Islamophobia Makes a Comeback
Sandeep Singh was dragged 30 feet under a pick-up truck after the driver reportedly called him a terrorist, told him to go back to his country, and then mowed him down in the middle of 99th Street in New York City.
Singh survived the ordeal, but he’s going to need skin grafts. He told police what happened and now Joseph Caleca of Long Island is charged with a hate crime. “I was attacked because I am a Sikh and because I look like a Sikh,” Singh, 29, told reporters from his hospital bed. “We need to create a world without hate.”
Thirteen years ago in the wake of 9/11, there were hundreds of similar incidents of violence and discrimination against Sikhs, who despite being Indians practicing Sikhism, were often confused with Arab Muslims because of their long beards and their turbans, called dastars.
But what happened to Singh didn’t take place in 2001, it was just a month ago, in August, indicating that no matter how far America gets away from the horrific events of 9/11, anger and prejudice against the perceived “enemy among us”—call it Islamophobia—is still just around the corner.
“Yes, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment is as alive today as it was in 2001,” declared Deepa Kumar, associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University, and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (2012).
Kumar and other experts in cultural politics and media tell TAC that it began after the attacks, when the so-called Global War on Terror muddied then-President George W. Bush’s words that this was “not a war against the Muslim faith,” by initiating widespread surveillance of Muslim communities, profiling of Arab and Muslim people and infiltrating their activities, even entrapment, all which the American Civil Liberties Union says continue to this day.
These law enforcement activities, combined with the hot rhetoric of far-right politicians, and the assistance of a growing cottage industry of self-appointed jihad hunters like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Frank Gaffney, has fanned the fear and intolerance among the American populace, critics say.
“After 9/11, people had questions but it was the people who provided the answers who created the problem—from the president on down,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the American Arab Institute.
“It started with they hate us for our values. He might have justified this by saying it was only a small minority of the Muslim world, but in people’s minds it was everybody (in the Muslim faith)” said Zogby, who published Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters in 2012.
Match that cultural disconnect with a parade of new “terrorism” experts on cable news ratcheting up the threats to “the homeland,” including the possibility of sleeper cells lying in wait just over the nation’s borders, and suddenly everyone bearing a Middle Eastern name, wearing a hijab, or attending a mosque becomes suspect.
“There is a hatred of Muslims, there’s this idea that they are evil people,” mostly because, despite all the superficial talk to the contrary, no one in the media or even elite academia has really learned what the religion is all about, said Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a writer and converted Sunni Muslim who now runs the Center for Islamic Pluralism, dedicated to giving voice to moderate Muslims, on the West Coast.
Schwartz is an arch critic of Wahhabism—a highly puritanical movement of Islam practiced by the 19 hijackers on 9/11—and believes it is both ignorance, and the reluctance of moderate Muslims to speak out against fellow Muslims, that have generated intolerance and hatred. “People come up to me on the street and say what’s the problem with Islam? What’s the problem with this religion?”
“I say (ISIS/Islamic State) is a radical wing—and this hasn’t always existed in Islam.” Fight ISIS, but leave the rest of the Muslim world alone.
The message, so far, just isn’t getting through.
According to Zogby’s Arab American Institute, which has been polling Americans on their views of religious and ethnic groups since the 1990’s, Americans’ dislike of Arabs and Muslims skyrocketed after 9/11 and has hardly budged since. Unfavorable ratings for Muslims have declined from a peak of 55 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in July, but at the same time, favorable ratings have plunged, from 41 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2014.
Republican attitudes are clearly skewing the results. When narrowed, 63 percent of Republicans had unfavorable views of Muslims, while only 21 percent had favorable views in 2014.
It’s not surprising, considering how Islamophobia has attached itself to Republican politics since 9/11. Any stroll through the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will attest to that (though, ironically, CPAC itself was once accused of hosting a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer—Grover Norquist, to be exact). Between Newt Gingrich comparing the “the struggle against radical Islamists” to the American Revolution, to presidential wannabe Herman Cain calling for loyalty tests for administration appointees, there has been no limit to the bald political rhetoric animating Capitol Hill debates and elections.
Meanwhile, well-funded fringe groups like Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative, have attempted to purge Muslim-Americans who have dared to “infiltrate” the White House and other high profile positions throughout federal government. They might have gone too far in 2012, however, when they suggested long-time Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But outside Washington, American-based Islamophobia has splattered subway walls (Geller’s brainchild), and even informed international mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, according to his own writings. It’s call has been strident, peaking in 2010, when the streets of downtown Manhattan were filled with opposition to the Park51 Islamic Center, which had been planned for a property two blocks from Ground Zero.
That protest was spurred, not surprisingly, by Geller and Spencer, but the message resonated so well on the right wing blogosphere and media, that it was co-opted in political campaigns hundreds of miles away, and in some cases it worked. Like with Renee Elmers, who in 2010 won a congressional seat in South Carolina after making the so- called “Ground Zero mosque” a campaign issue.
Zogby and others see a limit to how well Islamophobia is working in political campaigns—out of 17 campaigns where the mosque was made an issue in that 2010 season, only two actually won. Rep. Allen West, whose fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric is legendary, lost his seat in 2012.
Zogby also points out that the anti-Arab and Muslim attitudes in his polls are clearly generational and racial. The negative numbers are driven by white middle aged men, particularly evangelical Christians; the positives from African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and people under 30. They are “locked in,” however, which means there’s not much movement either way, and no one seems to be debating the issue either. “There are these defined groups and they have their defined attitudes,” said Zogby. “That’s the tragedy of it, there needs to be public discourse.”
And it needs to start with someone on the right wing saying, “we need to cut this out,” Zogby added. This kind of admonishment coming from the left just won’t do.
On a darker note, Kumar believes Washington has no real interest in curbing the bugaboo machine as long as its waging war in Muslim countries abroad. Plus, it’s much easier to raise the specter of fanatical militancy than to examine how our own policies in Iraq and elsewhere over the last decade may have created it, she said.
“In order to have an endless war on terror it is necessary to have an enemy that Americans fear and hate. This is how it worked during the Cold War as well,” she told TAC.
“Today, the enemy is the Muslim terrorist. And we are told constantly that this threat is everywhere and that we should therefore spend trillions of dollars to fight this enemy,” she added. If that’s the case, expect a lot more fear-mongering back home as Obama readies for U.S airstrikes in Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). Already, pop-culture figures like Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson are weighing in on the cable shows, saying the U.S. needs to “convert” ISIS or “kill them.”
“In a nutshell, I think the framework that we had after 9/11—which is the U.S. is now at war with terrorists wherever they are—is the same kind of rhetoric we have today,” said Kumar. The problem is, just like 13 years ago, “terrorist” often gets conflated with “Muslim” and “Arab,” and sometimes “Sikh.”
“That’s what Islamophobia is,” she said, “demonizing an entire population of people.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.