively higher population growth of Muslim minorities in western countries and predict the decline of western civilization.

American Islamophobia – Not as New as One Might Think

Malcolm X was a activist for the rights of African Americans and a Muslin Minister.

However, many political analysts argue that the terrorist attacks merely served as a catalyser for the longstanding fear and hatred of Muslims in America to boil up, rather than creating these images. Hence, although the anti-Muslim discourse became visible only after 9/11 in America, it has a longer history. In fact, American Islamophobia embraces cultural tropes that predates the US itself: British Islamophobia that developed during the colonization of Islamic parts of Asia informed Islamophobia in the US. As a consequence, Muslims usually had to fight for their ‘whiteness’ in order to get naturalized as citizens – even if they were phenotypically white, at a time when racial discrimination at the official level was rampant. Upon arrival in the US, the Muslim minority were regarded with the same suspicion as any other religious minority at the time, such as Catholics, Jews, etc.

Last but not least, the correlation between Islamic faith and populations of colour might have also played a role in racial discrimination against people of colour throughout American history, both as an excuse for the discrimination against minorities and as another noticeable difference between those in majority and the minorities. It seems, upon closer inspection, as if the anti-Islamic propaganda of the post-9/11 era merely resuscitates the old racial and religious prejudice of the bygone centuries, allowing a new flowering of the prejudices that the modern world had thought it had uprooted.

Featured picture: Anti-Islam Protest in Cincinnati, 28-05-2016. Photo by Hayden Schiff.

Click here for more by Sabine Volk.

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