Islamophobia

On August 25, 2010, Ahmed H. Sharif, a taxi driver in New York, was attacked with a knife and slashed on the neck and face by Michael Enright. The attack occurred immediately after he had replied yes to his young white Christian passenger’s question about whether he was a Muslim. After fleeing the taxi cab, Enright was quickly caught by the police and charged with attempted murder [1]. The attack on Ahmed Sharif was not only a personal tragedy but, like all hate crimes, a reminder to the Muslim community that they are under siege, seen by many white Americans as outsiders, and thus, vulnerable to violence.

Islamophobia is a combination of religious, racial, and cultural oppression targeting the presence, dress, behavior, job and educational opportunities, and institutions of anyone perceived to be Muslim, Arab, or generally Middle-Eastern. As a result of long-standing patterns of Islamophobia, which have increased dramatically since the attack on the World Trade Center, Muslims and Islamic organizations are under attack on many fronts. Muslims are racially profiled in airports and in urban settings, routinely discriminated against in job and housing situations, and portrayed as dangerous fanatics in the popular media, particularly in movies and video games. Islamic organizations are under intense surveillance by the government, are denied access to some of the funding and other opportunities that Christian and Jewish groups have access to, have their charitable activities challenged, are routinely denied building permits, and have their mosques and cultural centers attacked.

What popular culture in the U.S. doesn’t reflect is that most Muslims are neither Arab nor Middle Eastern. Of the over 1.57 billion Muslims in the world (about 23 percent of the world’s population), the majority live in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan, China, Nigeria, Kenya, India, and the Philippines [2]. Despite the dramatic religious and cultural variety of the Muslim world, Islam is often portrayed in the U.S. as a monolithic, militaristic religion, unchanged since the seventh century, hostile to Christianity, and inimical to all things modern and Western. Muslims are often assumed to be mindless adherents, devoid of any individuality–fanatical followers of extremist clerics such as Osama Bin Laden.

Muslims have been treated as the prototypical enemy of western Christendom since the first crusade was announced by the Pope in 1095. The crusade was conceived as an expedition to unite the fighting rulers and people of Southern Europe under a new common identity as Christian. In his proclamation, the Pope denounced Islam as an abomination and enemy of God and declared that every Christian had a moral obligation to march to the Holy Land and claim it from the Moors. Over the following centuries [3] Christian secular and religious leaders forged a common European identity whose defining characteristic was the threat of Islam.

During the 15th century, in the first process of racial (as opposed to ethnic) cleansing, Spanish rulers began persecuting the Moors as well as Jews in their attempt to create a racially and religiously pure country, expelling the Moors entirely from Spain in 1609. The Spanish Inquisition was established to hunt down conversos (Moors and Jews who were suspected of falsely converting to Christianity) lest they pollute the blood of a new national and eventually European identity. During this period, the religious identity “Christian” began to take on a racial component, signifying white Christian, and the word “European” began to be equated with both white and Christian [4].

Emerging nation-states such as Spain claimed legitimacy from a unity of faith and a common pseudo-scientific racial heritage encapsulated in the Spanish phrases sangre puro and limpieza de sangre [5]. During this period of nation building and emerging national identities, the word “moor” was used as both a religious and a racial signifier and a general term to describe the Other—the perennial enemy of Christendom anywhere in the world who, by rejecting Christianity, “…remains outside the Western economic, cultural, and political consensus” [6].

In contrast, there have been periods in U.S. political history when Islam was not treated as an enemy of Christendom and relations between the U.S. and Muslim nations were friendly. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson respected and had generally positive things to say about the religion.  In 1777, Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the new United States government, with Tunisia following suit the next year. Even in the period of the Barbary War against pirates off the coast of North Africa, Islam was referred to with respect and a political alternative to war was sought to the conflict. At the same time, however, stereotypes about Muslims as infidels were promulgated by Christian priests and ministers and expressed in popular culture, often through the negative portrayal of Native Americans as Moors [7].

During the post WW II period, immigration from Muslim countries to the United States increased. At the same time, the African-American Muslim community continued to grow, now about one-quarter of the Muslim population in the U.S. The rest of the Muslim population is primarily first or second generation immigrants from South Asia (India and Pakistan) various West Asian countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran, and Indonesia, Bosnia, Kenya, Somalia, and Malaysia. Estimates of the total population in the U.S. range widely but there are at least 4-5 million Muslim Americans. As a Pew Research Survey title suggests, most Muslims in the U.S. are well-educated and middle class. The report concludes that Muslim Americans are “…largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world” [8].

The reality of Muslim life and belief in this country, however, has had little impact on popular opinion compared to the continued effect of centuries-old stereotypes of Islam and Islamic countries that continue to be put forward by political, religious, and cultural leaders to justify interference in the internal affairs of Muslim countries and surveillance and curtailment of the rights of Muslim Americans.

The target of present day Islamophobia is Muslims, not as they are, but as they have been demonized for centuries in the western imagination. They are the dark, menacing, non-Christian Other, intent on destroying western civilization. And this danger becomes the justification for public policy that targets individual Muslims and Islamic organizations for marginalization, discrimination, harassment, hate crimes, and continual vilification.

Recent controversies over the siting of Mosques and Islamic cultural centers and the continued widespread belief that President Obama is Muslim are indicative of this deep-seated Islamophobia and racism.

While anti-mosque proponents claim that their concern is the location of an Islamic cultural center so close to ground zero, in fact, there are protests against the building of mosques in such diverse places as Murfreesboro, TN, Sheboygan, MI, and Temecula, CA, as well as in Brooklyn and Staten Island, NY. In Columbia, TN, a mosque has been burned down and in Cedar Rapids, Jacksonville, Detroit, and Seattle mosques have been smeared with animal feces, defaced with graffiti, vandalized, attacked with pipe bombs, and set afire by arsonists [9]. Just the day before the attack on Ahmed Sharif, a mosque in Madera, CA was attacked for the third time within a week [10]. In Columbia, TN, in a powerful act of solidarity with the Muslim community, the local pastor of the Presbyterian Church gave the Muslim community the keys to the church and said that they could use it as their house of worship.

The protest against the Park51 Islamic cultural center proposed for a site 2 blocks from the location of the 9/11 bombings is indicative of Islamophobia. Protesters assume that because Al Qaeda is a Muslim organization all Muslims are terrorists, there were no Muslims who died in the 9/11 attacks or who played roles in the rescue of people caught in the buildings, and an old Burlington Coat Store is suddenly “hallowed ground.” They also assume that Muslims should not enjoy the same religious freedom as Christians or Jews, even while many U.S. Muslims are risking their lives fighting as U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world.

The continuing controversy over whether President Obama is a Muslim is another example of racism and Islamophobia. Underlying the disbelief that Obama is a Christian is an assumption that African Americans cannot be true Christians and will always be outsiders. This disbelief is based on an assumption that Muslims and people of color are dangerous, and neither can be the equal of law-abiding, white, Christian Americans.

These issues are obviously stirred up by conservative political leaders and mainstream, corporate media. But they tap into widespread underlying beliefs that must be taken seriously. In a recent CNN poll, 68 percent of those polled said that they opposed the building of a proposed Islamic cultural center two blocks from where the World Trade Center had stood [11]. At the same time, a Pew poll showed that 18 percent of the population believes Obama is a Muslim, only 34 percent believe he is a Christian, 43 percent claim not to know his religion (even after all the furor over the statements of his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright two years earlier) [12]. A more general USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted in July 2006 found that thirty-nine percent of respondents said they felt at least some prejudice against Muslims. The same percentage favored requiring Muslims, including U.S. citizens, to carry a special ID “as a means of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States.” About one-third said U.S. Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and over one-fifth said they wouldn’t want Muslims as neighbors [13]. Those numbers would likely be much higher today as conservative leaders tap into latent anti-Muslim sentiment.

Islamophobia justifies systemic and institutionalized discrimination and violence against Muslims in the United States and by the U.S. throughout the world. Just as with racial profiling and discrimination directed against other groups, Islamophobia threatens our collective safety when resources are selectively and inappropriately directed at specific communities. It threatens our civil and religious liberties when one group is singled out as not entitled to constitutionally guaranteed rights. It also curtails our freedom when surveillance and harassment are legally sanctioned under the justification that the danger of some group is so great that we must limit our civil rights in order to prevent attack. When we speak out and stand strong as allies to the Muslim community we challenge violence and injustice, increase our safety and freedom, and challenge age-old Christian stereotypes and myths. We also uphold our legal rights to freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom from discrimination and attack.

The attack on Ahmed Sharif, the Park51 protests and the physical destruction of mosques, and the questioning of President Obama’s religious faith are just indicators of the larger pattern of anti-Muslim oppression that plagues our society and undermines our values. Now is the time to work with Muslims to challenge Islamophobia.

[1] “Slashed Muslim taxi driver to visit NYC mayor” by Tom Hays. Associated Press, August 25, 2010. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5i5OdR6FH4zsmEVanHGR0y-jbOzngD9HR7RJO0.

[2] “Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population.” Pew Research Center, October 7, 2009. Available at http://pewforum.org/Mapping-the-Global-Muslim-Population.aspx.

[3] There were crusades waged by Christians against Moors, Slavs, dissident Christian groups such as the Cathars, and even against individual secular Christian leaders over a period of 600 years.

[4] As part of this whitening process western Christianity transformed God and Jesus into light-skinned Europeans.

[5] The limpieza de sangre statute was passed in 1449.

[6] Majid, Anouar. We Are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades Against Muslims and Other Minorities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press p. 62.

[7] Majid, p. 71.

[8] “American Muslims: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream.” Pew Research Center May 22, 2007. Available at http://pewresearch.org/assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf. Viewed on 8-10-10.

[9] For details and pictures see “Coast-to-coast Anti-Islam Movement results in Protests, Attacks on Mosques” Responsible for Equality and Liberty (R.E.A.L.) organization, July 22, 2010. Available at http://www.realcourage.org/2010/07/coast-to-coast/.

[10] “Mosque Attack in California refers to Ground Zero” by Joseph Picard, International Business Times August 26, 2010. Available at http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/46449/20100826/mosque-islam-hate.htm.

[11] CNN Opinion Research Poll, August 6-10, 2010. Available at http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/08/11/rel11a1a.pdf.

[12] “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim: Religion, Politics, and the President,” The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, August 19, 2010. Available at http://people-press.org/report/645/

[13] “U.S. Muslims Under a Cloud” by Marilyn Elias, USA Today August 10, 2006. Available at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-08-09-muslim-american-cover_x.htm.

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Christian Zionism

I recently viewed With God on Our Side [1], a new documentary made by Christians, for Christians about Christian Zionism. I was reminded once again about how influential a force Christian Zionism continues to be in supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine and justifying billions of dollars of U.S. aid to Israel. One of the results of this movement has been to de-legitimize and make invisible the presence of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Egyptian Arab-Christians. The movie holds up their voices and critiques Christian Zionism from their on-the-ground perspective. By juxtaposing the perspectives of everyday West Bank Palestinian Christian farmers, teachers, and other residents to the Biblical certitudes of Christian Zionists in the U.S., With God On Our Side offers us insight into just how destructive the impact of the latter has been.

There are many forces that influence U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel/Palestine such as the U.S. military, the U.S. arms industry, multinational oil companies and the U.S. strategy to try to control access to oil, the U.S. government’s desire for a proxy military force to carry out U.S. foreign policy goals in the area, and the often-noted Jewish pro-Israel lobby. Although generally acknowledged to be influential, the Jewish lobby’s power is likely to be seriously overestimated, especially when compared to the powerful pro-Israel Christian Zionist movement.

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Christian Place Names

One indicator of dominance is the ability of an institution to rename the people and the geography that they control. Many people around the world were given anglicized names when they were baptized to affirm their existence as a believer in the eyes of God. Many others had their names anglicized by immigration officials or other bureaucrats because their names were “barbaric”—they sounded strange, they were judged to be difficult to pronounce, or they were too long and just didn’t sound Christian or civilized enough.

The European conquest of Africa, the Americas, the Pacific Islands and much of Asia led to the renaming of many landmarks, natural features, and population sites in the European languages of the conquerors.

Often Christian colonizers would build cities on top of indigenous villages and, in particular, they would build churches on indigenous spiritual sites, including cemeteries. This practice continues today. There are recently completed or currently under construction shopping malls, convention centers, sports stadiums and other projects built on recognized Native American grave sites across the United States.

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Christian Influence Permeates our Healthcare System

Christian influence permeates our health system. Religiously affiliated hospitals—there are hundreds–accounted for 13% of all hospitals and 18% of all hospital beds in the U.S. in 2002. Nearly three quarters were Roman Catholic. Aside for a handful which were Jewish or Muslim affiliated, the rest were associated with other Christian denominations such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.

There is nothing inherently wrong with religiously affiliated institutions providing medical services (although a comprehensive national health care plan would eliminate most of the need for those services). Problems arise, however, when those institutions dictate the terms and conditions of medical service based on religious beliefs.

According to a recent report there are 624 Catholic hospitals, 373 other Catholic health-care institutions including 11 of the 40 largest in the country, and hundreds of nursing homes. Two million people are enrolled in the 48 Catholic managed-care plans. In many states, 30 to 40 percent of people who need emergency care visit a Catholic hospital. In 2008, more than 90 million patients were treated at Catholic health-care facilities in the U.S. Many of these hospitals do not offer birth control, sterilizations, abortions, infertility services, comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention information (such as “safer sex” counseling about use of condoms) and some limit patients’ end-of-life choices. Continue reading

The Phoenix Affirmation

When I bring up the subject of Christian hegemony some people think I am attacking Christianity; and some individual Christians become defensive because they assume I am attacking their personal faith. Neither is true. Christian hegemony is the institutionalization of Christian dominance throughout society. Individual Christians have a wide range of relationships to this system, from complete acceptance of it to radical resistance. Many Christians experience ambivalence, gaining a great deal personally from their Christian faith, while being uncomfortable with some of the dominant values and the concentration of Christian political, economic, and cultural power.

The Phoenix Affirmations, listed below, were put together by Eric Elnes and other devout Christians in Phoenix, AZ (the phoenix was also an early Christian symbol).[1] Recommending frequent prayer and a thoughtful understanding of the scriptures, they focus on Jesus’ naming of the two greatest commandments –To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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Christian Hegemony and Language

The language we use is an indication of the deep structures of the way we think. The vocabulary, phrasings, and both explicit and implicit meaning of English words and concepts reflect our long history and the influence of many cultures, religions, and ideas of both dominant and resistant groups.

One of the longest-standing systems of institutionalized power in the United States is the dominant western form of Christianity that came to power when the Romans made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Christian hegemony—the everyday, pervasive, deep-seated, and institutionalized dominance of Christian institutions, Christian leaders, and Christians as a group—has profoundly shaped our lives. Some of that influence is very visible in our laws, customs, beliefs, and practices. Other parts of that influence have become nearly invisible, secularized, “common-sense” forms of knowing and being in the world. One way to identify both levels is to examine our language and the ways it represents, reflects, and reproduces Christian dominance.

When presented with Antonio de Nebrija’s Spanish Gramatica, the first-ever grammar of any modern European language in 1492, Queen Isabella reportedly asked the scholar, “What is it for?” Nebrija reportedly answered, “Language is the perfect instrument of empire.”[1]

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What is Christian Hegemony?

The seal of the Spanish Inquisition depicts the cross, the branch and the sword. From Enciclopedia Española 1571.

The seal of the Spanish Inquisition depicts the cross, the branch and the sword. From Enciclopedia Española 1571.

I define Christian hegemony as the everyday, pervasive, and systematic set of Christian values and beliefs, individuals and institutions that dominate all aspects of our society through the social, political, economic, and cultural power they wield. Nothing is unaffected by Christian hegemony (whether we are Christian or not) including our personal beliefs and values, our relationships to other people and to the natural environment, and our economic, political, education, health care, criminal/legal, housing, and other social systems.

Christian hegemony as a system of domination is complex, shifting, and operates through the agency of individuals, families, church communities, denominations, parachurch organizations, civil institutions, and through decisions made by members of the ruling class and power elite.

Christian hegemony benefits all Christians, all those raised Christian, and those passing as Christian. However the concentration of power, wealth, and privilege under Christian hegemony accumulates to the ruling class and the predominantly white male Christian power elite that serve its interests. All people who are not Christian, as well as most people who are, experience social, political, and economic exploitation, violence, cultural appropriation, marginalization, alienation and constant vulnerability from the dominance of Christian power and values in our society. Continue reading