I don’t blame the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) for pointing out in their recent report that almost all of the nation’s most hateful Islamophobes have no training whatsoever in the scholarship of Islam, or even in comparative religion, which is an important academic discipline these days. But in a way this validates what I’ve always said—that serious Islamophobia really has nothing to do with Islam, any more than anti-Semitism has to do with Judaism. Of course, ignorance plays a role in public perceptions, and such organizations as MPAC and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) are always looking for an opportunity to educate people, and rightly so. Advocacy groups can also play an important role in bringing people together, which can make a big difference on the local level. But the hard-core hate-mongers have already made up their minds. They see Islam as something to hate in the West, and their role, as they see it, is simply to fan the flames of the prejudice and ignorance that already exist.
Who they are is fairly well-known. There are those rightwing evangelical Christians who believe it is God’s will that Americans launch a crusade against Islam—some even believe that a big religious war will bring on the Second Coming of Jesus. There are also those who mistakenly believe that Islamophobia helps Israel, whereas it actually hurts the cause of peace in Israel/Palestine. There are the well-financed neo-cons, who think that worldwide religious war will make America stronger and help the Likud party of Israel. And there are the angry fans of AM Hate Radio, who simply take pleasure in persecuting a religious minority in America because they are bullies.
If you examine the motives behind all these attitudes, you will discern a common thread—all the people who think like this are basically angry about something, very often because they are struggling with some problem they can’t resolve. The rightwing Christian evangelicals are losing cultural power in the US, and are trying to make up for it by seizing a measure of political power. But since they try to use political power to impose their beliefs, rather than finding common ground with others, they are increasingly seen as idolatrously fixated on temporal power. And instead of addressing this and other deficits, their frustration drives them to search for scapegoats.
Likewise those who uncritically support the rightwing government of Israel also struggle with an excruciating—if unspoken—problem. Israel was created by early Zionists to be a haven for Jews around the world, a place where they could be safe. Yet by ethnically cleansing the Palestinians rather than cooperating with them, they guaranteed that Israel would be perpetually beset by war, which will continue until Israel gives Palestinians the same rights as Jews. Instead of creating a safe haven for Jews, this makes Israel/Palestine one of the most dangerous places in the world, for Jews, Palestinians and everybody else. This failure of the Zionist promise is deeply frustrating. It causes many to make scapegoats of Muslims, and to believe that war against Iran is the answer. But the real problem is one only Israel can fix, by making peace with the Palestinians, either by giving them their own country or granting them the same rights as Jews.
With the Anti-Muslim bullies it’s the same deal, only on a more personal level. The fans of AM Hate Radio hate their own lives—but instead of facing their personal deficits, they’d rather marinate in loathing of someone else. Instead of getting more education, seeking spiritual growth or working with others for communal improvement, they focus on hating some imaginary bogeyman. That’s the big problem with religious bigotry. When people start putting all their energy in hating some religious minority, they stop growing emotionally, intellectually and socially, because they lose their ability to confront their own weaknesses, and forget how to work with others to fix those weaknesses.
Anti-Semitism became such a big thing with European Christians that they lost the ability to think critically about European society, and about their own religion. That left them with no religious alternatives to the idolatry of militarism, nationalism and imperialism, not even a religious response to the exploitation caused by rapid industrialization. And when fascism arrived on the scene, only a small minority of Christians had a sufficiently powerful faith to resist. The result was the Nazi Holocaust, history’s greatest crime.
That leads me to my next point, which is that there is another and quite dangerous dynamic at work in America, one that could likewise encourage Islamophobia. A major portion of America’s most profitable basic industry, an industrial capacity that was once the envy of the world, has been shipped overseas. (Or “off-shored,” as Mitt Romney puts it.) With the exception of the auto industry, there’s not that much factory work left except as ancillaries to the so-called service economy, which means good pay for a few and marginal jobs for the rest. Meanwhile American conservatism has taken a mean right turn toward a sustained effort to get rid of the social safety net. The result is frustration. People know something is wrong, but aren’t quite sure what to do about it.
Some people in our new corporate upper class are willing to encourage scapegoats to distract ordinary Americans from their main problems, which at this point are mainly economic. The classic example of this was the multimillion dollar attempt, in 2008, to circulate a flagrantly Islamophobic DVD concealed as a free insert in certain newspapers. This occurred in the swing states, where the vote could go either way. The objective wasn’t just the dissemination of religious bigotry—the whole operation had a clear political objective. The political far right was promoting the idea that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim at that time, and the DVD was calculated to influence people to vote against him.
Students of history know that this was the way fascism first got traction in Europe, with corporate types bankrolling hate-mongers among the people. It may not get that far in America, of course—the Republican Party’s southern base keeps moving to the right, but it is also shrinking. Jon Huntsman, Jr., may run a third-party race in 2016, while Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum fight it out for possession of the GOP. Either way, the Republicans may start to fracture, pulled asunder by theological purists, on the one hand, and corporate types who want to win elections no matter what. That will probably diminish the prospects of Islamophobic activity by extremists in the Republican base, and will tend to discredit it among the broad public.
Protecting religious liberty will be an ongoing struggle for at least the next two generations, however. The major factor generating Islamophobia is the lack of a settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, although there, too, there is a growing public awareness that Islamophobia is harmful to everybody involved in that conflict, and to America as well. The big danger is the possibility that Netanyahu might lead the US into a war with Iran. The Michelle Malkin-type fanatics would immediately try to mainstream their advocacy for internment camps for US Muslims (Malkin has written a book attempting to justify incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II), but this will be defeated if we respond strongly.
The irony, of course, is that the problems mentioned above really have nothing to do with Islam. To the extent that all of us help in the resolution of America’s pressing economic and foreign policy problems, we will minimize the dynamics that drive Islamophobia. But whatever the causes, the eradication of religious bigotry has become necessary if America is to continue to grow and prosper, because religious liberty in America is not, and never will be, negotiable.
Lawrence Swaim’s regular column on religious liberty, “An Interfaith View,” appeared Oct. 15 in InFocus News, a Muslim newspaper published in California.
Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation. His column addresses current affairs from an American Christian and Interfaith perspective. The Interfaith Freedom Foundation is a public-interest nonprofit that advocates civil rights for religious minorities, and religious liberty for all. It operates solely on grants and donations from supporters. The Foundation can be contacted at P. O. Box 6862, Napa CA 94581.