Few analysts would dispute the assertion that the tension between the West and the Muslim world that emerged in the last ten years is the most challenging and troubling feature of contemporary international relations.
We also need to recognize that when we speak of the West and the Muslim world today, we are not dealing with monoliths, but with interconnected entities. The West is in Islam and Islam is in the West, as shaped by history. There are about 25 million Muslim Europeans and between 5 and 7 million Muslim Americans. These are not two separate or clashing civilizations, but connected worlds that constitute parts of one another.
It is also evident that globalization and what it implies in terms of movement of people, ideas, and continuous fow of digital information, introduced perception as a new and potent variable in policy formation and implementation, both within and between states. This applies fully to the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, and this has implications, as the two previous observations do, for the consideration of
Islamophobia in the West and its policy implications for peace and security. I will, therefore, frst address the issue of defnition–what is Islamophobia? Second, I will discuss its manifestations. Third, I will try to discern its trends. Fourth, I will question its history; when we speak about the West and Islam, calling on history is both necessary and unavoidable. Lastly, I will consider the question of the dangers of Islamophobia and its policy implications for peace and security.
I. What is Islamophobia?
«Islamophobia» is a vague term, but we know it because we see it. On a literal level, it means a phobia–an irrational fear–of Islam and those who practice it. But Islamophobia can be perhaps best understood in terms of acts that express it.
In a proposed approach to Islamophobia for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ambassador Omür Orhun, who serves as the Chairman-in-Offce’s Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims, defnes Islamophobia as, «a form of intolerance and discrimination motivated by fear, mistrust, and hatred of Islam and its adherents. It is often manifested in combination with racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments, and religious intolerance.» Signifcantly, Orhun notes that incidents of Islamophobia «can be manifested by both non-state actors and state offcials, as well as by the mass media.» He writes, «Institutional Islamophobia [consists of] state policies and systematic practices discriminating [against] Muslims based on their religious identity.»
Islamophobia can be broken down further, into components, as it was originally defned in a 1997 report, Islamophobia: a Challenge for Us All, by Runnymede Trust:
- Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.
- Islam is seen as separate and «other.» It does not have values in common with other cultures, is not affected by them, and does not infuence them.
- Islam is seen as inferior to the West. It is seen as barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist.
- Islam is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in a «clash of civilizations.»
- Islam is seen as a political ideology and is used for political or military advantage.
- Criticisms made of the West by Islam are rejected out of hand.
7) Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
8) Anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural or normal.
Islamophobia often cannot be disassociated from racial and ethnic considerations, because a wide range of identities are presumed to be connected to Islam. Researcher Erik Love, author of «Confronting Islamophobia in the United States,» insists that Islamophobia must be considered within the context of race in the United States. Because physical characteristics and accents in speech are often used to crudely characterize people according to constructed racial categories, a large range of groups are impacted by Islamophobia. As Love writes, «Islamophobia does not always target Islam and Muslims per se, but instead takes on the familiar pattern of racial scapegoating: fear and hatred, prejudice and discrimination directed towards groups crudely demarcated primarily by physical appearance.» Race clearly played a role when, for example, on September 16, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who wore a turban in accordance with his Sikh faith, was shot and killed by a man who shouted «I stand for America all the way,» as he was arrested. Sodhi was the victim of a hate crime that can only be explained by his «Muslim-like» appearance.
As race must be considered in the United States, so race and social status must be considered in Europe. As the Gallup Coexist Index 2009 comments, in Europe the word «immigrant» has become virtually synonymous with «Muslim.» Tensions surrounding the integration of immigrants and minority communities play a crucial role in forming the context surrounding the presence and treatment of Muslims.
To illustrate Islamophobia’s reach and effect, let us turn to some examples.
In the United States, Islamophobic rhetoric has become a frequent occurrence in political discourse, particularly by the media. On May 18, 2010, Mark Williams, a conservative talk radio host and frequent guest on CNN, who is listed as chairman of the ultra-conservative Tea Party Express and often serves as spokesperson for the group, wrote on his blog:
The animals of allah for whom any day is a great day for a massacre are drooling over the positive response that they are getting from New York City offcials over a proposal to build a 13 story monument to the 9/11 Muslims who hijacked those 4 airliners.
The monument would consist of a Mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god and a ‘cultural center’ to propagandize for the extermination of all things not approved by their cult.
Williams was reacting to a plan to build a mosque near the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. A project of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Initiative, the 13-story building will include a community center, a mosque, a gym, and other public spaces. ASMA argues that the center is a remedy to the perceived failure of moderate Muslims to speak out against extremism; in the center freedom of religion can be practiced, and American Muslims can, in ASMA’s words, «stand together with our fellow citizens to condemn extremism and terror.»
Indeed, a statement from ASMA reads as quite the opposite of how Williams characterizes «terrorists» who drool over massacres: «Our mission is to be a beacon of hope, peace, understanding and harmony to those who join us in condemning hatred and violence of any kind…It is a project to honor those who were harmed on September 11. It is a project to proclaim our patriotism to this country, and to stand side-by-side all men and women of peace.»
Despite ASMA’s lofty declared mission, ferce opposition to the mosque’s location erupted in New York, largely fueled by Williams and others like him. Pamela Geller, one organizer of a demonstration held on June 6, 2010, to oppose what she called «the mega-mosque at Ground Zero,» appeared on a nationally aired Fox News program and said, «a mosque embodies the very ideology that inspired those attacks on 9/11.» As such, the plan for the new mosque is «an outrage, an insult, and humiliating to all Americans.»
Remembering the eight-part defnition of Islamophobia, the most immediately striking component of Islamophobia in this example is (4) Islam is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in a «clash of civilizations.» Geller categorically connects all mosques with terrorist ideology, because she (1) sees Islam as a monolithic bloc -- even when confronted with peaceful statements from Muslim organizers, as she was during her Fox interview. Her and Williams’ contention that a mosque would necessarily serve as a place to «propagandize for extermination» present Islam as if it were (5) a political ideology used for political and military advantage. Williams’ crass tone explicitly represents Islam and Muslims as (3) barbaric, irrational, and primitive. Finally,
the explicitly intentional effect of Geller’s and Williams’ rhetoric is to stigmatize and alienate Muslims, rendering them (2) as a separate Other and (7) justifying their exclusion from mainstream society.
Geller, in fact, is behind a New York City advertising campaign that encourages Muslims to leave their faith. She designed and sponsors ads on the sides of 40 city buses advertising the website RefugeFromIslam. com, where New York Muslims who have presumably been threatened because they want to convert can turn for help, and also fnd other various anti-Islamic projects. Geller’s model, evidently, is to accept Muslims only on the condition that they renounce the part of their identity that she hates.
Similar Islamophobic rhetoric is apparent in Europe, but to a much greater degree than in the United States. The French have taken up the cause of outlawing the burqa and headscarf. The cause has consumed so much attention that it dominated President Nicolas Sarkozy’s address to the French Parliament in June 2009, the frst of its kind since 1875, in which the President stated, «in the republic, the Muslim religion must be respected like all other religions,» but «the burqa is not welcome in France. …We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, deprived of identity.» A French domestic intelligence agency reported that as of December 2009, exactly 367 French women wear the burqa, yet French politicians fnd the situation so grave that they write impassioned Op-Eds in The New York Times to explain their position.
France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe at approximately fve million, has broken the taboo against instituting local and national laws that specifcally target Islam and Muslims. In November 2009, the Swiss voted overwhelmingly to impose a national ban on the construction of minarets. The referendum, which won 57.5% of the votes and passed in 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, was advertised through a controversial campaign that played aggressively on the fears of Muslim immigration and the erosion of «European values»–a fear that appears to resonate in France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, and across much of Western Europe. Campaign posters depicted black, missile-shaped minarets sprouting from the Swiss fag, alongside a woman shrouded in a head-to-toe veil. Ulrich Schlüer, a member of Parliament from the right wing party that crafted the referendum, said in a televised debate that minarets were a symbol of «the political will to take power»–this in a country where only four minarets exist and none conduct the call to prayer. The result has been the further isolation
of Switzerland’s small Muslim community, estimated at only 400,000 in a population of 7.8 million. «Most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote,» said Farhad Afshar, head of the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland. «Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.»
This lack of acceptance was demonstrated most pointedly in the recent Dutch elections, where earlier the same month, a self-labeled anti-Islam party more than doubled its seats in Parliament. The so-called Freedom Party, headed by Geert Wilders, has campaigned to stop the «Islamization of the Netherlands.» Wilders hopes to ban the Qur’an and place a tax on headscarves worn by Muslim women. Wilders faces a criminal trial later this year on the charge of inciting hatred and discrimination with his anti-Islamic flm, Fitna.
As with the examples of Pamela Geller and Mark Williams in the U.S., these occurrences in Europe encapsulate the defning components of Islamophobia. The European examples, however, represent a more widespread attack on Islam that has infected many minds beyond the media, to the point where democratic elections result in (8) «Anti-Muslim hostility that is seen as natural and normal.» As a result, in both the United States and Europe, Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice threaten to undermine basic human rights, fundamental aspects of citizenship, and a culture of tolerance for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The examples of Islamophobia cited earlier are not isolated incidents. Scientifc polls and serious academic studies have confrmed that the trend toward Islamophobia in the United States and Europe is increasing.
In January of this year, Gallup, in conjunction with The Coexist Foundation, released a study of Americans’ opinions regarding a number of world religions, with a special focus on Islam and Muslims. Religious Perceptions in America examines Americans’ self-reported level of prejudice toward members of four major religions–Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
· According to the survey, Islam by far elicits the most negative views. Americans are more than twice as likely to express negative feelings about Muslims as they are about Jews, Christians, or Buddhists. A slight majority of Americans (53%) say their opinion of the faith is «not too favorable» (22%) or «not favorable at all» (31%).
· Respondents who say they feel «a great deal» of prejudice–or extreme prejudice–toward Jews are about 32 times as likely to report feeling «a great deal» of prejudice toward Muslims.
· While Muslims elicit such negative attitudes, a majority of Americans (63%) say they have either «very little knowledge» of Islam (40%) or «none at all» (23%).
· The survey suggests, and here I quote, «In the case of Islam, the media’s portrayal of the faith may play a role in forming negative perceptions, as personal knowledge of the faith is limited to a relatively narrow segment of the American public.» Gallup references Media Tenor, a research frm that monitors and analyzes media coverage of key issues. Media Tenor’s analysis shows that Islam is the most frequently mentioned religion in television news in the United States, and moreover, that a signifcant share of this coverage is negative. Two-thirds of the television coverage about Islam associates Muslims with extremism.
My point here is not that negative media coverage causes Islamophobia, but the American media’s –and, as we shall see, European media’s – negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam compounds the problem at hand: Westerners have inherited a historically demonized view of Islam, which is cemented by the media’s continuous focus on the criminal behavior of a fringe element. More and more, Muslims are perceived as terrorists, and as such, face discrimination, threats, and even violence.
As discouraging as the situation in the U.S. may seem, European society is even less integrated in relation to its Muslim residents and citizens. According to The Gallup Coexist Index 2009, European Muslims in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany feel more loyalty toward the country in which they live than the general public believes they do. According to the poll,
· Ninety six percent of German Muslims say that mastering the national language is necessary for integration. Eighty seven percent of French Muslims say fnding a job is important, and 84% of British Muslims express the need to celebrate national holidays.
· Despite this, 35% of French respondents do not think French Muslims are loyal to France. The percentages are even higher among German and British respondents; 45% of German and 49% of British respondents say Muslims in their countries are not loyal.
· This is in striking contrast to the responses of French, German, and British Muslims. Eighty percent of French Muslims say that Muslims are loyal to France. Seventy one percent of German Muslims and 82% of British Muslims say that Muslims are loyal to their respective countries of residence.
· In terms of social and economic welfare, Muslims are less likely than the general population to report having a job, and are less likely to report that they are satisfed with their standards of living. When asked to rate their current lives, 23% of French Muslims responded in ways that classifed them as «thriving,» compared to 50% in the French general public.
Only 7% of British Muslims were considered «thriving,» versus 56% of the British population as a whole. 8% of French Muslims and 21% of British Muslims were classifed as «suffering»–much higher rates than the 2% and 3%, respectively, of the general French and British publics.
· Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fndings show that the vast majority of European Muslims surveyed reject violence. Across all groups questioned, those who say religion is an important part of their lives are at least as likely to say that the use of violence for a noble cause cannot be morally justifed at all. Likewise, respondents for whom religion is important are as likely as those for whom religion is not important to say attacks targeting civilians cannot be justifed at all.
What can we learn from these statistics? Muslims in Europe, whether citizens or residents, are marginalized by a circular logic: the general public perceives them to be outsiders who do not want to integrate (despite their expressed desire to do so), and so erect barriers to their integration. An in-depth study recently conducted by the European Muslim Research Center at the University of Exeter attributes the overwhelming prevalence of such Islamophobic logic to anti-Muslim bigotry in extremist nationalist discourse and in mainstream political and media discourse. The report provides empirical evidence–in the form of interviews with victims, perpetrators, and witnesses of hate crimes in London–demonstrating that assailants of Muslims in London are motivated by a negative view of Muslims they acquired from either mainstream or extremist nationalist reports in the media. As the report states, «Routine portrayals of Islam as a religion of hatred, violence, and inherent intolerance have become key planks for the emergence of extremist nationalist, anti-immigration politics in Europe,» to the point where «politicians from Austria to Britain, and the Netherlands to Spain, feel comfortable using terms like ‘Tsunamis of Muslim immigration,’ and accuse Islam of being a fundamental threat to a ‘European way of life.’» In short, Islamophobia engenders more Islamophobia, continually widening the divide between members of multiple European societies.
Islamophobia has become part of the international agenda, routinely recognized by institutional organizations including the Organization of Islamic States Conference, which comprises 58 Muslim-majority countries, and the Third Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which devoted an entire session to the topic. Islamophobia’s potential for harm is no longer a mere social concern: it has become a global political crisis.
IV. Islamophobia’s Historical Background
We must bear in mind that there is a history of Islamophobia that dates back to the advent of Islam itself. Islam arrived as the «new kid on the block» of Abrahamic monotheism, and its relationship with Judaism and Christianity began as a tense and conficted one, in multiple aspects. The tensions between the three faiths led to territorial expansion by Muhammad’s successors–caliphs and dynastic rulers: the Umayyads, the Abassids, and the Ottomans. The resulting confrontations and prolonged interaction between Europe and Islam substantively affected the development of European/ Western identity, so much so that the history of Islamophobia actually belies a shared history and a shared identity between Europe and Islam.
Except for a short interruption resulting from the Battle of Poitiers (Tours) in 732, most of the lands of the Christianized–and by this time crumbling–Roman empire, in both its geographically western and eastern versions, gradually fell under the authority of Islam until the failed siege of Vienna in 1683. A consolidated European identity emerged at this time, born out of confrontation and interaction with Islam: the new dominant power in its midst. The fear of this new conquering civilization taking over Christian lands–or lands that Europeans hoped to Christianize, as during the Crusades–resulted in the depiction of Islam as the Other to be feared, fought, and conquered. With the expansion of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, this demonization continued, and has perhaps remained rooted in the European psyche ever since.
In any case, this complex and ambivalent relationship of appropriation and demonization continued through the fall of the Soviet Bloc and until today. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West sought out a new enemy to replace Communism -- a new opponent against which to defne itself. Samuel Huntington’s simplistic «clash of civilizations» theory, which has become popularly linked to Islam, can only be understood within the context of such a search. It has been used by some in the West to spin revisionist histories and justify hegemonic policies, military aggression, and other means of domination.
All of this came to the fore in a dramatic way following the attacks of September 11, 2001, without which Islamophobia would have likely remained part of academic discourse. Unfortunately, the tragic events of 9/11 ignited intense fear of Muslims, both in the United States and Europe, and the history of Islamophobia and the oppositional defnitions it provided caused these criminal acts to be understood as part of a larger narrative. The effect was amplifed by sensationalist media, and exploited by certain fgures for political gain.
On November 6, 2009, for instance, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 people and wounded 30 others in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood Army Post in central Texas. The killings at Fort Hood immediately and deservedly jumped to the fore of the national conscious. However, in the ensuing days and weeks, it was not the crime committed, but the attacker’s Muslim faith that became the key news item. Meanwhile, stories of similar (if less deadly) attacks on fellow servicemen that were not perpetrated by Muslims received little if any national coverage: in May 2009, Sergeant John M. Russell shot and killed fve of his comrades at a combat stress clinic in a U.S. Army base in Iraq. In September 2008, Sergeant Joseph Bozicevich killed two American soldiers at his base just outside Baghdad.
In the days after the Fort Hood shooting, Mustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America, predicted that the allegiances of all American Muslims, not only those serving in the military, would be called into question. He raised the examples of Russel and Bozicevich, which suggest that the effects of war on soldiers’ psyches are worth examining, whether or not those soldiers are Muslim. «I worry that the mood in the U.S. is dimming and turning in a more sinister direction,» wrote Bayoumi. He cited a Washington Post-ABC News poll in which 48% of Americans admitted to holding negative perceptions of Islam–the highest recorded over the poll’s eight years.
As Bayoumi asked in November 2009, will these crimes and tragedies spur action so that we can fnally see that war has enormous costs, and is not merely an occasion to celebrate heroism? Or will the American public take one man’s crime and churn it into the terrorism of religion? Such simplifcations and brazen ignorance of the historical record can only lead us in one, unfortunate direction.
V. The Dangers of Islamophobia: Policy Implications
Policies impacting relations between the Muslim world and the West carry sever implications. Take, for example, the formation of the various right wing parties in Europe. The hatred they spread creates real dangers, both for minorities in their societies and for the cohesive fabric that holds their societies together. Extreme elements–like Geert Wilders’ Danish Freedom Party, the Swiss campaigners against minarets, Mark Williams and Pamela Geller–communicate not through an appeal to logic, but rather by an appeal to fear and hatred. They put forth a vociferous argument against Islam without furnishing credible information about the religion itself. Though their message is offensive to a large segment of the population, their rights are protected by freedom of speech. These brokers of Islamophobia construct an extremist nationalist milieu so powerful that it can write discrimination into the Swiss constitution, elect explicitly racist representatives to the Danish Parliament, and result in the French President counseling the acceptance of Muslims but not their religious practices.
The rise of the Islamophobic nationalist milieu has real effects in terms of global security. First, alienating Muslims ironically makes members of the Muslim community more vulnerable to the slogans and appeals of extremist religious groups. In March of this year, an American from New Jersey was arrested in Yemen and accused of fghting with Al Qaeda. This man had been in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric whose sermons had been found on the computers of over a dozen terrorism suspects in the West, including Nidal Hasan of the Fort Hood killings.
Alienating Muslims from mainstream society also means potentially losing the Muslim community’s cooperation with government agencies. Some American law enforcement experts warn of an even farther-reaching consequence: the loss of an early warning system against domestic terrorism. In the words of one U.S. terrorism scholar, «This is a national security issue.» Indeed, fears of increasing «homegrown» terrorism could be lessened if Muslim communities were treated as allies by government agencies, rather than suspects. Audrey Kurth Cronin of the National War College takes comfort in the case of fve young men from Virginia who traveled to Pakistan and are suspected of seeking jihad -- because it was their parents who reported them to the FBI. She told The New York Times, «It was members of the American Muslim community that put a stop to whatever those men may have been planning.»
Intentionally alienating Muslim citizens is counterproductive economically, socially, and politically as well. When an entire segment of a country’s population becomes alienated from its larger community, it holds less of a stake in its overall economic and social welfare. Rampant Islamophobia means not recognizing the contributions of Muslims who live in that society. As mentioned before, the Gallup Coexistence Index shows that Muslims contribute more to their society, and feel more invested in it, than the general public believes. If those ties to society were dissolved, the 2005 riots in France would likely be a regular and widespread occurrence.
Putting aside the problems of a fractured society, the contributions of Muslims to the economy, culture, and life of the United States and Europe would be missing. Islamic legal, political, scientifc, and artistic traditions have inspired and informed Western political and intellectual traditions, and Muslims in Europe and the United States have historically made, and today continue to make, important contributions at every level of European and American society. Absent this, Western society risks becoming less diverse, more inwardly focused, and detached from the wider world.
Conclusion: Where do we go from here?
Clearly there are macro political reasons for the tension between the Islamic world and the West, including the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian confict, all of which fuel mutual mistrust. Today, we fnd ourselves at a crossroads. It’s clear that the solution of these macro issues would signifcantly contribute to transforming the Muslim-Western relationship, including within international and regional intergovernmental organizations, whether the UN, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Arab League, the Organization of Cooperation and Security in Europe, and other international forums. Polls taken over the last ten years, particularly since the beginning of the Iraq War, without exception, confrm that the resolution of these macro issues would open the door to mutual trust. Would we then see a decrease in Islamophobia?
Perhaps. However, Islamophobia is signifcantly tied to a lack of knowledge in the West about Islam and Islamic civilization – and therefore, in the long run, only education and cultural exchange can have a transformative impact. In the United States, since the start of the Obama administration, we are seeing, both in government circles and in civil society institutions dealing with cultural exchange, (whether foundations or universities,) an increasing awareness of the urgent need for better education about Islam and Muslim-
majority countries. Following President Obama’s celebrated Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, many of these institutions have in fact invested capital and serious efforts to achieve such a goal. Meanwhile, various European Union institutions, including the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and other subsidiary organs of the EU are cooperating with the Organization of Islamic States Conference to devise policies aiming at lessening tension through joint educational projects.
The fact remains, however, that after ten years of rising tensions between the West and the Muslim world, those who hold sway on both sides are the radical fringe, and their ally in this is indisputably the media, with its ill-informed, unsophisticated reporting of events that appeals to the worst in humanity. It used to be that what sold was «blood and scandal.» Now it is sadly «Islamic terrorism» and even simply «Islam» that make headlines. A minimum of moral responsibility from the media could contribute signifcantly toward limiting the infuence of Islamophobic rhetoric and protecting the world from its potentially disastrous results.