Anti- and pro-Muslim sentiments in popular media
“When people hear my name or when people know that I’m a Muslim I realize a difference in the way that I am treated. I feel that difference,” said Suleyman Yoruk, an Ithaca College junior. “They start asking questions about 9/11 as if I’m an authority on it because I’m Muslim.”
Yoruk’s story is not unique. In this post 9/11 world a hyper-awareness of skin tone and religion has taken hold in American culture. Islamophobia is a result of this hyper-awareness and has become a trend within our government’s practices. This pattern of blind fear is not a new chapter within American history, and this apprehension of the “Other” can be seen since colonization.
At times, the Unites States has even legalized discrimination — Chinese Immigration Laws in the late nineteenth century restricted the number per country of origin of immigrants permitted into the US; Japanese Internment camps of the 1940s uprooted 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and placed them into government camps; and the current Arizona immigration law, SB1070, permits racial profiling by state police officers. In all cases, the United States has shown quick legislative action for the sake of national security over an alien threat.
Since the introduction of Islamophobia to American popular culture, non-profits and blogs projecting anti-Muslim sentiments have sprung up throughout the media world. For example, the Center for Security Policy, a neo-conservative non-profit organization, headed by Frank Gaffney, claims within its mission statement: “We as a nation must work to undermine the ideological foundations of totalitarianism and Islamist extremism.”
The Center for Security Policy acted as a national security think-tank for a number of legislative movements in Washington and received public endorsements and praise from government officials such as GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The Center has also attended conferences with presidential candidates to promote their agenda and address the “threat of Sharia-Law.” The Center declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Center for Security Policy’s book, Sharia: The Threat to America, defines Islam as a violent religion, and appears to be a sensationalist manifesto of anti-Muslim sentiments. With stylistic flourishes and grandiose, over-exaggerated, correlative statements that equate Islam to violence, it is hard to take this book seriously. The book claims that there is an overwhelming presence of Islamic supremacists who argue that “Islam is superior to every other culture, faith, government and society, and that it is ordained by Allah to conquer and dominate them.” One cannot help but think that the authors of this book have not spent time reflecting upon the belief of conversion in Christianity and the number of wars and hateful acts done in the name of God.
Gaffney, in conjunction with anti-Muslim blogger Robert Spencer, whose blog Jihad Watch has received national attention, and Pamela Geller, whose most recent book Stop the Islamization of America has received commendation from the Tea Party, are making the promotion circuit. These three individuals represent a larger group of hate mongers that perpetuate anti-Islamic propaganda. They have declared themselves experts on the religion and have been the primary sources for a number of news programs such as “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” “The Sean Hannity Show” and “The O’Reilly Factor.”
In opposition with this noisy group of Islamophobics is the Center for American Progress, a progressive non-profit group that focuses on improving the United States through legislative reform and education.
“The problem with this network is two-fold,” said Scott Keyes, the Center for American Progress’ co-author of their media report Fear Inc. “First and foremost, they’re spreading a message of bigotry that seeds hatred towards Muslims. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world; to discriminate against them as a group because of the actions of a tiny number of people is shameful.”
According to Fear, Inc., the Center defines this network of Islamophobics as a “small band of radical ideologues.” It claims that the most notable pervasive myth is the recent outcry towards President Obama’s faith, citing Frank Gaffney’s article, “America’s first Muslim President?” in which Gaffney questions the President’s intentions of the United States’ relations with the Middle East and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Center for American Progress claims that these groups and individuals are reminiscent of Senator Joseph McCarthy. His similar spinning of the truth led to public misconceptions of the pervasiveness of Communists within American communities in the 1950s. Today a similar witch hunt in the U.S. has left Muslims feeling restricted from expressing their religion.
“[After 9/11] I realized a big difference in the way my family acted,” Yoruk said. “My mother took off her veil permanently, and she still doesn’t wear it because of some discrimination that she has faced in her every day.”
Anti-Muslim groups who repeat exaggerated statements perpetuate this notion that the “Other” must be un-American.
“Since when is America, ideally not inclusive of all cultures?” Yoruk said. “Since when is somebody saying ‘Praise Allah’ un-American? That’s the kind of mentality that makes America against other cultures and anti-Muslim. That’s fear, and that fear comes from what people see in the media.”
The power and pervasiveness of these groups has stretched beyond the media and into common American culture. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group for Muslim rights and equality, express current concerns about Islamophobia in mainstream American culture in a PSA campaign: “I am an American Muslim,” which has been “designed to help reduce anti-Muslim discrimination and stereotyping.” This campaign has Muslims of all ethnic and racial backgrounds sharing how they and their families have served the United States.
“What we really need to do is reclaim our identity and our right to dissent,” said Cyrus McGoldrick, civil rights manager of CAIR’s New York chapter. “What we’re seeing now is the criminalization of ideology, freedom of speech and assembly.”
Threats of discrimination against Muslims continue to permeate throughout all realms of our society. For instance, a recent review of FBI training methods contends that the more pious a Muslim is, the more likely he or she is to be a sympathizer towards Islamic fundamentalist groups. This governmental legitimization of the words of Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney is frightening to a number of progressive advocacy groups.
“If it weren’t for this anti-Muslim network, we wouldn’t have smears like ‘creeping Sharia’ pervading conservative circles,” Keyes said.
The hateful dialogue towards Muslims is not just within the media circuit but has also spread into local communities. Since 9/11, more than 800 cases of violence against Muslims and people of Arabic decent have been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. According to CAIR, with Muslims accounting for less than one percent of the American population, proportionally this number is high. In its latest statistic in 2008, CAIR processed 2,728 civil rights complaints.
According to Fear Inc., the Center for Law and Poverty, a hate-crime watch group, has labeled the Center for Security Policy, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer as “hate groups” and watches them the same as they would racist and anti-Semitic groups.
“There is blood on their hands, they are responsible for hate crimes on the ground” said McGoldrick.
Unfortunately, this “Othering” of Muslims is not solely because of this small fear-mongering group. It is the result of a consistent pattern within humanity: a pattern that is a result of fear — fear of the unknown, the different, the other. The power relations that reveal themselves when fear is present are startling — how quickly people react to a shadow in the dark, how quickly people spout fire and brimstone speeches in the name of freedom, security and justice.
But the security that Robert Spence, Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney want so badly for their country is one that relies on hatred, ignorance and blind fear. They have continually abused language, publicity and the belief in American ideals that perpetuates this cycle of blind hate in American history.
In reality Gaffney has a nose, two eyes, lungs, a heart (although some would say that is questionable) as does every other healthy human being on this earth. The beauty of humanity is that its diversity reveals its innumerable similarities. It is only a question of how willing an individual and a society are to accept the “Other” and to look to the “Other” as something to be valued, not something to be feared. Through education and accurate reporting, non-Muslims can learn the true meaning of Jihad and Islam.
As Yoruk said, “The exact translation of Jihad is ‘struggle’ simply put. We all have similar Jihads we must struggle together as a whole community, and I believe that is a major way we can find peace.”
Emily Brown is a senior sociology and English major who has no fear. Email her at ebrown1[at]ithaca.edu.