by Stephen Schwartz
At the beginning of November, I travelled to rural Pennsylvania, in the Eastern U.S., to lecture on "Islamophobia: The New Fear Industry." The site of my presentation was Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, a four-year liberal arts college founded by Lutherans. I gave a short talk to the faculty about radical Islam, before speaking to a modest student audience on the mentioned topic.
My visit to Susquehanna, however brief, was restful and therefore enjoyable. The Selinsgrove area exists "in a bubble" as one student repeatedly told me, surrounded by Anglo-Saxon Lutherans. The only "minority" thereabouts consists of Amish, traditional German Christian communities that live apart from the dominant American culture. Amish are best known for riding horses and buggies instead of cars, and buggy-traffic signs are visible on the local highways. Some Muslims live in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, more than an hour away.
In my talk, I was careful to distinguish criticism of Muslims and rejection of Islam as a religion, both of which are perfectly legitimate expressions of opinion and conscience, from Islamophobia. To criticize Wahhabism or radical Iranian Shiism and the excesses they commit, including support for terrorism, is to defend, not to attack Islam. To protect the freedom of one's non-Muslim faith or lack of religion is, in the American context, to safeguard the freedom of Muslims to pursue their own beliefs. I noted that aggression against Muslims has been rare inside the U.S. in the decade since 9/11. Although I did not name and shame the prominent Islamophobes in America and Europe today, I did not recoil from the argument I have pressed since the middle of the post-2001 decade. That is, while some "critics of Islam" and overeager dissident Muslims deny that "Islamophobia" exists, and label the term a pretext for censoring or preventing criticism of Muslims or Islam, I believe that Islamophobia is real, and that it is dangerous for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
When I posted the Susquehanna campus newspaper's account of the talk to the website of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, I was dismayed by the reaction of some non-Muslim allies of CIP. I was criticized for using the term "Islamophobia" at all, even though my critics must be aware that I have always employed it. For these forthright opponents of Muslim radicalism and advocates of a modern, scholarly treatment of Islam and its history, as well as believers in other religions, to refer to "Islamophobia" is "fighting words," an insult, unfair, false, and confrontational. Most such allies have been accused publicly of Islamophobia, as have I and other defenders of moderate Islam. Those like me who admit that Islamophobia affects our lives today are said by some of our non-Muslim allies to have adopted the vocabulary of the "Wahhabi lobby" of fundamentalist institutions – the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Muslim Students' Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA) – that have dominated American Muslim life. If less so than before, the Wahhabi lobby still monopolizes the American Muslim voice in the halls of government and in the pages of media.
The problem is deceptively simple: How should Muslims define the problem of fraudulent and mendacious anti-Islam propaganda in a way that does not appear to give aid and comfort to the Islamist enemy? I cannot deny what I feel in my heart when I hear non-Muslims denounce my religion in false and hateful terms. Reducing all of Islam to military jihad and treating all Muslims as foot-soldiers on behalf of Al-Qaida in the global terror war cannot but have an impact; and that is to mention the least crass vocabulary of the Islam-hater. My reaction is always one of dread. I come from several generations of victims of hate and champions of the oppressed: on my mother's side, German Christians and Scots who fled the tyranny of old Europe, who supported abolition of American slavery, and who married indigenous Americans. On my father's side, my family line was almost completely extirpated in the Holocaust of the Jews. I was married to a Catholic woman, the mother of my son.
I am therefore perhaps excessively sensitive to religious prejudice, having experienced its effects and enduring consequences. Hatred of the German Christian dissenters, including the Amish. Contempt for the Catholic Scots and other Catholics, of a kind I witnessed myself as a child and see widely today. Animosity based on skin color. And above all, bias against Jews. None of these ugly phenomena has disappeared completely from American or Western society. Discrimination against Muslims, indeed, is new to America, because Muslims were an insignificant minority in America until the closing decades of the 20th century, and because radical Islam was unknown outside the Muslim lands until its sudden and spectacular emergence in 1979, in the form of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.
I also remain affected profoundly by my experiences in the Muslim Balkans from the late 1980s to now. The Serbian fabrication of Islamophobia was not a trope invented by defensive Muslims or their friends. The former Yugoslavia had been Communist for more than 40 years, and atheist and other literature critical of Islam had been widely disseminated. Islamic culture was weak in the former Yugoslavia and ambitions for its greater influence almost nonexistent. Yet an identifiable group of Serbian "dissidents" – some of them former "humanist Marxists," and many lionized by Western human rights organizations and publicists – embarked on a calculated scheme to identify the Muslims and Albanians living in then-Yugoslavia as Islamist radicals, invaders, and menacing to the security of their neighbors. The result was a series of horrific wars in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed… most of them Muslim.
My first reaction to the Yugoslav wars was to surmise that the former Serbian "humanist Marxists," seeing no future in that intellectual trend, thought that a Communism then disintegrating rapidly would be replaced by fascism – indications in that direction had already come from Russia, Bulgaria, and Armenia. My conclusion was terrifying: that the massacre of a non-Christian people, the Balkan Muslims, could take place in Christian Europe and be ignored, more or less as the Holocaust of the Jews was ignored, for a second time since the beginning of the second world war.
American society is not centralized or stratified as Communist Yugoslavia was, and it is absurd to imagine that somewhere a powerful group of Islam-haters, with official support, is producing false information about Islam to prepare Americans for a genocidal attack on Muslims. The Wahhabi lobby, and especially CAIR, has been grossly irresponsible and, in traditional terms, un-Islamic, in loudly and prolifically comparing the current situation of American Muslims with those encountered in the past by indigenous Americans, Black slaves, or the ethnic Japanese relocated in camps during the second world war. American Muslims have yet to face the long-running campaigns of hatred that were formerly directed against Catholics and Jews in the U.S. American Muslims cannot be interned in camps; there are too many of them for the U.S. government to administer in such a manner, and their majority remains moderate, notwithstanding the radicalism of their leadership. But Muslims cannot be expected to endure insults to our Book, our Prophet, and our faith in silence. Such a reaction would be un-Islamic and un-American.
In Fall 2010 I published an article in an academic journal, the Phi Kappa Phi Forum, titled "Islamophobia: America's New Fear Industry." Therein, I had noted that anti-Muslim discrimination and violence had been remarkably scarce in America during the aftermath of 9/11. But I have intimated that Islamophobia has increased in the West since 2007 and the onset of the global financial crisis. The parallel is not comforting; it suggests that a significant element of the Western public is searching for an easy scapegoat for the manifest decline of the world's leading societies. In such conditions, minorities, whether Catholic or Jewish, were attacked in the past. But the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s made expression of such bigotry unacceptable. I have observed, nevertheless, that part of the "shedding of skin" leaving behind the collective memory of the 1960s among Americans and other Westerners has involved a new tolerance for xenophobia.
In 2010 I recapitulated comments I wrote in 2005. Six years ago, I defined Islamophobia as: attacking the entire religion of Islam as a problem for the world; condemning all of Islam and its history as extremist; denying the active existence, in the contemporary world, of a moderate Muslim majority; insisting that Muslims accede to the demands of non-Muslims for various theological changes; treating all conflicts involving Muslims as the fault of Muslims; and inciting war against Islam as a whole. In last year's article, I expanded the definition to note that Islamophobes claim Muslims believe in a "religion of hate" at odds with the Christian "religion of love" – a long-established lie hurled at Jews. They also accuse Muslims of loyalty to a universal community superior to one's national identity – as Catholics have been accused of a higher obedience to the Vatican than to the laws of the American republic and Jews have been alleged to harbor "dual loyalty" to the U.S. and Israel. And they portray Muslims as sexually voracious (the specter of the harem and polygamy), male chauvinistic, and defiant of common law – stereotypes previously applied to African-Americans.
Some expressions of Islamophobia are worse than others. The most offensive, aside from an act of physical aggression, is to deny that the God worshipped by Muslims is the same as the God of the Jews and Christians. Jewish scholars early in the history of Islam recognized that Muslims honor the same creator of the universe as their predecessors among the People of the Book. But the very concept of the People of the Book is rejected by Islamophobes, who claim that all Muslims view all Jews, Christians, and members of other religions as "unbelievers," "disbelievers," or "infidels." These are three bad translations of the term kuffar or qafirun, which refers to "concealers of the truth" and is never applied in Qur'an to Jews and Christians as a whole. Rather, as we are told in the Islamic scripture, "Some among the People of the Book truly believe in God, and in what has been revealed to you and what has been revealed to them… They will be rewarded by their Lord." (Q 3:199).
I observed in 2010 that the essence of Islamophobia is denial of the moderate Islam followed by the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims. Disallowing the existence of moderate Islam, or deriding it as "heretical" or "inauthentic" and its adherents as "apostates" – insults very frequently cast at moderates, traditionalists, and spiritual Sufis – exalts the claims of the terrorists and other radicals to represent "real Islam." Such an attitude excludes from consideration the millions of Muslims who hate radicalism and want to ally with Westerners against extremism.
The foundation of Islamophobia is, then, the will of the Islam-hater to claim authority to define Islam for the Muslim. Along with identifying radical Islam as the "true Islam" and moderate Islam as irrelevant, the Islamophobe may become intoxicated with the notion that moderate Islam is merely a disguise for violent extremism, and that even Sufis are, in their hearts, jihadists. Moderates, traditionalists, and Sufis may therefore be described by Islamophobes as deceptive, stupid, naive, or mentally unbalanced. Finally, the Islamophobe does not want the Muslim to defend moderate Islam and combat radicalism. That would deprive the Islamophobe of an enemy the latter needs to justify his or her own promotion of hatred.
These are the ideas I presented at Susquehanna in early November. I did not attack any of the prominent Islam-haters by name, did not call for anyone to be censored or silenced, and did not call on anybody to exclude critical thoughts about Muslims and Islam from their minds. I did and, until convinced otherwise, will argue that Islamophobia exists and must be opposed.
The problems posed by the phenomenon of deliberate ignorance about Islam, and its consequences, are different for Muslims and non-Muslims. For Muslims, it becomes a challenge to maintain equanimity and a positive attitude in the face of outright hatred, usually coming from a stranger. But Islam teaches us precisely that we must support such a psychological balance in our relations with non-Muslims. As God says in Qur'an, "Be courteous when you argue with the People of the Book" (Q 29:46). For the security of the Muslim community in the West, no degree of forbearance is excessive. Yet how may we as Muslims ignore that Islamophobia, not as a rhetorical term used to silence debate, but as a genuine indoctrination of non-Muslims in crude and stereotypical images of Muslims, persists? Can we call it by another name? Are we required to do so, because our non-Muslim allies object to the term? I believe that, fortunately or unfortunately, this and other issues involving the future of Islam must be settled by Muslims themselves.
Muslims believe Islamophobia is tangible. Those Muslims who deny its substance will go unheard. Muslim radicals who exploit Islamophobia for their own benefit cannot be merely refuted by the moderates, especially since some moderates do not wish to debate the radicals. But moderate Muslims can defeat the radicals by demonstrating easily that moderates know and understand the religion better than extremists, and are better prepared to answer the Islamophobes. That is to be moderate not only in relation to the radicals, but with moderation as a goal in itself, which is quintessentially Islamic. We Muslims must also hope that non-Muslims will accept us as integrated into Western society even when not assimilated – somewhat like the Amish of Pennsylvania.
Finally, I believe it is better to address Islamophobia, however it is perceived by the public, and to correctly argue for a distinction between sincere criticism and malign agitation, than to ignore the term. Even a group like the Center for Islamic Pluralism, which dedicates all its time to exposing the deviant ideologies of the radicals, the corruption of Muslim governments, and the manipulation of Western public opinion, includes numerous individuals who feel a need to speak out against Islamophobia. The topic may come and go in the wider discourse. But it cannot be disregarded.
The problem of Islamophobia for non-Muslims is different. As I stated at Susquehanna, moderate Muslims believe that the adherents of the other mainstream religions should adhere to those religions, and should defend them. Moderate Muslims do not demand that Jews or Christians humble themselves to Islam. But if non-Muslims wish to effectively defend their religions against the appeal of Islam, they must do so on the basis of an accurate, and not a falsified, image of Islam. Islamophobia appears as a virus that weakens the opponents of radical Islam, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and that strengthens the extremists. I am willing to entertain a less belligerent term for the phenomenon, if one may be suggested to me. But the reality will not go away immediately. This is not the end of a discussion, but, I hope, a beginning.