The Mainstreaming of Islamaphobia

By J.F. Sullivan

While the 9/11 attacks are likely the dominant catalyst, it may be more appropriate to mark the mainstreaming of Islamaphobia with the emergence of Pamela Geller and the Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) group in 2010.[1]  Their provocative ads, purported to protect Muslim converts to Christianity, read, “Leaving Islam? Fatwa on your head?  Is your family threatening you?”[2] 


Their campaign was only a small part of what could be viewed as a larger response to the proposed Park 51 complex also known as Cordoba House and the Ground Zero Mosque.  Since this campaign, anti-Islamic actions, ideologies, and orientations—that should be considered Islamaphobic—have become increasingly more common and appear in startlingly diverse places. 

This mainstreaming is less about traditional purveyors of anti-Islamic rhetoric and Qur’an burning ministers, but is instead becoming a regular part of daily community life.  The true mystery is how little pushback there is America against this type of behavior.  So-called Islamic terrorists, extremists, jihadists, and others have long been the subject of anger, hate, and fear but this more recent activity is far less directed at a specific type of extremist, but rather at Islam in general and anyone or anything that seems to suggest something Islamic, no matter how tenuous or ridiculous the connection. 

A good term for this kind of thinking might be “freedom fries ideology” or maybe Voldemortizing.  In mainstreaming, the object of enmity is so scary or distasteful that none may speak its name or have anything to do with anything remotely connected to it.  The rub is that in their fear of the object of derision, they in turn often violate everything they claim to hold dear.

In recent months, an astounding number of Islamaphobic events have occurred with little more than a sotto voce “tsk tsk,” including a situation where a viable candidate for President of the United States (Herman Cain) freely made anti-Islamic comments and took an anti-Islamic position on national television—sadly without any discernible outrage. 


This activity, combined with a host of other events ranging from numerous anti-Shari’a laws,  protestations against Mosque building,  and general protests of anything Islamic put a surprisingly significant number of our elected (and potentially elected) leaders in an ideological position to demean and discriminate against a segment of American citizens.  The real danger of this type of activity is that it is not directed at faceless “terrorists” in some foreign land, but right here at home with our neighbors and friends.  Teo Sagisman’s excellent essay, The Day I was Called a ‘Sand Nigger’ by a Tea Party Follower is just one example of this.  More recently Whole Foods has come under fire for what some perceive as a pro-Islam position thanks to a supposed Ramadan marketing campaign that coincided with a halal-certified product line.

How this anti-Muslim sentiment has become so seemingly acceptable is largely the result of two elements – Russian Cold War villains and Religio-politics.  The first element is the easiest to understand.  Everyone needs an enemy; heroes can’t be heroic without an enemy of some sort.  For two generations, Russia played the role flawlessly before inconveniently falling.  Since that time, the search for a new Cold War like foe has been a particularly difficult bit of casting. 

Muslims were contenders for the role in the early 1990’s, but they didn’t gain the appropriate notoriety.  With no clear major player to cast, an ensemble of possible threats were assembled—jihadists, gays, liberals, conservatives and the Axis of Evil, to name a few.  Out of this mélange it seemed likely that gays could possibly fill the void left by the Cold War Russians.  After a great first season, gays proved to be far less scary than some had hoped, and the rhetoric which reached a fever pitch in 2004 devolved in something far less monolithic and became, what a majority of people seemed to feel was, mean-spirited.  Thus, a part of this mainstreaming of Islamaphobia may simply be the on-going search for new “Russians.”  However, the second element in this discussion may be far more illuminating. 

Culturally we tend not to tolerate deviance and bad language.  Many public figures can attest that their fall from grace resulted from a romantic indiscretion or public comment that seemed disparaging, marginalizing, anti-Semitic, or racist.  How is it then that Helen Thomas was basically fired for expressing an opinion that some considered anti-Semitic, while Herman Cain is free to state his intention to openly discriminate against Muslims in a nationally televised Republican Primary debate?[3]  NPR’s Juan Williams was held accountable for his anti-Islamic comments, but he simply moved his desk over to Fox News.  The case of anti-Semitic comments may reveal some answers to this issue of mainstream Islamaphobia.  Many of those who hold anti-Islamic ideology are ardent supporters of the nation of Israel, so the contradiction is particularly odd.  If however we re-imagine the debate about Islamaphobia in America in context with a cocktail of Religion, Politics, and Identity it begins to make sense. 

Individually these ingredients are perfectly capable of contributing to disharmony, but when combined and conflated, the composition drastically changes.  There have been growing concerns about the politicization of religion, and more recently the religionization of politics.  The concern arises when religious ideology and political ideology become conflated.  For example, Israel is a nation but it is also a Jewish state.  Therefore, anti-Israeli comments can be construed as anti-Semitic.  In this way, there is no difference between the Israeli national identity and the Jewish religious identity.  So too for perceptions of Islam and politics, which are often conflated by both Americans and Muslims.  Thus religious and political motivations, positions, and ideologies are seen as interchangeable.  With this mode of understanding, a political attack carried out by agents who happen to be Muslims is understood as an attack by Islam.  Conversely, an attack on Taliban political leadership is also an attack on Islam.  This same situation applies to nations like Iran, and potentially the United States as well. 

The perception of America as a Christian nation has been around for some time now, and has itself gone mainstream.  Take for example the recent dust-up over a Hindu statue of Ganesh in an Idaho art exhibit.  Although there is no perceived Hindu threat to America, the statue of Ganesh was seen by some as problematic specifically because it conflicted with the “Christian America narrative” by promoting a religion that was not Christianity. 

The conflation of politics and religion becomes especially flammable when identity is added to the mixture. [4]  As a result, political attacks become religious attacks and religious attacks become political attacks, and thanks to the politics of identity, those attacks become issues with potentially cosmic consequences.  Thus, what might be a simple political conflict escalates into a religious conflict that puts the eternal universe, or at the very least the fate of the free world, at stake. 
 In Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer identifies this type of conflict a “Cosmic War.”  With this much at stake, it begs the question, what are you authorized to do to prevail in a conflict with potentially cosmic consequences?  If the answer is, “whatever you have to do,” then it authorizes any number of positions or activities that may have been unacceptable under any other circumstances.  As a result, perceived discriminatory positions or even hate-speech may be deemed acceptable in a fight for a Christian nation that is under attack by the forces of evil. Likewise, public figures cease to be common political entities and take on the role of “defenders of the faithful.”  And, if politics and religion have already been conflated, one who defends a political position is likewise defending a religious position.  Through this conflated lens, American patriotism can be identified as a Christian virtue just as preceived disloyalty to country can be viewed as un-Christian. 
Taken in this context, with the stakes amplified by identity, we can see why anti-Islamic rhetoric is allowed to continue and confrontations over mosques, Shari’a law, Ramadan, and halal-certified food become far more commonplace than anyone might expect.  After all, expressing too much outrage could have a host of negative consequences, not the least of which might be the association with and support of terrorists and terrorist ideology – “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists!”

The only way to remedy the mainstreaming of Islamaphobia is to make it as intolerable to American culture as any other form of inequality.  Unfortunately, this can only be accomplished through a combination of knowledge and applied critical thinking, both of which seem to be in increasingly short supply of late.


Filed Under: American ReligionFeaturedIslamJ.F. SullivanPoliticsViews, News, & Issues


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