Making Islamophobia Mainstream
How Muslim-bashers broadcast their bigotry
By Steve Rendall and Isabel Macdonald
A remarkable thing happened at the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) nominations in February 2007: The normally highbrow and tolerant group nominated for best book in the field of criticism a work widely viewed as denigrating an entire religion.
The nomination of Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within didn’t pass without controversy. Past nominee Eliot Weinberger denounced the book at the NBCC’s annual gathering, calling it “racism as criticism’’ (New York Times, 2/8/07). NBCC board president John Freeman wrote on the group’s blog (Critical Mass, 2/4/07): "I have never been more embarrassed by a choice than I have been with Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept. . . . Its hyperventilated rhetoric tips from actual critique into Islamophobia."
Though it didn’t ultimately win the award, While Europe Slept’s recognition in the highest literary circles was emblematic of a mainstreaming of Islamophobia, not just in American publishing but in the broader media.
The term “Islamophobia” refers to hostility toward Islam and Muslims that tends to dehumanize an entire faith, portraying it as fundamentally alien and attributing to its followers an inherent, essential set of negative traits, such as irrationality, intolerance and violence. And not unlike the charges made in the classical document of anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, some of Islamophobia’s more virulent expressions—like While Europe Slept—include evocations of Islamic plots to dominate the West.
Islamic institutions and Muslims, of course, should be subject to the same kind of scrutiny and criticism as anyone else. For instance, when a Norwegian Islamic Council debates whether gay men and lesbians should be executed, one may forcefully condemn individuals or groups sharing that opinion without pulling all European Muslims into it, as did Bawer’s Pajamas Media post (8/7/08), “European Muslims Debate: Should Gays Be Executed?”
Similarly, extremists who justify their violent actions by invoking some particular interpretation of Islam can be criticized without implicating the enormously diverse population of Muslims around the world. After all, reporters managed to cover the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh—an adherent of the racist Christian Identity sect—without resorting to generalized statements about “Christian terrorism.” Likewise, media have covered acts of terrorism by fanatics who are Jewish—for instance, the Hebron massacre carried out by Baruch Goldstein (Extra!, 5–6/94)—without implicating the entirety of Judaism.
In works such as Orientalism and Covering Islam, cultural analyst Edward Said criticized an ideology that he argued treated peoples of the Middle East and Asia, particularly Muslims, as the “other”—inherently different from and inferior to the people of “the West.” It’s not hard to find support for his thesis in U.S. establishment journalism.
In reporting on an Iraqi family’s refusal to accept a cash payment after their son was shot dead by private U.S. security contractor Blackwater, the L.A. Times (5/4/08) emphasized that the “shooting and its aftermath show the deep disconnect between the American legal process and the traditional culture of Iraq,” explaining that “traditional Arab society values honor and decorum above all.”
Similarly, a New York Times news article (8/25/08) about the Afghan response to a U.S. military attack in Afghanistan that killed 90 civilians noted that bombings and house raids “are seen as culturally unacceptable by many Afghans who guard their privacy fiercely,” while the detention of hundreds of Afghans without trial was said to have “stirred up Afghans’ strong independent streak and ancient dislike of invaders.”
Why is it necessary to invoke cultural stereotypes to explain why you won’t accept an envelope full of cash after mercenaries kill your child? Or to explain quite normal opposition to being bombed, detained or aggressively searched? Because the widespread assumption in the U.S. media is that people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, are fundamentally unlike Americans.
There are many varieties of Muslim-bashing on display in the media. One strain holds that Islam is inherently evil or violent—a “bloody, brutal type of religion,” as televangelist Pat Robertson put it (700 Club, 4/28/06). Robert Spencer, who has authored two New York Times bestsellers on Islam and is a frequent cable news guest, puts a scholarly face on Islamophobia, arguing that (Emory Wheel, 2/21/07) “jihad as warfare against non-believers in order to institute ‘Sharia’ worldwide . . . is a constant element of mainstream Islamic theology.”
Islamophobes like Fox News and talk radio host Sean Hannity dwell on “the silence of moderate Muslims,” whom Hannity says (Hannity & Colmes, 7/13/07) are insufficiently “critical against those that would hijack their religion”—placing a burden on Muslims to take responsibility for extremist fringe elements of their religion that is not likewise applied to Christians. Also exemplifying this form of Islamophobia is CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck, who said to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress (Glenn Beck, 11/14/06). “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies”; on his syndicated radio show, Beck warned (Glenn Beck Program, 8/10/06):
Another category of Islamophobia finds militant Muslims lurking around every corner and paints them as an existential threat to the U.S. and its allies. The documentary Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West (2006), which has been a mainstay of David Horowitz’s “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” describes “radical Islam” as a menace comparable to Adolf Hitler that, according to the film’s website, “is threatening, with all the means at its disposal, to bow Western civilization under the yoke of its values.” The film was distributed as a paid insert by many major newspapers to tens of millions of subscribers in electoral swing states in September 2008 (Editor & Publisher, 9/13/08).
Meanwhile, Daniel Pipes has warned of an Islamic threat to America posed by Muslim groups ranging from the college campus-based Muslim Student Associations to secular groups like the American-Arab Anti-Defamation League (Inter-Press Service, 2/24/05). Pipes, whose opinions have been featured in outlets from NPR to USA Today to Fox News, suggests (Middle East Quarterly, 3/8/06) a stealth takeover by an ill-defined “Wahhabi lobby” is in the offing, arguing (IPS, 2/24/05) that “in the long term . . . the legal activities of Islamists pose as much or even a greater set of challenges than the illegal ones.”
The “war on terror” has bolstered a class of Islamophobic self-proclaimed “Islamic terrorism experts,” such as NBC terrorism analyst Steven Emerson, who notoriously proclaimed (CBS News, 4/19/95) that the bloodthirstiness of the Oklahoma City bombing was “a Middle Eastern trait.”
Some strains of Muslim-bashing share a good deal in common with the racist pseudo-science of eugenics—most notably Mark Steyn’s writings about the “demographic decline” manifest in Europe’s growing Muslim population. Pipes struck a similar note with his warnings (National Review, 11/19/90) that “Western societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene” and that “Muslim customs are more troublesome than most.”
This range of anti-Muslim views finds its vehicles in a variety of online, radio and print outlets. Some of the harshest Muslim-bashing can be found in the right-wing blogosphere (Little Green Footballs, Front Page, WorldNetDaily, Gates of Vienna, Michelle Malkin.com, Daniel Pipes.org) and on the websites which link to these blogs and generate their own anti-Muslim content (Middle East Forum, Campus Watch, Jihad Watch, Militant Islam Monitor), as well as on right-wing talk radio, where hosts like Michael Savage rabble-rouse with overtly bigoted commentary like (Savage Nation, 7/2/07), “When I see a woman walking around with a burqa, I see . . . a hateful Nazi who would like to cut your throat and kill your children.”
Lengthy treatises that attempt to put a more scholarly facade on Islamophobia provide fuel for those fires. In addition to Bawer’s book, recent years have seen publishers like Regnery unleashing a number of successful books that are inarguably Islamophobic: Mark Steyn’s New York Times best seller America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (2006) and Robert Spencer’s two Times bestsellers, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) (2005) and The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion (2006), join other Muslim-bashing books from overseas, including Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan (2006) and Orianna Fallaci’s The Force of Reason (2004), that have thrived in the U.S. book market.
The Islamophobia generated in these backwaters finds its way into the mainstream, accessing a national platform and audience through such tributaries as the cable TV and radio shows hosted by Fox News’ Sean Hannity and CNN Headline News’ Glenn Beck. Islamophobic ideas get important institutional support through conservative newspapers such as the New York Post, which regularly publishes Pipes’ columns, and many more centrist papers carry internment apologist Michelle Malkin’s nationally syndicated column.
Together, these Muslim-bashing outlets constitute what is, in effect, a network. Funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a prominent right-wing foundation, Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum is connected to a range of other right-wing think tanks; its editors and editorial board include representatives from the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Founda-tion, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pipes’ Campus Watch and Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch operate out of David Horowitz’s Freedom Center. Prominent members of this net- work also have official connections; Pipes, for instance, was appointed by George W. Bush to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace in 2003.
Muslim-bashers often have much more certainty than expertise, as exemplified by Alan Dershowitz (Boston Globe, 6/5/08), who traced “the beginning of Islamic terrorism in America” to the assassination of Robert Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan—a Palestinian Christian. But whether its promoters’ fears are reality-based or not, Islamophobia is a force to be reckoned with.
Labels: Making Islamophobia Mainstream