The tragedy of the shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, is enormous. Six innocent people were gunned down in a Sikh temple by a white supremacist—but they weren’t innocent because they were Sikh, they were innocent because, well, they were innocent! Had Wade Michael Page walked into a mosque and begun shooting Muslims, the victims of his rampage would have been no more deserving of death.
It’s true that we don’t yet know Page’s precise motivations, but in all likelihood it wasn’t Sikhophobia, a term barely known in the United States. It was Islamophobia. That’s why to say that Page made a “mistake” in targeting Sikhs, as many have reported, or that Sikhs are “unfairly” targeted as Muslims, as CNN stated, is to imply that it would be “correct” to attack Muslims. Well, it’s not, and even if this is an error embedded in the routine carelessness of cable news, we need to be attentive to the implications.
Over the last few days, there has been a lot of media coverage about the Sikh religion and its origins and practices. Knowledge is always welcome over ignorance, but what we really need to educate ourselves about is the way racism operates in this country and its deadly character. The facts are not consoling. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the extreme right wing grew “explosively” in 2011 and for the third year in a row. The SPLC now tracks 1,018 hate groups, up from 602 in 2000, the year that Page is reported to have appeared on the Neo-Nazi scene. The number of hate groups, in other words, has almost doubled in the last twelve years, and that growth has accelerated since the election of Obama. The targets have also expanded. White supremacists have always been obsessed with Jews, blacks and the LGBT community as their objects of hate. And ten years ago, Jews and blacks were Page’s villains, according to Pete Simi, who interviewed him in 2001. But things have changed over this past decade. What continues to be underappreciated is how the hatred of Muslims has become a major motivating and mobilizing force in this putrid scene.
But Islamophobia is real. Not only does it exist but it’s an increasingly toxic part of the political discourse of this country. To think that the compulsive hatred and fear of Muslims is reserved for the extreme right is to wall oneself off from how mainstream conservative discourse participates in this paranoid obsession that the old America is being nefariously and surreptitiously taken away from them. At bottom, this is an anxiety about the loss of privileges and power, quite likely related though not exclusively driven by downward economic mobility. (The New York Times offered the suggestive detail that property Page owned in North Carolina was foreclosed on in January.) Whatever the causes, the form that this hatred takes is cultural, and Muslims, Mexicans, non-white immigrants, really anyone who isn’t “American” by the most conservative definition becomes suspect.
Still, it is Muslims who are now some of the biggest villains in this story of decline, as the well-funded Islamophobic network pushes the paranoid fantasy that Sharia law is about to usurp the constitution or, even more simply, that Islam is not a religion at all but a “cult.” It has yet to be determined if there is any connection, but a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground the day after the Oak Creek shooting. In this climate, anyway, mosques are not seen as American places of worship but as temporary hotels for perpetual foreigners and fiery incubators for terrorism. But the statistics show another story. As reported by Liz Goodwin at Yahoo! News, “Between 1980 and 2001, non-Islamic American extremists carried out about two-thirds of all terrorism in the United States, according to FBI statistics cited by the Council on Foreign Relations. Between 2002 and 2005, that figure jumped to 95 percent. In the ten years following 2001, only 6 percent of terrorist acts in America have been the work of Islamic extremists.”
Yet Islamophobia is not solely the domain of the extreme right wing. It’s part of the Republican campaign for president. One of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisers is Walid Phares, part of the active anti-Muslim network. Michele Bachmann sent a letter urging the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton’s adviser Huma Abedin, among others, for “the deep penetration in the halls of our United States government” by the Muslim Brotherhood. Peter King held show trials falsely accusing Muslim Americans of radicalization and sedition. And one in three Republicans still believes Obama is a Muslim. Oh, brother!
And then there’s Michael Bloomberg. Under his watch, the NYPD has been engaged in a massive spying campaign against New York’s Muslim American community that included compiling huge amounts of information on ordinary Muslims going about their regular activities at school, on the streets, while shopping, eating and praying.