ODVV interview: Mainstream media in the U.S....
Islamophobia as a fear, hatred of or prejudice against Islam as an ideology and Muslims as a group of people is on the rise in all its forms. Many scholars and academics believe the 9/11 attacks in the United States was a point in time when Islamophobia began to surge rapidly and blemish the relationship between Muslims and the Western societies. In addition to the U.S.-led campaign of War on Terror which followed the 9/11 attacks, the growth and spread of ISIS terrorist cult played an indispensable role in how the global public understands and interacts with Muslim communities.
It’s not unrealistic to say that Islamophobia is normalized in many sections of our societies and as a form of racism, appears to be indomitable. Islamophobia mirrors historical movements of racism such as anti-Semitism and is founded upon the presumption that Islam is inherently violent and alien and that it’s impossible to integrate Muslims and make them part of the social fabric in the modern world.
Although surveys and studies show Americans express mixed views of Islam and Muslims, it is beyond doubt that the coming to power of Donald Trump in the United States made the living conditions notably difficult for Muslim Americans and undermined the relations between the United States and the Muslim countries remarkably.
In a January 2017 survey, Pew Research Center asked respondents to give Muslims a rating on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100. In the scale, zero degrees indicates the coldest or the most negative feelings and 100 degrees indicates the warmest or most positive feelings. The average thermometer rating given by Americans to Muslims was 48. In the 2014, the rating stood at 40 degrees.
A survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, found that American Muslims’ optimism about the country’s management and trajectory has nosedived steadily from previous years. In 2016, 63 percent of American Muslims said they were satisfied with America’s direction. In 2017, the figure dropped to 41 percent and in 2018, stood at only 27 percent. This decline reflects the unhappiness of American Muslims with the Trump administration and its antagonistic approach to the Islamic communities.
In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Suleiman Ali Mourad of the Smith College shared his views about Islamophobia in the United States and the U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Prof. Mourad researches the hermeneutics of Quran, medieval Islam and Islamic history. His latest book is “The Mosaic of Islam: A Conversation with Perry Anderson”.
Q: How worrying is the gap between the United States and the Muslim world? Has the coming to power of Donald Trump and his approach to the Muslim nations made the gap bigger and more irreparable?
A: I do not believe there is something called the Muslim world except as a historical stereotype. I say this on three grounds. One, Muslims today live all over the globe. Two, the traditional homelands of the Muslims, especially North and Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, have been for a century at least fragmented into different nation-states and tied to ethno-national identities, which render meaningless the notion of a Muslim world. Three, many Muslims and regimes of Islamic countries are major players in the western economic and political hegemony of the world.
I will therefore answer the question differently. The gap between the U.S. and the Muslims – as a group category – is widening, and Donald Trump has a huge role in making the situation worse. There is the ban that his administration imposed on citizens of several Islamic countries from coming to the U.S., which essentially means that they are by default terrorists in the eyes of American law enforcement. This policy, for the record, was initially proposed by president Obama. There is also the direct and indirect U.S. economic and military wars in many Islamic countries [Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc.]. As such, the U.S. is adopting a strategy of collective punishment of Muslims. Individually, things are different. I compare the situation to the way African Americans in the U.S. are persecuted collectively but not as individuals. This means that individually they can attain whatever post, but when it comes to their communal existence, they are not allowed to have any serious political power, economic power, social power, etc., and instead they are treated as a national threat.
What is also widening the gap between the U.S. and some Islamic countries and peoples is the politics of intimidation and threats that the U.S. adopts unless these Islamic countries become puppets of American foreign policy. This as well accords with U.S. foreign policy towards Central and South America, Africa and Asia, especially after the Second World War. It is rather ironic that at one point in the 1960s, the U.S. has adopted the strategy to think of the Islamist groups as political allies in the war against communism and the USSR, but after 2001 and the events of 9/11, this has changed. Let us not forget that the U.S. once sponsored and used many Islamist groups to achieve its hegemony of Islamic countries. The Bush-Obama years witnessed the adoption of a new strategy to impose on the Muslims a new model of a “liberal” Islam, such as Erdogan, the Muslim Brothers, etc., but that also failed. Trump is trying a new tactic of escalating aggressive behavior towards the Muslims and selected Islamic countries. So yes, the gap between the Muslims and the U.S. is widening as a result of Trump.
Q: Unofficial estimates show that there are 3.5 million Muslims living in the United States. How can the United States improve its relations with its Muslims and prevent them from being alienated with their national identity?
A: I do not think the U.S. at the federal level is interested in improving its relations with the Muslims. Given the brutal capitalism that the American system embraces, the U.S. thinks in terms of exploitations of all groups – Muslims, blacks, immigrants, women, gays, etc. in order to achieve complete hegemony of American society and the world. But at the state level, things are different. In some states, we find groups who reach out to Muslims and assure they face no discrimination because of their religion or background. But in other states, and these tend to be the states where we find powerful presence of Christian evangelical groups and republican majorities, Islamophobia is rampant; their advocacy of anti-Muslim rhetoric is in line with their racism, sexism, bigotry and anti-Semitism. No surprise.
I should also say that one has to be careful about the meaning of this number: 3.5 million Muslims living in the U.S. They are of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations, and most importantly not all of them are strictly religious. Many identify as Muslims because of cultural background. Moreover, some are citizens born here, others are immigrants. So not all Muslims in the U.S. feel alienated, and those who feel it do not experience the same level of alienation. As I said before, it varies from state to state. Also, there are some Muslims who play an active role in the spread of Islamophobia and perpetuating negative views about Islam and Muslims in general.
Q: The right-wing mainstream media repeatedly breed this conviction that Islam is a violent religion and at odds with the manifestations of Western civilization. Is this thought close to reality? What’s the impact of media propaganda on the public mentality about the Muslims?
A: Yes, but I do not think it is only the right-wing media that does this. I think mainstream media in the U.S. perpetuates a very negative view of Muslims and they do this about other groups as well. There is no free journalism in the U.S., except for some marginal organizations. U.S. mainstream media is tied to political interest groups and major business corporations, and they do according to what they are told. For example, Muslim Palestinians are constantly presented as terrorists and aggressors, in the exact same way as the mainstream American media made the Native Americans look as uncivilized and violent. True Muslims are generally presented as alien with Western democracy and cultural norms. The few positive coverage that appear every now and then does not make any impact because most viewers recognize it as politically correct gambits and not true.
Q: How can the Islamic countries counter and respond to the growth of Islamophobia? What is the best action they can take to preclude the enlargement of the gap between Muslims and the West?
A: Some Islamic countries are breeders of Islamophobia, such as the way the Egyptian regime of Sissi labels the Muslim Brothers as terrorists, the way the Turkish government labels the Golan movement as terrorists, the way the Saudi regime labels the Houthis in Yemen as terrorists, or the way the regime of Bashar al-Asad labels all the Syrian rebels as terrorists. The media in the U.S. picks up on these issues and perpetuates the image that Muslims are terrorists or predisposed to be terrorists.
For any effective measure to counter the negative image of the Muslims in the West, the U.S. in particular, as the main political and military force leading the West, has to make serious changes to its policies towards many Islamic countries. The U.S. has to cease its hegemony, because if it does not it will keep calling any group that stands in its face terrorists, yet ignore brutal dictators who ally with the U.S. Essentially, the main factor behind Islamophobia is the image that the Muslims are bad people, and that is largely because the U.S. does not allow real democracy to take place in most Islamic countries for fear that democracy will bring anti-U.S. regimes. So the Muslims are collectively blamed and punished for things the U.S. has been imposing with the assistance of some Muslims.
Q: It can be asserted that ignorance about Islam and its reality as the world’s second largest religion are among the causes of the rise and growth of Islamophobia. How is it possible to raise public awareness of Islam and educate the citizens in the West about it?
A: I am not sure ignorance about Islam is limited to the West. I think most Muslims do not know the complexity of Islam, which is one of the main reasons for the animosity that we find among Muslims. There is an advanced knowledge of Islam and Islamic culture in Western academia – sometimes more than we find anywhere in Islamic countries, but this has not been disseminated to the general American and western audiences. The causes of this are threefold. First, the average American citizen has no interest in the world. Their bias and prejudice apply to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. So, there should be a major overhaul of the educational system to get average Americans interested in the world. Second, the mainstream media – including Hollywood – plays a horrible role in perpetrating specific negative views of Islam and the Muslims. Third, the war on terror has become a leading element of the U.S. economy, and therefore the negative image of Islam and the Muslims has become an American national and economic necessity. To change this requires changing American foreign policy and economic philosophy.
Q: How do you think the faith leaders are doing in promoting interfaith dialogue and bridging the gap between the Muslims, Christians and Jews?
A: There is a lot of noise about interfaith dialogue. But, in my opinion, this will only bring very minimal achievements, if any. The western religious groups that are often present in interfaith dialogue and take it very seriously do not represent the majority of religious communities in the west. Unless the major players take part and are willing to open their ears and minds to the dialogue, it will not have much of an impact. Also, western religious organizations are generally interested in specific Eurocentric questions that they often insist the Muslims should address: What do you think of the Jews and Israel? What do you think of women? What do you think of gays? Why are Christians and Jews condemned in the Quran? Essentially, the Muslims are trapped in a cycle of apologetics and having to answer to what the westerners want to hear, not about the issues that concern the Muslims. Also, most western religious groups do not want to seriously address the damage done to the world by western hegemony, and prefer to divorce interfaith dialogue from politics when the Muslims connect the two, but their own agendas have the two together.
Q: The results of a study by the New America foundation and American Muslim Institution show that two out of every five Americans believe Islam is not compatible with the “American values.” This figure shows that contrary to what the American officials claim, mistrust for Muslims is on the rise in the United States. What’s your take on that?
A: I go back to what I mentioned earlier. The mainstream media in the U.S. and western Europe in general has been playing a very horrible role in perpetuating a negative image of Islam and the Muslims, especially in the way they have presented an image of the Muslims as people prone to violence. American and European officials might say a few positive things, but this is not honest and is made for cameras. When it comes to foreign policy, they are largely unanimous in pursuing total hegemony of the world, which requires vilifying those who stand in their face.
In the US in particular, and since the invasions Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003, more Americans have returned with serious injuries and mental disabilities, and this has translated to more negative views of the Muslims in general in the communities where these soldiers came from. The mainstream media also has focused a lot on violence in those Islamic countries, in order to justify the U.S. invasion and military involvement, which exacerbated the negative image of Muslims as violent people.
Q: How categorical and serious is the response by the police and legal authorities in the U.S. to attacks against Muslims and anti-Muslim hate crimes? Is there a meaningful cooperation between the citizens and relevant authorities to address anti-Muslim hate crimes, prevent them and protect the Islamic communities and mosques?
A: It depends on the state where these crimes occur. U.S. law enforcement can be racist, especially in states where the general white population is racist. In those areas where the general population is more liberal, the police and legal authorities, and the society at large, address the offenses and hate crimes against Muslims and try to stop them.
Q: Two Muslim women were elected to the U.S. Congress for the first time this year. How can they influence the dominant narrative about Islam and contribute to improving the public image of Muslims?
A: This is only a symbolic milestone, and it will not have any serious consequences in changing the negative image of Muslims in the U.S. society in general. For decades, we have had in the U.S. Congress women, black people, Jews and other minorities. Their presence has not changed the general tendency of the U.S. society in many states to be racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic. This also has not translated into bridging the gap in terms of wages between white males and the other groups, especially women and black people, who earn less salary for doing the same jobs as white males.
The election of two Muslim women is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough on its own. We should pay attention to the fact that they are two Muslim women and they were elected in areas where Muslims are numerous. Also, Muslim women are often seen as persecuted and in need of support. This only reinforces the notion that Muslims are violent, and the stigma is attached to Muslim men – the same we see with African-American men who are regularly subjected to police brutality and social persecution than black women.
By: Kourosh Ziabari