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26 Jul, 2011

Eye-Opening Report Exposes How “Fear Factor” Drives Global Islamophobia

On 23 June, exactly a month before the Norwegian terrorist suspect struck, the University of California (Berkeley) Centre for Race & Gender (CRG) and the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), issued a powerful report containing a timely warning about the dangers of Islamophobia to U.S. society. It was the first comprehensive report of its kind, documenting in detail the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S., identifying the people perpetrating it, warning of the dangers of making it part of mainstream political discourse, and suggesting a number of ways to address it.

On 22 July in Norway, just about everything the report warned about came devastatingly and tragically true.

Entitled “Same Hate, New Target”, the report should be must-reading in the global travel & tourism industry. In addition to documenting a lengthy list of hate crimes, attacks on and discrimination against Muslims in the workplace, schools, public accommodation, and mosque vandalism, it lists several incidents involving Muslim airline travellers. Although these travel-related incidents were widely reported, not a single travel industry or air-transport association either in U.S. or globally did anything about it. As those incidents are clearly just one microcosm of a much wider geopolitical and social issue, the travel industry leadership has much to answer for. As the issue is not going to go away, living in denial is not an option.

CAIR, America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization, has long been involved defending the American-Islamic community and promoting an understanding of Islam in the U.S. Its partnership with the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender is significant. It has lent respect and credibility to the report, and opened the way for universities around the world to join what is bound to be a major subject of discussion in the years ahead.

The title “Same Hate, New Target” is also significant. It refers to a number of unfortunate chapters in American history. Quoting various research papers and news items, the report cites the English Protestant Americans’ suspicion of German and Irish Catholic immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century, the years of conflict with the Native Americans and the plan to “civilize” them, the placement of Japanese American in internment camps after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, and the troubled history with African-Americans. Says the report, “Martin Luther King — a non-violent, shining example of the civil rights movement who now has a federal holiday named after him and who won a Nobel Peace Prize — was branded “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” in an FBI memo. Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled King a “degenerate,” the report notes.

Evolved for the better

Having said that, the report notes that “America has tended to recognise these problems and rise above them.…our nation has historically evolved for the better. America was founded on a set of ideals such as individual liberty, freedom of speech and worship and equal justice under the law. America was not founded as a place for any single religion, race or ethnic group. That said, people of conscience must continually remind themselves that the specters of bigotry, discrimination and second-class citizenship are omnipresent.”

Says Prof. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Director, CRG, “This investigative report is a key step in exposing and examining the powerful force of Islamophobia in the U.S., including the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project’s (IRDP) rigorous review of the role of Islamophobia in the public debate about an Islamic cultural center in New York City and in the 2010 midterm elections. It is our hope that this report will not only illuminate the ways that Islamophobia shapes media representations and encourages political pandering, but also highlight recommendations for transforming political and media culture.” She noted that that, while scholars have sustained rigorous study of Islamophobia in Europe, “similar long-term research on Islamophobia, its causes, and its consequences in the U.S. has only recently begun.”

CAIR’s National Executive Director Nihad Awad describes Islamophobia “as a close-minded prejudice against or hatred of Islam and Muslims.” He says, “(I)ts prevalence in our nation can be seen daily in the media and in polls that are trending toward ever more troubling levels of antipathy toward Islam. This report … offers a vision of a time when being Muslim carries a positive connotation and Islam has an equal place among many faiths in America’s pluralistic society…. I pray that in the future, this report will be seen as one element in the movement to push back against individuals and institutions who promote hatred and fear of Islam as an American value.”

Equally significant are the report’s timing and content, both of which are inter-related. By releasing it in June 2011, the report sounds a clear warning about the potential usage of Islamophobia in the upcoming 2012 presidential elections. An entire chapter researched by the UC Berkeley CRG is devoted to the sinister portrayal of Islam and Islamic issues in the U.S. electoral process, under the headline, “Islamophobia: Fear, Bigotry, and Racism Find the Ballot Box in the 2010 Midterm Elections.”

This is where the report has a direct relation to the killings in Norway.

The “Willie Horton” ad

The report’s research reveals that the man who produced the infamous “Willie Horton” advertisement that helped George H.W.Bush (the elder Bush) win the 1988 presidential election also produced Islamophobic television spots for a number of political hopefuls in the 2010 midterm elections. It notes that Horton, a convicted felon, was given a weekend pass under a Massachusetts prison furlough program. He did not return to prison and resurfaced a year later after raping a woman.

The report quotes the Public Broadcasting Service as noting that the GHW Bush election ad “used a menacing mug shot of an African-American criminal” with the explicit goal of making Horton “every suburban mother’s greatest fear.” Lee Atwater, GHW Bush’s campaign manager, described the desired outcome for the ad by saying: “By the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.” The ad proved critical in helping Bush win the White House in 1988, the report says.

It adds, “During the 2010 midterm elections, Larry McCarthy, the Horton ad’s creator, began producing Islamophobic television spots for a number of political hopefuls. McCarthy again appealed to prejudice, seeking to exploit the average American’s fears and helping to normalize anti-Muslim discourse in political and public campaigns.”

If expanded to a global level, this same strategy has been applied again – except that instead of Willie Horton, it is the image of Osama bin Laden and bearded, turbaned terrorists. Says the report, “The UC Berkeley CRG maintains that a central purpose of today’s generation of Islamophobic political ads and rhetoric is to make Islam and American Muslims synonymous with terrorism and to define the religion and its adherents as threats to America’s values and freedoms. If Willie Horton was the suburban mother’s greatest fear, Islam and Muslims would be America’s greatest fear.”

It adds, “The Republican Party was the most frequent abuser of Islamophobic rhetoric; hence the condemnation of “Islamic terrorists” has largely become associated with that party over time. We believe Republican candidates will continue to view the use of anti-Muslim themes as a way to increase voter turn-out and attain votes.

“Looking forward to the 2012 elections and beyond, we expect Islamophobia to remain in currency among Tea Party Republican candidates and activists, which will pressure traditional Republicans to follow suit so as to prevent the fringe from gaining control of the party.

“We expect to see a fight for the Republican party with Islamophobia taking center stage. As it stands today, we believe that the Republican party has a serious Islamophobia crisis at its hands and its moderate elements must muster the needed courage and leadership to challenge it and resist further efforts at monetizing racism and bigotry into votes and power for a short-term gain.

“On the other hand, the Democrats, in control of the White House and Senate, will be on the defensive if the economy and unemployment do not show marked improvements before Spring 2012.”

The report adds, “Two years is a life-time in politics; however, the 2010 results will be studied by all operatives from all parties, with the research becoming instrumental in designing part of the 2012 campaign….Furthermore, Islamophobia as a form of hate speech has already translated into violence directed at Muslim and Sikh individuals mistaken as Muslims, as well as racist incidents against African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

“The American Muslim community, the interfaith community, and the civil rights community should be vested in a structural national response to counter Islamophobia. These communities should be prepared to mobilize all needed resources toward this end. Islamophobia is a new wedge issue being employed to bring the right-wing base to the polls, shift the independents to the right, and siphon away a few percentage points from the Democrats. The Islamophobic strategy is clear; the question is: what is the response?”

By the Book

Both CAIR and the CRG are clear about the response. CAIR says it will do everything by the book, i.e., abide by the constitutional and legal rights enjoyed by all U.S. citizens, as well as the behavioral principles and codes of ethics enshrined in the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an. It will document complaints, take legal action, fight discrimination, expose the falsehoods and work with Muslim-Americans to promote a positive agenda and work-programme.

The CRG will also do its part. Says Prof Nakano Glenn, “The IRDP also launched an innovative course on Islamophobia that uses global media networks to broadcast the course to concerned people around the world. This allows us to extend our reach beyond the classroom and to develop intentional pedagogical relationships with local and international community organisations.”

Charting a response should also concern the travel industry, in both the U.S. and globally. Already facing the deep embarrassment of having done nothing over the years, the industry’s “visionary leaders” can either continue to do nothing or risk landing up on the wrong side of history again. The report should also be of concern to U.S. executives living in Islamic countries, as well as U.S. corporations that hire Muslim workers and sell products and services to the Islamic world. As consumers, taxpayers and voters, U.S. citizens are well within their rights to hold their government and elected leaders responsible.

But will they?

For more information about CRG’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, please click here.