For centuries, differences in skin color, cultural beliefs and religious beliefs have been the focus of hate, prejudice and xenophobia. The American culture has a passionate history that is rooted in acts of distrust, suspicions and racism toward groups of individuals that look different from them or that they do not understand. The present-day phenomena of Islamophobia are thought by many to a modern-day issue stemming from the September 9, 2001 attack. However, historical research suggests that the propaganda preaching the Muslim terrorist is dated as far back as the 1940s, after the Arab-Israeli war (Salem). As it may be, Islamophobia is a modern-day term coined to describe what is perceived as the contemporary crisis of the moment, affecting the quality of life among Muslim Americans; this is widely due to distributed misconceptions and prejudice behavior experienced in a place they now call home. The development of Islamophobia is an interesting one because it is deeply rooted in political agendas and cultural ignorance, mainly pushed by the misrepresentations depicted in the news and media. This paper explores the identity of the Middle East and how this has been distorted by the American people, thus creating a fear of Islam and its followers.
To understand the American perception of Islam, and how it developed, one must understand the origin of the relationship between the United States and the Middle East. Even though media coverage has been depicting Arabs and Middle Easterners as savages with no morality for some time, the political relations of the U.S and Middle East date back as far as the Cold War (Mamdani). To get an upper hand against Central Asia and the Soviet Union, the U.S helped train and militarize citizens of Afghanistan, evoking the traditional, religious sanction of jihad, which had not been practiced for nearly four centuries (Mamdani). This implication of the creation of the modern jihad specifically suggests that the U.S is, indeed, the creator of the terror group that has been seizing the people of Afghan and other Islam nations for at least two decades (Mamdani). Ironically, this is the same terror group that has evolved into the terrorists that the American people now fear. Mamdani makes a compelling argument that the U.S fueled the events of September 9, 2001 by failing to dismantle the very militia that they created to defeat the Soviets (Mamdani).
The true stage setting event to push the Islamophobic state of the American nation is the 9/11 attack that was executed by a terror group that has become synonymous with Muslim or Islam (Salem). The apparent war on Afghan quickly turned into a war on Islam as misrepresentations and misunderstandings of what Islam is has been pushed by the U.S government and media outlets (Bayat). Furthermore, the U.S exploited the nation’s state of economic disparity and unstable political platform to justify its war, claiming they are trying to free the very people villainized by the Western society. Since 9/11, discussions have erupted deliberating whether there is a such thing as good or bad Muslims (Mamdani). These discussions are often misguided and lead to more persecution of the Muslim community because it starts to correlate the word ‘terror’ with a single religion or group of people, rather than extremists that are terrorizing civilians of both the U.S and Middle East nations (Mamdani). This became painstakingly apparent when many Muslim Americans were treated as criminals and detained months on end post 9/11. To further prove this point, the author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem, Moustafa Bayoumi, depicts the life and experiences of young Arab Americans after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The one that stood out the most was the story of Rasha, a young lady who was detained, along with her family, for ninety days (Bayoumi). Her account of her treatment while in detainment, which was depicted as harsh and accusatory, was a tale that mimics the attitudes of American citizens (Bayoumi). If the government openly investigated and pursued Muslim Americans based on the birth place and their culture, surely those who identify or support these government agencies would display the same treatment and accusations.
Being that the news and other media outlets are responsible for reporting local, national and world news, it is only natural that they would have a hand in shaping the creation of Islamophobia in America. While negative connotations have been associated with Muslims and the Middle East before 9/11, it wasn’t until then that the media was displaying them as barbaric heathens with no morals (Salem). The distorted view of Islam started in the 1940s when people of the Middle East were pictured by mainstream media as victims who desperately needed saving and the knowledge of western society, therefore creating the belief that the Westerner is superior to those of the Middle East (Salem). As time and wars progressed, so did the image of the inhabitants of Islamic nations. As mentioned earlier, the Cold War and the events after, led to a new stereotype: the brutal, uncivilized and heartless Muslim (Salem). Professor Jack G. Shaheen did an excellent job of exposing these stereotypes in mainstream media by writing a book critically reviewing approximately one thousand movies and their depictions of Arabs (Salem). His analysis concluded that the media was indeed aiding the negative views of Islamic nations amongst the American people (Salem).
Starting in the 1990s, the media once again evolved the image of Arabs by associating them as terrorists (Salem). For example, before properly investigating and sorting the details of the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, the media prematurely released reports that the attack was executed by someone of Middle Eastern decent (Salem). Even after the attacker was revealed to be an American Christian, Muslim terrorists remained highly viewed as a greater threat than domestic terrorists (Salem). Moving into the early 2000s, the media continued to be relentless in their justifications of the images they portrayed of Islam. Just as with political agendas, the media used stories of poverty and civil unrest to further persuade the American people that our freedoms were in danger because at any given moment, mobs of Arabs could have an uprising that has the ability to overthrow any government agency (Bayat). Whether knowingly or unknowingly, a team of Arab intellectuals published a report that greatly pushed the agenda of Western society. This report spoke openly and candidly about the lack of freedoms, democracy and development of the Middle East, which sent U.S media into a frenzy, claiming this report was one of the “most important publication of 2002” (Bayat 30-31). Later, the media would blame these conditions on the uprising of terrorists in those regions (Bayat).
The views that Westerners have on the Middle East has been referred to as Orientalism, which is defined loosely as how Westerners deal with the Orient (Abu-Lughod). But Orientalism is widely based on assumptions of the Middle East rather than based off true knowledge and facts revolving the culture, interactions and practices of Islamic nations (Abu-Lughod). Surprisingly, many believe that reform of the Islam nation should be focused on the fundamentals incorporated into Westerners’ sense of freedom, but the Middle East has no desire to identify with Western society (Abu-Lughod, Bayat). They would rather have the American people understand who they are, what they practice and why their society function as it does. Those from the Middle East do not view the Islamic nation as a place of complete disarray and criminalized community, but rather as a home that has failed to evolve in the same manner as other civilizations regarding education, health, poverty and equity (Bayat). They do not identify with the freedoms and evolution of gender roles that have been the main focus of Western policymakers (Bayat), which tend to be the changes that the American public would like to enforce upon them. Instead, the Islamic people see themselves as family oriented with great hospitality who need a political stage to help advance themselves in areas that they identify with (King-Irani). Much of their daily lives revolve around their relationships with their family, friends and neighbors on a much deeper level than Western society realizes (King-Irani).
The issue with how Muslim Americans and Muslims in the Middle East are viewed is that they do not have a major platform to address these misconceptions (Salem). According to Mamdani, the three main factors revolving around Muslim stereotypes are (1.) American orientalism research has been mainly focused on dominating the Middle East rather than understanding them, (2.) the absence of action by the Middle East to address these stereotypes and (3.) American Muslim communities have done little to fight the degradations with a focus on local enrichment rather than on a national level (7-8). Without addressing the stereotypes of the Muslim community, there can be no progression in the relations between those of Middle Eastern descent and the Western society. Islamophobia can only be demolished by open discussions and the willingness to understand those who have different ways of life, morals and values.
- Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Zones of Theory in the Anthropology of the Arab World.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 18, 1989, pp. 267-306
- Bayat, Asef. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Amsterdam University Press, 2010.
- Bayoumi, Moustafa. How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. Penguin, 2008.
- King-Irani, Laurie. “Kinship, Ethnicity, and Social Class.” Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, edited by Deborah Gemer and Jillian Schwedler, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004, pp. 431-466.
- Mamdani, Mahmood. “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism.” American Anthropologist, vol. 104, no. 3, 2002, pp. 766-775