Islamophobia

Islamophobia is currently at the center of heated interracial and inter-faith discourse in Europe and America. However, before we discuss the state of Islamophobia in US and Europe, we must first understand the origins and nature of such mind set in any society.

Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg, in their book Islamophobia, describe the process of stereotyping a certain society or culture while referring to the movie “Siege” and later with the help of cartoon caricatures. If we consider Islamophobia on one end of the scale, we may find the caricatures on the on the opposite side helping to form the mindset of any society or culture against the other. When I refer to caricatured representation of any society, culture or religion, I am referring to all forms of portrayal including film, drama, print media, cartoons etc. which helps to build the perception of people about the ‘other’ by “focusing on one or more unusual physical or behavioral characteristics” (Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg, Islamophobia: p.65). The movement on the scale from caricatured presentation towards stereotyping a group, culture or a religion happens quite smoothly and from “people’s association –positively or negatively-with the stereotyped group from their own society rather than from their experience with that group” (Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg, Islamophobia: p.67).

According to Peter and Gabriel, caricaturing of Muslims and eventual stereotyping the whole Muslim society have led the West (specially Americans) to believe that Muslims are synonymous to the Middle East and that all Middle Easterners show specific cultural behavior and share identical ideology. “A common symbol used to depict all Arabs is that of an Arab man who looks unkempt or disheveled. This hints at the “dirty Arab” stereotype not uncommon in both the United States and Europe.” (Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg, Islamophobia: p.71). Peter and Gabriel further claim that through such negative depiction of “them,” stereotypes positive define “us” as not like that. This is a very important aspect of societal understanding of itself against the other that further leads to its xenophobic behavior, since ‘they’ are portrayed as opposite to ‘our’ lifestyle and values, ‘their’ acceptance and then integration into ‘our’ society and neighborhoods cannot be acceptable. Negative caricature of a group leading to the respective stereotyping of the culture, religion or region, later leads one group of people to develop xenophobic behavior against the other.

Now the jump from this xenophobia into the Islamophobia is a matter of one small step to reach the other side of the scale. Having understood the journey of a society from being briefed by media, educational and societal caricature of a group to xenophobia and eventually Islamophobia, we can now discuss the state of Islamophobia in US and Europe.

In Europe, the difference between the xenophobia and Islamophobia is negligible. Europe’s association and promise towards the formation of a secular or ‘Laicite’ society that adheres to a distinct separation of the state and religion and of course their perception of European Muslims as ‘foreigners’ has led them to a greater debate on Islamophobia. This current debate on Islam started as xenophobia amongst the Europeans for their respective Muslim communities. Since Muslims form the largest minority in Europe, the debate of preserving the integrity of their societies quickly shifted towards Muslims, hence giving birth to a wide spread Islamophobia. John R. Bowen in his book Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves, explains in great detail the French discontent of public depiction of religious especially Islamic religious symbol i.e. Headscarves. Dominic McGoldrick explains Islamophobia as part of today’s European political discourse, especially in France, in his book Human Rights and Religion: The Islamic Headscarf Debate in Europe. In one of our other readings, Comparative State Practice, we can have a comparative analysis of Islamophobia in retrospect to France, Germany, and Switzerland and of the predominantly Muslim country, Turkey. The larger debate in Europe revolves around laicite or in general about preserving secular values. Consideration of Muslims or Islam as foreign and in contradiction to the European values and norms, along with the perception of Islam and Muslims as incapable of integration has led a widespread panic of Islamophobia.

The current Islamophobic campaign has put European countries, specially France, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland on their cautious foot with the majority public against the public depiction of all sorts of Islamic symbols like scarves, mosques and minarets. As the professor Cesari mentioned in the class, Islamophobic sentiments in the US are getting closer to the European discourse and it seems as if it’s a spillover of the European discourse into the US society. According to Louise Cainkar, Homeland Insecurity, discrimination against Muslim or Arab Americans is not a pre-9/11 phenomenon. His reference to the Southwest of Chicago and Southwest suburbs and explanation of various cases in pre and post 9/11 era clearly shows that discrimination against the Arab Americans were present and hatred against the group was developing long before the terrorists’ attacks.

Cainkar mentions the comments of a 19-year-old Colin Zaremba who marched with a group from Oak Lawn towards Bridgeview Mosque expressed his hatred towards Arabs saying “I am proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have.” This clearly shows that in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, hatred against the Arab was developing long before the 9/11. The terrorists’ attacks were, however, important in pushing the envelope and giving the prelude to express such hatred in public. Cainkar explains the reason for low rate of hate crimes and discrimination in the southwest side of the city of Chicago due to mixed multiethnic (Latino, African American, and White) population.

Whereas the hate crimes on the southwest suburbs were higher due to predominantly white American population who were not happy of Arab population growth in their neighborhood and found it a threat to their homogenously white suburban areas. “This pattern was evident across the United States as hateful actions continued to occur for years after 9/11 attacks because these actions were about matters much larger than post-9/11 backlash- they were about cultural hegemony and the ‘moral order’ of the neighborhood.” (Cankar: Homeland Insecurity). In the neighborhoods where community integration process was already in place before 9/11, the backlash was minimal. Organizations like Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) and others mobilized to further integrate and help the Arab Americans around the suburban areas. Current debate on the Ground Zero mosque project has given a whole new dimension to the Islamophobia in the US leading to the extreme outpour of emotions in the form of the Quran burning effort led by the Florida pastor. We must also understand that such anti-Arab, Anti- Islam sentiments were already there but were mainly unorganized across the United States. These two recent incidents have taken the US discourse on Islamophobia a whole new meaning and a new level.

The current debate in US is no longer a xenophobia but has transformed itself into a a complete Islamophobic debate. Islamophobia in US was propelled by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The country of immigrants has always welcomed Muslims from all over the world and has successfully integrated millions of Muslims as part of the American Society. Sporadic and unorganized incidents of hatred and discrimination of Muslim and Arab Americans but mainly it was 9/11 attacks that brought US closer to the European stance that Muslims or Islam cannot be integrated into the main fiber of the Western Societies.

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