In many ways, the mass hysterias of the past mirror today’s trend of Islamophobia in a very troubling way. Our society needs to make several changes if we are to avoid this. In this article, I will show that Islamophobia has been on the rise, I will explore its causes, and finally, I will discuss how we might put a halt to this and avoid repeating history.
Hysteria, Scapegoating, and Witch-Hunts
In the 1940s and 50s, the United States experienced its second Red Scare. Senator Joseph McCarthy is the most infamous voice from this era, with his personally-led campaign against communism lasting until 1954 and eventually earning him the term “McCarthyism.” While McCarthy certainly was a driving force behind this hysteria, he was by no means the only cause. J. Edgar Hoover, the founding Director of the FBI, used the newly formed federal agency to systematically harass, spy on, and force false admissions of guilt from thousands of Americans. Hoover was also responsible for COINTELPRO, a program under the FBI that spied on groups like anti-war protestors, the Black Panthers, and even MLK Junior, who he believed was “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation.” All of this was under the justification of rooting out communism within American society and government. Overall, many politicians, private companies, government bodies, and community groups rallied behind the communist witch-hunt.
Across the globe and almost simultaneously, China underwent probably the largest mass hysteria in human history—the Cultural Revolution. Ironically, Mao Zedong began this public movement in order to root out “rightist elements” in Chinese government and society. China’s youth were empowered to rebel against traditional power structures and to generally destroy anything seen as too bourgeois. This lasted ten years until Mao’s death in 1976, but the first two years marked the most tumultuous and violent. It is estimated that up to one million people were killed, and many millions more saw their lives destroyed as they were wrongfully accused, imprisoned, forced to labor in the countryside, or lost their jobs.
And, finally, hopefully nobody needs a reminder of the global history of anti-Semitism, its culmination in the Holocaust, and the remaining echoes today. Jews have historically been denied the right to own land and ostracized from many aspects of society. As just a few examples, many people scapegoated the Jews during the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, the harsh economic conditions in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and again in the aftermath of World War I.
These are just a few instances of society-level discrimination and scapegoating during hysteria movements. My overall point is that these are not at all uncommon. To the contrary, all it seems to take is a few zealous personalities capitalizing on harsh social conditions for the whole of society to get behind the blame and targeting of a whole group, whether it’s on ideological, racial, ethnic, or religious grounds.
The Rise of Islamophobia
That is why the recent trend of Islamophobia is particularly troubling. But, before we get into this, I would like to note that many people have criticized the term ‘Islamophobia’ and disagreed over its definition, especially considering the number of differences in Islam across the globe. So, for the purposes of this piece, ‘Islamophobia’ refers to any fear of, hatred of, or discrimination against whatever a person perceives to be Islam. This can manifest as anything from a subconscious fear and avoidance to active violence against perceived people or symbols relating to Islam.
Unfortunately, there are many indications that Islamophobia has been on a sharp rise in many countries, although I will focus on the United States. The most concrete evidence of this is in the number of hate crimes against Muslims over time, as shown in this graph.
Although the data is not very far-reaching, it does seem clear from at least this snapshot that these hate crimes were very rare before 9/11. After 9/11, however, the number of victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes shot up dramatically to over 500 reported in one year, and then leveled out at about 180-200.
And, although the data is not yet available for 2015 or 2016, reports have been surfacing that hate crimes against Muslims have increased even more. This past February, The New York Times compiled a list of reported hate crimes since just San Bernardino. They found that the rate of hate crimes tripled. Similarly, a report from The Intercept discusses the increasingly violent tone of Islamophobia since 2015.
Some of these hate crimes are less violent, such as vandalizing mosques and other property with “Jesus is the way” or “go home.” Other cases include arson or bombings in places of worship. In one particularly horrific case, a man robbing a convenience store mistook the cashier—a Sikh—for Muslim, calling him “a terrorist” and telling him, “I killed guys like you in Iraq, so I never think about it when I shoot them anymore.” He then attempted to shoot the store clerk in the head, but luckily the bullet passed through his cheek and he survived. Whatever the severity of the crimes, they have clearly escalated in violence and are causing serious emotional and physical harm to American Muslim communities (or even those that just look Muslim to some Americans).
For an excellent map that tracks anti-Muslim hate crimes as they are reported, see this link.
Finally, Gallup provides a thorough breakdown of Americans’ views of Islam. Data from 2011 shows that 52% of Americans do not believe Western countries respect Muslim societies. In that same period, 60% of American Muslims felt that most Americans are prejudiced against Muslims, and 48% of American Muslims reported that they experienced racial or religious discrimination. That is more than twice the rate of any other religious group except Mormons. Even more disturbingly, a sizable minority of Americans who reported no prejudice towards Islam also said they view Islam unfavorably and think that most Muslims around the world do not want peace, are not accepting of other religions, and are not accepting of races other than their own.
Overall, there is a clear trend of increasing Islamophobia in the United States. This is shown through the increase in the number of hate crimes, the increasing level of violence, and by the self-reported views of Americans. The natural question to now ask is how we can reverse this trend. But, in order to accomplish that, we must first understand the cause.
U.S. Government Policy
I will admit that I initially believed the foreign policy of the U.S. government to be one of the largest contributors to the rise of Islamophobia. However, I was very surprised to find that the government has repeatedly and explicitly sought to combat Islamophobia.
For instance, both the Bush and the Obama administrations have been very careful to emphasize not blaming Muslim communities for terrorism. On September 20th of 2001, when President Bush gave a speech declaring the “war on terror,” he said, “The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.” It is worth quoting one section at length:
I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.
Similarly, President Obama gave a speech in 2009 specifically on the topic of the relationship between America and Islam, saying that, “they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” In 2013, President Obama even announced an end to the official “war on terror,” criticizing it as going after a tactic and being too vague. Instead of talking about terrorism, he focused specifically on targeting “violent extremists” in the Arabian Peninsula and within the United States. In another example, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reiterated in a speech that the U.S. has never been anti-Islam. Overall, representatives of both administrations during the rise of Islamophobia have been surprisingly careful about not fanning the flames of Islamophobia.
Despite this, there are subtler ways in which U.S. foreign policy has increased Islamophobia. First, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the subsequent occupation, and the continued bombings have arguably destabilized the Middle East in such a way so as to empower the groups the United States is fighting today. To be sure, the groups such as ISIS that claim to represent Islam and commit heinous acts are one of the largest causes of Islamophobia globally. However, the role that U.S. policy has played in creating and furthering these groups should not be understated.
Second, the post 9/11 security apparatus put into place that emphasizes a dire threat of terrorism and uses the supposed terrorist threat to justify curtailing civil liberties is certainly not helping. In President Bush’s speech mentioned earlier, he also spoke extensively about how Americans should expect a protracted conflict not just internationally, but within American society as well. This includes, according to him, cooperating with law enforcement as they increase their activities and being patient with security waits. This heightens everybody’s level of fear, whether justified or not, and, in turn, contributes to the blaming and targeting that ensues.
Third, the close relationship the U.S. has maintained with Saudi Arabia not only empowers a group that undertakes one of the most extreme interpretations of Islam, but also greatly harms the message that the United States stands against the kinds of practices the Saudi government engages in.
President Obama, like every administration before his, has repeatedly expressed that Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the United States. The U.S. has provided substantial military aid to Saudi Arabia since the 1940s, and since 2010 the U.S. has sold Saudi Arabia over $100 billion worth of military supplies. The U.S. also maintains close diplomatic and economic ties to Saudi Arabia.
This is all despite the fact that the Saudi government continues to systematically repress women, peaceful protestors, and minorities on religious and monarchical grounds. In one recent case, a blogger who criticized key Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” This is just one of countless such cases. As long as the U.S. remains such a close partner to Saudi Arabia, it is continuing to give its tacit consent and support for these violations of human rights and for these kinds of interpretations of Islam.
The Rhetoric of Politicians
A second contributing factor to the rise of Islamophobia is the range of rhetoric that politicians and candidates from both parties have been using in recent years. The most obvious offender is, of course, Donald Trump with his infamous quotes about issuing a ban on all Muslims entering the country and his warnings that “radical Islam is coming to our shores.” He has also notoriously repeated a false story, with praise, about American soldiers executing Muslim captives in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig blood.
But he is not the only one. Before he was the nominee, all of the other Republican candidates said equally or more offensive statements. An article from Think Progress notes that Jeb Bush proposed only allowing refugees who can prove they are Christian into the U.S., Ben Carson suggested that no Muslim person should be president, and Marco Rubio criticized President Obama’s visit to a mosque and downplayed Islamophobia in America. Ted Cruz said perhaps the most frightening comments. He not only agreed with Trump on banning Muslims from entering the country, but he also proposed police surveillance of Muslim communities, which is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. His campaign manager defended the stance in this article.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a pattern. Republican contenders from the 2012 election cycle also expressed Islamophobic views. In one example, Herman Cain stated that he sides with protesters attempting to stop the construction of a mosque, and that banning mosques is not discrimination. Additionally, he stated he would not appoint Muslim judges or cabinet members purely on the grounds of their religion. In 2011, Mike Huckabee stated that churches should not rent space to Muslims because, according to him, they want to “obliterate” all Christians. Rick Santorum was also not exempt, failing to deny claims from one of his supporters that President Obama is “an avowed Muslim,” and therefore “has no legal right to be calling himself president.”
It is no surprise, then, that the more a person identified with the Republican Party in the Gallup poll on Islamophobia, the greater his or her prejudice against Muslims. However, it is not clear if these candidates and politicians are causing Islamophobia, if they’re catering to an Islamophobic voter base, or if it is a bit of both.
But it’s not just the Republican Party that is culpable. Although Democratic politicians and candidates haven’t said nearly as inflammatory statements as their Republican counterparts, they have contributed in the form of “soft” Islamophobia.
For example, after the San Bernardino shooting, President Obama released a speech in which he urged against blaming Muslim communities, decrying the notion of “a war between America and Islam.” That is a step in the right direction. However, in the same speech, he also said “we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies” and called on Muslim leaders to help root out extremism. This not only implies a notion of “good” and “bad” Muslims, but it also implies that Muslim communities are the epicenter of American terrorism. However much President Obama’s statement has good intentions, it is unfair to American Muslims and implies some level of blame for the community as a whole.
Similarly, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley have all expressed this view throughout their debates this past year. In the February 4th Democratic debate, Sanders said that King Abdullah of Jordan “hit the nail on the head” when he said “the war against ISIS is a war for the soul of Islam.” He goes on to say that “it must be Muslim troops on the ground that will destroy ISIS, with the support of a coalition of major powers…” Sanders has reiterated this several times. In that same debate, Martin O’Malley called Muslim Americans “our first line of defense.” Clinton has expressed almost this exact idea. For example, in a debate in December, she said, “The first line of defense against radicalization is in the Muslim-American community,” and that Muslims in America are “our early warning signal.” Clinton, like Sanders, has reiterated this idea several times.
Again, the Democratic candidates should be applauded in contrast to their Republican counterparts for their explicit care to discourage Islamophobia. However, their statements still repeatedly infer that American Muslims are in a special position to combat international terrorism, and therefore have that responsibility. I would like to echo the sentiment of H.A. Hellyer, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, who wrote, “Muslim-Americans aren’t a counterterrorism tool. They are first and foremost citizens and should be looked at as such.”
Finally, the media is by far one of the largest contributors to American Islamophobia. This is true whether it is traditionally right-wing or left-wing, and whether it is in the form of traditional news or popular culture.
For instance, an article from Foreign Policy cites studies showing this trend. One found that in 25 years of New York Times coverage, cancer, alcohol, and cocaine were associated with more positivity than Islam or Muslims. What’s more, not one of the top 24 words associated with Islam or Muslims was positive, with “militant” being the most common association. In another study on depictions of Arabs in 1,000 films, it was found that only 12 gave a positive portrayal, 56 were neutral, and 932 showed Arabs negatively.
In another example, one journalist writing about President Obama’s speech after San Bernardino applauded his call for American Muslims to take on the onus of rooting out extremism, and he even urged Obama to go further by taking this message on the speaking circuit. Deepa Kumar, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University, notes that, although right-wing media tends to be much more direct in its anti-Islam message, traditionally left-wing media is also espousing some form of Islamophobia with this kind of sentiment.
And indeed, media representation of Islam does seem to map out to the spectrum seen in American politics of “soft” Islamophobia on the left and “hard” Islamophobia on the right. In one example, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer writing for Fox News boils the attack on Nice and the conflict with ISIS all down to a “war between radical Islam and the West.” He goes on to note the worry that groups like ISIS are appealing to everyday Muslims. Finally, in an eerie echo to the Cold War, he warns that if the U.S. does not get more directly involved in the Middle East as a result, Russia may step in and take a dominant role. This is just one of many examples. Media Matters, a non-profit dedicated to fighting misinformation, has compiled a list of several more examples of Fox News pundits expressing clear Islamophobia.
This is not just Fox News and The New York Times; this persistent Islamophobia covers the whole spectrum of news media. CNN, for instance, has one reporter who demanded Muslim communities take responsibility for terrorist attacks by condemning them, and another asked a Muslim lawyer if he supports ISIS merely because he is Muslim. Additionally, a study from 2014 found that U.S. television media likely contributed to Islamophobia in the U.S. in 2010 surrounding the issue of constructing the Park51 Islamic Community Center in New York City, regardless of the political leanings of that news source.
What Can Be Done?
If this trend of Islamophobia continues in the United States, it may reach a level of hysteria seen during the Red Scare. There needs to be a change in at least our media, politicians, and government policy if we wish to avoid this.
In the past, when the inflammatory personalities that contributed to a hysteria disappeared, their movement of fear dwindled. This was true for McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Mao Zedong. Thus, the first step to stop the trend of Islamophobia in the U.S. is to change our public figures, or to at least change their rhetoric. This means first and foremost not electing Trump to office. It also means voting out any politicians who have expressed Islamophobic views. Similarly, those politicians who have adopted “soft” Islamophobic rhetoric need to stop, or else similarly face the consequences at the ballot box.
In that same vein, we need to somehow hold our news and popular media accountable for fanning the flames of Islamophobia. Society needs to deem it unacceptable for any media outlet to garner views by making baseless accusations or speculations appealing to fear. Islamophobic rhetoric and themes in media simply cannot be allowed to go without criticism.
Finally, the U.S. needs to stop supporting governments such as Saudi Arabia that perpetuate human rights violations in the name of Islam. This kind of contradictory foreign policy greatly harms the fight against Islamophobia. The government should also scale back agencies in the post-9/11 security apparatus, such as the Department of Homeland Security, which contribute to a culture of fear and perpetuate Islamophobia.
This all seems to be a tall order, but it should be remembered that, at one point in United States history, it was widely acceptable to publicly express racism. Although this is certainly still a large problem, it is by no means at the high degree it was before the Civil Rights movement. In the same way that no senator today would ever run a campaign supporting racial segregation, we need to create a society in which no politician will ever run on a campaign of Islamophobia.
Of course, I fully understand that I’ve only answered the what, but not the how for bringing about change. That is partially why I am writing this—to raise public awareness and encourage discussion of this topic. If you have any thoughts or ideas on how to make these or other changes, please leave a comment below. Likewise, feel free to leave any criticisms.