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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Rise of Islamophobia

 During the last decade, the most important cultural phenomenon has been the crucial role religious institutions have played in fostering Islamophobia in the United States, which fueled a political fundamentalism responsible for determining America’s treatment of Muslims in and outside this nation and forming a war strategy in the Middle East. This position contrasts with those who hold that religion directly determines the political situation and with those who hold that religion has a non-essential role in the relations America has with the Middle East. The first view I call "Religion Essentialist", and Samuel P. Huntington’s argument in The Third Wave and “Will More Countries Become Democratic” will represent this position. I call the second "Religion Non-Essentialist," and Najib Ghadbian's argument in Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World and Graham Fuller’s argument in A World without Islam will represent this position. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of these views and their explanatory power allows for a more robust theory which includes religion as a crucial factor without going as far as linking beliefs directly with actions.
            Huntington argues that certain variables are conducive with democracy and others are not. In The Third Wave, he lists Protestantism as one of these conducive variables (37-38). In “Will More Countries Become Democratic”, Huntington claims that “Islam has not been hospitable towards democracy,” implying that Islam is anti-democratic (208). These broad sweeping generalizations, which Huntington makes about the nature of Islam and Protestantism based on simple correlation, are methodically sloppy at best and chauvinist at worst. 

            Najib Ghadbian argues against Huntington’s cultural explanations and instead claims that rather long lasting geo-political forces are the true determining factor in the development of a region. InDemocratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World, Ghadbian claims that this essentialist position has obvious pitfalls (9). He claims that one problem with the “cultural explanation of democracy or its absence is the assumption that beliefs unilaterally influence actions” (Democratization 9).

In A World without Islam, Fuller makes the radical claim that the “if there had never been an Islam…it might actually be quite similar to what we see today” (4). Now Fuller does not mean to argue that “Islam has had no role whatsoever in coloring elements of this East-West confrontation,” but rather he argues that “[Islam] has primarily served as flag or banner for other, deeper kinds of rivalries and confrontations taking place” (5).

            It is actually because I agree with Fuller that Islam has been used so much in shaping the collective conscience of the United States that I believe religious narratives about religions have had a crucial role in making the conflict what it is. By religion, I mean a kind of institution which creates narratives for the collective conscience of a community. What distinguishes religions from secular ideologies is that religions have a special place in society afforded to it by tradition from where it can influence the emotions and actions of its adherents. This definition of religion contrasts with the view that religion creates diversity by inspiring original cultural works (James P. Care, The Religious Case Against Belief). Evidence for the latter definition would include the fact that one could probably fill an entire college library with books solely on who Jesus was (James P. Care, The Religious Case Against Belief). (I forgot to include this reference in my original essay by accident. I will clean it up later when I have the book on me again.) While the creativity involved in reinterpreting traditional stories will be crucial to my account of how religion has influenced Christian Evangelical Americans in regards to their actions towards Muslims in general, the focus is not the broadening of religious views but the social cohesion of a single narrative about Islam which changes to account for political discourse.

            I divide the process from religions to actions into three stages: motivation, justification, and actualization. It is not a simple linear progression from each stage to the next but rather a dialogue between each. This dialog between each stage helps to account for regional differences in religious institutions. The goal is to show that religious institutions provide the basic narrative structures that frame terrorism and the wars in the Middle East which the political discourse utilizes.

            In the motivation stage, the events in the world act as opportunities for ideologies to express their narratives. This is very relevant to how Americans framed Islam after Bush declared the War on Terror. A Pew Survey conducted each year starting in 2002 reflects the growing concerns about terrorism had on views of Muslims. Between 2002 and 2003 the percentage of Americans who linked Islam with violence increased from 25% to 45%, which is nearly double (“Continuing Divide”). The results when broken down by religious affiliation reveal role religions have on public opinion. For white evangelicals, the percentage in for February through March of 2011 was sixty percent, which was twenty percent over the national average (“Continuing Divide”). The percentage for the unaffiliated was 30% which is 10% below the national average (“Continuing Divide”). It is important to note that there are other factors at work and that mainline Protestants and Catholics had roughly the same as the national average (“Continuing Divide”).

            This Islamophobia expressed amongst conservative and Evangelical Christian thinking reflects an underlying narrative about the classic Christian versus non-Christian battle. For most of the latter half of the twentieth century, the hated non-Christian other was the godless communists of the Soviet Union. The new hated Other for this last decade became the Muslims, and by referring to Islam, the ideologues and religious thinkers in America could “reduce things to a polarized struggle between ‘Western values’ and the ‘Muslim world’” (Fuller 3). An example of how easily those representing ideology interchanged atheists and Muslims for this new struggle against the horrible other, the former House speaker, potential GOP Presidential candidate for the 2012 election and Catholic, Newt Gingrich, said the following before a crowd of thousands of Christian Evangelicals:
"I have two grandchildren -- Maggie is 11, Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." (Marr)

This quote reveals the Christian nationalistic narrative in the collective conscious of the social body that Gingrich represents. It is narratives like this one which help create an "Us" versus "Them" mentality.

            Frantz Fanon called this kind of imperialist us-them narrative the Manichaean World. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon describes this Manichaean world where the “colonizer turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil” (Fanon 6). The colonizer in Fanon’s thinking makes a distinction between two species, one of utmost virtue Americans, and one of utmost vice. The colonizer disparages the colonized religion. Fanon even describes the Christian presence in the colony as a “white man’s Church, a foreigners Church…[that] does not call the colonized to the ways of God but to the ways of white man, the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor” (Fanon 7). In other words, Americans, by humiliating their enemy, by criticizing the veil, and by burning the Quran are not calling them to become Christians but to become as violent and disparaging as they are. Fanon reveals how the violent narratives the Western superpower produces about its enemy become a violent reality. This reemphasizes the importance of what kind of narratives America produces about Muslims, especially from the standpoint of Christianity.

            These narratives fueled a political fundamentalism during the Bush Administration. In the “Bush’s political fundamentalism and the war against militant Islam”, Dirk Nabers and Robert P. Patman argue that domestic religious thinking influenced the political behavior of the Bush administration (67). Influential conservative Christian leaders like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell represented Islam in a derogatory way and provided religious metaphor to help their followers believe that terrorism and Islamofacism were real threats to the America's God-ordained prosperity and way of life (Nabers 75-78). In 2001, Franklin Graham, who swore President Bush into office, “denounced Islam as a 'very evil and wicked religion'" (Nabers 76). Around the same time, Reverend Jerry Vines, "a past president of Southern Baptist Convention, a conservative Christian movement with ties to the Bush administration," refereed to the Prophet Mohammed as "a demon obsessed paedophile" (Nabers 76). Because of their connections with the Bush administration, conservative Christian thought greatly impacted political discourse and with it key policy decisions. After 9-11, Nabers and Patman argue, the administration “constructed a distinct form of rhetoric to articulate its policies on the ‘new’ war on terror” (67). They go further claiming that the Bush administration grounded its language in conservative religious thinking of the time, which is characterized by an “absolutism, that imagined divine hand in history and a sense of American manifest destiny” (67). 
            One can find the fruits of this rhetoric all around the United States and in the War effort. Here is a short list of domestic examples of Islamophobia: Terry Jones’s Quran on Trial, the banning of Sharia law in Oklahoma, the Ground Zero Mosque Controversy, and American Muslims being asked to speak on the subject of terrorism before Congress. For examples of the fruits of these religious narratives in the U.S. Military, Jeff Sharlet has a particularly illuminating article called “Jesus Killed Mohammed” which starts off with a story about U.S. Sergeant and his squad of nine men, who are part of the 1/26th infantry of the 1st Infantry division stationed in the compound in Samarra, Iraq.  The article gets its name from the words written in Arabic on a side of a military vehicle this squad special ordered. This harvest of hate is the actualization stage of these violent us-them narratives.

            The prime example of the actualization is the use of torture. In official Pentagon reports “suggest that kidnappings, unlawful interrogations, and sometimes summary executions of prisoners are becoming routine practices by our security forces, in and out of uniform” (Ray vii). Beyond just harsh living conditions like being “chained to the floor for days on end,” these Muslim prisoners “are manipulated, humiliated, sexually taunted and shamed, and their religion defiled” (Ray viii). A Pentagon investigation calls what the security forces subjected their prisoners to as “‘sadistic, blatant, and wanton’ abuses, including attacks by dogs , rape, sodomy, and, sometimes, death” (Ray viii). Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about this kind of cruelty in his preface to Henri Alleg’s The Question:

“It is normal for us to kill each other. Man has always struggled for his collective or individual interests. But in the case of torture, this strange contest of will, the ends seem to me to be radically different: the torturer pits himself against the tortured for his ‘manhood’ and the duel is fought as if it were not possible for both sides to belong to the human race…. Anyway, if he accepts the Moslems as human beings, there is no sense in killing them. The need is rather to humiliate them, to crush their pride and drag them down to animal level.” (Sartre xxxix, xli)

If it was not for this hatred for the Other, how America has treated Muslims in the last ten years, even terrorists who happen to be Muslims, would have been vastly different. This hatred would not have existed without a kind of racism and religious prejudice represented by the Manichaean World. Forms of Christianity played the role of instilling into the collective conscience this world view.
                Most religious institutions are not responsible for torture, but because religions have special place in society, some forms of Christianity with Islamophobic and particular political influence message have created the necessary conditions for the process towards actualization. While Huntington’s general theory of belief into action does not account for diversity of voices in religion, this theory about narrative actualization overcomes that hurdle by looking at the basic stories people tell about themselves and others and how that affects their eventual behavior. The some Religion Non-Essentialists emphasize the political opportunism involved in starting a war for some capitalistic agenda. While Religion Non-Essentialists provide a good critique of the underlying prejudice in the theories of those like Huntington, they go too far in restricting religious institutions’ roles in forming political agendas.

Works Cited:
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove, 2004. Print.
Fuller, Graham E. A World without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and, 2010. Print.
Ghadbian, Najib. Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the Arab World. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997. Print.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1991. Print.
Huntington, Samuel. "Will More Countries Become Democratic."Political Science Quarterly. Vol. 99. No. 2, 1984. Print.
Marr, Kendra. "Newt Gingrich Talks Faith — Not Affairs — at Cornerstone Church in Texas" Politics, Political News - POLITICO.com. Politico, 27 Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. .
Nabers, Dirk and Patman, Robert P. “Bush’s political fundamentalism and the war against militant Islam.” Cesari, Jocelyne. Muslims in the West after 9/11: Religion, Politics, and Law. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Pew Research Center. "Continuing Divide in Views of Islam and Violence." Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.
Ray, Ellen. “Introduction.” Alleg, Henri. The Question. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2006. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “A Victory.” Alleg, Henri. The Question. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2006. Print.
Sharlet, Jeff. "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military." Harper's Magazine. May 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

1 comment:

  1. I think there is a definite correlation between the two. I can't speak for other religions, but I know christianity alone has not only made a mockery of islam but actively tried to stop its spread of control in the US. I agree with the three stages mentioned in the paper: "motivation, justification and actualization." It seems to me that people try to justify more and more their hatred towards muslims and gladly carry out hateful protests that provoke the islamic community (i.e. Qur'an burnings, torture, etc.). Have you ever heard of "Creeping Shari'a"? The idea that Islam is slowly "creeping" its way into mainstream western culture (which is muslims intent, but I still think people are overreacting for the wrong reasons). It is comments like this that lead me to believe that America is quickly moving more towards an anti-islamic, fundamentalist christian approach to government as well as in daily life.

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