Good Ol’ American Islamophobia

As you might have noticed, Islamophobia is kind of a thing in America (Europe, too, but I’m just talking about America here). And it’s getting worse. The ACLU reported recently that anti-mosque activity is on the rise. Particularly prevalent are efforts to prevent the construction of new mosques. And negative opinions of Muslims have increased significantly in the decade since September 11th.

The Nation has a series of articles out this week about the spread of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bias, and it’s worth a read. Professor Moustafa Bayoumi spells out some of the tangible ways in which Muslims are discriminated against based solely on their religious affiliation. In doing so, he obliquely mentions a shift in the discourse about Islam: “While the old story revolves around security, portraying American Muslims as potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, the new narrative operates more along the axis of culture.” He says nothing more about it, but it seems to me that this shift (which has taken place over the last five years or so) is essential to understanding the nature of contemporary Islamophobia in America. Anti-Muslim bias is no longer rooted in the idea that Muslims are terrorists (in the sense of prone to violence), but that Islam and Americanness are mutually exclusive—that a Muslim ipso facto cannot be a real American (in any sense of the word).

This is expressed most plainly in the notion of “sharia creep”—the idea that Muslims are necessarily working to implement “sharia”* by any means necessary (i.e., jihad) because, quite simply, that is what Muslims do. If you don’t do that, then you’re not a Muslim. No, really: a website connected with the “Stop Sharia Now!” Project writes that

There are no “moderate” Muslims, just “Muslims”. There are Muslims of varying submission and commitment to Islam. […] Those persons who refer to themselves as “Muslims” have a religious obligation to Islam 100%, nothing less. Those “Muslims” who either fail to, or refuse to engage in Jihad to spread Islam throughout the world are apostates, not “moderate” as the term is socially defined.**

It goes without saying that “sharia”, as a totalitarian socio-political ideology, “a type of medieval fascism”, is utterly incompatible with American values and law, which are based on universal principles of human rights and freedoms. (It is this rationale that justifies the current rash of anti-sharia bills going around state governments.) Thus, since all Muslims must abide by “sharia”, they cannot truly be Americans.

This view was at the heart of the controversy surrounding the show All-American Muslim. The show was condemned by a fringe activist because of the absence of “the agenda of sharia”. Watch the clip here.

The way the activist David Caton describes the Muslims on the show is telling. He considers them normal people who are not trying to advance fundamentalism, but, remarkably, he states that they are “anti-Islam”. It seems odd that someone would describe a Muslim as anti-Islam, but it’s clear that Caton conflates “Islam” with “sharia” (in the Islamophobic sense). The Muslims portrayed on the show do not, in his words, “appl[y] the Islamic code” and thus are “anti-sharia, anti-Islam”. This, he implies, doesn’t make them real Muslims, as “‘Muslim’ is defined in all the dictionaries as those who follow Islam” and these people are “anti-Islam”. Therefore, they’re okay, even if the show is Islamic propaganda for not showing real Muslims (i.e., those who apply “sharia”).

In response to the controversy, Lowe’s (which pulled its advertising from the show) was inundated with online messages of support because they “had the guts to stand up for traditional Americans” and “American values” and because “there is no such thing as ‘All-American Muslims’ [sic].”

And this isn’t just Fox News contributors and the crazy, blogging fringe. Last year, Emory professor Vincent Cornell (who should probably know better) wrote an article in which he calls University of Michigan professor Sherman Jackson—a black Muslim from Philadelphia—a “soft fundamentalist”, likening him to Osama bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb, based on the fact that Jackson once said that the US Constitution is not fully binding on the “Muslim-American moral/religious consciousness”. According to Cornell, this means that Jackson does not recognize the Constitution’s legitimacy, because only “sharia”, as God’s law, can rule.

This despite the fact that in the passage in question, Jackson (who—full disclosure—is a former teacher of mine) states explicitly that the Constitution is not in contradiction with the principles of the (actual) sharia, and in fact Muslims should commit to “supporting and defending the Constitution itself.” Cornell, however, equates what he sees as Muslims’ non-acknowledgment of the Constitution’s “legal-moral authority” with their disloyalty to America. Even though Jackson sees no problem with a Muslim abiding by the laws of the United States, the fact that a Muslim’s ultimate moral adherence is to the sharia makes following these laws “at best a cynical exercise in political accommodationism.” It seems that Muslims, even when calling for supporting and defending the Constitution, must not really mean it.***

Leaving aside the almost absurd degree of prejudice and essentialism inherent in this view, such a perspective raises some important issues. To consider Americanness and Islam as mutually exclusive is to equate the two, in essence making “American” a religious category. Indeed, Jackson, in his emphatic rebuttal to Cornell (available here, along with Cornell’s article), writes that by insisting upon Muslims’ acceptance of the Constitution as morally, rather than simply legally, binding, Cornell is holding the Constitution to be a document of transcendent truth.

This characterization isn’t far off. The fervor with which some conservatives present their patriotism and adherence to ‘American values’ borders on the religious, an impression only furthered by constant portrayals of those values as inextricably connected to Christianity. (See Jon McNaughton’s painting above. Yes, that’s Jesus and the Constitution.)

Obviously, if one considers America to be an inherently Christian nation, any non-Christian cannot be a true American. But this type of Islamophobia works on a different level, and it does not require the Islamophobe to believe that ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ are one and the same. Rather, it seems closely related to the growing trend among conservatives to paint themselves as real Americans, while questioning the loyalty and patriotism (and morality) of anyone who disagrees. In recent years, “the liberals” have come to be presented this way. Islamophobia may be more xenophobic and jingoistic in nature, but it is not a stretch to see it as part of the same attitude. Just a few days ago Robert Spencer, a notoriously Islamophobic author, wrote an article describing Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large drinks as “resembl[ing] nothing more in spirit” than the totalitarian nature of Islamic fundamentalism. (No, I’m not kidding. It’s crazy.) Even more to the point, one need look no further than Andrew McCarthy’s 2010 book, Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.

But the pseudo-religious nature of modern conservativism is something for its own post. This type of Islamophobia is based on some of the worst and most insidious forms of xenophobia and prejudice, and these are, if I may essentialize for a moment, the least American of values. It shouldn’t go unchecked.

* In quotes because what those who talk about ‘sharia creep’ actually say about Islamic law bears no resemblance to reality.

** It should go without saying, but this is crap. There are many, many Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadith that directly contradict all of this, not to mention 1400 years of actual historical experience.

*** If this statement appears to be too much of a stretch, do a Google search for ‘taqiyya’ and read a handful of the top results.

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Filed under America, culture, politics, religion

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