Farid Hafez, Editor-in-Chief of the Islamophobia Studies Yearbook and member of the board of advisors of the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University, provides this guest analysis.
In recent weeks, audiences all over the world were confronted with explicit Islamophobic exclamations by presidential candidates Ben Carson, and Donald Trump, as well as right-wing journalists such as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.
In fact, Islamophobia is nothing new. It can be understood from a three-fold perspective: 1. As a continuation of the regular creation of out-groups by the dominant, ruling elite. 2. As a warming-up and intensification of long standing exclusionary discourses inscribed in Western history since 800 A.D. 3. As a discursive manifestation and re-emphasis of fifteen years of ‘War on Terror’ politics following 9/11.
The United States of America has a long history of creating political out-groups. Fears of disloyalty were regularly spread against (perceived) adherents of a religious group, like Jewish immigrants around World War II, and Catholics prior to the presidency of John F. Kennedy, with anti-Mormonism also present in the U.S. The perception of Japanese Americans as a fifth column during World War II is another poignant example.
The history of American Islamophobia does not start with 9/11 or the introduction of Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of the ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ In 1492 saw both the final expulsion and forced conversion of Jews and Muslims in Spain and the European colonization of the Americas. European settlers in the Americas carried with them some antagonism to the Islamic faith. Additionally, the transatlantic slave trade started in 1501, enslaved African Muslims were soon regarded as threats to their white masters by the Pope.
Last but not least, when the ‘War on Terror’ was announced following 9/11, Huntington’s theory of a clash between monolithic groups appeared useful. Ideas from this thesis were borrowed to legitimatize a new wave of foreign policy interference in the Middle East. A number of NY Times bestsellers like Norman Podhoretz’ World War IV, – in which he elaborated on the long struggle against ‘Islamofascism’ – have added legitimacy on this kind of politics. But the ‘War on Terror’ also had its effects in terms of domestic politics. While anti-terror programs after 9/11 quickly targeted Muslims (such as the NYPD’s spying program on Muslims and mosques), Islamomphobic campaigning in terms of a domestic, partisan political struggle only began later.
In fact, strategies promoting Islamophobic discourse were initially carried out on a regional level. In 2004, Islamophobes attempted to halt the construction of a Muslim cultural center in Boston, claiming that it had links to extremists. Since then, other mosques and Muslim institutions have had to face attempts by so called ‘citizens’ movements’ in Tennessee, California, Kentucky, Texas, Florida, New York, and Wisconsin.
The debate on the so called ‘Ground Zero mosque’ was the first spark igniting a nation-wide debate. The attempt to turn President Obama into a Muslim during the presidential elections in 2008 intitially failed; however, since then, the number of Republicans who think that Obama is Muslim increased from 25 to more than 50 percent. Pamela Geller’s and Robert Spencer’s ‘Stop Islamization of America’ (SIOA) was suitably fitted with the successful methodology of Europe’s anti-Muslim movements.
Similarly, the radicalization of some GOP members due to pressure from Tea Party activists showed its effects in the 2010 midterm elections. In ‘old Europe’ anti-Muslim initiatives of right wing citizen’s movements and political parties of the New Right have proved to be ideal ways of maximizing votes: be it the Swiss Peoples Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Front National or the Flemish Interest in Belgium.
All of these parties have in recent years succeeded in mobilizing many apolitical citizens through frightening them with the image of the evil, violent Muslim enemy within European societies. Geert Wilders’ visit to Ground Zero on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and his invitation by SIOA as well as to Congress reveals the links forged by a transnational network of Islamophobes.
In 2010, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich supported an anti-Muslim rally, thus helping to make anti-Muslim sentiments a national issue. Many Republican politicians have supported regional protest efforts against the Muslim presence in America, as Muslims have since become a partisan issue. Consequently, the divide in America’s political landscape has deepened even further.
The arguments used by Islamophobes in the US are very to those used by European right wing parties. Said arguments focus on dehumanizing Muslims. Islam, they say, is not a religion but an ideology. Muslims are portrayed as not belonging to Europe but as strangers from outside, who are “un-European” and want to destroy the various countries and their cultures from within. Right wing parties have been triumphant in various elections by ignoring the real challenges that their respective societies face, and concentrating on emotionally vulnerable and frightened people.
On November 19th the House voted (with the support of nearly fifty Democrats) overwhelmingly for tightened screening procedures for Syrian refugees, in large part because of their alleged ‘Muslimness’. This coincides with statements from Jeb Bush that he only wants to accept Christian refugees. Similarly, Donald Trump has called for the closure of mosques and creation a database on Muslim immigrants. With such proposals, the GOP is actually attempting to reshape the U.S Constitution, after already succeeding in changing America’s political culture.
Hence, as a sad sign of the times, the President has to address the nation to remind it “that’s not American. That’s not who we are”.
Farid Hafez is a Ph.D. and works at the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Salzburg. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Islamophobia Studies Yearbook and member of the board of advisors of the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University.