In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed deeply grounded reservations of Europeans against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. Also in the United States questions about the Islam and the influx of Muslim refugees dominate public debate: 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 hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, that is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya, “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his victorious campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, President Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and this week, the Trump administration banned people from mostly Islamic countries from entering the United States. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, some authors even bring claims forward that Islam does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution.
Especially in contrast to Europe, the U.S. have always claimed secularism and religious freedom to be at the centre of American identity. The hostility now expressed towards Islam does not fit in the dominant national narrative. How could Islamophobia evolve in the US? And is it indeed a new phenomenon?
In the decades prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islam and Muslims were hardly on the political agenda in the U.S. Apparently, no coherent image of ‘the Muslim’ and the religion had been constructed in this period. Also, Americans did not have explicit negative sentiments against Muslims. American indifference towards Islam might be explained with the design of American secularism that 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 because of the massive influx of immigrants around the 20th century, developed into “a more diffuse deistic civil religion that easily embraces other faiths.”
Post-9/11: The Muslim as Security Threat
In the context of ideological and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East such as the Palestinian armed actions, the hostage crisis in Iran, as well as the Iran-Iraq war, Muslims were increasingly depicted as aggressive individuals that were easily seduced by ruthless religious leaders from the 1980s onwards. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conflation of Muslims and terrorism was fueled and has now gained significant ground in public debate. Hence, Muslims are now mainly associated with the fundamentalist positions of Islamist terrorist groups and are often framed as a threat to the safety and security to 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 right-wing populists such as Donald Trump who exploit people’s anxieties for their own electoral successes. Moreover, Islamophobic sentiments were reinforced by further terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Paris in 2015. In the course of these events, Muslims became seen as both a threat from the outside (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
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. Many prominent voices implicitly questioned if a Muslim could ever become president of the U.S. – even though in Obama’s case only his father identified as Muslim. In addition to that, the presumed anti-American character of Islam has also been articulated in the controversies on banning Islamic Sharia law as a source of American law.
Muslims are not only perceived 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), use the relatively higher population growth of Muslim minorities in Western countries as a key argument to predict the decline of Western civilization.
American Islamophobia – Not as New as One Might Think
Many political analysts argue that American Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon, but that the terrorist attacks rather served as a catalyzer for a longstanding fear and hatred of Muslims in America that preceded 9/11. 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 predate the US itself: British Islamophobia that developed during the colonization of Islamic parts of Asia fuelled Islamophobia in the US. As a consequence, Muslims usually had to fight for their whiteness in order to get naturalized – even if they were phenotypically white. Once arrived in the U.S., the Muslim minority has been regarded with the same suspicion as any other religious minority such as Catholics, Jews, etc. Last but not least, the Islamic religion might have also played a role in racial discrimination against people of color throughout American history and still in the 20th century. All in all, it seems as if the anti-Islamic propaganda of the post-9/11 era merely revives old racial and religious prejudice.
This article is a reedit of Sabine Volk’s Islamophobia: Made in America – A New Phenomenon? US Elections and Discrimination, republished now in light of recent events.
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