Islamophobia: America's New Fear Industry

By Schwartz, Stephen | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Islamophobia: America's New Fear Industry


Schwartz, Stephen, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans, both elite and ordinary, have found themselves inveigled and sometimes convinced by a new bigotry: Islamophobia. Prior to the A1-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., contempt for Arabs and Iranians was a low-intensity element in American public discourse, motivated by resentment over the geopolitical role of the Middle Eastern energy-producing countries. Knowledge of the religion of Islam was sparse; most Americans seemed to have discovered the existence of Islam and Muslims in the aftermath of one day of fear nine years ago.

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The growth of a volatile American anti-Muslim sentiment following the 2001 atrocities might have seemed inevitable. But Americans proved better than many among them expected, and few anti-Muslim hate incidents have been recorded in the U.S. Nevertheless, Islamophobia began to emerge almost immediately after 9/11.

Islamophobia consists of formulating a specious theory of Islamic absolute evil, or inciting mass atrocities against civilians outside war areas. Islamophobia does not comprise criticizing negative aspects of Islamic history or social life, or identifying, detaining and interrogating--even harshly--terrorist suspects, or engaging in minor and superficial acts of bigotry. Based on secondary sources, personal biases (especially among Christians), and slippery slopes, Islamophobia argues that the terrorism of A1-Qaida is an inevitable product of the principles of Islam; that Islam is an inexorably violent religion motivated by jihadism ("holy war"); that the radical interpretation of Islam is the only authoritative one; and that Muslims are therefore a menacing "other" inextricably linked to radical ideology. The books and other media embodying this view could accurately be called artifacts of the new American "fear industry."

The endurance of, and threat to, Islam

Islamophobia has gained a stable but small audience since 9/11. There are many reasons for this. As previously noted, regarding the absence of widespread violence against Muslims after the Twin Towers collapsed, the Pentagon was hit by a hijacked plane, and another hijacked passenger jet, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in Pennsylvania, Americans were too decent and calm in their assessment of other peoples, cultures, and faiths simply to commit acts of unrestrained vengeance. In addition, Americans did not know enough about Muslims to hate them, notwithstanding revulsion at the 9/11 conspirators and their Saudi inspirers and enablers.

Then came the wars in Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003. As of late spring 2010, more than 5,500 American lives have been lost seeking to liberate Muslims from the tyranny of radicalism, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Local Afghan and Iraqi Muslim political and religious leaders and volunteer military personnel soon supported American-led coalitions in these conflicts. During the course of the fighting, some Islamophobes absurdly accused then-U.S. President George W. Bush of "weakness," because Bush described Islam as a faith based on peace and "hijacked" by the terrorists. For the paragons of the fear industry, Bush should have declared war against the entire Muslim religion--counting more than a billion adherents, the overwhelming majority of whom have not joined the jihad, to which they are clearly either indifferent or hostile, if only by observation.

But Americans then elected a president bearing an Islamic middle name--Barack Hussein Obama--demonstrating that for their majority, Islamophobia was moot. Too few said so, but Americans seemed to have instinctively grasped certain truths: that Islam would not simply go away and could not be defeated in a direct confrontation; and that moderate Muslims would be valuable allies in defeating radical Islam.

Even if it has not taken hold over the American imagination, Islamophobia remains a problem for the West as well as for Muslims, in that it leaves Americans ignorant of the real situation in the Islamic world, and cuts the West off from potential allies in defeating radical Islam. …

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