When Islamophobia becomes legit


With the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks coming up this September, there are very disturbing indications that Islamophobia is reaching dangerous, even epidemic proportions in American culture and political life.

The most disturbing incident took place in California where right-wing Tea Party activists hurled abuse at Muslim-Americans attending a fundraiser. This outrageous behavior was exacerbated by hate-filled comments from a local councilwoman, Deborah Pauly, who told the protestors, “I know quite a few Marines who would be happy to help these terrorists to a, uh, early meeting in paradise.” Republican Congressmen Ed Royce, who claimed that “multiculturalism … has paralyzed” American society, and Gary Miller, who said, “I’m proud of what you are doing,” irresponsibly egged them on.

The organizers of the fundraiser didn’t help by including as one of the speakers the self-styled Oakland “Imam” Amir Abdel Malik-Ali, who has a history of extremist sentiments. The Muslim-American leadership in California and nationally has not yet taken sufficient steps to make it clear that people like Malik-Ali must be kept very firmly on the margins, not given platforms at events that aspire to respectability. But none of that excuses the conduct of the protesters or, worse, the opportunistic hatred of local politicians.

Meanwhile, the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, New York Representative Peter King, is set this week to hold a hearing on the threat of homegrown Muslim terrorism in the United States. This is a serious subject, but King has a long history of making wild accusations against the Muslim-American community generally. In advance of the hearings, he repeated his assertion that Muslim-Americans did not cooperate with law enforcement. In fact, many of the most significant counterterrorism cases cited by the government have involved precisely such cooperation.

In response, the deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, spoke before a Muslim audience outside Washington DC on Sunday and insisted that Muslim-Americans were part of the solution, not the problem. The Obama administration has strongly rejected King’s allegations. For his part, King, who was once a passionate supporter of the Irish Republican Army, insists there is no disagreement.

Given that the most disturbing recent case of domestic terrorism was an attack on an event featuring Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by an apparently deranged extremist, Jared Lee Loughner, the idea that Muslim extremism is the only serious threat to American domestic security has become harder than ever to defend. At the same time, simply dismissing the prospect of homegrown Muslim extremism isn’t realistic either. The problem with the King hearings is that they are narrowly focused on a single identity group rather than the broader challenges of political extremism and security.

Not only is Islamophobic hate-speech entering the American political mainstream, especially on the right, vandalism and other attacks have been increasingly focused on mosques and Islamic centers around the country. The irony is that while there have been disturbing incidents, there have been no repetitions of the 9/11 attacks, or anything remotely like them, in the past decade. Nonetheless, Islamophobic sentiment has been steadily increasing, and is much worse now than it was in the first couple of years following those attacks.

The reason for this is that since 2001, the Islamophobic narrative has become coherent and unified, and has been steadily drummed into the heads of far too many Americans. In other words, Islamophobia functions as a powerful instrument of political mobilization not because of the real degree of terrorist threat or level of Muslim extremism, but because the narrative has functioned independently of any verifiable reality. This highlights the difficulty of fighting such a narrative with facts or logic. It has a malevolent life of its own.

There are, of course, many on the political right who vocally oppose such hatred. They include small-government activist Grover Norquist, former Bush administration official Suhail Khan, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and many others. But it appears that in recent years the voices of reason have been fighting a losing battle on the right. Islamophobic sentiments were on display at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest annual gathering of American conservatives. And the rallying of right-wing voices against the Park 51 New York City Islamic Center project showed how deeply these ideas have penetrated mainstream conservative thinking.

There is money to be made in such hatred, and shameless bigots like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, David Horowitz and Brigitte Gabriel have turned it into a cottage industry. There are also, even more alarmingly, votes to be had, as Allen West, a retired African-American military officer, demonstrated when he made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his recent successful Florida congressional campaign.

As long as people get rewarded for spewing Islamophobic hatred, and American-Muslim organizations keep making stupid mistakes, the situation in the United States is likely to get worse before it gets better. The onus is on both American conservative and Muslim leaders to act responsibly and display courageous leadership to prevent the situation from deteriorating further in the coming years.