Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

This isn’t fear, this is hate.

Not too long ago, at the late end of a conference day in some faraway country, I was having a beer with a journalist whose work (and choice of journalistic employers) I respect.  Palestine being much the topic of the day, our conversation started there and quickly evolved into media bias and American perceptions of the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims.

Though we tended to agree on media biases for the most part, my counterpart felt that human perception, American perception, was not so skewed.  He explained that, in his experience, mostly in the Midwest, he’d never come across anti-Arab or anti-Muslim rhetoric; that people were more likely to be completely ignorant of the Israeli-Palestinian issue than take one side or the other, and that he thought I was taking it too far.

I thought about his words for a long time; he was honest about his experience, and his truth wasn’t that far from mine: Neither growing up, nor now, have I heard many anti-Muslim sentiments. Sure, I’ve heard the ol’ “free the women from the veil” rhetoric, and support for the war, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen firsthand the kinds of sentiment we’re now seeing in the media.   That’s what makes it so shocking to me.

One in five Americans thinks Obama is a Muslim. 61% oppose an Islamic cultural center in an historically Muslim neighborhood. 56% view Islam unfavorably. Three months after that particular conversation in that faraway land, I’m left wondering: Who are these people? Three months after that evening, and I don’t think my conversation partner could have been more wrong.

“Islamophobia” was an accurate term immediately after 9/11.  However unjustified, people were afraid, and Islam was an easy target.  There were lots of questions from many different people, myself included, about what had caused people do something so horrific.  The study of Arabic immediately began to increase in the U.S.  Study abroad programs to the Middle East and North Africa picked up rather quickly (I did mine in 2004, just three years later).  People wanted to understand (they also wanted to join forces with the government against our “enemies,” but there’s only so much one can fit into a single blog post).

And then a curious thing happened: The word “jihad” seemed to enter everyone’s vocabulary.  Suddenly everyone was an expert on Islam, and the more you expressed hatred of it, the further you seemed to go in counterterrorism circles, journalism (see: Fox), and conservative politics (see: most of ‘em).

Cut to 2010, and with the simultaneous dumbing down of America comes the rapidly increasing hatred toward Muslims, most of which can be deemed straight up racism. The identity of “Muslim” has always been a fairly racialized one, applying in the United States mainly to Arab, South Asian, and Black communities, and taking on racial characteristics (the inimitable Fatemeh Fakhraie has an excellent piece on the racialization of Muslims here). Muslims are painted in the media with one brush: they are the turbaned or veiled brown-skinned Other, shouting in the (Arab) street. They are dirty-footed brown skinned children lobbing rocks at the civilized (insert-your-country-here) military. Muslim identity in the United States (and certainly elsewhere) has become racialized and the sentiments expressed against Muslims of late is racism.

Thus, what’s happening today can no longer be described as “Islamophobia”, it is no longer an accurate term. People aren’t scared of Muslims, they flat-out hate them. They hear shrieks from the likes of Sarah Palin and Pamela Geller and come running, machetes “blood-dripped” “Sharia” signs in hand, ready to “fight the good fight.”

Image: New York Times

But what exactly are these people fighting? Sharia? Islamic values? Brown people? Whatever Fox news told them to? In one photograph, a protester is seen wearing a Confederate flag on his shirt, a fact which leads me to believe that a) these protesters are not New Yorkers and b) they’re, as I said before, just plain racist.

As Glenn Greenwald so aptly puts it, this “mosque” debate is not simply a distraction. Rather, it is bringing to light vicious hostilities that a large percentage of the American public holds toward Muslims. As Greenwald says, “The Park51 conflict is driven by, and reflective of, a pervasive animosity toward a religious minority — one that has serious implications for how we conduct ourselves both domestically and internationally.”

I leave you not with my own thoughts (which are, in sum: I support my Muslim brothers and sisters and fear for my country) but with the words of none other than Dick Cavett, whose New York Times column left a smile on my face:

I remain amazed and really, sincerely, want to understand this. What can it be that is faulty in so many people’s thought processes, their ethics, their education, their experience of life, their understanding of their country, their what-have-you that blinds them to the fact that you can’t simultaneously maintain that you have nothing against members of any religion but are willing to penalize members of this one? Can you help me with this?

21 Comments

  1. I saw an article on the Daily Beast last week that argued the reason Islamophobia has suddenly risen so sharply in the past decade since 9-11 is due to President Obama. Under Bush, the right wingers were careful to insist that the war was to “liberate” those poor Muslims (Iraqis, Afghans) and President Bush kept saying Islam was a religion of peace. Today, it’s the total opposite. Obama is allegedly a secret Muslim agent and we Muslims are seen as a threat, as un-American.

    I’ve never felt more hated by Americans today than I did almost 10 years ago.

  2. When I see the extent to which stereotyping of Muslims here in France has become a national sport, and when I listen to the hatred spewed by the Palins, the Gellers and the like, I feel like something really nasty is going on here. For goodness sake, this is exactly how it started with Jews in the 1930′s Germany. Are we gonna wait for the same thing to happen again?

  3. I completely agree with you. This is such a big test for the US. I hope sanity is allowed to prevail as soon as possible.

  4. Totally agree–you’re spot on! Love the way you wrote this.
    As a Canadian, I’m witnessing all this hoopla/hate from a distant; but with mediums such as cyberspace, it doesn’t feel so distant.

  5. Jillian — In a word, yes. Please keep writing on this.

    Personally, I think the explanation for this is really simple: the election year race baiting is extra racist this year.

    Bush and McCain are gone as GOP leadership — both men had little patience for racists and an awareness that winning elections required putting a lid on The Crazy. There is no one in the GOP that has been able to shut down the crazy (Bloomberg is an admirable exception, but who in the GOP followed him?). Instead, the old guard is fueling the fire. Bush didn’t do this. People wanted to, but his administration wouldn’t let them. The key point is it’s deliberate.

    It’s the calculating demonizing of a religious minority as a route to political power. Where have we seen that before?

    • I totally agree with you. It’s more about 11/4 than 9/11 and I predict people will go to the polls and vote the Democrats in again and the right will go bananas!

  6. “e explained that, in his experience, mostly in the Midwest, he’d never come across anti-Arab or anti-Muslim rhetoric; that people were more likely to be completely ignorant of the Israeli-Palestinian issue than take one side or the other, and that he thought I was taking it too far.”

    As someone who grew up in the Midwest, I think your friend’s opinion is dangerously naive. I see anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric all the time, but it’s normally in emails that are passed back and forth between people of like minds. As for the I/P conflict, does your friend think Midwesterners don’t have access to newspapers or TV? Of course they know about the conflict, but due to local editor bias, are probably leaning toward support for Israel.

    • I don’t know what it is that causes people not to seek out information on Israel and Palestine. I mean, there are certainly educated and thoughtful supporters of Israel at its core concept, but there’s also a massive swath of sheeplike folks who believe whatever they’re told. One would think that, even if people aren’t enlightened to get to the point of understanding the origins and nature of the conflict, they would at least grasp that occupation=bad.

      Then again, I think a lot of the support for Israel is about racism too – the same people whose grandparents were anti-Semites are now anti-Muslim. Ironic, huh?

  7. Hate… or ignorance?

    • That’s a good question Gabriela. Certainly a mix of both — there are people who just plain don’t know anything about Islam but feign to, there are people who act like sheep and just follow whatever Fox News tells them, but then there are their leaders, who have a certain awareness and choose to stoke the flames of the fire.

  8. It is sad and worrisome to see such development. I feel that the main difference lately is caused by the fact that these people 1) feel like they have been granted a license to act this way 2) they forgot or never knew the real consequences of hate; and there is no leadership to remind them how much hurt it causes. Beck, Limbaugh, Palin & co have no qualms about stirring up hatred because they did not live through the full extend of hate like in WWII. When one can go throughout a day being only exposed to the the “protect our home” discourse of talk radio shows, big Gvt and G. Beck (I did), it is quite difficult not to feel entitled to “stand a post” at some loosely defined “Hallowed Ground”. Similarily, as Hisham would tell you, when a French head of state refers to young minorities as “scum”, it’s much easier for idiots to casser du reub”. We desperately need elders/thought leaders to set us straight and remind us how silly we get when indulge into our gregarious instincts. Either that or all of us will have to bite the bullet and reach out one-on-one to the protesters at GZ and ask them: “what exactly is it that you fear/hate ?”
    If we don’t, stuff will eventually hit the fan. We are that stupid.

    • Thanks Lova, I really value your input.

      You know, I was reading a thing about how Prince al Waleed bin Talal managed to call Fox News (of which he is a major owner) and have them change the title of an article he didn’t like (which, frankly, is pretty messed up). That said, the article was about the riots in the banlieues a few years back and the headline was about “Muslim riots.” He had them change it to “civil unrest” or something of the sort. Certainly more appropriate, but then again, what do you expect from Faux News?

      In any case, I think you hit the nail on the head re: leadership. Our president certainly isn’t stepping up, and I would guess that–given his diverse upbringing–he knows a thing or two about prejudice. The White Republican base certainly isn’t going to speak up. Who will?

  9. Hate comes from fear. If we blindly label others as haters instead of recognizing them for the fear they are experiencing then there is no hope. The same could be said of terrorists.

    • I would agree with you on an individual level, but what of the right-wing media hatemongering? Surely they’re simply playing off the fear they sense by turning it into hate?

  10. 1) Nice pic
    2) I would say they are playing off the fear they sense to get ratings ;-) Its all about greed or aversion (occasionally delusion)

    • Thanks :)

      I don’t deny that fear is a huge element, but it has most certainly turned into hate for many. I absolutely believe in working on the “hearts and minds” of people, but when I see a crowd of New Yorkers beat upon a Black man just because he kind of “looks like a Muslim,” I’m going to call that hate.

  11. It is hate, I’m just saying that the only way to deal with that hate is to see its root cause.

  12. Islam, especially after 9/11 attacks, become a winning card for politicians, not only in USA but in many western and non-western countries, and a good paper, intelligently used to gather more support to gain votes. In politics, there’s no values or ethics, but any political arm is allowed, and Islam, unfortunatelly, became a mass-destructive weapons used to destroy political rivalries.

    Today, many thinks, and actually their thoughts are reality, that being against Islam will bring you more followers and supporters, and as much as one shows much hate toward Islam as much as he gain much love. And as mentioned above, what guide this blind people, is this blind media. It’s sure that most of those of who hate Islam, do not so because they are against it as a religion, or because 9/11 attackers were Muslims, but just because a lot of people have this hate, and for them this racism and discrimination becomes a quality, which they shouldn’t hesitate to show it and be proud of being an Islam hater, blindly following the hypocrite poloticians.

  13. Jillian, I’ve reached this conclusion too. I see we’ve crossed the fear era and are entering the hate/ignorance era since both of them feed what you explain in this post. On the other hand, Kudos for placing a link for Racialicious’s post about the racialization of Muslims since many people deny it when you talk about this trend!

    • Thanks Hicham – I thought that was a great post, and I think it’s absurd to deny that “Muslim” has morphed into a racial term, a slur even.

  14. How do persons on the street locate new recommendations?

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