This post is part of a series prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Baker Institute Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University. The workshop is sponsored by the June B. and Bryan J. Zwan Endowment. The views expressed here are those of individual researcher(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boniuk Institute.
Many minority religious communities today experience levels of freedom and tolerance unthinkable several centuries ago and, in some cases, several decades ago. Muslims remain one of the primary exceptions. By almost every metric, Islamophobia has grown worse over the past two decades. Individual and systemic discrimination and even violence toward Muslim communities are features of many Western nations.
This post describes the theological, political and historical reasons for anti-Muslim bigotry, focusing on how Western imperialism has fueled to the racialization of Muslims and cast Muslims abroad and at home as existential enemies deserving of suspicion, exclusion and hostility. It concludes with suggestions for how to reduce anti-Muslim bigotry through changes in foreign and domestic policies and increased opportunities for interreligious engagement.
The historical roots of anti-Muslim sentiment are both theological and political. Theologically, Western Christians, particularly since the Crusades, viewed Muslims as heretics. Muhammad was framed as a false prophet who created a religion rooted in violence and the oppression of women. These stereotypes persisted into the modern era, even as the theological justification behind them subsided after the Enlightenment in Europe (though not necessarily in America).
These theological rivalries were often intertwined with political ambitions. As Islam expanded quickly from the 7th century, Islamic empires came into conflict with European Christian kingdoms and empires. For centuries, Islamic empires had the upper hand in this rivalry [i]. But with the declining power of the Ottoman Empire, European empires expanded their dominion over Muslim-majority regions in Africa and Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
As European empires receded after World War II, two new empires vied for global dominance: the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War witnessed efforts by both to assert political, economic and military influence over the Middle East in an effort to secure access to vital energy resources. The United States pursued this strategy in part by making alliances with autocratic regimes and monarchies that stood in opposition to Arab nationalist governments, and in part by increasing support for Israel and Israeli-occupied territories. This approach generated tensions with various Muslim populations seeking greater freedoms and self-determination [ii]. After the Cold War, the United States faced new obstacles to its imperial ambitions in the form of violent Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. The Muslim terrorist, not the communist, became public enemy #1 as the United States and its European allies embarked on the global war on terror.
What ties these endeavors together is the need to racialize Muslims and cast them as the threatening and inferior “other,” the obstacle to Western imperial ambitions, all in an effort to galvanize popular support for the imperial project back home [iii]. What this means for contemporary Islamophobia is that majority populations have inherited negative and often racist perceptions of Muslims stemming from intense and violent political rivalries spanning centuries. These perceptions have only intensified in modern history due to Islamist terrorist attacks, the war on terror, and the growth and visibility of Muslim populations in the West in light of migration and immigration.
The perception that Muslims at home are symbolic stand-ins for the perceived Muslim enemy abroad has generated domestic policies that cast all Muslims as a suspect population deserving of exclusion, discrimination, and other forms of racist treatment. This explains many of the anti-Muslim proposals entertained by U.S. presidential candidates in 2015-16, including Muslim ID cards, Muslim databases, the patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods, a religious test prohibiting Muslims from becoming president, and a ban on all Muslims entering the country. In Europe, prominent far right candidates, taking advantage of anxieties over growing Muslim populations in light of the refugee crisis from 2015, have developed their own extreme anti-Muslim proposals, including banning the Qur’an and closing Islamic schools.
It’s not only about the rhetoric. Islamophobia has become enshrined in legal systems and law enforcement practices. Western governments have subjected Muslims to registration systems, detentions, deportations, extraordinary renditions, torture, airport profiling and mosque surveillance. In Europe, bans on the hijab and full face veils in public schools and public space have become increasingly common, while Switzerland upholds a ban on the construction of minarets. In the United States, anti-Islam or anti-sharia legislation has been enacted in more than a dozen states. The euphemistically named “travel ban,” targeting Muslim-majority regions, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.
With the help of a well-funded anti-Muslim network that manufactures hatred of Muslims for financial and political gain, along with corporate media outlets that disproportionately focus on terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist extremists, animus toward Muslims has spread throughout majority populations. Most polls demonstrate unfavorable views of Islam, and to a lesser extent Muslims, in Western nations [iv]. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have also skyrocketed on both sides of the Atlantic since 2015, likely fueled both by ISIS-inspired attacks in Europe and heated political rhetoric in election cycles [v].
What needs to change to increase religious tolerance toward Muslims? In the realm of foreign policy, developing alternative and renewable energy sources would reduce the demand for the energy resources of the Middle East. This in turn would diminish the incentive for Western powers to establish alliances with autocratic regimes. Such alliance both feed resentment within Muslim populations in the Middle East and keep the region destabilized. A destabilized Middle East is a recipe for more terrorism, and more terrorism means more Islamophobia as pre-existent stereotypes and prejudices among majority populations in the West are reaffirmed.
Less dependency on Middle East energy resources would also help dis-incentivize U.S. military interventionism in the region, including the the never-ending war on terror. Indeed, U.S. militarism contributes greatly to the conditions that fuel terrorism. Militant Islamist organizations such as al-Qaeda have invoked U.S. interventionism and militarism in the Middle East to justify violent attacks on Western targets, including the 9/11 attacks. In turn, Western governments have relied on Islamophobic narratives and “clash of civilizations” frameworks to explain terrorist attacks, to justify troublesome wars, and to securitize Muslim populations in their midst. An end to U.S. militarism in the Middle East, and an end to the war on terror, will both reduce terrorist attacks on Western targets and reduce the tendency to view and treat Muslims at home as enemies.
On the domestic front, interreligious engagement has increased significantly in recent years, and such work has the potential of cultivating vital relationships between majority populations and Muslims. We have data confirming the importance of interreligious and cross-cultural contact for reducing prejudice. According to a PRRI study from 2015, two-thirds of people who talk with Muslims at least occasionally are more likely to view Muslims as an important part of the American religious landscape [vi]. Interreligious relationships are key to breaking down barriers, dismantling prejudices, and introducing a human face into the equation, all of which are essential to eroding support for anti-Muslim policies at home and abroad.
Instances of public solidarity with Muslim communities also show promise in the effort to curtail religious intolerance. From human chains protecting Muslims at prayer to fundraising for Muslim victims of hate crimes, allies and public figures have taken visible steps to stand with Muslims. These steps may help explain why views of Muslims in the immediate aftermath of Islamist terrorist attacks often improve, even as, paradoxically, anti-Muslim hate crimes typically increase as well. For example, according to a Pew study, favorable views of Muslims in France increased in the months following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks [vii]. A similar trend in the United States took place in the months following the 9/11 attacks [viii]. Statements of support from political leaders, public displays of solidarity from allies, and media coverage that is more critical of anti-Muslim stereotypes are the most likely explanations for these trends. The challenge that remains is how to channel these short term “bursts” of solidarity and religious tolerance into sustained, long-term change.
Muslims have slowly gained greater political representation at the local, state and regional levels. The likes of Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, or Ilhan Omar, U.S. congressional representative from Minnesota, represent a small but growing cadre of Muslim politicians whose election, while engendering intense resistance from anti-Muslim actors in the short run, may pave the way for dismantling Islamophobic policies in the long run. Some studies suggest that greater political representation from underrepresented groups leads to policies that are more favorable toward those groups [ix].
Anti-Muslim discrimination and racism will persist so long as the United States and its European allies prosecute Western imperial interests abroad at the expense of the political enfranchisement and aspirations of global Muslim populations. An end to the war on terror, a deep commitment to foreign policies that promote the flourishing of Muslim populations living under autocratic regimes in the MENA region, and more deliberate efforts to promote solidarity with Muslim minority populations and to enhance Muslim political representation in the West are necessary steps in efforts to reverse the alarming trend of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Todd Green, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College
[i] R.W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962); John V. Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Jill N. Claster, Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East, 1095–1396 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); John Tolan, Gilles Veinstein, and Henry Laurens, eds., Europe and the Islamic World: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
[ii] Rashid Khalidi, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and the American Dominance in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008); Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004); Douglass Little, Us versus Them: The United States, Radical Islam, and the Rise of the Green Threat (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Juan Cole, Engaging the Muslim World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Henry Heller, The Cold War and the New Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).
[iii] For reflections on how European Christians were already racializing minority populations in the Middle Ages, see Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 8/5 (2011): 315–331.
[iv] Sara Gavin, “UMD Poll Sheds Light on American Attitudes Surrounding Orlando, the Middle East & U.S. Election,” UMD Right Now, July 11, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ycg2eggf; Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, and Katie Simmons, “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs,” Pew Research Center, July 11, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y9eu2yob.
[v] Sarah Marsh, “Record Number of Anti-Muslim Attacks Reported in UK Last Year,” Guardian (UK), July 20, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycdwbab2; “Report: Attacks against Muslims Rise in France,” Middle East Monitor, June 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y6mg5s2a; Katayoun Kishi, “Assaults against Muslims in U.S. Surpass 2001 Level,” Pew Research Center, November 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y2e4hwby.
[ix] John D. Griffin, “When and Why Minority Legislators Matter,” Annual Review of Political Science 17 (2014): 327–36; Trevon D. Logan, “Do Black Politicians Matter?,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 24190 (January 2018), https://tinyurl.com/y6cbtzkh; Michele Swers, Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Tracy L. Osborn, How Women Represent Women: Political Parties, Gender, and Representation in the State Legislature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Carol Hardy-Fanta, ed., Intersectionality and Politics: Recent Research on Gender, Race, and Political Representation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2006).