Fearing the Other: Islamophobia in the United States

sharia-law-billboard
By Matt 57.

Sabine Volk

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?

Pre-9/11: Ignorance

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.”

donald_trump_by_gage_skidmore_5
Donald Trump ran a successful anti-Islam campaign. By Gage Skidmore.

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.

SONY DSC
The American Islamic Centre in Dearborn, Michigan. By Dane Hillard.

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.

Click here for more by Sabine Volk

Click here for more World Politics on The Euroculturer

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.

The Euroculturer Recommends:

The Uncertain Fate of Post-Brexit Cinema by Emilie Oudet

The Burkini Ban: Unveiling the Prejudice

burkini-beach

Julia Mason

The Conseil d’Etat might have overthrown the burkini ban but the debate rumbles on.

Despite the ruling of the Conseil d’Etat (France’s supreme court for administrative justice) on 26th August that the ban on wearing burkinis in public in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet should be suspended, mayors in cities such as Nice, Cannes and Sisco have vouched to maintain a hard-line against “beachwear that ostentatiously displays religious affiliation” (une tenue de plage manifestant de manière ostentatoire une appartenance religieuse).

In the wake of the ruling, Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve called a meeting about the status of Islam in France. Cazeneuve, who is against the ban, urged that “France is now more than ever in need of a peaceful relationship with Muslims” (la France a plus que jamais besoin d’une relation apaisée avec les musulmans).

The fallout from the burkini ban has been causing waves not only in France but across the Continent. But have external condemnations and accusations of prejudice been too harsh?

A manifestation of French laïcité?

First and foremost, the burkini ban has to be seen in the French context. Whilst similar measures in other Western democracies would bear the hallmark of right-wing extremists, in Oye-Plages near Cannes, it was a Socialist mayor who sought to ban the burkini. France’s very strict rules on laïcité coupled with a very disturbing wave of Islamic-motivated terrorist attacks over the past year might cause us to soften our view on the matter.

France’s 1905 law separating the church and the state has formed the basis of French actions towards religion ever since. The controversial ban on wearing the burqa or the niqab in public places, justified on the grounds that showing one’s face in public is a fundamental part of living together in society, was passed in 2010. So is the current burkini ban just an extension of the ban on the burqa?

There’s at least one reason why it’s certainly not. A confusion of terminology has led to an outfit which scarcely resembles the long, dark, face-shielding, head-to-toe veils which are the object of the 2010 ban being seen in the same way. The misleadingly-named burkini might better be dubbed Al-Amirakini or the Hijabini but Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who owns the trademarks of the words Burkini and Burqini, clearly had poetics rather than politics on the mind at the point of conception.

Lots of the photos we’re being confronted with in the media show colourful, wetsuit-style outfits with water-proof headscarves which leave the face fully exposed. This surely undermines the argument forwarded by many that the burkini ban is simply an extension of the burqa ban.

burk
The Burkini, scarcely reminiscent of the Burqa (compare below)

Emancipation for women

Is wanting to dress modestly at the beach really such a bad thing? It seems that it is if you’re Muslim. Why should it be that dressing modestly at the beach should be acceptable if you wish to wear a kaftan, a salwar kameez, or even a body-covering catholic habit, but not if you wish to actually go in the water or wear beachware associated with Islam.

Oppression of women in any form certainly has no place in 21st century Western democracies but at some point, enforced emancipation steps on the toes of freedom. The well-versed counter argument is that creating modest swimwear appropriate for Muslim women gives them more freedom, by allowing them to undertake that activity that the majority takes for granted, namely swimming in public.

Is it not a little patronising of the French, and others who hold the view, to tell women what they can and can’t wear? Whilst such bans in favour of the emancipation of women may just about hold for the burqa and niqab, the more extreme ends of Muslim dress code, applying the same logic to the Burkini seems to be flawed.

burq
Do the Burqa and the Burkini fall into the same category?

The fact of the matter is, burkinis are not being banned because of a desire to suddenly emancipate Muslim women. No, they’re being banned on the basis that they might lead to terrorism. As the mayor of Nice finely put it, the ban covered “Clothing that overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” If this isn’t prejudice, then I’ll eat my headscarf.

Click here for more by Julia Mason.

The Euroculturer Recommends:

For more on Europe and Islam, read Sabine Volk’s fascinating piece on European right-wing rhetoric here

To learn about recent terrorist attacks in Europe, read Eric Hartshorne’s brilliantly concise history of terrorism here

“They just have a different culture!” Disguised racism in right-wing rhetoric of the 21st century

 

pegida-dresden
PEGIDA march in Dresden

 Sabine Volk

In spring 2016, the German nationalist movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) founded a coalition together with nationalist and xenophobic movements and parties from other European countries. Their alliance, the so-called Fortress Europe (read also “Patriotic Europeans United in Fortress Europe”), poses a theoretical paradox: how is it possible that nationalist groups work together at a European level?

Historical analysis shows that transnational collaboration between right groups is not a new phenomenon. First, one might think of the (attempts of) collaboration by the fascist parties from various European countries in the first half of the 20th century. Nowadays, a visible manifestation of right-wing collaboration consists in coalition-building in the European Parliament (EP). Fortress Europe is thus yet another example of how even nationalists can unite at supranational level. What ideology binds the contemporary right-wing groups together? Continue reading ““They just have a different culture!” Disguised racism in right-wing rhetoric of the 21st century”