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Inherent in the United States’ dealings with Muslim-majority countries is the diplomatic relationship with those countries, and how the Middle East and Muslims are portrayed to the average citizen at home. For most non-Muslim westerners, how they viewed the Middle East would be largely dependent on how Islam is portrayed in the media and through other avenues such as educational institutions and online. For Muslims living in the United States, the portrayal of Muslims after various terrorist attacks perpetrated by extremist Islamic groups would shape their lives in a much more sinister way, determining their level of comfort and acceptance within society.
I want to look into what could be called the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. How has Islamophobia in the United States been defined and how did the attacks on September the 11th, 2001, impact the political discourse and portrayal of Islam in the U.S.? How have Middle Eastern people living in the United States been affected not only by the attacks on September the 11th and resulting increased hostility, but before the attacks as well? In this paper I argue that the term Islamophobia is a misnomer that fails to capture the racialized attitudes in American society about Middle Eastern people in general, no matter their religion. I also attempt to give a glimpse into the formation of this view of the Middle East in American society, and show how the 9/11 attacks changed media and political narratives about Islam in some positive and negative ways. Finally, I talk about the effects these events have had on Middle Eastern people living in the United States.
Before we can talk about the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, it is first helpful to distinguish the meaning of the term, and very serious problems with the term itself. UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender maintains that (Defining “Islamophobia” n.d.):
Islamophobia is a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.
It has much to do and is heavily related to the concept of xenophobia which is essentially the irrational hatred of foreigners. Islamophobia is characterized by strongly-held beliefs that Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities, does not share common values with other major faiths, a religion that is inferior to the West. People also believe that it is “archaic, barbaric, and irrational”, that it is a religion of violence and supports terrorism, and that it is a violent political ideology (Defining “Islamophobia” n.d.).
Erik Love takes issue with the concept of Islamophobia not because he disagrees that it is occurring, but because it conflates the fact that what the problem really is boils down to race. Love points out that hostility towards people is not necessarily based on a person’s Islamic faith but rather on phenotypical—racialized—characteristics emblematic of people from the Middle East and North Africa (Love 2009). He points out the case of Balbir Singh Sodhi who was shot and killed on September 16, 2001 by a man who, as he was arrested, shouted “I stand with America all the way.” Sodhi was a Sikh, but had a “Muslim-like” appearance, leading to his death. Therefore, Love maintains that Islamophobia affects “Christians, Muslims and Sikhs from all backgrounds and, in particular, people who have ancestry in North Africa as well as in western and southern Asia. Islamophobia, in short, affects a racialized group of people—Middle Eastern Americans—that, like any racialized group, is in fact comprised of an irreducibly diverse collection of individuals who identify with many different ethnicities, nationalities and religions.”
Islamophobia, incorporating Love’s addition of racism rather than purely religious intolerance, is not a new phenomenon that occurred after 9/11, and which itself piggybacked off of an earlier strain of xenophobic thought: Orientalism (Love 2009). In the 1700s, Europe used academic and imperial projects to portray the Orient—the Far East—as exotic and barbarous. To Europeans, it existed in complete opposition to Christian Europe. Europe’s portrayal of this region of the world was dehumanizing and depicted the people living there (and any non-Christian religion) as backward, irrational, and in need of saving. The phenomenon spread to the United States, turning the country against people from the Middle East (a contemporary term for the Orient), who then became “orientalized” and portrayed as exotic and backwards.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, portrayals of Middle Easterners was mainly negative, but a more disturbing trend took place. The label “exotic” increasingly was replaced with “dangerous” during the twentieth century (Love 2009). Melanie McAlister traced cultural representations of the “dangerous Middle East” from 1945, and noticed a tipping point after 1967, when Israel had its Six Day War with its neighboring Arab nations. This altercation between the West’s Ally, Israel, and Arab nations essentially solidified perceptions in American popular culture that the Middle East was fanatical and dangerous to our interests. It also led to three decades of declining racialized discourses involving the Middle East, and not exactly starting at a high point either.
The 1970s oil crisis contributed to the meme of the dangerous Middle East, supplementing it with images of untrustworthy “oil sheiks” who were depicted in editorial cartoons and films during this period (Love 2009). The FBI even pulled off sting operations with agents posing as oil sheiks to catch corrupt Congressmembers.
The capture of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, was another turning point for portrayal of Middle Easterners in American culture. The prevailing meme of oil sheiks were not starting to be replaced with portrayals of people from the region as terrorists, as evidenced by several big budget Hollywood films produced about the embassy crisis (Love 2009). Since that point, Middle Eastern Americans have been predominantly seen as terrorists or at least portrayed that way in media, so much so, that when the bombing of the Murrah building took place in Oklahoma City in 1995, many so-called analysts immediately blamed the attack on Arabs even though it was later found to have been perpetrated by a white American.
After 9/11 this framing of Islam and Middle Eastern Americans became more subtle in American mass media, but more overt in other areas, such as in the political arena and punditry of the nation’s print and cable news (Love 2009). Because of the racialized fear of the Middle East already ingrained in our society, the stage had been set for an explosion of hostility.
To that end, it would be helpful to see how Islam was framed after 9/11. “The process of framing involves the construction of meaning through structured discourse. Analyzing this discourse helps media scholars understand how messages are packaged and disseminated,” notes Dina Ibrahim, who compiled qualitative research on media framing of Islam after 9/11 (Ibrahim 2010). Ibrahim notes that studying framing takes us away from the loaded term bias and takes into account the fact that “objectivity and absolute truth within journalism cannot exist in their purest forms, given the inherent structural limitations of news.”
Ibrahim notes that in the network news there was a major distinction between internal Islam—Islam practiced by Muslims in the United States—versus external Islam—Islam practiced by foreigners (Ibrahim 2010). Internal Islam was portrayed as peaceful, with a much repeated call for calm and mourning from President Bush, showing solidarity with Muslims in the United States. Network news took pains to show many clips of Muslims waiving American flags, showing that they too were affected by the 9/11 attacks. In addition, there was universal condemnation of the increased number of hate crimes taking place towards Middle Eastern Americans across the country directly following 9/11.
Somewhat ironically, at the same time Islam was being lauded as a religion of peace at home in America, that very same religion was portrayed as violent and “Jihadist” when practiced outside of the United States (Ibrahim 2010). Network news juxtaposed our peaceful internal Islam with clips of angry Muslims carrying guns, and instead of waiving the American flag, they were often burning it. Ibrahim contends that the Bush Administration provided the frame for Islam as a peaceful religion—because it would need Muslim support at home for its wars abroad. This external Islam was not portrayed in a thematic way, but in a more episodic way, as we were “on the hunt” for Muslim radicals. However, the media failed to be nuanced about this portrayal and usually did not distinguish between confusing terms and often got crucial definitions completely wrong.
A good example of this is the commonly repeated assertion that Jihad translates to Holy War, and its use by Osama Bin Laden, America’s most wanted man until he was assassinated by a team of Navy SEALs. Jihad does not mean holy war, it just describes a struggle to overcome evil (not unlike President Bush’s War on Terror) (Ibrahim 2010). This concept had been abused by Bin Laden and his followers. The more conventional struggle to overcome evil is a religious tenet adhered to by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. The problem arises when Bin Laden is interviewed and constantly claims that jihad means holy war and that holy war means killing Americans. He claims that this is the core faith of Islam. If the news media had actually juxtaposed this with an alternative viewpoint of other interpetations of jihad, this would have helped. But now it is accepted in the media that this is what jihad means, even though this meaning is very far from the truth.
Surprisingly, popular culture depictions of negative stereotypes regarding the Middle East all but disappeared following 9/11. This was in large part due to the benefits of multiculturalism brought on by the Civil Rights movements, advocacy work done by Islamic and Middle Eastern groups, and in large part by wholesale rejection of the violent hate crimes taking place in the country (Love 2009). This would appear to be too good to be true, as it appears that the stereotypes vanished from TV and movies only to reappear in the political discourse of the country. President Bush and other right-wing politicians warned of “Islamo-fascism,” “Islamists,” and “sleeper cells.” However, there was no unique or monolithic threat in the Middle East despite fearmongering from various politicians.
Peter Mandaville furthers this argument, describing how in America there was a racialization of Muslims in the United States based on a friend/enemy distinction (Mandaville 2013). People view Muslims as the target of the Patriot Act, and increased surveillance of various Muslim community institutions have occurred since 9/11, stirring up more fears in an already afraid public after 9/11. He goes on to note the absurd debates taking place today in our country—creeping sha’riah-ization, the Ground Zero mosque, preachers threatening to burn the Qur’an. Politicians use of fear against Muslims is reminiscent of fears of Japanese-Americans and their subsequent internment during World War II. Mandaville describes what he calls the “double securitization” of Muslims in our political discourse today. He described it as the view of Islam of a foreign threat but also an internal threat of agents being led by an external power, much like fear of Catholic immigrants during the nineteenth century.
Middle Eastern Americans are legally categorized as white under the law but do not then reap the rewards of white privilege as other Euro-Americans do. Tehranian notes that “[t]his dualistic and contested ontology of the Middle Eastern racial condition creates an unusual paradox. Reified as the other, Americans of Middle Eastern descent do not enjoy the benefits of white privilege. Yet, as white under the law, they are denied the fruits of remedial action” (Tehranian 2008). Love notes that, again, this boils down to racism, with discrimination not based on religion but physical characteristics (Love 2009):
Race clearly plays a role when Sikh American and African American Muslim children are harassed in similar ways in classrooms, when Syrian Americans along with Pakistani Americans have to present themselves to immigration authorities for ‘special registration’, when Lebanese American and Iranian American workers lose their jobs for the same discriminatory reasons, and when Chaldean churches and Sunni mosques alike are vandalized and receive the same kinds of hate mail.
This essentially means that Middle Eastern Americans have no legal recourse, no affirmative action program that benefits them. Being classified into the group that makes up the top racial category in the United States, while at the same time being viewed by others in that category as morally inferior is not a good situation to be put in.
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