Thirty years ago, no one outside the halls of academe had heard of Islamophobia. Yet today it is virtually impossible to open a newspaper without encountering either the term or an argument against its use. The word began to appear in print in the late 1980s, when Muslims in Western countries—people of starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds—began to notice similarities among their experiences with hate, intimidation or discrimination. But almost from the start, there was a parallel effort to discredit this neologism: it was assailed as a fiction, at best the product of a culture of victimhood and at worst a very dangerous myth. Thus we have Islamophobia and “Islamophobia,” one with currency on the left side of the political spectrum and the other a common target of the right.
People who believe that Islamophobia is a fiction are fond of pointing out that Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity. Islam is a set of beliefs and customs. And in a free society, one ought to be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without fear of being labeled hateful toward Muslims. The late Christopher Hitchens declared that “Islamophobia” was a “stupid neologism” because it “aims to promote criticism of Islam to the gallery of special offenses associated with racism.” Sam Harris, the bestselling author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, wrote that “apologists for Islam have even sought to defend their faith from criticism by inventing a psychological disorder known as ‘Islamophobia.’” He continued, “There is no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”
The fact that Islamophobia is a recently coined term—or an “invention,” to use Harris’s language—should not be taken as evidence that it refers to a nonexistent pathology. The word “homophobia” was coined in the 1950s, but I doubt anyone would seriously claim that antipathy toward—and discrimination against—gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people did not exist before then. It seems to me that as Muslims have become more visible in American society, the fear and contempt for them, which used to be expressed in private, are now being promoted on the front pages of newspapers and on cable news talk-shows. Perhaps that was why a neologism was needed.
But I suspect that Harris and others would still insist that what is often called “Islamophobia” is nothing more than a vigorous intellectual debate about the merits of Islamic beliefs or practices and denotes neither hatred of Muslims nor any kind of discrimination against them. And I might be inclined to believe in this neatly theoretical distinction if I had not had experiences that contradicted it.
Although the anti-Muslim backlash is frequently called a myth, the numbers tell a different story. Muslims in the United States make up less than 1 percent of the population, but they were nearly 13 percent of victims of religious-based hate crimes in 2010. It is true that this number is down from the historic high of 27 percent in 2001, the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but almost double what it was in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. These crimes include intimidation, burglary, arson, vandalism and aggravated assault. And they target not just Muslims but also people who are mistaken for Muslims—Sikh men, for instance.
Furthermore, this rise in hate crimes is taking place in the context of a highly virulent debate about the visibility of Muslims in America. Two years ago, a huge controversy broke out about building Park51, an interfaith community center and mosque planned to be two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. Nearly everyone with political ambitions jumped into the fray. Mitt Romney declared that Park51 had “the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda.” Rudy Giuliani called it “a desecration.” And Sarah Palin famously tweeted, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate [sic].” A month later, a cabdriver in New York was asked, “Are you Muslim?” When he said yes, he was stabbed in the neck.
Despite the accusations and the calls for investigations, no one turned up any evidence that Park51 was a recruiting center for terrorists. But the tone was set. Campaigns against the building of mosques erupted in several cities around the country, many of them premised on unproven claims that the mosques would serve a terrorist agenda. In Temecula, California, protest organizers urged demonstrators to bring dogs to the Friday prayers at the Islamic Center, which was in the process of getting permits for a mosque. One woman who opposed the mosque said, “Right now we’re at war with the Taliban and the Muslims, and our boys are over there fighting and dying for our freedom. What would it be like if they come home and found out we just let them in the front door?” Thus the mosque was seen as a temple for foreign terrorists and not for Americans with the same freedom of worship as everyone else.
Likewise, protests were organized against building a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Signs on the mosque were vandalized and construction equipment set on fire. Herman Cain, the pizza magnate running for the GOP nomination, bluntly declared that communities should have the right to ban mosques—in direct violation of the First Amendment. His reasoning? “Our Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. Islam combines church and state. They’re using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals into that community.”
Last year, Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing to determine whether American Muslims are law-abiding people and whether they ignored radicals among them. (Replace the word “Muslims” with “Jews” or “Hindus” or “blacks” or “gays” in that sentence and see how that hearing sounds to you.) King once declared, without evidence, that more than 80 percent of mosques in America are run by extremists. He has also consistently maintained that American Muslims ignore radicals among them, when in fact studies have shown they are the single largest source of tips on terrorist suspects.
What this means is that even though American Muslims are reporting suspicious activity to the police, they are being spied on by law enforcement agencies and subjected to hearings questioning their loyalty. When a Muslim runs the CIA Counterterrorism Center, he is not immune to accusations of being an infiltrator. When a Muslim starts an Arabic language academy, as Debbie Almontaser did in Brooklyn, she must be prepared for accusations that she is running a “madrassa” and expect to be fired from her job. When a Muslim is elected to Congress, he is not above being asked, as Keith Ellison was by Glenn Beck, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” When a Muslim beauty queen walks down the catwalk in a tiny bikini, she risks being labeled, as Rima Fakih was by talk-show host Debbie Schlussel, “Miss Hezbollah.”
So it’s fair to say that we have in America today two systems of citizenship: one for Muslims and one for non-Muslims. Muslim citizens live under a cloud of suspicion, no matter what they do and no matter what they say. Imagine for a moment what this must do to a high school senior in Dallas, a researcher in Durham, a schoolchild in Portland, a social worker in Dearborn. The biggest mistake they can make is to believe the stories that are being told about them in the media—to believe that they are the Other, that they are dangerous or suspicious or different or strange, rather than what they really are, which is ordinary human beings.