Islamophobia: a complicated tale

Time magazine asks a provocative question with its August 30th cover: “Is America Islamophobic?” The story cites a number of statistics, including recent poll figures about whether Americans think President Obama is Muslim, to suggest that Americans have some qualms and/or misperceptions about Islam.

I have little doubt that there is truth in the article – the situation could certainly be improved. However, even with the generally negative tone, the story also  admits the situation is more complicated:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution — there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance — there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME–Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11. 

Islamophobia in the U.S. doesn’t approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are in a minority. But to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there’s no one in Europe of the stature of a former House Speaker who would, as Newt Gingrich did, equate Islam with Nazism.

A couple things to take out of these two paragraphs:

1. Evidence of increased violence against Muslims is limited or doesn’t exist.

2. There is some anecdotal evidence. This is not necessarily bad evidence but it isn’t systematic or tell us how widespread the issues are.

3. This is not what we might typically consider “religious persecution” – which perhaps suggests how this is defined will change.

4. These issues may be worse in other nations – there is more written about this is in the magazine version as opposed to the abridged version online. Some of the part that is missing between the two paragraphs quoted above:

Polls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else in the Western world. Two American Muslims have been elected to Congress, and this year, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim to be named Miss USA. Next month, the country’s first Muslim college will formally open in Berkeley, California…

This suggests that America is one of the better Western nations Muslims can move to. What about America has led to these feelings of safety and freedom among Muslims? We could ask another question: what about America has stopped the response to Islam from being worse, particularly considering the emotions and symbolism of 9/11?

Another quote in the article is intriguing: writer and commentator Arsalan Iftikhar says, “Islamophobia has become the accepted form of racism in America…You can always take a potshot at Muslims or Arabs and get away with it.” The part about the potshots may be true but the first part of this quote ignores a long and complicated racial history in America, particularly antipathy toward African-Americans and other groups. Americans have an infamous legacy of dislike and hatred toward newcomers or “the other” – this is not simply an issue with Muslims.

This is a complicated situation that bears watching.

Quick Review: Be Very Afraid

Robert Wuthnow is a sociologist of religion and culture and I was intrigued when I saw one of his recent books at the public library: Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats. A few thoughts about the book:

1. The book examines four threats: the nuclear threat, terrorism after 9/11, global pandemics, and global warming. Each threat has a chapter where Wuthnow provides an overview of the history and then a second chapter that provides more of an analysis. Each of these subjects is interesting and the historical chapters are decent overviews of the social construction of and response to each of the problems. The historical chapters tend to focus on popular culture (movies in particular) and government responses.

2. The primary theoretical aim is to demonstrate that people are not paralyzed or immobilized by such threats (as some have suggested) but rather are spurred into action. For governments and larger organizations, this means the development and expansion of agencies and procedures to deal with threats. Average citizens go about ways of making sense of the situation and preparing themselves. Wuthnow suggests action and searching for solutions is the typical human response to such situations and analyzing these patterns of response is revealing.

3. While the cases are interesting as is the theory, I feel this work could have done more to analyze each case and provide an overarching perspective on threats at the end. I also would have liked to see more of a summary of the interview data that Wuthnow and his team collected (mentioned in the first footnote to the Introduction) – how did this personal-level data fit with the broader social history of each threat?

Overall, an interesting work that left me wanting a little more explanation. These cases suggest that when a new threat arises, both bureaucracies and individuals will respond with action. But what kind of action – is it dependent on the particular threat, the particular culture, or some other factors?

Assessing the government response to 9/11

The Washington Post has unveiled a two-year investigation into what the US government has built and developed since September 11, 2001 to counter terrorism and other threats. The overall theme of the investigation (stated here by a retired Army Lt. General): “The result, he added, is that it’s impossible to tell whether the country is safer because of all this spending and all these activities.”

So it appears there is a lot of work being done by lots of people – and the payoff of all of this is unknown.

This is a great issue for someone to solve: how to bring together all kinds of related information (brought in by many people) and make it interpretable and useful.