What Would A Muslim Say:

Conversations, Questions, and Answers About Islam

The Bigotry of Islamophobia


Despite what many people think, Islamophobia did not come out from the tragedy of 9/11. The systematic use of stereotypes and hyperbolic media against Islam and Muslims started as the US invasion and occupation of Iraq turned vicious in 2006, the popular discontent with the Iraq War escalated, and the inception of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement. As John Esposito noted in 2017,

Islamophobia did not suddenly come into being after the events of 9/11. Like anti-Semitism and xenophobia, it has long and deep historical roots. Its contemporary resurgence has been triggered by the significant influx of Muslims to the West in the late twentieth century, the Iranian revolution, hijackings, hostage taking, and other acts of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe. [1]

The causal link between the Islamophobia industry and the pro-Israel lobby informs the persistence and expansion of Islamophobia in America.[2] This paper intends to highlight the impact of Zionism and the Israel lobby on the growing mainstream acceptance of Islamophobia and to discuss various strategies to exposing, discrediting, and eliminating this form of bigotry.

The keys to combating Islamophobia are to expose its bigoted history, to discredit its financial and opportunistic backers, and to provide alternative narratives based on personal interactions. I will begin by giving background information and historical perspective on the Islamophobia industry. I will then cite the research that demonstrates the correlation between right-wing Zionism and Islamophobia. Finally, I will discuss the possible future of Islamophobia, will it ever subside and what are the necessary conditions for it to subside?

Background Information

Prejudice and discrimination against the “Other” are not new. In both Europe and North America, communities have struggled with fostering inclusiveness to those minority groups that were perceived to not really fitting in to the broader society. Perception is reality, so this perception often manifested itself in ugly ways. The Holocaust of 20th century Germany and the Salem Witch Trials of 17th century Massachusetts are but two alarming examples of these manifestations. Bigotry against Muslims starts with xenophobia, so of course Muslim immigrants are often the first victims. However, even after these immigrants become naturalized citizens, settle down, and establish families, Muslims continue to be cast into the larger pot of “strangeness,” so their differing religious beliefs are used as justification for making them outcasts.

The second decade of the twenty-first century was well primed for prejudice and discrimination. By October of 2009, the US unemployment rate had risen to 10.1 percent. Despite improvements in Obama’s second term, prolonged economic instability gave way to social tensions, just as it had years before, creating the groundwork for the rise of nationalism and anti-Other sentiment that fizzled up from below, well into the waning years of his presidency and beyond. Muslims again became receptacles for societal anxiety, and the right wing, knowing full well the power of fear, used the fragile economic and political climate to their advantage.[3]

Craig Considine, a lecturer in sociology at Rice University, reviewed more than 40 news articles and referenced dozens of academic studies relating to the experiences of American Muslims and the stereotypical depictions of Muslims.[4] He summarizes as follows:

  • In 2016 alone, incidents of Islamophobia, including acts of violence and nonviolent harassment, rose by 57 percent.
  • More than 50 percent of Muslims experienced some form of hostility between 2010 and 2014, and more than one-third of Muslims felt they had been targeted based on being identified as Muslim.
  • News outlets give more coverage to crimes by Muslims. Attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449 percent more coverage than crimes carried out by non-Muslims.
  • Out of more than 1,000 Hollywood films depicting Arabs, 932 of these films depicted them in a stereotypical or negative light. Only 12 films depicted them in a positive way.

In order to understand the cause of this persistent rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and why even almost 20 years after September 11, 2001, there are such high levels of fear, mistrust, and hatred of Muslims, we must look at the individuals who have labored since the day the planes hit the towers to convince their fellow Americans that Islam and Muslims are an emerging and vicious threat to the America and the American way of life.

Historical Perspective

The Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979. The Lebanon Hostage Crisis in 1982. The bombing of the Beirut US Embassy in 1983. The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. The first Gulf War in 1991. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993. These events reinforced the perception that Muslim militants were especially monstrous and therefore inherently incompatible with the West.[5] So much so, that when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in 1995, many believed that Muslim militants were the culprits. Even after it was proven that the Oklahoma bombing was the result of U.S. militia sympathizers against the federal government, the American zeitgeist still viewed the Arabs and Muslims with suspicion and wariness. Then came September 11, 2001 attacks. These attacks solidified for many Americans the that Islam is inherently violent, and negative views of Islam and Muslims increased ever since.

Bush took pains to point out that he was not referring to all or even most Muslims but rather to a radical minority within Islam so intoxicated with hatred that they have twisted their religion into a tool for terror. However, in doing so, he constructed a binary of “good Muslim” and “bad Muslim” that eventually paved the way for a political Islamophobia in which any Muslim who is not with “us” becomes “our” enemy.[6]

After Bush, former president Obama, as well as several Congress-members, and many American Muslim organizations have attempted to highlight the difference between the essential teachings of the Islam and the violent acts of individual Muslims. However, there has been a powerful counter-narrative that exploits the actual fears of militant violence and seeks to cast Islam as an existential threat to America itself and its values. This counter-narrative is spearheaded by a small network of individuals who use charged stereotypes, emotional language, evocative and lurid images, and constant repetition to amplify fears of a lurking and monstrous Muslim presence.

Pamela Geller, a self-described “human rights activist,” grew up in a conservative Jewish home in the Five Towns enclave of Long Island. After the 9/11 attacks, in 2005, she launched Atlas Shrugs, a personal blog that has been described as the “caustic mouthpiece” of the Islamophobia industry.[7] Her commentary, including dozens of blog posts, media clips, and social media blasts, created such a flood of traffic that she became an overnight celebrity. For example, in 2010, Geller’s spinoff activist group, Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) ran inflammatory anti-Muslim ad campaigns in New York City’s public transportation spaces. This escalated for the next three years to expanded ads in Washington DC, San Francisco, and Miami.[8]

Robert Spencer was raised in a Catholic home; he studied early Christian history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, eventually going on to graduate school and earning a master’s degree in medieval Christianity. Although Spencer claims to have no religious agenda against Islam, in a 2003 interview with Zenit Dispatch, he exposed the ideological underpinnings of his sudden interest in Islam. Like the radical militants he criticized, he saw Islam and Christianity locked in a battle for souls—a zero-sum game for which he felt obligated to undermine the appeal of Islam.[9]

Spencer founded the blog, Jihad Watch, soon afterwards, which showcases any and all negative news about Muslims from around the world to justify fears of Islam in America. Jihad Watch was initially funded and continues to be supported by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. This center is named after and run by the conservative policy advocate who once claimed that Muslim Student Associations were radical groups founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood to sneak jihad into American higher education. Horowitz’s influence in the Islamophobia industry is widely known. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate movements in the United States, labels David Horowitz “the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement.”[10] His center is the recipient and donor of much of the funds behind the Islamophobia industry.

Like a well-trained soccer team, each player coordinates with the other to overcome obstacles in a fluid and dynamic way; however, the network’s cleverness lies in its obfuscating and down-playing the fact that the players know each other, support one another, and use the same playbook, thus impressing on their readership that each is an independent herald of the impending Muslim threat. This in turn makes the “threat’ seem all the more plausible and frightening for the general public. For example, according to its website, the Middle East Forum “works to define and promote American interests in the Middle East and protect Western values from Middle Eastern threats.” The founder and director of this group is Daniel Pipes, known as the grandfather of Islamophobia in the United States.[11] He often speaks on television of the “Muslim Threat” and supports and lends credence to other members of the Islamophobia network. Another example is the Investigative Project on Terrorism, founded and operated by Steve Emerson. This think tank claims to investigate the activities and finances of radical terrorist groups, but makes all of Islam culpable.

Emerson is known for repeated inaccurate claims such as the existence of so called “no-go zones” in Europe. As a result, his biased comments make their way to right-wing media and are repeated in an echo-chamber effect. In addition to the “no-go zones” he falsely reported, he was the first to conclude (without any basis) that the Oklahoma bombing was the work of Middle Eastern terrorists. His comments were parroted by news outlets around the country, even those who are not known for right-wing rhetoric.

The Center for American Progress describes this as the Islamophobia megaphone. This tight-knit group of misinformation experts spread myths and lies about Islam and American Muslims, and then various media outlets, politicians, and activists amplify the fear and misinformation, thereby misleading the public.[12] The professional Islamophobia network is not only driven by Pipes, Geller, and Spencer. Other key players include Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese-born Christian; David Yerushalmi, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn; and Frank Gaffney, an American anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist. Gabriel, who equates all practicing Muslims with radical Islam, is the founder of ACT for America, the largest anti-Muslim organization in the United States. Yerushalmi and Gaffney both lead organizations that seek to enact anti-Muslim laws, including the infamous anti-Sharia bills that began sweeping through state legislatures in 2010.[13]

[1] (Lean 2017)

[2] (Winstanley, Asa 2018)

[3] (Lean 2017, 41)

[4] (Considine, Craig 2017)

[5] (Lean 2017, 82)

[6] (Green 2019, 145)

[7] (CAIR 2016, 77)

[8] (Lean 2017, 99)

[9] (ZENIT 2003)

[10] (CAIR 2016, 75)

[11] (CAIR 2016, 76)

[12] (Ali, et al. 2011, 4-5)

[13] (Green 2019, 253)

The Bigotry of Islamophobia
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