The rampant Islamophobia currently present in the United States is no new phenomenon. While we often pinpoint its beginnings to the events of September 11, 2001, the current discrimination towards Muslims is a situation that has been repeated many times throughout American history with various cultural or racial groups. According to En-Chieh Chao of National Sun Yat-sen University, “from the ‘savage Black’, the ‘inverted Jew’, or the ‘Monkey Men’ Japanese, the ‘devious Communists’ to Barbarian Muslims’, it is always ‘them’ that should be blamed for social problems, not ‘us’ who created unjust conditions domestically or abroad, and forced representations of others to our benefit” (Chao 70). Mostly due to strings of high-profile terrorist attacks carried out by extremists, Muslims are the current group of people whom Americans project their fears and prejudices onto. The current political climate does them no favors either.
Much of the current strain of Islamophobia found in 2016 can actually trace its origins to Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011. This event marked a turning point in the United States’ War on Terror, and afterwards, according to professor Arun Kundnani, “the government was no longer imagining the threat as foreign terrorist sleepers living among ordinary American Muslims now as it was the radicalization of ordinary American Muslims themselves that it feared” (Kundnani 8). Suddenly, many Americans feared that the next terrorist could be any Muslim they knew, whether it was their neighbor, or their doctor, or the person sitting next to them on public transportation. (Take, for instance, the recent case of a woman reporting an olive-skinned professor who was doing math on an airplane for suspicious behavior) (Rampell 1). Additionally, Muslim Americans are often the victims of hate crimes, including their mosques being set on fire or the shooting of six Sikhs (who apparently “looked like” Muslims) at a temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Finally, the rhetoric posed by the media and even by politicians is no help either. “Thanks to the internet, there have been more Islam-demonizing references readily available” (Chao 71), and of course there is Ted Cruz and his proposition for patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, and Donald Trump with his proposed immigration plan that would ban all Muslims from entering the country.
Political tactics employed by various politicians have indeed grown increasingly Islamophobic in the last 15 years. Following 9/11, President George W. Bush was actually very supportive of Muslims, and visited a mosque in New York City to show his support for them. However, the tone of the Republican party has shifted strikingly. Their use of Islamophobia as a political tool in the 2008 election was a turning point. Some prominent members of the party started a rumor that then Senator Obama was a Muslim. This accusation “generated great panic in the nation, which then led to further elaborations of the presumed inferiority of Muslimness and its inherent incompatibility with American-ness” (Chao 61). And as mentioned before, several presidential candidates are further criminalizing Muslims.
The presence of anti-Muslim rhetoric in politics contributes heavily to Islamophobia because it legitimizes people’s fears. When President Bush visited the mosque he was essentially saying that Islamophobia was not an appropriate reaction to 9/11. But now, when Donald Trump proclaims that all Muslims are inherently dangerous, he is suggesting that this is a perfectly valid opinion to hold. After all, he is the presumptive nominee of an esteemed and historic political party. I believe this legitimization of opinions that were previously considered to be inappropriate is one of the main causes of Islamophobia. When even members or prospective members of government are encouraging it, it’s hard for us to fight back.
Something else that makes Islamophobia challenging to combat is the government’s approach to fighting terrorism. Despite the fact that the majority of terrorist acts committed in the United States are unrelated to Islam, the FBI focuses disproportionally on preventing ones that are. Their list of “stages” for becoming a terrorist includes growing a beard or wearing traditional Muslim clothing, and “increased activity in a pro-Muslim social group or political cause…is one level away from becoming an active terrorist” (Kundani 12). Additionally, the FBI routinely enlists informants to infiltrate mosques and try to “catch” people talking about terrorism. All of these tactics again legitimize Islamophobia, because the government itself is acting on it.
So if Islamophobia is indeed so ingrained in our country, in large part because of our government, what can we do to try and fix it? There are no easy solutions, but I don’t think this means we should give up. We can start small, by being supportive and friendly to our Muslim friends and neighbors, and setting this example for others. We can also condemn Islamophobia when we see others participating in it by speaking out against hate speech. On a larger scale, we can work to elect more tolerant leaders in government. Perhaps then they can lead by example and show that Islamophobia is neither rational nor even American. After all, our country is strong because of the diversity of religion, race, and culture present here. Finally, we can advocate for different governmental responses to terrorism. We need to recognize that Muslims themselves are often victims of terrorism too. The FBI and other governmental agencies must stop treating all ordinary Muslims as criminals, and recognize that they can actually be useful allies in the War on Terror.
Chao, En-Chieh. “The-Truth-About-Islam.Com: Ordinary Theories of Racism and Cyber Islamophobia.” Critical Sociology 41.1 (2014): 57-75. Web. 7 May 2016.
Kundnani, Arun. The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Rampell, Catherine. “Ivy League Economist Ethnically Profiled, Interrogated for Doing Math on American Airlines Flight.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 7 May 2016. Web. 07 May 2016.