Islamophobia refers to unfounded fear of and hostility towards Islam. Such fear and hostility leads to discriminations against Muslims, exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political or social process, stereotyping, the presumption of guilt by association, and finally hate crimes. In twenty-first century America, all of these evils are present and in some quarters tolerated. While America has made major progress in racial harmony, there is still a long road ahead of us to reach our destination when all people are judged on the content of their character and neither on the color of their skin or their faith.
Islamophobia as a term and as a phenomena gained currency in part due to the popular thesis developed by Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington that argued about an impending clash of civilization between Islam and the West. When 9-11 happened, the people already predisposed to viewing Islam with suspicion jumped on this bandwagon and through a multitude of primarily right wing outlets have been successful in creating a climate of extreme prejudice, suspicion and fear against Muslims. This sentiment has also been aided by many pro-Israeli commentators such as Daniel Pipes, Steve Emerson, Judith Miller, and Bernard Lewis among many others.
Islamophobia has resulted in the general and unquestioned acceptance of the following:
Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities.
Islam does not share common values with other major faiths.
Islam as a religion is inferior to the West. It is archaic, barbaric and irrational.
Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism.
Islam is a violent political ideology.[i]
As such any criticism by Muslims of American policy towards the Muslim world is dismissed as being “reactionary,” “anti-Semitic” and “irrational.” Mainstream American Muslim organizations are viewed with suspicion and a variety of excuses are put forward for not engaging the American Muslim community.
Such biased attitudes are present despite the fact that Muslim contributions played a significant part in developing a civilization in Europe and history books record the first Muslim arrival in America in 1312 when Mansa Abu Bakr traveled from Mali to South America. Of the estimated 10 million African slaves that came to America a significant percentage was Muslim.[ii] Yet Islam and Muslims remain in Europe and America embedded in stereotypical assumptions and misguided pronouncements regarding beliefs, attitudes and customs.
In 2006 the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) conducted a survey of American Muslim voters. Results show that American Muslim voters are young, highly educated, (62 percent have obtained a bachelor degree or higher. This is double the comparable national figure for registered voters), more than half the community is made up of professionals, 43 percent have a household income of $50,000 or higher, seventy eight are married and the community is religiously diverse (31 percent attend a mosque on a weekly basis; 16 percent attend once or twice a month; 27 percent said they seldom or never attend). The largest segment of the respondents said they consider themselves “just Muslims,” avoiding distinctions like Sunni or Shia. Another 36 percent said they are Sunni and 12 percent said they are Shia. Less than half of 1 percent said they are Salafi, while 2 percent said they are Sufi.[iii]
The survey results also show that American Muslims are integrated in American society—89 percent said they vote regularly; 86 percent said they celebrate the Fourth of July; 64 percent said they fly the U.S. flag; 42 percent said they volunteer for institutions serving the public (compared to 29 percent nationwide in 2005). On social and political issues the views of American Muslims are as follows: 84 percent said Muslims should strongly emphasize shared values with Christians and Jews, 82 percent said terrorist attacks harm American Muslims; 77 percent said Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews do; 69 percent believe a just resolution to the Palestinian cause would improve America’s standing in the Muslim world; 66 percent support working toward normalization of relations with Iran; 55 percent are afraid that the War on Terror has become a war on Islam; only 12 percent believe the war in Iraq was a worthwhile effort; and just 10 percent support the use of the military to spread democracy in other countries. [iv]
Despite such integrative attitudes, the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. creates tensions and hinders quicker integration of Muslims. Here are some of the recent results of American public attitude towards Islam and Muslims.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Poll in 2004:
Almost 4 in 10 Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam, about the same number that have a favorable view.
A plurality of Americans (46 percent) believes that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers.[v]
ABC News March, 2005 Poll:
Four months after 9/11, 14 percent believed mainstream Islam encourages violence; today it’s 34 percent.
Today 43 percent think Islam does not teach respect for the beliefs of non-Muslims — up sharply from 22 percent.
People who feel they do understand Islam are much more likely to view it positively. Among Americans who feel they do understand the religion, 59 percent call it peaceful and 46 percent think it teaches respect for the beliefs of others.[vi]
CAIR 2005 Poll on American Attitudes Towards Islam and Muslims:
The level of knowledge of Islam is virtually unchanged from 2004. Only two percent of survey respondents indicated that they are “very knowledgeable” about the religion.
Almost 60 percent said they “are not very knowledgeable” or “not at all knowledgeable” about Islam.
Nearly 10 percent said Muslims believe in a moon god.
Just a little over one-third of survey respondents reported awareness of Muslim leaders condemning terrorism.
A vast majority of Americans said they would change their views about Muslims if Muslims condemn terrorism more strongly, show more concern for Americans or work to improve the status of Muslim women or American image in the Muslim world.[vii]
Cornell University Study:
In all, about 44 percent said they believe that some curtailment of civil liberties is necessary for Muslim Americans.
Twenty-six percent said they think that mosques should be closely monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Twenty-nine percent agreed that undercover law enforcement agents should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations, in order to keep tabs on their activities and fund raising.[viii]
Such public attitude translates into discrimination, exclusion and violence. In 2005, CAIR processed a total of 1,972 civil rights complaints, compared to 1,522 cases reported to CAIR in 2004.[ix] This constitutes a 29.6 percent increase in the total number of complaints of anti-Muslim harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment from 2004. For the second straight year, the 1,972 reports also marks the highest number of Muslim civil rights complaints ever reported to CAIR in its twelve-year history. In addition, CAIR received 153 reports of anti-Muslim hate crime complaints, an 8.6 percent increase from the 141 complaints received in 2004.
The impact of Islamophobia is not only seen in these large increases in complaints of discrimination by Muslims but it can have other consequences that will be very detrimental to the overall society. Muslim youth in the West have grown up being preached ideas of plurality, equality and freedom. When such ideas are not applied towards their own empowerment it can lead to disillusionment, social disorder and in the worst cases irrational violence.
Islamophobia also negates one of the greatest strength of America as a multicultural society. The presence of an educated, professional and patriotic class of American Muslims ought to be viewed as a resource and strength as they can greatly aid in improving America’s image in the Muslim world. American Muslims have deep appreciation and love for America just as they have empathy and understanding of the Muslim world. Thus American Muslims can serve as the perfect bridge between America and the Muslim world. To enable this aspiration, American policy makers need to constructively engage American Muslims. American Muslim representation within most policy making circles (congressional or executive) is almost non-existent. Islamophobia prevents meaningful engagement with Muslims as politicians using the calculus of votes and money play it safe by caving into the tyranny of the majority.
The way forward is to develop a sense of urgency that Islamophobia ought to be made unacceptable just as racism and anti-Semitism are in America. Islamophobia is already beginning to erode America’s image and culture. Opinion leaders should view Islam, a faith with diversity, internal differences, having much in common with Christianity and Judaism, as distinctly different but not deficient, and as a partner in America’s future