Feeding the Monster: Islamophobia, Ratings, and Elections

Karam Dana | (Informed Comment) | – –

Just when you think GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has done it all, you are proven wrong. Reminiscent of the Chinese Exclusion act, the prequel to Japanese American Internments, Trump has called for banning Muslims from entering the US.

Why is it so acceptable to target Muslims with hate-filled speech without fear of reactions? Why is hate-speech targeted at Muslims tolerated when similar statements towards other groups are not? There’s a long history of dehumanizing communities in US politics, especially towards Arabs and Muslims.

The debate over Islam and terrorism has resurfaced. The Islamic States (ISIS/ISIL), or Da’esh, has replaced al-Qaeda in Westerners’ minds, yet again falsely, as accurately representing Islam. This has exacerbated anxieties of Muslims living in Western societies, and led to a stronger intensification of negative sentiments against Muslims. This has at least rhetorically, prompted more than half the United States’ governors to declare that they would not accept Syrians refugees in their states recently.

These calls of excluding Muslims from living in different states, or banning them from entry to the US, will most likely go nowhere, given that most of these calls are against the law. There will be no internment of Muslims, and there will be banning from entering the US. However, the public’s perception has been severely affected, contributing to yet a stronger sense of fear and hatred directed at Muslims, without a shred of empirical evidence to back up these feelings and claims. The American collective psyche has long been polluted with similar statements made against the Chinese, Jews, the Japanese, Catholics, Latinos, and others. Racism towards Muslims is on the rise, and statements like that of Trump widen the space for their toleration in the public sphere.

The misguided anti-Muslim sentiment is irrational yet real, and intensifies due to ill-framed reactions to events like San Bernardino and Paris, the latest of such events. The usage of fear mongering of Islam in the public sphere is the single most significant social problems facing American society today, as it places it at absolute odds with American values of inclusion and religious freedom.

Partisan Politics, Elections, and Islamophobia:

Islamophobia is a product of the ways in which the US government has handled Muslims long before 9/11, at all levels: federal, state, and local. And by right-wing political elite who have harnessed the xenophobic anxieties of white Americans to win elections, and create controversies in the digital age, where ratings, positive or negative, are sought after.

Situations where the official line of the US federal government contradicts its actions intensify the spread of Islamophobia. Information originated by whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported by Glenn Greenwald, suggest that the National Security Agency had spied on individuals who were attempted to bridge the gap between the US Government and the American Muslim community. These discoveries increase the feeling of isolation of American Muslims, and show a disingenuous US government that preaches tolerance, while governmental institutions have used racial slurs in NSA material targeting Muslims.

The exclusion of Muslims has irreversible costs. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, 55% of Muslim Americans sating that it has been more difficult to live in the United States since 9/11. It is clear that racism towards Muslim Americans have been growing over time. What does it mean to live in an Islamophobic nation? How do the religious and civic acts of Muslims contradict popular opinion? It means that someone like Ahmed Mohamed, the “Clock Boy” and his family have moved to Qatar, instead of being able to realize his dreams and work for NASA. What would happen if Muslims decided to stay home for a week and not go to work? Hospital, airports, factories, and even the government will not function properly, and would severely be impeded.

The similarities between the George W. Bush Administration and the Barack Obama Administration’s recent double standard, between tolerance and accusation, are quite striking. In the wake of the events of 9/11, President Bush visited a mosque six days after 9/11 and urged tolerance towards American Muslims., yet in the months after the events, the FBI paid a visit to countless American Muslims, and placed countless others on a no-fly list. Close to a decade after 9/11, elected officials, spoke as can seen in this video, at an anti-Muslim rally protesting a fundraiser held in Yorba Linda, CA. The event was organized by a local Muslim charity to collect money for a local shelter for battered women in the area. Hate speech, without a shred of evidence, sells and wins elections.

It took 13 years to recognize the heroism of an American Muslim police cadet, who died on the fateful day of 9/11 as he was saving lives, after he was being suspected of having taken a part in the attacks.

Although Islamophobia has been increasing since 9/11, it certainly began beforehand both in American popular culture and policy. Perhaps the most famously anti-Muslim piece of political work is Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” where he creates the concept of the west versus the rest – with the rest including all Muslims.

Popular Media and Public Impact:

The presence of Islamophobia in the United States is heavily engrained within popular media. As recently as last week, ABC Family ignited an uproar across America when it announced the release of a show entitled “Alice In Arabia,” in which an American teenager is kidnapped by her family and becomes “a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.” Although ABC Family responded to the protests by canceling the pilot from airing, it is clear in the proposal of such a show that both Arab and Muslim Americans are still bound by romantic, orientalist ideas of entertainment.

According to a 2010 Time Magazine poll, near one-third of Americans think that Muslims should be barred from running for president. A statement reiterated by 2016 Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. These numbers reflect an overall distrust of Muslim Americans within the political system, despite the active involvement of Muslims in their local and international communities, and the lack of evidence to support them views.

Representative Peter King (R-NY) stated in a 2011 congressional hearing suggesting that “80 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams.” Politician Newt Gingrich stated in a 2011 speech that “Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it,” ignoring the existence of Sharia law as a pathway to morality and righteousness rather than political violence.

In addition to individual politicians, anti-Islam political groups also impact the way in which Muslims are perceived in America. One example of this is the group “Stop Islamization of America,” who “seeks to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy ‘American Values,’” according to the Center for American Progress. Although these radical groups are not the norm, they are a reflection of the Islamophobic ideology that is not only allowed, but perpetuated and heightened by the American political system.

It is no surprise that the negative public opinion of Muslims on the societal level has trickled down into personal prejudices, regardless of the age, race or gender of the Muslim involved. This was most evident in a 2012 incident in Brooklyn, New York, where a 10-year-old boy was called a “terrorist” and thrown off of a city bus by the driver after reciting a Muslim prayer while attempting to find his MetroCard.

Cases of religious profiling are also being filed against the NYPD against Imams and mosque attenders alike. An example of this can be found in a 2013 USA Today report, which followed the story of 20-year-old Asad Dandia. Dandia’s charitable organization, entitled “Muslims Giving Back,” was spied on by NYPD informant Shamiur Rahman as part of a larger spying case on the mosque Dandia attended.

In light of these individual stories, it should come as no surprise that the aforementioned 2011 Pew Survey found that negative views, discrimination and ignorance about Islam are the biggest problems faced by Muslim Americans. In addition, 25% of these respondents reported that “people had acted as if they were suspicious of them because they were a Muslim,” while 22% said they had been called offensive names and 36% of those who had flown in the past year said they had been singled out by airport security due to their religious beliefs. While few of these instances gain significant media attention, it is clear that profiling is a significant issue faced by American Muslims today.

Religiosity and Mosques:

Research has shown that an increase in religiosity and mosque attendance are positively associated with an increase in political participation among Muslim Americans. An examination of the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (MAPOS), suggests that mosques serve as “American-making” institutions, where 95% of religious, mosque-attending Muslims found that Islam was compatible with American politics, versus 77% of non-religious, non-mosque-attending Muslims. This is consistence with other religious institutions, like churches and synagogues. Yet, time and time again, empirical evidence is ignored and scientifically-lacking, baseless ill-informed opinions persist.

The political, religious, and societal involvement of American Muslims has fallen within the partisan divide. Donald Trump, Peter King, Jeb Bush, and other leading figures in the GOP know that Muslim-bashing pays off in ratings, and in appealing to a republican base easily-manipulated by right-wing political propaganda. No rational argument based in empirical evidence will convince these figures of their factually incorrect statements, because facts are irrelevant, but ratings are. As levels of Islamophobia continue to increase, so do levels of civic engagement and political participation among the Muslim American community. Just as Muslim Americans are standing up for their right to practice religion and participate as active, productive and helpful members of society, it is time for US society and government to recognize the long standing American history of prejudice and recognize that minorities, including Muslims, have done a great deal in building the country Americans call home. Prejudice has plagued much of American history, and still continues to pollute our society. It is time to change this and live up to the values US society propagates.

Karam Dana is Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the Principal Investigator of the Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (MAPOS) and the Director of the American Muslim Research Institute (AMRI).

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

AJ+: “The Many Problems With Anti-Muslim Rhetoric”