Paranoid Politics: The Denial of Islamophobia
By Jillian York
Imagine a fairly widespread, fairly mainstream ethos in which politicians, pundits, and academics convened to denigrate practitioners of Christianity or Judaism. Imagine that these commentators picked apart the New or Old Testament to find its most heinous contents, then used those phrases to justify their hatred and distrust. Imagine a world in which this was utterly acceptable, even encouraged. Now turn on your television.
The debate over the proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero and the more recent community mobilization against a Muslim group’s attempted purchase of a vacant convent in Staten Island are indicative of the unhealthy Islamophobia that has taken root in right-wing American politics. Far from being a fact-based movement, its leaders and thinkers propagate falsehoods and myths towards the discriminatory goal of silencing Muslims in America.
This type of race and religion-baiting politics is not at all new. The tactics and orientation of those opposing Muslim-American institutions bring to mind what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” Hofstadter, writing in 1964, described the hallmarks of this style: “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”
The idea that a vast Muslim conspiracy exists to take over the United States and Europe from within is simply ridiculous. Yet it serves as the grounds for their opposition to the freedom of American Muslims to practice their religion in their own communities, such as Staten Island.
The inherent suspiciousness of the anti-Islam movement is so rich that its participants are unable to reconcile the contradiction between their narrative of secretive Islamic terrorists pursuing “jihad” and the high-profile, publicly conciliatory moves such as the Cordoba Initiative’s efforts to purchase a building near Ground Zero and convert it into a public community center. In opposing both the secretive and the public display of Muslimness, they reveal that their actual goal is simply the silencing of Muslims in America. This is most clearly displayed in the way they claim to only target militant extremists, and then proceed to include the most mainstream and popular Muslim organizations in that category.
Within their narrative of a hateful religion bent on the destruction of the West, opposing any form of Islam in America comes out as justifiable. However, it closes them off to the actual practices and beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims in the United States and the world. They are intentionally ignorant because, as Hofstadter wrote, “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” Though Hofstadter wrote of fears over Masonic and Jesuit conspiracies, his descriptions are easily applied to the anti-Islam movement.
It is ironic that in Staten Island so many Catholic parishioners sought to block the sale of an empty convent to the Muslim American Society (MAS) because they feared the spread of Islamic extremism, or what one group crudely calls “the Islamization of America.” They contend that MAS is the “public face” of the Muslim Brotherhood despite the fact that both organizations deny a link and none has been found by America’s now 900,000-strong intelligence community. Such flimsy evidence is common to the paranoid crowd.
A case about which Hofstadter wrote was the trend of anti-Catholicism in 19th century America, which took the form of heightened suspicion of Jesuits. It was in much the same manner as today’s suspicion of Muslims. Hofstadter cites the example of an 1855 Texas newspaper article, which read, “It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions.”
Such rhetoric is never entirely without evidence. Participants in the anti-Islam movement are often quick to point to the 9/11 attacks, as well as subsequent attacks around the world, as justification for their hatred of Islam. The evidence of linkage is often weak. They may cite these attacks as reasons for denying the sale of the convent without showing that MAS was responsible for any.
The Islamophobe is unable to deal with complexity. They do not mention the fact that numerous Muslims died as victims of the 9/11 attacks, that Muslims have been in the United States for hundreds of years, and that the vast majority of American Muslims condemned the attacks on civilians as contradictory to the tenets of Islam.
They even go to the extent of denying the most clearly formed and documented counter-evidence. For example, in a recent debate over the proposed mosque on Staten Island on Russia Today’s Alyona Show, Pamela Geller–a blogger and self-styled “expert” on Islam and jihad–claimed that backlash against Muslims in the United States following the events of September 11, 2001 has been “non-existent”:
“there is no Muslim backlash…that’s part of this Islamic narrative…you cannot cite any hate crimes…there have been no hate crimes…America has gone out of her way to make sure that there is no backlash.”
In reality, hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims since 2001 and particularly in the years immediately following are well-documented. Just three years after the attacks, a report by the Council on American-Islamic relations found that in 2004, more than 1,500 hundred cases of anti-Muslim harassment and violence occurred, including 141 documented hate crimes, a fifty percent increase from the 2003.
Nine years after the attacks, the attitude toward Muslims in America that allows such attacks to continue, an attitude perpetuated by bloggers like Geller, show no signs of abating. According to a February 2010 report from the The United States Department of Justice, its Civil Rights division, along with the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys offices, have investigated “over 800 incidents since 9/11 involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against Arab-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South-Asian Americans and other individuals perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.”
Geller is by no means alone in her attempts to deny the existence of Islamophobia. Though Tea Party leader Mark Williams was recently ousted for his racist diatribe directed at the NAACP, comments made months earlier in which he referred to Muslims as worshipping a “monkey god,” went almost unnoticed by the media. Right-wing pundit Pat Robertson has regularly referred to Islam as a “fascist group” on television, and academic Daniel Pipes has denied the existence of Islamophobia entirely, asking:
“What exactly constitutes an “undue fear of Islam” when Muslims acting in the name of Islam today make up the premier source of worldwide aggression, both verbal and physical, versus non-Muslims and Muslims alike? What, one wonders, is the proper amount of fear?”
Even the Wikipedia article for “Islamophobia” contains an entire section on the debate surrounding the term. Of course, Wikipedia is a crowdsourced project, but perhaps that makes it all the more telling, and reflective of popular opinion. The page for “anti-Semitism” contains no debate, nor is it likely that any would be accepted by the public; while anti-Semitism means, rightly, social death, Islamophobia might get you a television spot, a column in a newspaper, or academic tenure.
In the paranoid Islamophobic mind, Islam is the perpetrator. Thus, Muslims cannot be victims. Islam is a monolith, acting in coordination towards the nefarious end of overturning Western civilization, according to their paranoid schema. So how could Muslims be anything but ill-willed? How could they be victims of any backlash when the West equals civilization and Islam so clearly conflicts with that idea? Were these views merely flights of personal fantasy, they would be harmless. The danger is that they have become part of the mainstream and are denying the freedom of Muslims to practice their religion, a freedom enshrined in the Constitution.
Luckily, significant portions of Americans who work or study with, live next to, or otherwise interact with, American Muslims, reject the simplistic hate-mongering of these groups. However, if Islamophobes really believe Muslims are a grave threat, the kind of post-9/11 violent backlash against them will grow.
Hofstadter would even predict that Islamophobes, like other paranoid movements in the past, would become more like the enemy they project. He pointed out that the “Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy.” Also, the John Birch Society emulated “Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through ‘front’ groups, and preache[d] a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.”
The best hope is that Islamophobia be pushed back into the fringes and local and federal authorities aggressively prosecute anti-Muslim violence and discrimination. Concerned communities should engage in dialogue with Muslims and their organizations, and learn more about them, rather than rely on the types of prejudices and paranoia being hawked by Islamophobes