Islamophobia in America

Click on the map to see an interactive version of it, showing where attacks on Muslims have occurred throughout the country.

Well before the September 11 attacks, Arab Americans and Muslims were subjected to ethnic and religious stereotyping in the media, popular culture and especially in movies, as Jack Shaheen describes in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

As the United States became increasingly involved in the Middle East, critics of US foreign policy towards Israel, Palestinians and the region as a whole were viewed with considerable suspicion. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s Border Control Committee crafted a “Contingency Plan” for “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables” from designated Arab countries and Iran. The Contingency Plan recommended incarcerating them in the recently constructed INS detention facility in Oakdale, Louisiana.

During the 1990-91 Gulf War, all people of Arab origin who wanted to enter the United States were fingerprinted and photographed – no other visitors were treated this way. A few years later, Arabs were initially blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing. 

The bombing spurred the passage of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, permitting the use of secret evidence and indefinite detention of immigrants. Only people of Middle Eastern background were subjected to its draconian provisions. When secret evidence used against detainees eventually came to light, it appeared to have been based almost entirely on religious stereotypes and mistranslations. One FBI agent, for instance, gave this in written testimony about why a person should be detained: “Arabs lie an awful lot….There is no guilt in the Arab world.”

The way was therefore well prepared for Arabs and especially Muslims to be perceived as the “enemy within” in the wake of 9/11. In the media, on the streets, on airplanes, at borders, in housing, in schools and employment, Muslims, Middle Easterners and South Asians were subjected to slurs, discrimination and hate crimes.

President Bush’s declaration on September 16, 2001 – “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile” – raised alarms about the danger of the “war on terrorism” being framed as a “clash of civilizations.” Although Bush insisted that “Islam” was not the enemy, some of his supporters openly embraced the implications of the term “crusade,” especially after the invasion of Iraq. 

For instance, Lt. General William “Jerry” Boykin, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, openly cast the war in religious terms. In June 2003, he told a group of fellow evangelicals in Oregon that radical Islamists hated the United States “because we are a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian.” A year later, the chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign wrote a fundraising letter praising President Bush for “leading a global crusade against terrorism.”

Throughout the decade, hatred of Muslims was ratcheted up by inflammatory anti-Islamic websites and blogs claiming that Islam had declared war on the West and wanted to impose Shariah law on the United States, a project allegedly spearheaded by major American Muslim organizations.

Photo courtesy Liftarn

The rising tide of Islamophobia came to a head during the 2010 election season.  Originally, there had been little public reaction when, on December 8, 2009, a story appeared in the New York Times about a plan to build “an Islamic center near the city’s most hallowed piece of land that would stand as one of ground zero’s more unexpected and striking neighbors.” The Times quoted the man behind the mosque, Imam Feisal Abdul Raul, as saying: “We want to push back against the extremists.”

By August 2010, opposition to the Park51 project and Islam went viral within right-wing media outlets as the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” was seized upon as a potent political issue by Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity, and denounced by the Anti-Defamation League. Against this backdrop, Terry Jones, the pastor of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, became a media sensation by vowing to burn copies of the Koran on September 11, 2010. He temporarily abandoned the plan after being urged to do so by President Obama, the Pentagon and Christian leaders from around the world. 

No sooner did Jones relent, than Lt. General William Boykin stepped back into the limelight. He, along with former CIA head James Woolsey and Frank Gaffney, a former US intelligence official who asserted that President Obama could be Muslim, had authored a 177-page report titled “Shariah: the Threat to America,” which was the subject of a September 15 press conference on Capitol Hill. The report describes a plan to bring about the “destruction of western civilization,” devised by the Muslim Brotherhood and carried out by front groups within the United States.

The alleged Muslim conspiracy to impose “Shariah law” within the US has been widely propagated by self-proclaimed "experts" such as Steve Emerson as a 21st century incarnation of the 20th century Communist threat. In Oklahoma, home to some 6,000 Muslims, 76 percent of voters supported a referendum initiative outlawing Shariah law in the November 2010 election. 

"Experts” who assert that most Muslims want to take over the United States and replace its legal system with shariah law have been training the police. One of them is a former Army Special Forces officer who used to work with the Los Angeles Police Department. According to the Washington Post’s "Top Secret America" series, he has declared that “the Islamic flag will fly over the White House…My job is to wake up the public, and first, the first responders.”

The Village Voice (January 19, 2011) reports that New York police officers were shown the film "The Third Jihad," produced by the shadowy Clarion Fund. During the 2008 presidential election, the Clarion Fund sent the film "Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West" to 28 million homes. In "The Third Jihad" the narrator states, “Americans are being told that most of the mainstream Muslim groups are moderate when in fact, if you look a little closer, you’ll see a very different reality.  One of their primary tactics is deception.”

For an in-depth look into the kinds of Islamophobic law enforcement trainings occurring nationwide, check out this report by Political Research Associates.

The anti-Islam fervor has led to protests against mosque construction across the country, an arson attack on a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (where Emerson’s organization, the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, has been particularly active), a pipe bomb attack on a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida and two attacks on an Islamic Center near Miami, once with a “spray of 51 bullets,” according to the August 26, 2010 New York Times.

Islamophobia was front and center in Congress when, on March 10, 2011,  Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, held the first of several hearings into the “Radicalization of Muslim Americans.” Shortly before the hearing, the Council on American Islamic Relations – which was to be castigated by Rep. King and other Republicans as an “ally of terrorists” – released a video that vividly displayed the hate-filled vitriol now directed at Muslims. Watch below:

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The televised hearings were widely denounced as reminiscent of McCarthyism and a modern-day witch hunt. But unlike the days of the Red Scare, this time there were African-American and Latino members in Congress who vigorously denounced the scapegoating of Muslims. Holding up a copy of the Constitution, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) loudly declared, “This breathing document is in pain!”

Ten days later, Terry Jones burnt a copy of the Quran in front of a handful of his followers in Gainesville, FL. At least 24 people subsequently perished during protests in Afghanistan, including 7 UN workers. Jones was unrepentant.

For further information, check out this article by Susan Akram and Kevin Johnson, "Race, Civil Rights and Immigration Law After September 11, 2001: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims".

Also see "Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the 'Homegrown Threat' in the United States," a report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU law school and the International Human Rights Clinic.

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