In March of this year, when Congressman Peter King (R-NY) held hearings about the professed increasing “radicalization of Muslim-Americans”, I was living in the West Bank. I first heard about the hearings through Al Jazeera’s English TV program. An Al Jazeera correspondent interviewed a woman who said that she is afraid of radical Islam, and that King’s exposure of the problem would be better than silence on the issue. Al Jazeera also cited Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim to be elected to the House of Representatives, who said that the hearings would increase fear instead of allaying it.
Rep. King’s hearings sparked a lot of controversy around the world. Al Jazeera host Riz Khan pointed out that countless Americans have made public statements about Islam and Muslims that would have gotten them fired if their subject had belonged to any other minority.
Why is this the case? Why do public figures and private individuals alike get away with using a less respectful tone when discussing the Muslim community? Most American newspeople and politicians do not hold any animosity toward Muslim Americans. However, they do sometimes make the mistake of telling stories about Islamist extremism in a manner that perpetuates fear within the US. This fabricated fear – distinct from the real sense of pain created by tragedies like 9/11 – combines with our inadequate understanding of Muslim societies around the world to create an atmosphere of distrust and misperception.
Ignorance is part of our problem. Al Jazeera reported that 45% of Americans believe they are well-informed about Islam. Muslims will only be fully enfranchised in American society when the public has embraced them and been educated about the cultures from which they come. Ignorance is a shared, societal problem, and tolerance will be a shared achievement. Still, ignorance is not the entire problem. One cannot in good faith claim that Americans collectively are ignorant. Furthermore, it would be unfair – perhaps offensive – to suggest that ignorance must by nature lead to prejudice. Such a claim certainly allows for little faith in the good nature of people. Therefore, to move beyond simple ignorance and fully understand the cause of Islamophobia in America, we must reckon with the fear people feel toward Muslims and the Islamic world. Where does this fear come from?
In some cases, ignorance itself can breed fear. Indeed, we see examples of this all over the world – places where misconceptions of the “Other” lead to tension and conflict. But the Islamophobia problem in the US – this open, pluralist, well-educated melting pot – has other causes.
Some people’s fear comes directly from September 11th, 2001. Those hurt by 9/11 – including the families and friends of victims, other New Yorkers, Pentagon employees, and Americans who watched the tragedy unfold on TV – cope with a tangible, rational fear that comes from a deep sense of pain and loss. Some of them may still feel this pain and this fear every day, even a decade after the largest ever attack on US soil. If some of these people have come to fear Muslims or Islam itself, one cannot, with any compassion, suggest that they need to “stop being so ignorant”. However, our problem with Islamophobia goes beyond those still reeling from 9/11. In fact, fear of Islam is a problem in the US because it occurs in people who have no rational reason to harbor that indiscriminate fear of one of the world’s largest religions.
Much of the fear felt in the US arose from the way that the Bush administration responded to the terror attack. Two elements of that response specifically had this effect.
First, recall when President Bush famously declared on national TV, “if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists”. This was an attempt to show strength and to build consensus before the upcoming war, and it was an utterly incorrect and distorted assertion. For someone to oppose the war in Iraq or Afghanistan does not make that person an Al Queda sympathizer.
Bush’s statement created a new “us versus them” global conflict that filled a void left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It provided a symbolic enemy, it engendered Islamophobia, and it led to Abu Ghraib and questionable detainments at Guantanamo Bay.
Second, the framing of the War on Terror probably contributed to fear in the US, and it certainly did not help us understand our foreign targets or the places where we were sending our young service members. The use of the term “war” implied that there were forces amassed, ready to attack if we did not repel their advance. There is and was no such army. The terrorist threat remains a covert, complicated array of extreme groups and individuals, and it must be countered by an equally covert and sophisticated cooperation between our intelligence community and special military forces. The use of this terminology fell conveniently within the mold of previous initiatives like the War on Poverty and the War on Crime, but where those “wars” were strategic in nature, arguably designed to counteract the causes of poverty and crime, the War on Terror tragically failed to target the actual causes of terrorism.
In its response to 9/11, the US squandered a unique moment in history when our people had the sympathies of almost the entire world. Muslims around the globe demonstrated and spoke out against Al Queda and the terrorist attack. Instead of embracing this sympathy, we launched a divisive campaign that earned us more enemies and further widened the divide between Islam and the West.
The US government has moved past the Bush era by eliminating the term “War on Terror” from its vernacular. It should continue that progress by using deliberate, focused approaches to national security threats. Meanwhile, the American people should move past the era of misunderstanding into an era of enlightened pluralism.
While traveling in India in 2009, I met a turban-clad Sikh man who quit his job as a taxi driver in New York City after 9/11 because people would mistake him for a Muslim and verbally harass him. One can understand how those angry New Yorkers, trying to cope with the pain, fear and anger that make them human, misplaced their anger. But at the same time we cannot be happy about driving a ten-year legal resident of the United States to leave the country simply because we did not understand him. We also cannot be satisfied with our inability to comprehend the sources of our own fear.
There are signs that fear of Islam is ebbing in the US. After the death of Osama bin Laden, the Monitor’s Peter Grier wrote that “Americans may realize not that they have less to fear, but that their fear of what he represented had begun to subside long ago”. A report last month by the Pew Research Center showed that Muslims in the US are happy with the country, reject extremism (both of which have been true for years), and have not become alienated since the King hearings. David Rothkopt, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote the following in a Foreign Policy blog after bin Laden’s death:
“for this success to be truly worthy of celebration, we must bury with him the confusion and disorienting anger that has distorted our world view for a decade. We must recast the real terrorist threat in proper size — eliminate it wherever we can — and remember that what’s greatest about America can’t be brought down by bombs or hijacked aircraft or by an amoral hate-monger furtively holed up in a walled compound in North Central Pakistan.”
As we reflect on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, let us embrace with compassion the pain that emanates from our past and also work to close the gaps in our understanding of the world and country we live in.
In the words of Sami Awad, an American-born Palestinian peace activist, “The biggest opportunity now, after the death of Bin Laden, is for Americans to consciously and collectively free themselves fully from the domain of fear and those who manipulate it for their own agendas…You are not free until you eliminate all your fear.”