Facing Religious Intolerance: Islamophobia in the 21st Century

Facing Religious Intolerance: Islamophobia in the 21st Century

by Nathan C. Lean

In my remarks this evening, which will be somewhat brief, I want to provide an overview of my new book, The Islamophobia Industry, and in doing that, propose that we think about the phenomenon of Islamophobia as not only an organic social disease that grips our society, where, for instance, the general public reacts to episodes of violence committed by Muslim extremists by stereotyping ALL Muslims BUT ALSO think about it as a product — something that is manufactured, marketed, sold, and consumed.

I wanted to know why it is that in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Pew Research polls show that 59% of Americans expressed favorable opinions of their Muslim neighbors — but ten years later anti-Muslim sentiment soared upwards such that nearly the same percentage of Americans — 55 % —— said that they would be uncomfortable with a woman wearing the burqa, a mosque being built in their neighborhood, or a Muslim man praying in an airport.

What took place over those ten years that caused Islamophobia to persist at such an ugly and elevated level?

Why is it that during Ramadan this year — specifically over the course of just 13 days in August — mosques were targeted 8 times?

My question is: How exactly did we get here?

What I propose in this book is that much of — Not all of, but much of — the decade-long spasm of Islamophobia that has rattled through the American public is actually a product — one manufactured by a tight-knit and interconnected network of right-wing fear merchants.

They prey upon political and economic instabilities and they grow people’s concerns over the current state of the world into fears of such things as “Islamofascism,” “stealth jihad,” “monster mosques,” “creeping Sharia,” and “terror babies.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to detail every single component of the Islamophobia industry (and if I did there’d be no reason for you to read the book!) but I do want to discuss for just a moment two individuals who are a part of this network, and who, in the past few years, have managed to turn their business of Muslim-bashing into a lucrative full-time endeavor. This is their career — they create fear and hatred of Muslims. And they have capitalized on their growing Internet fame and have effectively transformed online activism into an on-the-ground activism — in fact, into a full-fledge public hate campaign against Muslims.

These two individuals (and I should make it very clear that there are countless others just like them) have had their hands in some of the country’s ugliest displays of anti-Muslim prejudice in the past five years in the United States and in some of the more prominent episodes, were themselves the ringleaders (I use the term ringleader because I tend to think of many of these Islamophobes as circus clowns).

Here are a few examples:

1) the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” or
2) the “anti-Sharia laws” that have popped up in more than a dozen states in the U.S.,
3) or the film “Innocence of Muslims” that created a stir overseas back in September,
4) or most recently, the racist bus and metro ads that have appeared in California, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Some of them equate Muslims with “savages,” others extract violent passages from Quran and plop them alongside some gory imagery of the Twin Towers crumbling, and the latest have stolen the intellectual property and creative design of a brilliant campaign to reclaim the word “jihad” by using positive imagery and quotes, replacing them with the words of terrorists. 

Maybe by now you’ve gained a sense of whom I’m talking about. The king and queen of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States: Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

Now, for those of you who don’t know: before Geller was famous for drumming up controversy over the Ground Zero mosque, she was famous for spreading the rumor — some of you may have even received chain email letters about this — that Barack Obama is the bastard Muslim love child of Malcom X. Anyone receive that email? Yes?

Spencer, you may know, is a self-proclaimed scholar of Islam, despite the fact that he doesn’t have a degree in the field and his own university professors reject his work. Still, he’s written best-selling books about Islam, and in addition to blogging for a living, has lectured for such groups as the FBI, the Army, and the Department of Defense (for what it’s worth, he refers to me as a “two-bit gunsel” and a “dime store thug”).

Now, I realize that I run the risk of giving these two more publicity than they deserve, but I want to focus on Geller and Spencer for a moment because not only are they two of the more prominent anti-Muslim agitators, but they typify the effectiveness of the Islamophobia industry in disseminating their message.

Their example, whether we like it or not and whether we agree with it or not, is useful to study and consider and if we hope to counter their message of hate and intolerance with a message of pluralism and peace and improved relations between faith communities, we may even benefit from dissecting their strategies and understanding exactly how they operate. 

After all, Sun Tzu, the Chinese General, military strategist, and the author of The Art of War said: If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.

There are three main points that I want to make about Islamophobia in general, Geller and Spencer in particular, and how we, as individuals who work to foster interfaith understanding, can realize some real headway in this battle and overcome some of the challenges that we’ve faced, and continue to face.

The first point is this:

∞ Language Has Enormous Power; and that power can either work in our favor, or it can work against us. We have to choose the vocabulary that we use to combat anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States carefully. We have to OWN our words.

Part of that means that we have to exercise caution with the very term that is at the center of this problem and that governs our discussion today: Islamophobia.

Islamophobia is a thorny word. And so to some degree we must acknowledge that. It is contested and mocked not only by the people on the far right who instigate anti-Muslim prejudice, but just months ago the word was axed by the Associated Press, who suggested — and they win on a technicality here — that the suffix “phobia” implies a mental condition. (I need to give a shout of to Chicago’s very own, Clarence Page, of the Tribune, who wrote an excellent op-ed about this in December.)

Now, I happen to believe that people like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are afflicted with some degree of mental illness but, my point here is that we should simply be mindful of the fact that everything is not Islamophobia, and that using the word as a catch-all term to describe any and every instance where someone disagrees with the basic tenets of Islam is not helpful, and in fact it hurts our efforts.

To suggest that someone is insane or irrational or has a mental condition is to be abusive, and it risks turning off the dialogue, before turning it on. Our goal should be to foster dialogue, and so to that extent if we haplessly discount people as “Islamophobes,” we somehow absolve ourselves of the responsibility to really understand them, and ultimately to change their minds.

We can disagree on religious matters without resorting to attacks on one another or being judgmental.

That being said, the term “Islamophobia” is what we have. And the reality is that it is not going anywhere — it is not going to disappear from our lexicon and it has acquired legitimacy and emotional power amongst people — Muslims — who are on the receiving end of attacks.

More importantly, movements against discrimination cannot fully begin until we have some label under which we unite.

Just think about this: One of the real turning points in the civil rights movement was when the term “racism” became used in a systematic way to refer to a condition that society had deemed morally reprehensible and unacceptable; by labeling someone a racist, everyone in society — on the left and right side of the political spectrum alike — knew that that individual held beliefs about minority populations that were not okay. When the label “racism” gained traction, so too did the movement against it.

The reason that people like Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller resist the term “Islamophobia” so strongly — the reason that they mock it and write books claiming that it was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood to stifle criticism of Islam, is because they know that it has power.

Its power is in its consistency to describe people exactly like them — who exhibit not just a fear of Muslims and Islam, but hatred also — a sense of anger and resentment that Muslims are a dynamic, vibrant and growing part of our national fabric.

So my point is that we should apply the term Islamophobia consistently, but we should apply it also with caution and realize that there may be people who have genuine disagreements with the tenets of Islam or with Muslims, either as a result of their experiences (or lack thereof) or their lack of knowledge — and those people, whose minds we might be able to change can be turned off if we simply discount them from the beginning as Islamophobes.

Owning the terms also means that those of us who are engaged in combatting anti-Muslim prejudice should not get bogged down in unnecessary debates about right or wrong interpretations of Quranic scriptures, or historical discussions of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) time in Mecca or Medina, or even urge those on the other side of this issue to pick up a book and read about seventh century Arabia.

These things are important to those of us who have an interest in them, but when we are speaking to society at large about this problem, we have to speak to them in language that they understand and in a way that makes them care enough to listen. The fact of the matter is that everyone is not interested in knowing the details — and the reality of the world that we live in is that people’s minds are just as likely to be changed by Facebook status updates and 140-character Tweets and scrolling headlines as they are by a 300-page book on prominent Muslim reformers.

Correcting misperceptions and fostering more nuanced and educated and accurate understandings of Islam will come with time but that can’t be the first step. That is the result.

Realizing that the power of the language we use to fight Islamophobia means that we have to find creative ways to engage the American public — ways that transcend even one of the most central components of the Quran: the Arabic language.

The fact of the matter is: foreign words are scary to a lot of people — we as humans are naturally afraid of those things that are unfamiliar to us. And the Islamophobia industry knows that and they are beating us at this game: they are taking Arabic words that are very much a part of the Islamic faith, and they are repeating them over and over and over again to their bases. There’s a reason that Robert Spencer’s blacklist blog, Jihad Watch, is the number 2 site to pop up in a Google search of “jihad.”

Now, though, instead of just jihad, and Sharia, and taqqiya, we have “stealth jihad” and “creeping Sharia” — such that if the foreign words are not scary enough already to ordinary Americans, they surely will be when they are sneaking up behind you in the dark.

The phrase “CAIR-HAMAS” is a new manifestation of this. Spencer and Geller once referred to the Council on American-Islamic Relations as simply CAIR but that wasn’t scary enough, so they tacked on HAMAS to the end, implying an association between the two groups and suggesting that there is somehow an Islamist association. Now, every single time they mention this wonderful organization, it’s “CAIR-HAMAS.” And their followers are mimicking that.

An excellent example of a campaign to address this very issue — to demystify these terms and make them less frightening to the public and to personalize them and humanize them — is the case of my friend Ahmed Rehab and the #MyJihad campaign to reclaim the term jihad. The bus ads, the Facebook and Twitter campaigns, the merchandise even — all of this is extraordinarily powerful. This is not an effort to beat people over the head with the Quran, or beg them to understand the context — this is simple and effective: It’s people — ordinary Muslims — explaining in terms that we can all understand what jihad means to them: studying hard to do well in school, taking an extra job to provide better for the family, resisting the urge to get angry, you name it.

The fact that Spencer and Geller and their ilk have created such a public temper tantrum over it is evidence that it is working — it is evidence of the fact that the language we use to relay our messages is a key ingredient. 

Moving on.

The second point I want to make dovetails with my first point, and it is this:

∞ There is an Urgent Need to Make The Conversation we are having about Muslims and Islam, and the damaging effects of Islamophobia relevant to everyone.

At one point we might have been able to dismiss these anti-Muslim activists as fringe characters, whose agitations didn’t really matter all that much to the majority of the population.

The thought was that they only operated on the far right side of the political spectrum and that was where they stayed. But Farid Hafez, has written an excellent book about this, From the Far Right to the Mainstream, and he shows that in fact, this anti-Muslim sentiment is becoming more and more a part of mainstream party politics.

Michele Bachmann, for instance, might seem like a right-wing loudmouth, but just two weeks ago, the GOP released a list of 12 Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, and lo and behold, despite her McCarthy-esque conspiracy theories on the Muslim Brotherhood, she retained her position.

Louie Gohmert, the Texas Republican who supported Bachmann’s witch-hunt, who birthed the theory of Muslim “terror babies” back in 2008, and who recently said that our 2nd Amendment was set up so that we could protect ourselves (read: to shoot) from Muslims promoting Sharia law, is the current Vice Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

But there’s also the apathy from the Democratic party to address things like drone strikes in Pakistan – where Muslim lives are somehow less valuable than non-Muslim American lives — where we mourn when our own schoolchildren are shot and killed in Newtown, CT but turn the channel when we hear that a wedding party outside of Islamabad was blown up by a remote control airplane being guided through the sky from a base in Fort Lauderdale.

Whether Democrats or Republicans, left or right, young or old, gay or straight, Muslims or non-Muslims: Islamophobia must be everybody’s problem.

Making the conversation relevant means that Islamophobia can’t be something that only Muslims defend themselves against.

Some of the most powerful op-eds I’ve read this year come from people who are involved in interfaith work — non-Muslims who lend their voices to help multiply speech against discrimination (My friend Eboo Patel, another son of Chicago and the Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core has been vital to this idea of bringing multiple voices into the conversation).

Muslims are at a disadvantage, because they are always starting from a defensive position — and that’s no fault of their own — it’s just the way these social bouts of prejudice work. And so this conversation should be augmented and amplified by non-Muslims too.

Also, I think that a really valuable way to overcome that challenge is to bring in other groups — particularly those who have, historically, been discriminated against — and collaborate with them and encourage them to speak out against anti-Muslim prejudice.

Jews, Catholics, African-Americans, etc. have an important place in this discussion and the reason they have an important place is because prejudices like Islamophobia are cyclical: the types of associations and insinuations and generalizations and stereotypes and biases that make Islamophobia what it is also make racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and other prejudices what they are.

The case of South Africa is a great example of that: Muslims during the colonial period in South Africa’s history faced unthinkable prejudices — not only from their fellow citizens but from their government as well, who banned the practice of Islam, and even denied them their most basic rights as human beings. Fast forward to the late 1940s when the country was entering its nasty years of apartheid: By that time, the Muslim community had grown, it enjoyed positive relationships with indigenous tribes and communities, and it was the Muslim community that came to the aid of blacks — who said to them: “Hey we’ve been here before — we know what this discrimination is like and we are going to forge an alliance of minority populations and instead of fighting this prejudice as just Muslims or just indigenous South Africans or just former slaves we are going to fight this battle under the larger umbrella of injustice against minorities.”

My third and final point is this:

∞ We have to play the game on our field. What do I mean by that? I mean that we have to jerk these conversations about Islam and Muslims out of the blogosphere and plop them in pages of the country’s prominent newspapers and in the national media.

The mainstream is the only stream.

When we can successfully force preachers of hate to get up from behind their computer desk, come out from behind their blog, and engage with us on these issues in public venues, we will begin to reach a point where the general public realizes their poison.

There is a reason that Robert Spencer appears most often on Internet-based television stations like the Aramaic Broadcast Network (who has ever heard of that?)

There is also a reason why he has not appeared in the mainstream media in quite a long time and why, when he does, as in the recent Boston Globe article, he is defending himself from journalists who raise the issues he does not want to talk about — his influence on Norway killer Anders Breivik, or the designation of AFDI/SIOA (which is led by Spencer and Geller) as a hate group, or his lack of credentials.

There is a reason that the speaking events of Geller and Spencer and their ilk are monitored with a guest list — and if you are not on that guest list you cannot enter the event.

We can go on Fox News and debate these people — and that is unquestionably important — but we also have to apply pressure to other media outlets and encourage them to cover these issues, and to invite people like Spencer and Geller and others to debate.

There is a reason that they criticize, again and again and again the “Islamic supremacist Leftist media.”

Sometimes just letting their words reach audiences outside of their traditional bases of support is the best possible way to combat them; It’s the strategy of trial lawyers — let their own words hang them.

Because they know that their audiences in the mainstream media are not controlled — they know that not everyone who listens to them is on their side of the issue — they know that as long as they are not on their own playing field, they are at risk, they are vulnerable.

This is the text of a keynote address given by Nathan C. Lean at an Islamophobia Symposium at American Islamic College, Chicago, Illinois, February 23, 2013.  You can see a video of the keynote address here.


A Who’s Who of the Anti-Muslim/Anti-Arab/Islamophobia Industry http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/a_whos_who_of_the_anti-muslimanti-arabislamophobia_industry

The origins of the term “Islamophobia”, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/islamophobia-muslim-brotherhood

Resources for dealing with Islamophobes, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/there-is-a-reason/0019403